By: Dennis Cook
Things are not what they seem to be
Nor are they otherwise
The truth of things penetrates us as surely as any arrow or piece of hot lead. Often we feel the pain of realization long before we understand what's happened to us. Things that tap into the invisible world that hovers beyond time and space and human motion have a force that's immediate and irrefutable, even if we're hard pressed to explain them to others. Music frequently provides the vehicle for such truths, slipping them past our defenses as a melody or lyric and helping us dance our way out of our constrictions. Rarely has a band more actively engaged this deep ground with more gusto and kind hearted spirit than the Akron/Family.
Their sound is a fluid incantation that we'll let Michael Gira (The Swans, Angels of Light) explain: "They are one of the best bands on the planet. I don't recall seeing such fantastic live shows ever, except maybe Pere Ubu at the Whiskey in LA circa 1978 or Pink Floyd circa Umma Gumma era 1968/9. Take those unrelated reference points and mix in The Beatles, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Credence Clearwater Revival, The Grateful Dead, The Hollies, The Butthole Surfers, Led Zeppelin, and you might get a notion – probably not."
Gira backs up his boasts with action, using Akron/Family as his backing band in Angels of Light and putting out three albums by the NYC-based band on his Young God Records – their 2005 self-titled debut, 2006's Meek Warrior and last year's stunning Love Is Simple. Add to Gira's laundry list Crosby, Still, Nash and Young, traditional African music, late '60s John Coltrane, hootenanny folk and a sprinkling of John Fahey and you're a few inches closer to the mark. That this hyperactive hodgepodge not only makes sense but also shines in a fully integrated way is breathtaking. Seth Olinsky, Dana Janssen and Miles Seaton make freedom music and what could be more American than that?
"I was asked the other day if we'd be happy being seen in the lineage of jam bands like Phish and Dave Matthews. I actually don't think we fit very well there but there's some crossover with The Grateful Dead in that we're both exploring really deeply American music. It's blues, it's hillbilly music, it's hip-hop, it's jazz, it's folk. America has this amazingly rich country and tradition. If you drive around the country, where you're in the desert then you're in Big Sur, then you're the Northwest, then Florida, you find all these different landscapes with such different climates and feelings. The country itself is an epic geographic journey, and sometimes I think one of the things that holds our music together is this kind of American sense of discovery and exploration, with some failure but ultimately the heart at the middle of it is what drives it," says Olinsky. "A lot of the songs on [Love Is Simple] were written on the road and inspired by the poetry of the American landscape – the scope of it, the wide reaching of it. The more you travel time starts to blur and you see the sameness of the world, in the beautiful way the trees move and the wind blows wherever you go. It's a little cheesy but there's beauty to the natural order of things. Traveling America over and over again, you can get into the Walt Whitman and Woody Guthrie traditions, the sensuality of the land and the poetry that's spoken if you just put your ear to the ground."
Love Is Simple opens with an irony free refrain of "Go out and love, love, love everyone." These days there's a reflexive urge to scoff at such unvarnished sweetness but the band rejects that easy cynicism.
"It's a very sincere statement. Loving everyone isn't reasonable because it means you're going to get hurt, but not loving everyone is also unreasonable because you'll die with nothing. I can see how that phrase is something to be cynical about because it sounds like a call to action if you take it out of context. It's really a statement of what we can do, the power we have. Whenever I sing it I've always felt it speaks to my belief that the most important thing I can do in any situation I want change to happen in is open my heart to the world. That's where it's really gonna happen," says Seaton. "You can be that change to people. It's amazing. I see it all the time in New York. I'll get working and so focused and someone will stop me and just ask, 'How are you doing?' It's a moment that reminds me I'm human, and them taking a moment to do that affects my whole world. Then, I turn around and go to the grocery store and I'm twice as ready to smile at the people there. People don't realize the huge power this has. It can end up making a difference with wars and poverty. You're actually making a decision and pointing momentum into a vector of things that feedback on that initial decision."
This is the Butterfly Effect wrangled into musical form. On a fundamental level, Akron/Family recognizes the cumulative effect of small actions.
"It's never in a preachy way for us but making a statement is really intense," continues Seaton. "In general, the reality is irony is SO delicious. One of my best friends is a brilliant poet and we were discussing how a verb trumps a noun trumps a pronoun trumps an adjective. Irony is the adjective of stances. It tastes so good and you want to crush out on it all the time. But, it's so brittle, and just as bad is a sort of pious sincerity, which is poisonous as well. Neither of these stances connects me to people. I want to combat irony and cynicism in myself as much as I can. I want to love everybody and touch everybody as much as I can but not in a way that's always confrontational or feels like I'm judging them or they can't have an ironic response."
"We talk about how at shows a band will tell you to snap along or whatever. Whenever we build in parts like that we'll joke that you can ironically snap. I mean that. If you think it's kind of cheesy then you can do that because the reality is that unwilling participation will touch those around you," says Seaton. "I don't care if people leave the gig and go buy the record. If they have an authentic experience, even if they didn't really get it, just because 20 extra people snapped the people in front that are really doing it are going to feel it even more. When you open the door and say, 'Everybody come in', that means EVERYBODY. The reality is at some shows that's real uncomfortable. There's somebody that's really drunk, pouring beer all over you, and they're so excited to talk to you about all the ways they 'get it.' Or they're really high on acid and keep hugging you and you're tripped out and just need some space. When you say, 'Everybody come in,' that means indie rockers and cynics and whoever. We don't want to add to the world's isolation. We want to inspire the pioneer spirit in everybody and ourselves."
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