The Crazy Beauty of Akron/Family

By: Dennis Cook

Akron/Family is currently on tour. They play tonight, March 28, in Salt Lake City, UT. A full list of tour dates as they head to West Coast is here.

Akron/Family
A noise like a great mountain dancing – rumbling contentedly and tossing off pebbles joyously – ushers in what is arguably Akron/Family’s most fully realized studio work to date. S/T II: The Cosmic Birth And Journey of Shinju TNT (released February 8 on Dead Oceans) proceeds to wander far and wide (no surprise with this bunch), but the going of it - the minutes and proverbial miles passed en route – has greater harmony, greater cosmic reach and just plain greater artistry than ever before. That’s no ding on their earlier catalogue, but something special is afoot on Shinju TNT, which evidences a maturation and refinement of what precedes it without sacrificing any of the wild, sparking character that makes Akron/Family so appealing to hardcore fans.

What Seth Olinsky (guitar, vocals), Miles Seaton (bass, vocals) and Dana Janssen (percussion, vocals) have wrought just feels righter than ever, and yet still utterly their own. Yes, rock ‘n’ roll lies somewhere near the heart of things, but there’s really no naming all the cool tributaries that flow into Akron/Family, especially now – snippets of African music, worldwide spiritual sounds, true avant garde noises, jazz slipperiness and technicality and so much more. Though an overused cliché, Shinju TNT is their most organic studio outing yet, an album that unfolds with the natural grace and oomph of a good breeze or strong current, motion and life-force evident in each note.

“That’s cool, because it’s very electric; there’s maybe one acoustic guitar on the whole album, so, it’s not organic in the trite sense of strumming hippies,” chuckles Olinsky. “I do feel the process of making it was deeply organic in the collaborative sense. Without even having material written, we dreamed the record into existence as a group. Before with other records, we’d show up with some songs and ideas and different inspirations, put them on the table and then massage them until it became a group statement. With this one, part of that organic quality is before there was even an idea for a song we dreamed up what we wanted to express – not only what it would sound like but what we wanted it to be and do. Because we started from that place and it’s a really right brain visualization of what this thing would be, there’s s a real group think imagination to this album. We’ve learned how to make that happen, and on a whole, it’s a more deeply collaborative experience, especially on a psychological level.”

Miles Seaton by Greg Aiello
“Every record tends to reflect where we’re at, but we were a lot clearer in our envisioning process with this one. We knew what our intentions and priorities were, and it’s not perfect – nothing is – but I feel like we got in touch with that stuff in a much better way,” says Seaton. “[Previous album] Set ‘Em Wild was, ‘Let’s do everything and crazy and more!’ Afterwards, we had to put it together somehow [laughs]. This time we shared a lot with each other and discussed what we’re really inspired by. It was a really beautiful experience. This is a really inspired time for us, and we’re excited about getting back to what’s important to us musically, artistically and emotionally. I feel like [the new album] is expressed from a much deeper place.”

“From the very first thought of this album’s creation it was full collaboration between the three of us,” says Janssen. “Usually we’d bring in songs that we’d been working on alone. With this album, we were in a van in Japan deciding if we even wanted to make another album. We did and we started brainstorming what we wanted to create, how we wanted to create it and things of that nature. The birth of this thing was just synergistic, which continued throughout the writing and recording.” Purposeful is a word that pops into one’s head listening to Shinju TNT, where one feels the strong intentions and emotional layering going on, both consciously and on a more subliminal level. Look out your window and the world is on fire right now. In almost direct response, this album is about connection and reaching beyond perceived borders, an effort to move us – even if only inches – from our closely guarded personal spaces and into a larger view of the universe and our fellow inhabitants.

Seth Olinsky by Josh Miller
“I felt we were on fire in a particular way when we went to do this,” explains Seaton. “The story for me, in a lot of ways, is we’d been touring for Set ‘Em Wild for a really long time, especially for us, and then we added a trip to Japan because an opportunity came up. We were running around like chickens with our heads cut off and got really rattled by the experience, which was a mind-fuck in some ways. The artists and culture were just SO generous to us. The artists we performed with were insanely committed to these radical ass performances. This Krautrock type group we played with had been playing around Japan for 25 years. We invite people to play with us all the time but these guys just went for it! They were completely committed to every single note they played, and it was inspiring on so many levels. Everything about the culture and people was completely inspiring.”

“We were so blown away and crazed that once we started to talk about it six months later and starting our envisioning for the next record, this experience is what kept coming up. We all felt we’d been going in a million different directions and hadn’t felt really centered in a long time. This felt like a critical point to return to our center,” continues Seaton. “The reality is if you don’t define it then it gets defined by the outside world. And then you’re crying, ‘Why don’t they understand me!?!’ Well, because you didn’t do the hard work of understanding yourself.”

“We went back to exploring some of the feelings and ideas we had when we first became a group that we’d perhaps progressed away from,” offers Olinsky, who also acknowledges that today’s trio lineup is a far cry from earlier incarnations. “Now I feel the palette is just SO broad. The three-piece sounds huge and it’s more unstable than the four-piece in many ways – on a personal level, on a sound level, there’s more space. It’s just like an unstable molecule, but because it’s unstable it’s also much more energetic [laughs]. So, both failures and successes are more energetic. When we succeed it’s HIGHLY energetic, and when we fail we dive bomb more energetically, too. The whole is just more dynamic and fucked up than ever before.”

Dana Janssen by Greg Aiello
Shinju TNT is only the second album with the trio lineup, but Akron/Family has had a shifting, slippery composition over the years, bounding out with a quartet on their debut, expanding to a 7-headed-beast after a member left and then settling into the core trio today.

“When we first started it was just Seth and I, and we had this conception of the Akron/Family being an extended version of ourselves with a revolving community around us. So, there’s an element of it that’s a bit like open-source [code],” says Seaton. “When we became four, we got really excited about that iconic rock quartet thing, and we became obsessed with The Beatles and Zeppelin and all these bands we’d grown up with. That version of success became something we were vying for unconsciously. When Ryan left it went back to that open-source, and on [Shinju TNT] it felt important to come back to the three of us and reprioritize what we’re going for, which had been kind of lost for us. If we just return to that center from time to time, we’ll be fine. As long as we can go back to that, we can fuck around and play with a ton of people. We can always go back to that center and reboot. As long as we all know where we’re starting from it doesn’t matter where it goes.”

The rhythms on new album delve into new places, adding a motorik/Krautrock machine feel to the already existing rock grooves and African textures. Taken in total, this feels like an evolutionary album for Akron/Family’s low end.

“Part of that is our sound engineer, Chris Koltay (No Age, The Dirtbombs, Liars, Deerhunter, Holy Fuck), was able to capture it,” explains Janssen. “In the past, what we’ve attempted rhythmically and sonically didn’t come out as well, but this time it did. We had a great experience working together. We trust Koltay, Koltay trusts us, and that may be part what we captured on this album.”

new album
Another unique aspect of Shinju TNT’s creation was part of the album came to life on top of a volcano in Japan, something reflected in the album’s fiery cover art. Even the quietest moments on the new album have a slumbering power. Something seethes and moves and writhes with life inside each piece of this song cycle, a bubbling under energy that’s inescapable. The cover is fulfilled in the album’s execution.

“Physically surrounding myself with an interesting environment was a color I wanted to add to my palette on this album. It created a swell in me that was different and unique as songwriter and collaborator and artist. Environmental input is pretty powerful, though I’m not sure if it’s conscious or unconscious. There is a big difference between writing a song sitting on the side of a mountain versus writing a song sitting in a studio in your bedroom,” says Janssen. “Just the explosive qualities and elements of a volcano – what it does, what it represents, how it relates to and reacts to the planet – was powerful. You can take that energy and sort of digest it and allow it to translate through you into the focus you want, be it songwriting or interacting with people. It was a really profound and awesome experience to have that involved in this album’s creation and visualization.”

Vocally, the new album is unquestionably Akron/Family’s high point, including shakingly lovely numbers like “Fuji II (Single Pane),” which lay bare a tenderness that’s touching.

Miles Seaton by Josh Miller
“The three of us as singers have grown a lot live and over the past two records. We’re learning a lot about how we want to present our voices,” says Olinsky. “Writing is so integral to how you want your voice to sound. I’d always approached singing from a more instrumentalist point of view, and then I saw this band where their voices were just part of the mix and then they did this Paul Simon song and the person’s voice was just shining through. It really struck me that Paul Simon writes song that are amazing to sing, and the other day I was working on Dylan’s ‘It’s Alright Ma’ and had a similar experience, where I felt I was singing so incredibly. Those guys have a sense of how to write for voice, which is why people want to cover their songs. They are so pleasing to sing this highly crafted, highly architectured things really designed for the voice. When you plug a voice – any voice – into that it’s a giant surge. In Akron/Family, we’re all learning how to better use our voices, both for this kind of crafted singing, and otherwise. As musicians, we’re really learning to how to get behind whoever is singing at the moment. Singing is such an intimate thing that it can be nerve wracking to get that across, and all of us learning how to create that psychic, energetic space for whoever is singing at the time to really step up to the plate and say something.”

While there’s a good deal of immediacy to Shinju TNT, the greatest rewards come for those willing to take the full 13 track ride. What’s revealed is a song cycle of overlapping intricacies and bona fide spiritual density that’s also quite freakin’ listenable.

“The flow of it, the up & down of it, is meant to be a ride,” says Janssen. “You wouldn’t want to jump off a rollercoaster halfway through, right? There’s still a great hill coming up!”

Dana Janssen by James Martin
Often what waits on the other side of the mountain is a place of deep feeling and undeniable spirit, though nothing as concrete or programmatic as any organized religion or tradition. The most overt spiritual element on the album is closing track “Creator,” which references and explodes Pharoah Sanders’ “The Creator Has A Master Plan.”

“It’s deeply spiritual to all of us, but nothing is being pedaled or pushed on anyone,” emphasizes Janssen, keying into Akron/Family’s innately cosmic and expanded-mind nature, which categorically refuses to ever be programmatic or preachy, something aided by the band’s embrace of humor and unvarnished silliness.

“A lot of people overlook the potential of humor,” says Janssen. “When you really accept it and use it, I think it can really add to the dynamics of the [live] experience or even just sitting down and listening to the record. It’s a good tool to have in your belt. And we are who we are. I can admit to myself that I’m silly. I’m not cool.”

So It Goes

Akron/Family by James Martin
“We like the idea of people coming to the music for different reasons, finding joy and benefit and positivity in all different elements,” says Olinsky. “Some of our songs are just pop songs, and it’s okay for people to see it through that lens. We’re learning to navigate how people see things through different perspectives. We’re not about dictating a perspective; it’s actually the opposite of that. Some people will just a 45 minute show with some songs and some will want to be there for the full journey, and maybe some of the first group will be inspired to take the trip. In the end, it’s about making something that’s dynamically successful in its communication to various people and their experiences.”

Like all Akron/Family albums, Shinju TNT is peppered with elements that one knows will blossom in the live setting. Their music takes on an ever-changing new life once their pagan congregation starts joining in on lines like, “Wherever there is laughter, dancing and honey, I’ll be there!” Their work is rife with such pleasure points, seemingly small features that chip away at the wall between audience and performers to create a shared, empathetic experience.

“One of the first times we ever did this was when we were recording ‘Ed Is A Portal’ [off 2007’s Love Is Simple]. We’d been working a lot with Lexie Mountain Boys, and they’re amazing. They came and just kind of freaked out with this psychedelic cheerleader thing, and it sounded incredible and really defined the song in many ways,” says Seaton. “When we went to perform the song live that element ended up being the emphasis of the song. It offered people a cool chance to participate.”

Akron/Family
“We’re mixing it up every night, even more so than any other tour,” says Olinsky, ”but we’ve also been doing this sort of truncated version of the new album with 6 or 7 jams from the album all lumped together as a whole, and then diverging off into whole other territory. So, sometimes the first part of the show is a more cohesive statement largely revolving around the new album and then left turns into other areas. However, sometimes we take things into an almost aburdist, Dadaist area, and the whole thing gets fed back through itself, going all the way back to music that predates our first album. And we’re spanning more of our written material than ever before.”

“People ask us, ‘Do you improvise a lot?’ Improvise is a funny word. If you read Derek Bailey’s book on improvisation [Improvisation: It’s Nature And Practice In Music (1993)], you gain a new respect for what true improvisation is,” continues Olinsky. “A lot of the time when we go for something and fail, whatever pit we find ourselves in makes us REALLY improvise to dig our way out [laughs]. Oftentimes, that’s the most improvisatory moment. I remember Robin Williams talking about Jeff Bridges when they were shooting The Fisher King, and him saying, ‘If a mistake happens, go with it. It’s a gift from the universe.’ I find myself thinking about that sometimes. Or there’s Dizzy Gillespie, who said if you make a mistake then repeat it; then it’s not a mistake anymore. And that actor-improv thing of, ‘Always say yes.’ Whatever comes up, always say yes to it, go with it, follow it, and it leads you to things. When you say no you cut off the flow. So, the penchant for the trio to fuck up in a big way can also lead us to something potentially interesting and actual improvisatory moments.”

Depiction of Akak Homeland
Akron/Family has long been a band of many layers, and the process of making Shinju TNT seemed to work in reverse, stripping away strata to reveal the bedrock. The music reflects this foundational thinking, producing some of the richest, most accessible music yet and definitely their strongest vocals and harmonies to date. Where often in the past Akron/Family’s music took some time to unravel, there are moments on their latest that seize one with an immediacy that jolts one into the moment quite pleasantly.

“We all really loved the sound of The Black Keys’ records,” says Seaton, “It sounds amazing and that’s because there’s like three things happening and that’s it! It’s just cranked and everything sounds squishy and compressed and beautiful because there’s all this space. With [Shinju TNT] we realized we didn’t need to have a million tracks. We could have space, and that’s what ends up being most powerful. People go into studios and it’s almost like they making sculptures. I can see that angle, where everything is neat and interlocking and perfect as possible and everything is done in this meticulous way, but the music kind of lies flat for me. For me, it’s always energy music – real, raw expression – that I return to. The narrator is present. There’s somebody there to connect to. It’s like, ‘Wow, there’s another human I’m relating to!’”

“Trust has become a big part of the group, particularly as a three-piece,” says Olinsky. “The more we trust each other on an interpersonal, friendship and artistic level, the deeper our communication becomes. So, when we get onstage, there’s so much freedom because you’re never worried about where someone is going to be or if you fall if someone will be there to catch you. There’s a deep seated kind of camaraderie, and when we’re feeling that it flows into the audience, too, and emboldens and honors them with that same kind of trust. On a night where it works, it builds the space for wild, fucked up shit and crazy beauty to happen.”



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[Published on: 3/28/11]

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