Perpetual Motion: An Interview with Akron/Family

[11 October 2006]

By Jennifer Kelly

Akron/Family needs to sleep.

For the last couple of years, really ever since Michael Gira fished their home-taped demo out of the Young God slush pile, these four Brooklynites have been in constant motion, touring up one coast and down the other, writing songs in the back seats of vans and recording three full-length albums on the fly. The record shows that since signing with Young God in 2004, Akron/Family has played some 200 concerts in the US, Europe, and Canada. In recent years, dates have become so closely packed that “off” days are noted on the calendar and, one assumes, plastered with exclamation points and gold stars by band members.

And, while other bands follow the same sorts of punishing touring schedules, few of them simultaneously record full-length albums. In a statement, guitarist Sean Olitsky described the making of Meek Warrior, the band’s latest CD, like this:

“These songs were written about a year ago by individual band members and then hashed out as a band together on the road in hotels and in the van the few weeks prior to the studio time in Chicago, while we were all freezing in the winter hinterlands of Canada, wheezing with bronchitis ... The recording in Chicago was nuts. We played in Iowa City Monday Night. Then drove all that night, slept 2 hours on the corner of 23rd and Michigan in Chicago outside the studio in the van. Then started setting up to record at 10:00 a.m. and recorded until 8 p.m. Then we headed straight to Urbana to play that same night. Then drove back to Chicago that same night after the show, started recording the next morning at 10:00 a.m., recorded all day again, and then left again at 8:00 p.m. to play that night in Milwaukee. It was extremely crazy, and I can’t remember if we have ever been more disoriented and tired before.”

Asked if Akron/Family really needs to work this hard, Miles Seaton, the band’s bass player, takes a long pause replying. “It’s arguable that the reason why we’re where we’re at is because we toured so much last year. And I think that’s really important and we were able to get a lot of attention because we were constantly confronting people by being at their doorstep a lot of the time,” he says.

Still, he admits that the pace has been grueling and perhaps even excessive. “We played with Sufjan Stevens recently, and we were talking afterwards, and he said, ‘Hey, I really liked your show ... but your schedule and what you guys do is not sustainable,” Seaton recalls. “His point was that you can’t play a two-hour set every night, freaking out, drooling all over the place, being insane and throwing yourself to the floor. Or at least you can only do it for so long while still being productive.”

Maybe so, but Akron/Family has been burning the candle at both ends—and possibly through the middle—for quite some time now. The band came together in Brooklyn a few years ago when Olinsky met Seaton at the coffee shop where they both worked. The two began meeting at Olinsky’s apartment to play and record music, crafting fragmentary pop and adorning it with living room sounds. With several hours of self-recorded melodies on tape, Olinsky brought in drummer Dana Janssen, a childhood friend from his hometown in Pennsylvania, and Ryan Vanderhoof, who was then living in Ithaca, NY. Janssen and Vanderhoof moved to the city, and the band began working and reworking its delicate songs. Eventually, a demo was mailed to a handful of record labels. Most replied with form rejections, but Young God’s Michael Gira wrote back a detailed evaluation. Eventually, after coming to one of the band’s early Williamsburg shows, Gira signed the band and helped them shape their demo into their first, self-titled album.

Akron/Family immediately began touring with Gira, falling into the opening/supporting band slot that had recently been vacated by Devendra Banhart. In the fall of 2005, with music fans still discovering their debut, Akron/Family released another album, a split with Gira’s Angels of Light, which captured their transcendently joyful live show. The band continued to tour relentlessly, breaking (if you can call it that) for Meek Warrior sessions in Chicago and Toronto in early 2005, and when I caught Seaton in September, he and Olinsky were using a rare week-long break to write the songs for yet another album, slated for early 2007.

To date, each of their three full-lengths has been radically different from the others. The first, full of quiet folk melodies and field recordings, earned them comparisions to NYC’s burgeoning freak-folk scene, despite guest appearences by improvisation jazz heavyweights Greg Kelley and Bhob Rainey. The second, shared with Gira’s Angels of Light, was louder and rougher, full of tribal chants and prog-leaning multipart songs. And the third, aided by free jazz drummer Hamid Drake and members of Do Make Say Think and Broken Social Scene, ranges even further afield, beginning with a nearly ten-minute-long freak out called “Blessing Force” and weaving through gentle folk sing-alongs, Tibetan prayers, and post-rock-moody horn intervals. 

Akron/Family [Photo: Adria Cañameras]

Akron/Family [Photo: Adria Cañameras]

Seaton explains that Drake, known for incorporating Afro-Cuban, Indian, and African rhythmic styles into free jazz percussion, was a key influence on Meek Warrior‘s overdriven sound. Drake has played with everyone from Don Cherry to Peter Brotzmann, he said, working as comfortably in traditional jazz as in avant garde.

Drake ended up playing on every track but one (“Lightning Bolt of Compassion” is just Vanderhoof, singing and accompanying himself on guitar), side by side with Akron/Family’s Janssen. “On the first track and the last track, both of them were playing full kits,” said Seaton. “And then, on a couple of other tracks, they were both playing hand drums. Dana was really excited by it. It was amazing to watch them play together ... it was a cool thing for him.”

Akron/Family also recorded for a couple of days in Toronto with Charles Spearin, Ohad Benchetrit, and Justin Small, part of the extended Do Make Say Think/Broken Social Scene family. Small had approached the band at one of their Toronto shows, and he and Akron/Family talked about collaborating. The frenzied saxophone at the end of “Blessing Force” is Spearin, while penultimate cut “The Rider (Dolphin Song)” incorporates horn arrangements from those Canadian sessions.

Seaton laughs when asked about “Rider”. “That was kind of a mess,” he admits. “I was like ... let’s pile a bunch of stuff on here and make up some vocals later. That’s the one that I feel like if we would have had another five or six hours to come up with something a little bit less off the cuff, it would have been a better song.” 

In general, though, Seaton seems comfortable with the band’s headlong approach to music and life, speculating that the constant rush of touring is what has brought Akron/Family to where it is. “We’d been touring, and we felt that we were at this place where we wanted to capture where we were at,” he said of the period leading up to Meek Warrior. “But we definitely felt that it was a step on the way to recording another album, one that reflected all the work we’ve been doing.”

That album, slated for early 2007 release on Young God, is what Seaton and Olinsky are working on now, and you get the sense that, if it were not for the fact that it wasn’t finished and no one had heard it yet, Seaton would much rather talk about it than Meek Warrior.

“We’re working on all these new songs now, and I’m realizing that our ability to attack a composition and pick it apart and deftly navigate the entire scope of a composition is really amazing, because we’ve been playing together so much,” he says. “We took a few months off from playing shows, so that we’d have some space to see how we’ve progressed musically and as a group. Getting back together again, the songs are so much better. This is coming out at a time when I feel like our next album is going to be even more surprising when it’s set next to the other stuff.”

And that, in essence, is both the excitement and difficulty of any new Akron/Family record. If past experience is any guide, it will be a whole different thing from all previous efforts. I ask Seaton if this is because the band is still deciding what it will ultimately be. “When we grow up?” he responds, chuckling a little. “Yeah, I think a lot of it was that we were really forming our relationships to each other. Our relationships to each other were really formed over the scope of these records.”

Seaton says that each of the band’s three albums—and the fourth one now in gestation—were recorded in very different ways, in different settings, and with different chemistry between the musicians. “With the first one, there was a real dearth of material, that we were kind of trying to pick apart and pick from. Then with the split, after having been on tour constantly, we were in the middle of morphing into something completely different,” he says. “At this point, we’re all at a place where it’s a little more even keeled.’

Moreover, both writing and performing duties have been spread more evenly among band members this time. “Before, Seth and I would start playing together and I kind of added things,” he said. “Now everybody has a say.”

That’s partly a result of Akron/Family’s relentless touring schedule. “When you’re on tour, it evens the score. Nobody can take an authoritative stance because everybody’s busting their ass. Everybody’s sick when one person gets sick. Everybody’s going through it,” says Seaton. “That’s starting to show up in the songwriting process. The songs and the narrative stance are coming from a lot of different perspectives. I think everybody’s going to be singing by themselves on the new album. So that’s a really cool thing. Our individual voices are going to be able to be expressed a lot more. We’ve kind of grown up emotionally, but it’s really, really cool, and we’re happy about it.”

The band is heading to Texas soon to record number four with Andrew White, best known for producing Ween. It will mark the first time Akron/Family records without Michael Gira, which Seaton says marks a natural evolution in the band’s development. “The relationship with Michael is ... it’s an ever-changing thing,” says Seaton. “I think we’re going to be working with him, not as closely as before. Because it’s kind of ... it’s good to switch things up. I think that’s how he feels about his music, too.”

Seaton predicts that the next album will have some “pop jams” and, under the influence of Ween’s favorite producer, it may even be funny. But he shies away from describing it too graphically. “The reality is that we want to make music that makes us happy,” he says. “For us, it’s like whatever place we’re in, we’re just going to go with that. It’s definitely important to think about a listener, but for us it’s more our intention to capture where we’re at, however that manifests itself.”

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/perpetual-motion-an-interview-with-akron-family/