Referencing the Bulldozer: An Interview with Akron/Family
Mysterious album sessions near a volcano? Multiple copies of the same disc leaked online? Citing bulldozers for inspiration? The latest Akron/Family album is the band's most daring yet, and Miles Seaton sits down with PopMatters to set things straight (somewhat).
Akron/Family is a band that has constantly forged their own path -- not only in the way that they have navigated the course of their career, but also in the way that they approach both recording their music and performing it. With each successive release, the band builds upon the foundation they’ve created and continue to push their sonic boundaries, all while remaining very true to themselves. One of Akron/Family’s greatest strengths is that their sound is uniquely theirs.
According to the press release for Akron/Family II: The Cosmic Birth and Journey of Shinju TNT, the band’s sixth full-length album, its origins are shrouded in mystery: the disc was written in a volcanic national park on an island in Japan and then recorded in an abandoned train station in Detroit with producer Chris Koltay (who also worked with the band on their last album, 2009’s Set Em’ Wild, Set Em’ Free). A quote from the text that especially resonates is that the album was created as "a great flourishing of friendships and joint creativity and hard work, brought about by the still stubborn belief in a vision creative and encouraging." Bassist/multi-instrumentalist Miles Seaton says that the album definitely contains "references to our own music and to ourselves and our musical and artistic personalities."
In listening to the new disc, there are some noticeable differences between this and the last album. Akron/Family II opens up new doors -- finding joy in distortion, fuzz, and noise and forming them into songs that are often mesmerizing in their scope and enthusiasm. Oftentimes, the vocals are buried underneath the mix. This is a definite shift, Seaton admits: “We came up in the Michael Gira school of production and [in that] the vocals are very upfront -- far and away almost too loud by contemporary rock standards.”
In contrast to that, vocals do not take precedence here -- they float and weave amongst the melodies. There was also a conscious decision by the band to make the album’s sound something that needs to be taken in as a whole. The flow of the album is such that the songs act as vignettes -- captured moments in sound and feeling. Taken out of the context of the whole, they are still valid, but when the album is played start to finish, the listener gets a better understanding of what the band was trying to accomplish.
Seaton explained, “When you look at light, you sense all the different colors in the spectrum even though you don’t actually see them. We tried to actually treat the recording like that.” Moving away from some of the darker sounds found in previous recordings, the band strove to incorporate that feeling of light amongst the haze of distortion -- creating something that was “inspired and joyful and colorful and radiated positive energy and clarity,” Seaton says.
Inspiration for Akron/Family II came from a variety of sources, since Seaton and his bandmates Dana Janssen and Seth Olinsky often have widely divergent musical tastes. However, they were definitely influenced by time that the band spent touring in Japan and the bands that they played with along the way, as they tended to be more acid punk and crazy noise in their sound. “When we started dreaming about what this record was going to look like,” Seaton says, “It was this wild, feral, insane, super noisy, over-the-top thing in a lot of ways.”
All three also had a pretty “radical, revelatory kind of experience” watching a set by Boredoms at the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in 2009. Boredoms ended up serving as a visual inspiration for the band, as well. When envisioning the record, they found themselves drawn to a series of photos involving the founder of the band, Eye, performing under the name Hanatarash in the 1980s. Seaton explains, “He did this one performance where he drove a bulldozer through the side of a wall and into the venue.” As the photos documenting the event unfold, there are scenes of the bulldozer lurching forward with Eye perched on the back, Eye falling out of the bulldozer appearingly mangled, and just showing a “total and utter commitment and presence -- just obliterating the fear,” Seaton relates. Those photos and that attitude were a guiding light for the band throughout the recording process. “Anytime that we felt like we were just, you know, settling into the get-it-done mediocrity ... looking at the bulldozer -- that’s the ideal -- putting ourselves on the line like that, and I think that the record has that extreme quality.”
And what about the multiple versions of the album that were rumored [and found] to appear on the internet before the album was actually released? Well, “No comment,” Seaton laughingly says.
He did admit that it is increasingly difficult for a band that wants to make a broad artistic statement to do so in today’s culture. Take a second to think about it: we all know this to be true. In this modern age of quick consumption, listeners tend to be hyper-aware and almost overwhelmed by the sheer amount of music at our fingertips. It’s no secret that broad statements are challenging in the age of information, especially when our collective attention spans tend to be on the shorter side. This challenges the band to constantly “think about ways to bring the magic and the poetry and the love and the intentionality back into music and art.” Keeping it special is important, as it should be something to be savored and enjoyed. Seaton, Janssen and Olinsky constantly strive for different ways to explore the context of the art of creating an album -- sometimes looking out at artists like Banksy and the “art-prank” world, for example, to figure out how their work can be part of that broader expression. “In some ways, the whole idea of potentially creating a mystery or a weird thing is creating a little bit of a world that people can kinda enter into,” Seaton says.
Akron/Family is about to head out on a tour to support the new album, and will perform primarily as a three-piece. The band’s live shows are a wonder to behold -- noisy, joyful, and intense. After founding member Ryan Vanderhoof left the band after the completion of 2007’s Love Is Simple, their live performances began to change in response. Subsequent tours with bands such as Megafaun, Greg Davis, and The Dodos -- who often joined the band for their set -- caused the band to take a look at themselves and the way that they were connecting with their music. Those tours were “a response to us trying to re-examine and re-animate some of our musical ideas and explore them in a different way after we had been touring as a four piece for so long,” states Seaton. Touring with friends made it easier for the remaining members to figure out how they wanted to present their songs and on a larger level, proceed creatively. It ended up being an artistically viable experience for the band, and it is one that they are open to experimenting with again in the future. Seaton says, “It helped us understand our strengths and the ways that we could really perform as a three piece.”
There’s a special group of musicians out there. They are endlessly passionate for their craft -- unafraid to take chances, try new things, and with each release, create something that has its own particular brand of magic. With Akron/Family II: The Cosmic Birth and Journey of Shinju TNT, the band has taken another step forward. One can’t help but feel their excitement as they take listeners along with them for the ride.