Rule one: don’t get too comfortable.
In 2007, Akron/Family’s Love Is Simple, summed up everything the band had worked for up to that point. It was, according to bass player Miles Seaton, the culmination of the band’s Beatles-influenced psychedelic pop aesthetic, the album that brought everything they’d thinking and feeling and striving for together.
“In a lot of ways, we were all looking at the Beatles as this kind of beacon, or even as kind of a spirit animal,” said Seaton in a recent phone interview. “A lot of young bands look to them. Because they are one of the most successful recording artists ever. They created a real sense of dimension and feeling and sexual … sensuality, psychedelia in these really beautiful ways.”
The band had even fallen into a four-person division of labor, similar to that of the Beatles, with each member of Akron/Family expected to deliver a characteristic kind of input. Ryan Vanderhoof, in particular, had become the go-to guy for the band’s soft, serene, folk-rooted songs. His “I’ll Be on the Water,” according to Seaton, crystallized a certain element of Akron/Family’s sound.
And then, shortly after Love Is Simple, Vanderhoof left the band.
There were other changes, as well. Love Is Simple was Akron/Family’s first album produced without Michael Gira, and the last to be issued on Young God, before the band signed to Dead Oceans. Guitarist Seth Olinsky had moved back to Pennsylvania. The band’s relentless touring schedule slowed. Everything was in flux.
“That put us in an interesting position,” said Seaton. “This album, in a lot of ways, was us finding our own footing, learning how to be a three-piece, leaving Young God and Michael’s strong sense of aesthetic, and producing ourselves for the first time. It felt like a new beginning.”
All those changes at once knocked Akron/Family out of its comfort zone, disrupted any incipient stasis and opened up the possibility for creative change. It ended up being a very good thing for the band. “You just don’t get that opportunity to reinvent yourself very often,” Seaton said. “Either things really don’t work and you break up … or they just work so effortlessly that you just keep going and get into this formulaic sort of thing. I think had Ryan not left, we were definitely moving into a much more formulaic direction than any of us would have been comfortable with.”
As Akron/Family’s three remaining members holed up in a church in Quebec to record, they found themselves picking through their past, retaining what was still valuable and pitching the superfluous overboard. “There was a lot of things about the first album we were trying to recapture — the attention to detail, the taking time to find the right sound, the ability to follow everything through without worrying about the clock, some techniques and ideas and feelings,” said Seaton. Yet at the same time, the band was working towards a larger scale experience than on its mostly acoustic debut, and indeed, a more powerful sound than they had yet accomplished. “I think that this is by far sonically the most powerful album that we’ve put out. There’s a lot of low end. There’s a lot of depth. It feels really large,” said Seaton.
That shift is apparent from the very first bars of “Everyone Is Guilty”, the album’s opening track, in the clanking syncopation of first percussion, then slashing, intersecting bass and guitar. Seaton noted that guitarist Seth Olinsky had always been fascinated with African rhythms, and that, as he adapted to being the only guitarist, looked to influences like Tinariwen and Fela Kuti as a way to combine rhythm and lead in a single melodic line. The new sound had a more open architecture, with plenty of space embedded into its riffs and patterns. And, while often complex rhythmically, the newer sound was fundamentally bound to a groove.
“I think all of us really worked towards a center, and I think that in a lot of ways reduced the amount that we played,” said Seaton. “There was a tendency, when we first started playing and we were just kind of jamming it out, messing around, in some ways there was this tendency to move really quickly in a direction where everybody was playing a lot. And then really, after, it would be like after an hour that we would start to relax a little bit and naturally pick these really more complex grooves where everybody was picking their place inside of it.”
He added, “As I get older, I really am looking for that groove, I’m looking for that nod. All of us really love dancing and movement. We love music that has a pulse, and so we naturally gravitated towards very intricate and repetitive foundations.”
Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free is, perhaps, the best approximation yet of Akron/Family’s live show, juxtaposing multi-parted, polyrhythmic freakouts with intervals of startling tranquility. “The River”, written and sung by Seaton, is one such island of serenity — and one of the band’s most lyrical, personal songs to date.
“That song is about unabashedly falling in love,” Seaton admitted. That’s a bit of a departure for Akron/Family, in the past more inclined toward abstraction, but Seaton said he’s more comfortable with emotional, even sexual content now. “One of my friends is a really amazing poet, and he wanted to challenge me to reference sex and death in every song. Those are the only two stories that are really relevant to humanity. There’s a little bit of both.”
Akron/Family recorded 35 songs during two Set ‘Em Wild sessions in Farnham, Quebec and in Detroit, only gradually finding the record’s core ideas and sounds. “There are definitely a lot of starts and a lot of half-dones and demos,” said Seaton. “But then everything kind of emerged. We kept working a central theme that was really about what was happening with us.”
The band brought in Mike Kammer, a long-time friend to arrange horns and invited a cello and violin player to add strings. The three of them generated a wealth of sonic material, too, much of which didn’t get used on the album. “There’s tons of sound,” said Seaton. “There’s just so much music and information. I feel like … this is one of the first records where I get really excited about the music being totally reimagined and remixed by different people.”
In addition to the album itself, the wealth of sounds to incorporate into future work, Akron/Family has also gotten a new sense of itself out of the Set ‘Em Wild recording process. “I think that in a lot of ways the most valuable part of making a record is really the self-knowledge and the process,” said Seaton. “We played some shows after recording that record. By the time we got to SXSW we were like, ‘Wow, we’re a completely different band.’ Just as far as the confidence, the interplay, the relationships.”
And then there’s the flag, an altered version of the stars and stripes with a tie-dyed swirl where the 50 stars would be. Created by artist Amy Waller (who also plays in Lexie Mountain Boys), it hangs at every Akron/Family performance, and takes up prime position on the cover of Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free.
Is it a political statement? Seaton shied away from the term, though he acknowledged that the image had deep resonance both for the band and for audiences. “Really when Amy handed that the flag to us, I was so touched and felt so, almost not worthy of it, and that I would have to work hard to the point where I felt like we were embodying that object and that image,” he said.
“At one point, someone asked me if I consider myself a patriot and I said I really do. I love this country. And I feel very connected,” said Seaton.
The flag was created before the 2008 elections and, had the voting gone the other way, Seaton admitted, it might have been open to a whole other set of interpretations. Its worn quality, earned through dozens of shows, might have seemed more defiant. The black background that the flag is shot against on the album cover might have looked grim, rather than dramatic.
“If things had gone differently and we had someone like John McCain or Sarah Palin in office, there would have been this sense of it being like, ‘We’re going to make it through no matter what.’ There’s this level now, people look at it and say, ‘Wow, we’re making it through,'” said Seaton.
Not everyone reacts to the flag positively. Seaton recalled a conversation he’d had with a war veteran in Colorado who felt that it was disrespectful. “But you know, my father is actually ex-military, too, and I asked him what he thought about it. He was in the 101st Airborn Division in Viet Nam in 1969,” said Seaton. “I have nothing but respect for the military. But the fact that we can alter the flag, that symbols like the flag are open to constant interpretation, that’s what we’re fighting for.”
“Symbolism is powerful and it means a lot to people,” Seaton added. “This record cover is pretty awesome. It’s very iconic. Ideally the record lives up to it. But more ideally, we live up to being a good example. The reality is that we go around the world and we can be a new, positive force for whatever the idealized version of this America is.”