Almost every band likes to say that they are both original and eclectic, but few groups are as uniquely, stylistically varied as the Akron/Family. The Brooklyn-bred trio was originally tagged as “freak folk,” thanks in part to business ties to Devendra Banhart, but, in reality, is an amalgamation of American styles, from punk to jazz to blues to psychedelic-rock to, yes, even folk. Since releasing their self-titled debut album in 2002, Akron/Family has recorded with everyone from jazz percussionist Hamid Drake to Canadian post-rock sensations Do Make Say Think. Drummer Dana Janssen even sat-in with The Slip last New Year’s Eve. Below, guitarist Seth Olinsky and bassist Miles Seaton discuss Akron/Family’s new studio album We Are Him, misapplied labels and their not-so-latent love of the Grateful Dead.
MG- Can you start by giving us a brief synopsis of how Akron/Family first came together?
S: Dana, the drummer, and I had known each other from growing up and playing music together in Pennsylvania, but this band started when I moved to New York. I was taking a course at NYU after I dropped out of the Berklee College of Music. I wasn’t really into NYU, but ended up falling in love with New York, so I ended up just staying around and working at this coffee shop where I met Miles, the bass player. That was the fall of 2002. I had an apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and Miles and I would go there after work and record on this 4-track and we just started writing songs.
After a while we had enough songs for an album and released it to our friends. At the end of that winter Dana moved to New York and started playing with us. That’s when we started playing live. That spring another friend of ours who recently left the band, Ryan Vanderhoof, joined, so we were a four piece for a while. We sent out some demos and were getting some feedback from Michael Gira, who runs Young God Records, and continued to play out live.
Michael was great. He gave us all this feedback, which a lot of the other labels we were talking to didn’t. If they e-mailed us back at all they would usually say, “Sorry we are busy,” but Michael gave us all this critical feedback. So we developed a good relationship with him from the beginning, though at first they were pretty consumed with Devendra Banhart. So, after that spring, Michael revisited our stuff and came to see during this Sunday residency we were doing at Pete’s Candy Store in Brooklyn. He came like three weeks in a row and loved the live show even more than the records and demos we had sent him.
MG- At that point do you feel your live show was an accurate representation of your home recordings, which tended to be more acoustic-based?
It was interesting. Before Michael came to see us we were recording a lot of 4-tracks at home. Because we couldn’t really play them live, it was a lot of acoustic guitar-based music, kind of similar to out first record, with some electronics. But when we started to play live we got this rehearsal space and would improvise around this sort of rock music and long, improvised noise stuff. So, we were kind of living this duel life. But, when Michael came to see us, we were playing at Pete’s, which is more suited for acoustic music, so we were kind of adapting our live show to what we were recording at home, just because we were playing at Pete’s. After that I think we started to develop towards each other. Live we figured out how to play some of the quieter stuff we had recorded at home and on our second album, the split side with Angels, we tried to document some of the louder “rock stuff” we played live. So I think for a while we spent time trying to meet in the middle.
MG- How did that split side album Akron/Family & Angels of Light come to be?
S: Angels of Light is mainly Michael Gira’s band and we decided to do a record on his label Young God in 2004. We decided to co-produce it together and took some of our older songs, some of the stuff we were playing live and some of the stuff we recorded at home and decided to record that. It went so well that he has us record as his backing back on the new Angels of Light album.
We just went into the studio, not knowing the music, and played on his new record because he always has different people backing him on his Angels of Light records. Both records came out and we did a six-week tour opening for Angels of Light where we’d open and then come back on and back Michael as Angels of Light. So we’d play almost 3 hours a night for six weeks in a row. That was our first big touring experience and our music had developed so far from where our first record was that Michael was excited to capture our new sound. We would be in front of this audience who bought our first and liked our first record and we’d play this noise, jam-rock and people were kind of confused. So, we captured this sound on this split album.
We actually made another collaborative record where we recorded with the free jazz drummer Hamid Drake. He has been a hero of mine since I was in music college. When he said he was willing to play for us—-which we thought was crazy—-we jumped at it and went into the studio in Chicago. We also did some collaborations with Do Make Say Think on their You’re a History in Rust.
MG- Akron/Family’s sound feels rooted in both the punk and psychedelic communities. Do you see a relationship between the two worlds?
M: I was influenced by a lot of traditional psychedelic-rock. I listened to Live/Dead a lotbasically my Dad’s record collection. Then someone gave me a tape when I was 10 that had Black Flag and Bad Brains on one side and James Brown on the other side, so I kind of wore out that tape [laughter]. Then later I got really into punk-rock and I think that really informed the visceral edges and corners of our music.
S: I think the first tape I ever owned was New Edition, but when I really started playing guitar what I thought was really cool was the Beatles, Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix and out of that followed a love of the blues. I don’t listen to any of the folk stuff that is hip nowI listened to a lot of Robert Johnson and followed that into jazz and got really into jazz historyThelonious Monk and played in a jazz band in high school and went to college to study jazz. By the time I got to college I was pretty obsessed with free jazz and improvisational music of all sorts. But rock music at that time I thought was real boring and simple, but I got so burnt out of the studying, scholastic side of jazz that I eventually dropped out of school and rediscovered rock music. It felt closer to home and more natural than this thought-out process.
MG- Do you feel the term “freak folk” is an accurate representation of your sound or a sign that people are mixing you up with Devendra?
S: I remember Wire magazine ran a cover story called “New Weird America” and it was about band like Sunburned Hand of the Man. I remember reading the article, not knowing much about those bands, and thinking, “wow, that is like what I am doing at home on the computer or when I’m improvising.” That was the first time I heard of this psych-folk thing that had been around for years. We weren’t aware of it, but shared similarity influences with free jazz and psychedelic-rock. I am not sure when the term “freak folk” showed up, but I think you hit the nail on the head that coming out after Devendra Banhart on Youngblood people knew us in that bin because we had some acoustic instruments. It is a little annoying to be labeled, but if people are going to listen to what we do and ultimately see us because of it then that’s fine, but I don’t think we sound anything like Devendra.
M: We don’t actually have any contact with these people. I’ve read articles that paint the picture of this being some sort of community that is actually happening. Devendra shares our booking agent, so through that we played one show with him and it was very clear that we are very different. It is not like we have each other’s email addresses. I remember onetime we were in Saskatewan and some kid came up to us and was like, “You live in New Yorkdo you know Animal Collective and Devendra.” It was like, “Right, we all hang out at the same bar with this special password you need to get in [laughter]. There are tapestries everywhere and free pot!”
MG- On your most recent tour you expanded your lineup to include seven musicians. Why bring so many additional players on the road?
M: When we started working on this new lineup, we thought we were going to stagger it in and the more we started playing around with it made it more about the music than the individual personalities on stage. The more expansive the sound is the more elements we can focus on. For instance, Seth can focus on more specific elements of the guitar and I can play other instruments besides the bass. Having different people occupy that sonic space gives us from freedom
S: Plus, though we had been trying to play some of the songs on the new record Love is Simple live for the last six months, some of them weren’t that successful as a four piece. There were too many shifts between instrumentation and dynamics that we did in the studiowe weren’t happy with the way they came out live.
MG- Speaking of Love is Simple, how did you approach the writing process? Did you test out this material on the road before entering the studio?
M: This is the first record where we all got together and wrote the record from scratch in Pennsylvania. We played through them, learned them, tried them out live for 8 shows and then went into the studio. They were realized to a certain extent live, but certain songs more than others grew in the studio. I think the split album is a better example of songs we really played live and then brought back into the studio. When we played these songs we tracked them live and tried to really realize them in the studio.
MG- On your most recent tour you also began covering “Turn On Your Lovelight?” What inspired that cover?
S: Since we had the two drummers, we kind of felt like we had to play a Dead song because it is so hard to do a proper Dead cover without the sound of the two drummers. When we were rehearsing for the live group we doing a lot of songs with percussion based sections. When we were in high school Dana and I had a band where we covered “Lovelight” and as a joke we started playing the riff of “Lovelight” as a joke to loosen everyone up. But Miles jumped in and started singing and playing harmonica and he sounded greathe sounded like Pigpen.
In the “freak-psych-folk-rock” scene there is a certain appreciation of The Dead, but mostly the Anthem of the Sun-era Dead. I think “Lovelight” falls into the category of songs people don’t want to talk aboutbut I thought it would be cool to kick ass on “Lovelight.” Whenever I think about The Dead and jambands I think that there was such a vitality to the music. It wasn’t quite punk rock, but there is a wild quality to the music. When people talk about The Dead and jambands I think they tend to associate that quality with rock or punk, but way Miles sings it really has the energy of raw energy of Pigpen.
MG- Your rendition definitely reminds me of ’69 Dead.
F: Before that, when The Dead were still forming, it felt more amorphous. I love the version of Live/Dead, but after that there was a time when I felt like versions of the song went on too long. I love the wildly original craziness of the early Dead. That blues cover came out of nowhere. When I saw The Dead I wasn’t into the 9-minute guitar solo, but I loved the ride. It contextualized it for me. I was really into the punk scene and remember walking around the parking lot and being like, “Man, these are my people.”
S: I think The Dead are really coming into fashion a bit again, but is focused on certain elements. I think The Dead taken as a whole is this big, monstrous social statement focusing on everything from Without a Net to “Big Boss Man” to the amazing statements of Anthem of the Sun and the weird blues covers. We did this winter tour of colleges called the Great American Mess Tour. This is when we started playing longer and went from an hour or hour and a half to two hour shows. I remember having this vision of the sound and the only thing I can equate it to is The Deadthis great, chaotic vision and this amalgamation of beautiful sounds. I think the one thing you can say about it all is that is was pretty American and I think the one thing you can say about The Dead is that is captures the free American spirit, from Tom Constanten and the avant-garde to this blues motorcycle due to this hillbilly music. It just quite doesn’t work technically perfectly, but the heart is what holds it together.
Mike Greenhaus is the Senior Editor of Jambands.com and the Associate Editor of Relix Magazine. He is also very excited that he got to write about Do Make Say Think and the Grateful Dead in the same article.