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Published: 2014/01/12
by Samuel Fanburg

Akron/Family’s Seth Olinsky Rides The Lightning

Even though Seth Olinsky has been a founding member of freak folk, experimental rock group Akron/Family for over 10 years, he is not bereft of side projects. With Cy Dune, Olinsky has released an EP, composed a piece that was performed by eight bands simultaneously.

Now, with $22,263 raised from Kickstarter, Olinsky has created Lightning Records. Together with his girlfriend Ali Beletic, Olinsky has corralled musicians such as Sam Amidon, members of AFI, Greg Saunier of Deerhoof to create their own side projects on cassette tapes.

Called “The Lightning 20 Artist Series and Quarterly,” Lightning Records will slowly release five cassettes every four months along with a magazine featuring articles written in a gonzo style.

Olinsky recently sat down to chat about Lightning Records, the traditional music industry paradigm and 2014 plans of Akron/Family and Cy Dune.

There are so many artist sand people involved in Lightning Records, how did you think of this idea. How did it start to germinate?

It came from a lot of different angles. I’ve always wanted a record label since I was a kid. A few years ago I started a record label via my band Akron/Family called Family Tree Records. I started it as a traditional indie label. I had a lot of ideas and inspirations to do something different, but I didn’t quite know what the idea was yet.

I was thinking a lot about it. I was meeting with different record people like Slim Moon who started Kill Rockstars. Just different people from different label backgrounds, asking them about ideas. That was about 3 and half years ago. I was thinking about this stuff, but I hadn’t totally shaped it yet. I ended up starting Family Tree Records, just to do it. I did it and it was fun. I produced and put out a band called Bad Weather California that Relix wrote about. They did an in studio with you guys. I did my first EP as Cy Dune and some Akron/Family stuff in Family Tree. It took on a more traditional shape.

This year, I started thinking more about the experience and getting back to the original idea of wanting to do something new and different. When Ali and I were living in Tucson we’d been doing a lot of different art projects, happenings out in the desert and stuff with Ali’s sculptures. We started bringing these ideas of what we were doing in Tucson together with doing a label. I think this is a totally new thing. Lightning sprang out of that.

It was out of this intention of bringing together art, music, culture and things that are fun—dirt bikes. In Tucson we were experimenting with getting people out of the box, getting them into the desert, to have a happening or go play laser tag. Finding ways to get people to engage in the social experience of having “fun.” All these ideas culminated into Lightning Records.

Another experience I had with my other label too was knowing so many amazing musicians and artists. I really wanted to find a way to work with a lot of different artists as opposed to just the sort of traditional model of releasing one record and letting that go on in a traditional way. Cassettes are actually a great medium for that. You can move quickly and work with a lot of different artists.

Because of the medium you can experiment with different ideas and there’s not as much financial pressure on the artists so they can be more, not necessarily more avant-garde experimental, but they can let themselves go. They don’t have to put as much pressure on themselves, it doesn’t have to be their brand statement. They can try something. It’s more when you’re playing live you can experiment a little more or go out on a tangent a little more live than on a recording.

All these ideas were floating around and they just congealed. It’s been great. All the artists I’ve asked has been so excited to be involved. Setting out on this journey to try to find a new way to things for musicians, a lot of musicians are feeling that, and no one knows the answers. I think there’s something really strong in the idea of bringing a bunch of people together and setting out on the journey to look for a possible answer.

We’re not trying to say we have the answer, it’s our proposed theory or possible solution. If we rally a bunch of musicians to work together as opposed to competing with each other and do really cool stuff, maybe something that feels progressive will come out of that.

Nominally, Lightning Records sounds like a record label, but to me it sounds like a collective or a group of people working together to try something different.

Definitely. It has that mentality. It’s funny because as an artist and musician growing up I had a love for the idea of these labels. I loved all these labels from Chess, Stax, Discord or even like Elephant 6 which was Neutral Milk Hotel and those bands. That was sort of a collective, beats label. There all these sort of ways that people have approached these ideas. Now that the landscape of the music industry is changing so much and records are changing, I think that the whole environment is changing for musicians as well.

If you zoom out and look at the world and see where everything is going, music is the tip of the iceberg. I think what’s happened with music downloads, “piracy” is probably going to happen with bicycles at times and heart surgery in the future. If you zoom out this is an exciting moment where musicians are on the forefront economically as well as artistically. If you set out with a group of friends trying to be really creative with the mystery and problems at hand, maybe there’s some things that might apply to a much broader economic sense to the world in the years to come.

The Internet has really democratized the way that people produce music which probably helps Lightning Records. There are even labels like Communion and even a collective like Wu-Tang Clan. What you do you think the rise of these record collectives say about where the record industry is going as a whole?

I don’t know. When I switched gears to Family Tree and starting to think about Lightning Records, I went back to some of the people I talked to originally about Family Tree as advisors.

One of the people I contacted was James Toth who goes by the name Wooden Wand. He’s released hundreds of records over the past ten years. He’s just the most prolific song writer I know, he’s so amazing. He’s been on Nonesuch, Young God, Ecstatic Peace! and tiny bedroom label. He’s been on a ton of different kinds of labels, so I thought he would be a good guy to ask about the difference between these labels, what are the strengths, weaknesses, etc.

At the end, he said, “Ultimately Seth, you’re an artist, probably deep down what you’re craving the most is what other artists are craving from a label too right now.” I thought that was a really profound perspective. I thought about that and I think that’s the thing about Lightning has been so exciting so far and I think is part of the reason why artists have been so inclined to get on board an participate even though it has an open ended structure. It hasn’t taken shape yet. People are so excited to participate because I think it is striking a chord with where artists are.

There is this feeling right now where, I think labels…I have nothing bad to say about labels. I’ve been on really great labels and the people work really hard. The majority of my experience of people at labels is they really, really believe in music and want to support. It’s just that things are changing so fast it’s really hard for them to change and know how to support and invest in an artist.

I think that makes it hard for both the labels and artists right now. Part of the exciting thing about Lightning is that there’s a wont to participate in something significant. I think the music industry and the “mediazation” of music has made things sort of a little has minimized some of the more important things about music, the spirit, power, social, community and tribal aspects. Music has only been on compact disc and records for a hundred years, but music has existed for thousands of years. It has always been a powerful medium for human expression and important to the tribe, community or village.

I think the music industry and the industrialization of music on the recording side and live side has become really codified. Musicians feel it and audiences feel it. They want something different. They want something that’s in a different context for the thing that they loved since they were kids.

People didn’t necessarily sign up to play guitar or be in band because they wanted a streaming MP3 with a lot of clicks on SoundCloud. It was deeper and more poetic, whether they came from a Phish or Grateful Dead background or a Fugazi and punk type world. There was a more communal, social happening. We certainly don’t have it figured it out, but we’re trying to create something that’s contemporary and has some of that spirit in it. Does that make sense?

Absolutely. And why not try something different?

The worst thing you can do is fail. It’s weird because now that things are so mediated and things happen so fast that it can create a heightened sense of self-awareness in our culture. It’s easier to try things, but it’s almost harder to try new things, where you might fail just a little bit because everyone is going to know and you will feel sensitive to it.

On the one hands it’s like why try. People get scared to try. Things tend to have a real momentum toward the middle ground these days. That was the spirit. It’s was like what if we could a bunch of people we admire and respect from different fields. We know our friends over here are special at desert architecture, what if they wrote about music? What is musicians wrote about poetry? What poets over here can interview the architects?

Traveling around the world we met all these amazing subcultures of amazing thinking and creative people. How do we find ways to flood them all into each other and let them get excited about what they’re doing? Sometimes the subcultures get detached from each other and are operating in their other spheres. That was the way the journal came into it, finding a way to put things together and trying to channel the Stuart Grant. Trying to bring that in a way that helps feed a rock and roll subculture.

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