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Riffs, Reverbs And The Rebirth Of Akron/Family

28 March 2011

“I know what I wanna do: I’ve had this vision, this dream that I want to go play a show at Machu Pichu. In the spirit of The Grateful Dead and Pink Floyd with their Pompeii and Pyramids, I think that’s our monument. How do you get permits for that?”

This is Akron/Family drummer Dana Janssen musing about the way he wants to celebrate the ten-year legacy of the hyper-experimental music machine he runs with band mates Seth Olinsky and Miles Seaton.

After an internal shake-up, a period in creative limbo and a self-described rebirth the trio are back with a new album that sounds like a rain forest hoe down on acid. It hasn’t been easy, but they’ve finally reconciled an identity worthy of its own celebration. And with a sound that lends itself to epic nature of their psychedelic rock predecessors they could probably pull off their upcoming anniversary celebrations.

THINGS were sailing smooth for Akron/Family circa 2007. Their fourth studio album Love Is Simple (Young God Records) was out and they were scheduled to back the release up with a Fall tour. Then band co-founder Ryan Vanderhoof decided to fly the coup, leaving three nervous chicks to flap hesitantly around their once happy-but-isolated musical nest or remain flightless — musically and socially — in abandonment.

“It’s been a while and we’ve had some time without him, but it’s taken us almost this long to not have to worry about having a bunch of [other] musicians with us,” Janssen tells Big Takeover. “We’ve had a lot of time to log some hours as a trio since then and really find a new way to interact and create together.”

The result: their latest release, S/T II: The Cosmic Birth and Journey of Shinju TNT (Dead Oceans Records, 2010). It’s a garble of cosmic sounds, samples and strings. Just like their in-between fifth record Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free (Dead Oceans Records, 2009) it’s a mess. But this time it’s a controlled mess, based on a mythical character the trio invented on tour in Europe about a year ago.

“It was a very joyous time for us, and it just needed to manifest in something; it needed a name, and the character was Shinju,” Janssen says. “It’s meant to represent a completely unreserved, free-spirited, very in-the-moment character that represents the spirit of what’s going on right now with us.”

The fact they wrote the album on the Mount Meakan, an active volcano in Japan, accounts for the alien-like drone undertones — imagine the sound an anime warrior hears when facing his impending doom in an extended, epileptic blur of lights.

Janssen says their latest release represents a return to their roots where sounds of the environment featured prominently. “A lot of what we were inspired by [when we were starting out] were street sounds and recognizing the everyday, seemingly mundane events and occurrences and embracing them as part of creation,” Janssen says. “I think environmental sounds draws out your imagination. It really brings you in as a listener.”

Island by Akron/Family from Secretly Jag on Vimeo.

AKRON/FAMILY music is spastic. Bi-polar. Broadcasting the music to unfamiliar crowds is like likely evoke shrieks or swoons with little grey area. When a song like “Lake Song/New Ceremonial Music For Moms” (Love Is Simple, Young God Records 2007) shifts seamlessly between three sub-tunes — from sweet xylophones and la-la-la-las, to spirit worship chants and bass drums, to an intro for a song which has not yet begun — it’s hard to find your footing.

It’s these erratic juxtapositions that make things difficult for anyone trying to confine their music to a few adjectives.

“Part of the magic is that it’s undefined,” Janssen says. “Once you set walls up you constantly see them. We don’t want that to be the case. Creatively I don’t think it’s fair to yourself to set a boundary. Obviously you can set parameters for what you want to create, but as a whole there’s no sense in limiting it to psych-rock, or psych-jam or whatever people say.”

JANSSEN says it was more of a sonic, emotional reaction to a physical experience than a musical connection which brought the band together almost a decade ago. This reaction was to coffee, and a lot if it — taken at Brooklyn’s Gimme Coffee cafe where Olinsky and Seaton once worked.

To keep things fresh each Family member (although none are really family, nor from Akron, Ohio) pursues music-related side projects outside the house of Akron. Most notably, Olinsky has released the three-disc Sparrow Trout Heart Sprout (Achord, 2007) under the monica Best Of Seth and Janssen explores his Jay Z, Drake and Lil’ Wayne influences as Dana Buoy.

After so long experimenting with music they’ve at a stage where no instrument poses too much of a challenge. They can (and have) made music with wooden spoons.

They’re also pretty modest about their abilities. “It’s more of Jack of all trades, master of nothing,” Janssen suggests. “We all play a lot of things. I don’t want to talk about it being a focal point of anything. It just happens to be. It’s not that I’m not proud we all have the ability to play different instruments. It’s more about whatever’s right for the song more than, ‘I can play this check it out.’”

“It makes everything just more like a live show. You’re going to have more because you’re going to have the moment of your sweet gentle sincere singing of a song, then the sonic intensity of sheer volume in spastic, erratic sounds just coming at you,” he continues. “I think when you have all of these tools at your ready it’s much easier to craft a unique experience.”