Akron/Family | Interview

Navigator Newspaper/Canada | Jakob Rehlinger

our goal was never to achieve a perfect vocal blend according to some strict notion of harmony

Feb '06
FAMILY GUYS: Akron/Family
When speaking of the current Nanaimo entertainment scene, it's fair to say there's a lot to complain about. Outside of a few mid-level Canadian radio-rock acts trying to hang on to the waning momentum of their one mid-'90s hit, we don't get a lot of touring acts anymore. Sure, one ABBA tribute or another swings through The Port every year and there's always some 70's dinosaur with a questionable number of original members popping around, but rarely does a young band with an international buzz and upward career trajectory show its face. It seems Nanaimo isn't worth a lot of bands' time and, frankly, there are a lot of reasons not to play Nanaimo. The cost of the ferry is one good reason and the fact there are hardly any venues (much less band-friendly ones) to even play at is certainly another. Luckily for us, Brooklyn NY's folky psych-rock revivalists Akron/Family are undaunted by these factors and will be headlining Ramshackle 2006 at The Cambie on March 2.

Akron/Family's meteoric rise began 18 months ago when Michael Gira (former leader of seminal NY no-wave group, Swans) signed them to his Young God Records label. Since then, Gira says, "their audience and reputation has grown exponentially, due in no small part to their non-stop touring and head-exploding shows."

"Head-exploding" shows? What could he mean by that? For starters, their sets typically last in excess of two hours and involve the removal of clothing. According to a review (by Peter Joseph) of their recent sold-out show at NY's legendary Knitting Factory, "their set was like Brian Wilson's SMiLE performed by Black Sabbath, an unparalleled mix of sunny harmonies and bottom-heavy, jazz-metal jams. Their music was new, uninhibited, and I couldn't get enough of it."
What are the elements that go into a show like that anyway? In an Albuquerque Tribune interview by Paul Maldonado Jr., the band's Dana Janssen described the contents of their van. He explained, "there's a bunch of stuff used for something or other. Like too many guitars, a banjo, bells, keyboards, kazoos and a tambourine - and chairs. We make music with chairs. And contact mikes; we like to mike things to pick up different sounds.  We bring just about anything we can find that makes a sound."

It takes more than a lot of gimmicky noisemakers to blow audiences' increasingly jaded minds of course, and the tried and true method for this is that fickle and dubious creature: crowd participation. We've all seen bands force a sing-a-long or the horn-section painfully conga-line through the crowd, knocking over drinks and bruising people with their elbows, but, by all accounts, Akron/Family have got it right. Peter Joseph reports, "before long, the band members had migrated to the center of the crowd. By jumping up and down on the floor, they kept a layer of percussion while singing a sort of meditative chant. The floor shook with the collective rhythm and harmonies rose from every corner of the room; I realized that I was enjoying the incredible, organic finale to a great rock show. For all the hippy-dippy meanderings of the contemporary freak-folkers, this was the first time any of them had inspired an actual, honest-to-god happening in my presence."

One of the things Akron/Family are famous for is their group vocalizing. Listening to it on record, it harkens back to an idealized notion of late-60s folk-rock where the harmony of human voices was prevalent on almost every track. Even more-so live, Akron/Family bring this collective dynamic to life. In a Now Magazine interview with Tim Perlich,  guitarist Ryan Vanderhoof explains how it came about.

"That whole unison singing thing just came up spontaneously. We were trying to do harmonies ­something we're still working on ­ but our goal was never to achieve a perfect vocal blend according to some strict notion of  harmony. We wanted to create some energy that might propel the music forward, and found our style of unison singing could be very powerful. During the recording session, we were talking about how to approach the vocals, and somehow Funkadelic's Maggot Brain came up as an example. We tried it  and it seemed to work."

We may not get a lot of top-shelf bands traveling through Nanaimo, but every once in a while something that promises to be special comes along to shake things up. By the sounds of it Akron/Family are going to shake what's left of downtown Nanaimo to the ground.

Joining Akron/Family to round out the bill for Ramshackle 2006 are local acts The League of Fantastic (featuring members of The Clap and Partli Coudi) and Dirtnap (featuring the Navigator's own art columnist, Rose Dickson).