Akron/Family | Review
The Georgia Straight | Alexander Varty
Those tuque-sporting beard rockers in Akron/Family have discovered that nothing beats a mountaintop for Zenlike seclusion‹it¹s also a great place for breaking out the spliffs they don't smoke.
Akron/Family's urgent neopsychedelia gains lavish textures on Meek Warrior.
Most bands would be overjoyed to produce a sophomore CD as varied, inventive, and intense as Akron/Family's Meek Warrior, but for the acclaimed freak-folk quartet there's one small problem: the new disc isn't really its second album. Meek Warrior's seven songs might clock in at just over 35 minutes‹the length of an average LP in the pre-digital era‹but according to drummer Dana Janssen, it's just a quick-and-dirty EP.
"It's definitely not the second full-length, just to make that clear," he specifies, reached at Akron/Family's Brooklyn headquarters. "It ended up being called that in an article in Spin, but it's not."
There's another misconception he¹d like to clear up. Most listeners are going to think that Meek Warrior¹s guitar- and percussion-heavy arrangements represent some kind of aesthetic advance over the simpler and quieter material featured on Akron/Family's self-titled debut. But it's not the songs that have changed, says Janssen, so much as the way they were recorded.
"To us, it's not really that huge of a leap," he explains. "It's just the first time what we do has been accurately captured on tape. The first record was us at home, essentially, with a few studio moments, and that forced us to be a little more creative with how we orchestrated the music. The second thing we did [a split CD recorded with mentor and Young God label boss Michael Gira's Angels of Light] was kind of trying to get what we do live, but we'd only done one tour, so we hadn't exactly fine-tuned it. And then Meek Warrior is a little bit the result of us playing together a lot, and a little bit of actually capturing what it is that we do more accurately."
Of all the band's members, Janssen is the one who benefits most from recording in a studio rather than an apartment. As he says, "Your neighbours are going to complain if you're playing drums really loud at three in the morning."
Akron/Family drummer Dana Janssen sounds off on the things enquiring minds want to know.
On whether his band is more interested in making sound than making sense: "In the earlier stuff, yeah, I suppose we were. I mean, we've always had a great appreciation for lyrics and what is actually being said, but we also love the sonic characteristics of a lot of different things, and how they meld together. So it's a bit of both, but the words are definitely meaningful. It's not like they're just slapped on top of a cool number."
On the psychedelic element in his band's music: "I would never say that it's intended to expand anyone's consciousness. If that happens, awesome. I mean, you know, great. But that's sort of a lofty goal to try to achieve, and if I failed I'd be like "Oh, crap! I missed!" But I definitely enjoy songs that include the journey. You know what I mean? Engaging the brain is definitely a goal."
On Meek Warrior's cover image of Manjushri, the Buddhist deity of wisdom: "I'm the one guy in the band that's not Buddhist, and to tell you the truth I actually forget, right now, exactly what the guy stands for. Something like truth, or wisdom, or knowledge. Something along that kind of line, so we all thought it was kind of cute, the idea of all that cutting through the universe while waving a flaming sword."
But Meek Warrior is more than just rhythmically assertive. The songs‹especially the tribal-stomp opener "Blessing Force" and the neopsychedelic "The Rider(Dolphin Song)"‹are more lavishly textured and expressive than those on the comparatively fragile and spacy Akron/Family. Knowing how the Meek Warrior sessions came about makes that achievement all the more impressive.
"We weren't intentionally trying to destroy ourselves," says Janssen. "We'd been on the road, and we stopped in Seattle for two weeks, and then we started another tour in mid-February to March, going from Victoria all the way over to Halifax. But we got a call from Michael and he was like, "We need something to put out. We need to try to get an EP done."
The drummer laughs, recalling the chaos that ensued.
"We were in Iowa City and we'd just played a show, so we drove all the way to Chicago‹sleeping in the van on the side of the road for two hours, because it takes so long to get there. So we slept in the van on the side of the road, went to a Starbucks to brush our teeth, and went to the studio to record for 10 hours. After that, we turned around and drove to Urbana, Illinois, for a show and then essentially did the same thing again, going back to Chicago and recording for another 10 hours, and then driving to Milwaukee to play that night. This all happened in two days!
"And to make the thing even weirder, we were all sick, because we didn't have any heat in the van," he continues. "Miles [Seaton], our bass player, got severe bronchitis. It was one of the weirdest things I've ever experienced."
You'd never know it from the result: the only tip-off on the recording is its extreme sense of urgency, which Janssen modestly attributes to the presence of out-jazz percussionist Hamid Drake.
"What Hamid brought to the table was this amazing energy," he says. "I learned so much in those two days, about music and everything, just by being around this guy. I can't say enough about it, but it was awesome."
The drummer and his bandmates‹including guitarists Seth Olinsky and Ryan Vanderhoof‹had intended to add additional celebrity guests to the next Akron/Family CD, which they've just finished recording with former Rollins Band bassist and Ween producer Andrew Weiss. Those plans didn't quite work out, however.
"We were trying to get the guys from Ween to come out and play some things on the record, but we ended up being a little too busy," Janssen allows. Still, the long-time Dean and Gene fan makes it clear that at least a little of the Boognish abides on the as-yet-untitled new disc.
"You know, it's really stone-y!" he says of Akron/Family's new effort. "None of us smoke pot or do drugs; none of us really do any of that stuff. But, deep down, it's funny how it can sound like such stoner rock. You'd think 'All these guys must be stoners,' but we're not. It took all of us a long time to learn that music is the best drug, but it's the truth, man. It's the truth!"