Akron/Family | Review

The Ithaca Times | Natasha Li Pickowicz

Akron/Family Freaks Out

     Whatever you want to call it - New Weird America, free folk, improv folk, freak folk, psych folk, free improv - just don't associate it with Akron/Family. As far as they're concerned, they have nothing to do whatsoever with the widening landscape of "weird folk," although, ironically, it played a major role in their own success. The traces of the genre are undoubtedly there - a lo-fi, DIY aesthetic, hippy-dippy chorus singalongs, a pastoral, back-porch intimacy, noodling improvisation, acoustic instrumentation - Akron/Family equally plays with free jazz, electronics, noise, prog-rock and classic rock, honing their a varied, eclectic approach. 
     However, unlike their more obscure "free folk" contemporaries, Akron/Family tends to be grouped with the more mainstream indie pop contingent: Grizzy Bear, Devendra Banhart, Animal Collective. And though the "jam band" and Phish references are off the mark, Akron/Family has been known to give in to an earnest self-indulgence live. Their show at Appel Commons on Thursday night will mark the first date of their winter tour. The trip to Ithaca will be a homecoming of sorts - Ryan Vanderhoof, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist, is from Union Springs, and drummer Dana Janssen spent a few years living in Ithaca (some of his favorite local bands include The Mofos, Cletus and the Burners, and Butane Variations). 
     Janssen and guitarist Seth Olinsky were in the jazz-rock band Gentleman Jones (Olinsky commuted from their hometown of Williamsport, PA), where they played venues such as The Nines and Castaways.  "Free folk" is a term that gets tossed around with reckless abandonment - Wikipedia's entry on "New Weird America," for example, lumps cabaret act Coco Rosie alongside Vetiver, Jolie Holland and Ariel Pink. Janssen insists their scope is much broader than this misleading term might suggest. "I guess people see us fitting into that because we have acoustic guitars, sometimes," Janssen jokes. "And we all sing and we do harmonies, which are kind of folky. But it's definitely got a large improvisational element to our music. 
      So when you put those together with the noise rock aspect it's a little different. The boundaries are indeed fluid, and these days, the noise band and freak-folk scenes seem nearly inseparable. Many bands converse in both traditions, and it's not unusual to see Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore share a room with Ben Chasny, or Wolf Eyes play the same stage after Christina Carter. Both worlds revel in experimentation, and that creates a definite overlap in sound, a Vendetta diagram of record labels, collaborating musicians and regional festivals. (No doubt that Meek Warrior's dreamy, acoustic number "The Lightning Bolt of Compassion" is a playful nod to the Rhode Island noise duo Lightning Bolt.)  
     Akron/Family integrates a strong noise element to their music, whether it's a section of guitar feedback or a free jazz sax freakout. "The Rider (Dolphin Song)," an live audience favorite, has a chugging momentum that soon disintegrates into a chaotic slurry of noise, until everything collapses, exhausted. "There's moments in our live shows where we just go specifically to noise," says Janssen. "You know, like a Wolf Eyes thing. Maybe not as muscular or as aggressive as Wolf Eyes, but we go there quite a bit. With noise, it's an acquired taste, so you really have to know or at least be familiar with things to distinguish between noise bands. But what we do is so much more different than what Wolf Eyes does. 
     Another hallmark of Akron/Family is a strong emphasis on improvisation, which becomes clear after attending one of their live shows (a three-hour set isn't that unusual).  "A lot of improv is being in the moment, the spontaneity of it all.  Live, it's more obvious and we play with it a lot more," says Janssen. "Or with recording, we'll just jam for a while, and we'll have something beautiful and we'll cut and paste, or just use it as it is - just ideas that are fresh, and have them to play with and put on a recording. It plays a big role in both situations. Image will always play an important role in music, and the stereotyping of quot;freak folkers" also make it easy for people who have a certain look - Joanna Newsom's boho Appalachian quirk, Devendra Banhart's bearded vintage flamboyance, MV + EE's general country scruffiness - to be classified as part of that trend. 
     "We're not necessarily concerned with image at all,"Janssen says. "We look frumpy, not like your average band these days, that goes for a certain image... We dress like bums and look like normal people, you know? Maybe that's where they get the 'freaky' term from. I don't know," Janssen laughs. "But as far as where we fit in, I don't know even know how we fit and why people consider us that. Perhaps Michael Gira has something to do with it. Gira, formerly of the legendary industrial-noise band Swans, has now become something of a benefactor for up-and-comers (he "discovered" Devendra Banhart and subsequently signed him to his label, Young Gods). Akron/Family also played with Gira in his experimental group Angels of Light for the split LP, Akron/Family & Angels of Light (2005). 
     In a short essay introducing Meek Warrior, Gira wrote:[It] shows them morphing into something simultaneously unfamiliar, wild, gentle, raging, hilarious, elated and meditative - riddled with chaos and sonic contradiction, and sometimes just simply beautiful I think we got lumped into [free-folk] because we came out on Young Gods, and Devendra [Banhart] was on Young God, too, you know?" says Janssen (he later noted that Akron/Family sounds nothing like Devendra, which is true). "We're on the same label. Also, our first album was quiet, a little more subdued, not as rockish. Not as noisy. So I think that first impression was where that label comes from. That's where we were at the time, but where we are now, it's nothing like that at all. Meek Warrior is quite a departure
     Meek Warrior is indeed quite different from their first debut outing.  Most notable is the presence of iconic Chicago jazz percussionist Hamid Drake, with whom they spent a whirlwind two-day recording session. "He just came in, and we just went for it ... It was so amazing, just sitting next to him and playing with him, seeing the way he plays," says Janssen. "I learned a lot about hand drums, watching him play and playing with him, just giving it a shot, because I have never really played hand drums before, and you think a lot differently when you only have one skin to beat on as opposed to five. Janssen spoke of Drake with a love and respect, there's a certain aspect of community and family that's integral to the band - their characteristically joyful live shows, unique four-part harmonies (performed live, it's even more captivating) and multi-instrumentalist approach to recording.   "As far as recording goes, it's no holds barred," says Janssen. "We all play guitar and we all play bass and things like that.  It's just a contribution factor - whatever you can contribute, please do, as opposed to, 'You're the guitarist,' or 'You're the percussionist,' or 'You're the leader singer.' Maybe Akron/Family is just a rock band (albeit an eclectic one), or at least it would seem that way, given their list of influences. "We're influenced by the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Neil Young ... Bob Dylan, the Band.  Things like that," says Janssen. "Not things that I would consider 'folk.' nbsp;
     In the end, Akron/Family just hopes to escape all labeling. Asked what the future has in store, Janssen simply said, "I see us as kind of getting away from that label of freak folk and just being our own thing - because I've always thought that we were. Someone said to me once, 'As soon as you're a part of a scene, the scene is already dead.' It's true. Because at that point you just start getting bad regurgitation and that's just pointless. That's not where music is supposed to go and that's not what music is supposed to do. As far as we're concerned, we're just going to keep playing