Akron/Family | Interview
Seth Olinsky of Akron/Family was kind enough to answer some of my questions before embarking on a nationwide tour.
Naturalismo: Both Meek Warrior and Love is Simple seem thematically consistent, in terms of the outlook projected in both. Meek Warrior seems to be inspired by Buddhist thought (particulary the Heart Sutra in Gone Beyond) whereas Love Is Simple seems borne from the Advaitic school of Nondualism (”No point exists” - There’s So Many Colors). Do you write albums with lyrical themes in mind?
Seth Olinsky: Meek Warrior was developed a little more thematically than Love is Simple. Meek was a spur of the moment recording session in Chicago with our hero free jazz drummer Hamid Drake. When we heard of the opportunity, we just hung out in a hotel room and threw together a few songs that had been sitting around that seemed to work together. Part of the selection process was that the songs had themes of or were inspired by Buddhism. Love is Simple didn’t come together this way. It was at first just all of us bringing new songs to the table and then editing down from there. But early on I remember Ryan playing the song ” Don’t be afraid, you’re already Dead ” and the chorus of Love is Simple was so simple and beautiful, I remember thinking that it would be a great thematic foundation for the record. Love is certainly a powerful transformative tool in Buddhism, but seemed to have the ability to reach out even further.
N: Lyrics aside, I read in an interview with Dana Janssen that, musically, Love Is Simple is “almost like a tip of a hat to the idea of a classic album, like ‘Led Zeppelin 4‘. It’s us shaking hands with that idea, making peace with it and getting it out of our system so we can progress to the next evolution of what the band’s going to be.” I’ve also heard that the band is constantly writing new songs. Have you begun writing new material since the release of Love is Simple, and are there any specific sonic themes that you are exploring this time around?
S.O.: I agree with Dana. I think that we put a lot of work into developing the band in the classic, iconic sense, and that this album was really us trying to fulfill that childhood dream that people our age have of the classic album: Led Zeppelin IV , or Sgt Peppers, or Harvest. Of course, the times are a different and there are some inherent problems with trying to “recreate” or “relive” classics. In this sense I don’t think it was a total and complete success in and of it self, but I still consider it a great success as an education. I still think that roots and history and form are important, and I think that one can only go so far without a strong foundation. My hope is that this kind of dedication to the things we grew up with, loved, and looked up to, will provide a good foundation for us and allow us to explore new and different ideas. As for new material, we have been working on new ideas. We are trying to take our time with the new material we are developing, but are all becoming more and more happy with the new ideas we are generating and are hoping to set aside some real time this summer to write and record.
N: I recently wrote about Donovan’s involvement with David Lynch’s push for Transcendental Meditation to be incorporated into school curricula. What potential does spirituality, or at least the ability to find an inner guru, have in society?
S.O.: I actually grew up doing TM. I don’t know exactly what you mean by this question. I feel like spirituality has always had some role in various societies throughout history. In our society, I am not sure. I think that there are some ideas that come from things like TM, for example Deepak Chopra’s talks on abundance and affluence, these could be very positive things for kids to learn in school. Not necessarily for the kids to live a “spiritual” life, but just a better and happier one that can be more beneficial for them and the others around them.
N: Some say the universe was created. Others say that it always existed and is forever undergoing transformation. Some say it is subject to eternal laws. Others deny even causality. Some say the world is real. Others that it has no being whatsoever. Do you believe consciousness is a window to a dream, or is consciousness a window into a bedrock of physical reality?
S.O.: This is ultimately over my head. A question better suited for an astrophysicist or a philosopher. When I was younger, I wanted to be a philosopher. I think that now, the beautiful thing about being a musician, as opposed to a philosopher or a politician, is that you can communicate and share with people of all different belief systems and world views, and that you can actually effect change as well. If the change is honest and without agenda as much as possible, I even think you can inspire good–though the philosopher might catch us on that word. Fortunately the musician often has the concrete evidence of smiling or dancing to help us along our way.
N: Can psychedelic drugs be a helpful supplement to one’s spiritual development or are drugs only a distraction from the self-realization that can only come from discipline and meditation?
S.O.: I am not an authority on this question either, and I would rather not be judgmental or influential on this topic. I, personally, stopped using any kind of drugs besides coffee and an occasional drink after high school because I wanted to focus on practicing and studying music.
N: How has the band’s creative process changed since the departure of Ryan Vanderhoof?
S.O.: I started to get into this in the answer to question 2. I think that we have been given this reverse gift in Ryan’s departure. Even though he is our dear friend and we always envisioned moving on into the future as four, not only has is absence forced us to recreate ourselves, it has truly given us the opportunity. It is kind of like having a card removed from a house of cards. You can either just plug something that is roughly the same size back in, or you can take the opportunity to really look at the structure you had and question its entire integrity. We can now look at the whole history of our band and see things that we left behind that we want to resurrect and things that we’ve always wanted but never given ourselves the time or space to develop. There is a lot of personal understanding that has come out of it for us and a lot of clarity as far as empowering ourselves to make clear creative decisions. And for the first time, we are really giving ourselves time to try things out and fail, and research, and try again. There is a certain openness and adventurousness that is really exciting. I hope that we can successfully see it through to the next step and capture it in radical waves of light and sound for people to enjoy.
N: Your shows could best described as communal. Everyone’s dancing, everyone’s singing, and everyone seems connected. The line between performer and audience is always blurred. You’re going to be playing at the sprawling Coachella music festival this spring. Do you feel your performance will be affected by the distance created between the band and the audience? And, if you continue to draw larger and larger audiences, how will you recreate the communal atmosphere of your smaller shows?
S.O.: This has always been a problem. When we first started, we played for 15 or 20 people, and there was a focus and intimacy; often times you could hear a pin drop. But this is not very possible with 3 or 400 people. And so with time we developed ways to communicate in that forum. I do not know for sure, but I feel like it is part of the creative process to develop these means of communication with the audience, and this is always changing and growing. It seems like a give and take. I think for us, one of the clearest developments has been an extreme focus on rhythm. There are many delicate timbrel things you can do with a small audience or someone wearing headphones. There are dynamic shifts and quick surprises. My guess is that some of this musical subtlety can be lost on a huge festival audience. But I think that rhythm is such a grounded and historical and boundless communicator that there really are not many limits. Plus, with something like the Grateful Dead. There is this unspoken sense of people coming together to take part in a certain “space”, a communal “space”. And I think that developing this, not necessarily the exact way the Dead did, but in some new way, will be very helpful in playing to larger audiences. I don’t think that intimacy has to be lost.
N: Thinking about the phrase “Love is Simple,” I come to two conclusions about its possible meaning: first, that love is a universal fabric woven through everything, therefore its oneness has inherent simplicity and, second, that to love is our natural state, therefore its expression should be effortless. What does ‘love is simple’ mean to you?
S.O.: I like the second idea a lot, however I think in our own experiences it is all too simple to think about how much effort it takes to love. Unfortunately I think that a lot of reviewers took it at face value as a simple or oft-said naive statement. I think however that it is quite a complicated statement to contend with. There is some deep inherent resonance with the idea that love is natural and simple, that “its expression should be effortless” as you said, but somehow this is often not the case. Strangely enough it seems to take a huge amount of work, learning, and self development to really be able to love simply. Ultimately, we weren’t really trying to tell anyone anything, just an idea we were trying to work on ourselves and have open to others along the way.