Akron/Family | interview and review
strange, natural sounds
The album starts simply, barely, as if a young man were sitting beside you, strumming a guitar, breathing gently in your ear. Gradually, an unearthly series of pings and tones and beeps intervenes, turning this simple folk music into something new and magical. "Before and Again", the first track from Akron/Family's self-titled debut, immediately immerses you in a world both strange and familiar -- the kind of place you might visit only in dreams.
This track, and the twelve that follow it, are the work of four young men who converged on Brooklyn a couple of years ago, working on their home-recorded songs in isolation, without enough instruments to fill the sound. Gradually, they began to incorporate ordinary noises into their music -- the clink of glass, the hum of breath blown across bottles, the creak of an old wooden chair, sticks beating against apartment walls. They sent fragments of their music to labels, and Michael Gira responded; he encouraged them with the most eccentric, individual aspects of their work, and told them to forget the more generic rock band songs they'd been preparing. He eventually agreed to help them turn their sounds into a record and release it on Young God.
Seth Olinsky, one-fourth of Akron/Family (Ryan Vanderhoof, Dana Janssen and Miles Seaton round out the band), recently spoke to me about his band's journey from home-recorded pipe dream to its current status as the opening act (and backing band) for Gira's Angels of Light. Along the way, we discussed furniture as instruments, the pros and cons of formal musical training, and the virtues of improv. Here's what he had to say. Â· Â· Â· Â· Â· Â· Â·
Splendid: It's a beautiful album. One of the things I like the most about it is that it has a very organic, traditional feel, but then there's this electronic stuff that mixes it up a little bit. How do those two elements fit together, and how do you combine them?
Seth Olinsky: Well, the electronic element was actually... It's funny. I don't even consider it part of our music as much as it was kind of a means to an end. This record for Young God is kind of a combination of two records we had done at home and sent to Michael. And then, when he came out and saw us live and decided to work with us, we sat down and went through the stuff we had already recorded at home, and then we went through some stuff that we were playing as a band and hadn't recorded, and combined those. We combined stuff from all of that to make this album. The electronic stuff comes from recording in an apartment and not being able to record the band, so it was a means to flesh out arrangements in a home setting rather than an outright intent to do that as a group.
Splendid: It's a really interesting combination. There are a few bands that are doing similar things. For instance, on the album's first song, you've got that wonderful, natural singing without the words at all, and then all of the sudden you've got these electronic sounds that make it sound more distant.
Seth Olinsky: What's cool with that is that actually, most of those sounds are manipulated organic sounds. In that first song, that's wine bottles and wine glasses and a cell phone. It's all natural stuff. It's not synthesized.
Splendid: That's interesting.
Seth Olinsky: It was manipulated electronically.
Splendid: How do you go about finding those sounds and then making them sound the way you want them to?
Seth Olinsky: It's all kinds of hit or miss. What we did at home and when we were in the studio, it's mostly hit or miss, at the moment, working on the songs. None of the songs are organized around those sounds. They were all added later. It's just, you know, you're listening to the song and you put on your producer mind, it means something. Inevitably, our process is just kind of playing with things and trying to find something to work -- just kind of using our imagination to kind of come up with those things that will make the song work.
Splendid: I also really like what happens in "Sorrow Boy", where you've got this very pure, very beautiful pop melody and then all this sort of new wave-y stuff in the background. You wouldn't think that the two elements would fit together, but they do.
Seth Olinsky: Sure. Sure.
Splendid: So tell me about the band's history. What I've read is that you all were from various rural places and came to New York.
Seth Olinsky: It kind of breaks down. Dana and I -- Dana is the drummer -- he and I grew up in the same town, Williamsport, Pennsylvania. But we were actually living in separate places. I moved to New York first and right around that time Miles Seaton, the bass player, moved here and he and I met -- we both were working at the same coffee shop. We started playing and recording at my apartment, the quiet stuff, and we kind of convinced Dana, since I had worked with Dana and known Dana for years, we convinced him to move to town, and he started playing with us. We were playing upstate. We played a few times as a three piece, and we played one time upstate, and our friend Ryan, who is from Ithaca, was playing, and we convinced him to move to city and be in the band with us.
Splendid: Isn't New York City a really difficult place to have a band? I mean, it's hard to find rehearsal space and money is a big issue and transporting instruments is a problem. Did you find that there were things about the city that made up for that?
Seth Olinsky: Well, the things that make up for it are the opportunities -- like what's happening for us now, which we're all very excited about. Working with Michael. Having our record come out on Young God. Getting some exposure. That's obviously all great, and it probably wouldn't have happened to us if we were elsewhere. And then, the same thing, there's that negative side. Rehearsal spaces are small and expensive, and we can hardly practice anyway because we're working all the time. Rents are high. All that is tough and negative, but at the same time... I was just thinking about this the other day. Before I moved to New York City, there was a sense that you had to move to New York if you wanted to make it in music. I thought, well, maybe I should move to Chicago. I don't know if the music's right in New York City. Everybody's so tense there. And when I look back then, the music in New York City is a lot more intense than in other places. That downside, the toughness of it, kind of creates a fire in you if you're willing to stand up to it. If you're willing to go through all that shit, if it's worth it to you, then, I don't know, you get... maybe a shell... but I think about it as a strength.
Splendid: I think everyone who lives in New York -- I lived there for eight years right after college -- has moments where you feel like you couldn't live anywhere else but New York City, and then you have moments where you can't understand why you're there.
Seth Olinsky: That you would rather live anywhere else.
Splendid: Have you had any of those peaks or valleys?
Seth Olinsky: Oh, yeah, it's definitely been wildly up and down. I remember when I first moved here, my friends told me that New York City, the ups are higher and the downs are lower. It's definitely true. I've definitely had moments where I freaked out and wanted to leave as soon as possible. June will be my third full year. I'm definitely just now feeling involved in a way that's gratifying.
Splendid: Tell me about the whole process of hooking up with Young God and getting your material to them.
Seth Olinsky: I heard about Young God when I first moved here, before I even met Miles. I wandered into Pete's Candy Store. Do you know Pete's Candy Store?
Seth Olinsky: I wandered into Pete's Candy Store for the first time, and Devendra was playing. This was before... his album had just come out but he hadn't gotten noticed that much. Pete's was packed, but that's still pretty small. I had never even heard his songs before. I saw Devendra and was blown away. I bought the CD, which I hardly ever do, and that's how I found out about Young God, through that CD. I actually knew Aurelio from Calla, and I realized that Michael had put out their first album. I had less of a sense of Michael as an artist and a musician and more as a label that seemed to support younger artists. So when we started making stuff at home and made up a list of labels to send stuff to, we put Young God on it. And he was one of the few people who responded intelligently. Most people didn't respond at all. Or Merge or those kinds of labels, they just send you these little postcards that say, we got your stuff and probably won't listen to it, but thanks. And Michael responded. He had obviously listened to it. He didn't sign us right away, but the first thing we sent him, he said, I like this about it. I don't like this about it.
AUDIO: Before and Again
Splendid: What did he like and not like?
Seth Olinsky: The first thing we sent him, we had some stuff that was more home recorded, and some stuff that was like more demo-y style, with the full band. And he wasn't really into the full band. At the time, we were kind of living a double life. At home, we were recording this gentle, ornate stuff, and as a band, we were doing this rock stuff that was maybe a little generic rock band-sounding.
Splendid: So maybe your heart wasn't in the rock stuff, but you were doing it because you thought you had to?
Seth Olinsky: I think, looking back, what it was... the home stuff was... I don't know if our hearts were more in it, but when we were a live band and we started all playing together, it took a few months to develop a language among ourselves. We kind of were doing this generic rock band thing -- I think, in retrospect, as a means to get comfortable playing with each other. You know: two guitars, bass, drums. We got together and made rock music, which is what a band normally does. And after we did that, we said, well, this doesn't really work as well as the stuff that we're recording at home. Why don't we try to present that stuff from home in more of a live band setting. So we kind of... it took a while to get those two roles to meet.
But then we continued sending Michael stuff. I emailed him back. I was like, this is amazing. He's sending not only positive feedback, but also interesting, creative feedback. So, right off the bat, I liked that, more so even than him signing us. It was cool for someone to give us feedback. So every time we made something new, we sent it to him. He finally had a break from Devendra and came out and saw us and liked the live group even more than he liked the home demo stuff.
Splendid: Did you know he was coming to the show?
Seth Olinsky: Yeah, he emailed us and said he was coming. We all freaked out.
Splendid: You must have been super nervous.
Seth Olinsky: Yeah. He's a big guy, too...
Splendid: I've never met him, but Swans were sort of a landmark...
Seth Olinsky: Yeah, sure.
Splendid: Tell me about making the album, especially given that you had recorded a lot of the pieces before. What was the process?
Seth Olinsky: The first thing we did was sit down with Michael at his house a few times and listen to all the material we had recorded, and listen to the songs we were playing in the rehearsal space, and just kind of pick what we wanted to do. And then it was kind of a grab bag of different things we did. Some of the stuff was pretty much what we did at home. Some of the stuff we took from home and re-did the vocals in the studio. Some of the stuff that we took from home -- maybe half of it -- we didn't really do anything. We just kind of remixed it. Some of the stuff was all done in the studio. It ran the gamut.
Splendid: So if you had to pick one on the album that's the purest example of something you recorded at home, and another that was the most different, which would they be?
Seth Olinsky: Well, I think the one I'm most proud of, of doing at home, is the second track, "Suchness".
Splendid: Oh, yeah, that's the one with the lyric, "I want to see the thing in itself / I don't want to think no more."
Seth Olinsky: It's totally all over the place. In a way, it doesn't sound like something that you'd do at home. But in another way, it's something you wouldn't think to do in a studio. So that one was all done at home. We were using really cheap software, too, so it was all kind of jimmied to get to work.
"Before and Again", I think, sounds really good, but "Before and Again" is where we recorded it at home and then redid the vocals in the studio, and redid that last part where the band comes in. And then the song "Afford" was just recorded in the bathroom with one mic.
Of the studio stuff, "Line Was Running" was, I think, really successful. The orchestration at the beginning is really unique, and then the end was just a live take that we did at the end, just in a room. So it sounds really kind of raw and live.
Splendid: It's a very interesting mix of stuff. Some of it sounds like somebody could be sitting there next to you playing guitar, and then you have stuff that, you know, god knows where it comes from, but it all sounds really cool together.
Seth Olinsky: I think that that was important to me. When Michael first gave us Devendra's Rejoicing, I really liked the fact that when I put it on -- I remember putting it on in the coffee shop -- it felt like Devendra was there in the coffee shop. As opposed to when you put on some rock bands, it feels like there's this huge wall between you and them.
Splendid: It feels like a product rather than an experience.
Seth Olinsky: Yeah, a product rather than a performance. So that's something that was really important to us before we were even working with Michael, and it was also amazing about working with him, that he does that.
Splendid: Now that you've worked in a more formal studio setting, is there anything you'd do differently on your next album?
Seth Olinsky: Oh, yeah, totally, loads of things. I don't even know if I can put it specifically into words. Right after we did our album, we were in the studio for about ten days, and pretty much as soon as we finished our album, we went back into the studio and did the Angels of Light album. And we already knew some of the different things that we were able to do, because it was like a different tool that we had never used before, so we exercised it even more. In a way, we're like a totally different band now, which is kind of cool. We've just learned so much. I think so many things are different. It's not like we want to go back and change things, but now we just know that much more about the process. We can't wait to do it again and try to do it better.
Splendid: Do you think the process will be the same, where you'll work on things at home and then finish them in the studio?
Seth Olinsky: I don't know. I was just talking to Michael about that the other day. I'm not sure. I've been learning ProTools lately. None of the songs that we did at home were done on ProTools. It was all on another software. So we're going to take that on tour and record stuff on tour, build recordings. I don't know. When we get back from Europe in June, we're going to go back into the studio and do an EP with Angels. We're just going to bang it out in three days, pretty much live, so it'll be a really cool counter to this album which just came out, which is much more delicate and orchestrated. I think it will show another side of us, more of a live performance.
Splendid: You're rehearsing now for this tour with Angels of Light. It sounds pretty strenuous. You're doing your own show and then you're the backing band for Michael Gira.
Seth Olinsky: Yeah. We're all excited and slightly nervous, but I think it'll work out. We did one show already. We did a CD release party at Tonic.
Splendid: That's right, because Tonic was having some problems...
Seth Olinsky: Yeah, we did a benefit for Tonic. That was the weekend before our CD came out. That was the first show with Angels. We took the plunge, as the opener, and then backed up Angels. That was great. We rehearsed extremely hard on the Angels stuff for two weeks and then we played. I think playing with Angels, even that little bit, helped us as a band, gave us more perspective on what we do.
AUDIO: Sorrow Boy
Splendid: What do you mean by that?
Seth Olinsky: It's such a different role, performing someone else's music, than it is performing your own music. In so many different ways. The ways you look at your instrument. The ways you look at the whole sound of things. And the selfless aspect of giving yourself up, not for something that's yours but for something that somebody else did. I think that there's so many little things that he does differently in his music than we would do. After being a band for two years, we have these natural responses to problems that occur in a song. Like, the song needs to do this, and we'll do this to solve the problem. He has a whole different set of these solutions. It's our role as his band to do things his way. More or less. He gives us creative opportunities, but there are so many times when the things that we would naturally do aren't really him. And then, by learning how to do that, in a way, it brings what we do more into focus. Does that make sense?
Splendid: Yes, it does. It must be exciting and perhaps a little bit sobering that you're in the same spot Devendra Banhart was a couple of years ago.
Seth Olinsky: Right.
Splendid: How do you feel about that?
Seth Olinsky: I try not to think about that, because I don't... he's had a lot of success, and I think it's awesome. He totally deserves it and he works really hard. But I don't want to get caught up in expecting things for ourselves. It's already... where we're at now is so awesome to all of us, we're so excited about it, that we don't want to get caught up in that mindset of... well, now we need this, or "Look what happened to Devendra -- we're not going to be happy until we get that." I just don't think it's a good thing for any of us personally or for the band or for the music.
Splendid: Sort of on a similar topic, you get compared to all these psych-folk bands -- not just Devendra, but Animal Collective, and I wonder how you feel about that, because, to me, what you're doing sounds very different from most of the people that are in that category.
Seth Olinsky: We've been getting those comparisons for a long time, and I was kind of neither hither nor thither about it. Finally, I was like, okay, screw this, I'm going to go out and buy the CDs. So I went out and bought the Animal Collective CD, the Six Organs of Admittance CD, because I'd never really heard them, you know? And they're good. I really like them. In some ways, I don't think we sound like that, but I can see, on the surface, why the comparisons are being made. There are elements that are similar, maybe.
Splendid: The fact that you're using traditional instruments -- guitar and jew's harp and banjo -- in non-traditional ways. You can see conceptually where there's a point of comparison, but you all sound really different from Animal Collective.
Seth Olinsky: I don't think we sound anything like Animal Collective. I love experimental music, but I think we're like... it seems like we're more song-oriented than them.
Splendid: Yeah, I was wondering how you felt about that, because I know those categories are important in terms of helping people figure out what they want to buy...
Seth Olinsky: Sure, and I think all those bands are really great.
Splendid: Yeah, it could be a lot worse. For a while, I was getting a lot of bands that sounded like AC/DC.
Seth Olinsky: Yeah, sure, I'd rather sound like Animal Collective than AC/DC, I guess. I don't know... it's definitely not something we ever consciously made a decision about... like, we want to be a free folk band. You know what? I don't think we would get the same comparisons if we weren't on the same label as Devendra.
Splendid: I think that's absolutely true.
Seth Olinsky: I think that's mainly it -- the combination of what we sound like and the fact that we came right after Devendra.
Splendid: Yeah, I think a lot of people who write about music -- and I hope I'm not in this group -- don't have time to listen to the music. They just read the press releases. That leads to error.
Seth Olinsky: It's how people communicate. We played at Princeton the other night, and they had our CDs sitting out, but the radio stations had put a little tag on the front of the CD, describing it. It was just a bunch of seemingly ridiculous stuff, you know running the gamut from Animal Collective and free folk to comparing us to Radiohead and Thom Yorke. They were saying that Ryan was Thom Yorke's American counterpart.
Splendid: Well, somebody probably got $10 for writing that.
Seth Olinsky: So, it's totally silly. I try and think of it as... these are just the essential ways that people communicate with each other.
Splendid: And in fairness, music is one of those things that it's very hard to communicate about verbally. It's like taste.
Seth Olinsky: It's totally abstract. It's not something you can be objective about and say, oh, these guys are red, purple and yellow and shaped like squares. It's a totally abstract thing. So, it doesn't bother me.
AUDIO: Interlude: Ak Ak Was the Boat They Sailed On
Splendid: I wanted to ask you about Greg Kelley and Bhob Rainey.
Seth Olinsky: Oh, yeah, do you know those guys?
Splendid: I know they're -- I saw Greg Kelley perform once with Heathen Shame and he was amazing.
Seth Olinsky: With who?
Splendid: Heathen Shame. It's one of the Twisted Village bands.
Seth Olinsky: Oh, right, right. You're from Boston?
Splendid: No, I live in New Hampshire, but I mostly go to shows in western Massachusetts. It was just amazing. He was playing a trumpet through a sheet of metal and putting it through all kinds of pedals.
Seth Olinsky: Oh yeah, he's ridiculous. Actually, when I lived in Pennsylvania, I went out with his cousin Caitlyn for a long time.
Splendid: Is that how the collaboration came about?
Seth Olinsky: Yeah, that's how I met him. I went out with her in high school and then I went to school at Berklee in Boston for a few years, so when I was there, I met Greg and went to see him play a few times and was just completely and utterly blown away by all those guys. James Colman, the theremin player, and Nick Rawling, the cellist; that whole scene of music, I always thought it was incredible. So we had the opportunity with the album to have other musicians come and play, and I thought it would be cool to kind of bring them into a pop context. I didn't even know they had just recorded with Damon and Naomi. They had just done a record with them and done almost poppy horn arrangements for them. So I emailed them. It didn't work out for them to come to the studio, but I had sent them a field recording of us walking around in the grass and then they played over it and sent it back.
Splendid: That's cool. You wouldn't necessarily listen to the album and say, oh, these guys are into improv. Are you?
Seth Olinsky: Yeah. We're all into everything. I'll listen to that stuff, or I'll listen to the Beatles or Bach. We all listen to everything. That's another thing that we do live. We actually do a lot of improvising live. We'll do shows where we'll improvise for an hour and not play any songs. and then we'll do shows where we'll improvise for 20 minutes but in the middle of the improvisation, we'll go into one of the songs from the album and come back out and do more improvisation. But some shows we do all songs. Sometimes we blend it. It depends on how we're feeling. But yeah, that's something that we didn't know -- we didn't know how to include everything on the first album. It's just one side of us.
Splendid: So you think you might be integrating that more into future albums?
Seth Olinsky: I don't know. I'm kind of up in the air about it. As much as I love Greg and those guys, it's like... I tend not to put on an improvised CD.
Splendid: It's definitely a niche. A lot of people don't like it, and even if you do like it, there are lots of times during the day when you don't want to listen to it.
Seth Olinsky: It's not even that. If they were playing live I would go see them any time. I'd rather see it live than put it on a CD player.
Splendid: When you see it live, it's happening right in front of you and there's always this chance that it will fall apart, so it's sort of exciting...
Seth Olinsky: Yeah, you feel like you're part of it. Whereas when I put on Magical Mystery Tour and listen to "Strawberry Fields Forever", I feel like I'm part of it in the listening process of the record. The mediums are so different, live performance and recordings, that if you just play songs off an album live, I don't think the audience is going to be with you. You're just performing this product for them. Whereas if you're improvising, everybody's on the same page. But a lot of improvised music doesn't convey on recording.
Splendid: I always felt that improvised music must be a lot more fun for the musicians than for listeners.
Seth Olinsky: (laughs) I've been to improvs like that before. I definitely am a fan of going to see live music by master improvisers. William Parker or any of those downtown guys -- I'm always blown away by them.
Splendid: What did you study at Berklee?
Seth Olinsky: Guitar. Mostly, I was into jazz when I was there.
Splendid: So, do you think that helps or hinders?
Seth Olinsky: That I studied music? Both. I dropped out after two years because of the hindrance factor. It gets hard at that point where you're learning to still have this kind of innocent love of the thing. So I learned as much as I could without jeopardizing that. And then I had to go through an unlearning process. It took me a few years to get all that junk out of my brain, all these ideas of how things are supposed to work. You learn the structure of how things are and what they're supposed to be, but once you get down to making things with it, you learn that they don't exactly have to be that way. That's just kind of one perspective.
When I first moved here and started working with Miles, the bass player -- he's totally untrained and brilliantly talented, but he doesn't know how to read music. He doesn't have any theoretical knowledge. So we almost had to come up with our own language of communication, because we weren't speaking the same language. Musically we were, but how we looked at it, how we perceived it, was totally different...
Splendid: You couldn't tab things out for him and explain it that way.
Seth Olinsky: Yeah, and some things that would make sense to me, in a theoretical way, but they wouldn't make sense to him. Or he would play something, and I would think, I don't know if that works, but then I would step back a bit and say, well, it sounds great. You know? It was sort of a cool way of interacting. In general, I think it was both a help and a hindrance.
Splendid: Tell me about "ak".
Seth Olinsky: (laughs) That's just kind of a joke. Sometimes we say, "ak ak". I don't even know how it started, but sometimes we would describe things as "ak ak", things that we liked. I don't know. From our perspective, it seems like a silly little thing. I think Michael put it in the release as kind of a joke. But it's true, we'll walk around and we'll hear the subway, and we'll freak out about how the subway sounds -- "Oh, that's so ak ak." And to Michael's perspective, he thought we were freaks.
Splendid: But there is a philosophical bent to the album, I think. There's some kind of spiritual worldview in it.
Seth Olinsky: Yeah. I think that we're all, as individuals, in our own ways, besides the music, interested in those types of ideas and questions and experiences or non-experiences. We're also deeply attached to the music; not only does it show up in the music, but the music is interrelated to it. So inevitably we end up with something that is not just about our own searches and our existence, but is part of it. Does that make sense?
Splendid: Yeah, it does. I also wanted to ask you about the use of non-traditional instruments. The chair in "Italy"...
Seth Olinsky: When Miles and I first started recording in my apartment, obviously, we had a guitar, a bass and the apartment. So I think we fleshed out songs, not having any other instruments at our disposal, with other things. We had just moved to New York. We couldn't afford a rehearsal space. I didn't even have -- I still had some instruments at my parents house in Pennsylvania. We had very little to work with, so we would use creaking doors and water spigots and chairs and banging on the wall. We ended up using that as a means to produce the songs we were writing.
Splendid: So, if you had an unlimited budget and Bono producing and an orchestra of 100 people at your disposal, would you still do this stuff?
Seth Olinsky: I don't know. It's a good question. We're all fascinated by junk, in a way. When we play live, we have all these weird, broken pieces of driftwood and pine cones and pieces of metal -- all sorts of pieces of junk that we collect and we bring on stage and use it sometimes, but don't use other times. I think we're all drawn to that, non-traditional stuff making sound. So I don't know. I don't know if, given all the opportunities in the world, we would use that stuff. We'd probably, at one point, be like, "You know what we need? This needs the sound of ice crushing and falling off someone's head."
Splendid: But it would be really expensive ice. I like that stuff. There are a lot of bands that are using different things with percussion, and I like that sort of experimentation, because it's all sound, right? It's just another form of sound.
Seth Olinsky: Right.