Akron/Family | Interview | Adam McKibbin

We're all here having a good time, let's fucking hang out together.

December 05 A conversation with Dana Janssen After recording their debut record for Young God Records and labelhead Michael Gira (Swans), Akron/Family had so impressed their boss that not only did he want to take them out on the road with his own act, Angels of Light, but he actually wanted them to become Angels of Light right alongside him. After recording and playing live together, the relative newlyweds decided that they had something special and invigorating--and certainly something unique. Their new split record, under the joined name Angels of Light & Akron/Family, is a snapshot of the music that evolved from that time on the road, and a very promising sign of things to come [for Akron/Family, especially; the more stripped-down Angels of Light third of the record feels somewhat safe and familiar by comparison, despite the backing band being given substantial freedom of movement]. Gira's passion for Akron/Family helps make him an effective producer, and he continues to encourage the shaping of their sprawling sound - a little bit primal and a little bit psychedelic, a little bit folk and a little bit rock, a little bit "all of the above" and a lot "none of the above." Prior to setting off for the first of many upcoming tours, Dana Janssen talked about his band cutting their teeth in the big city, finding the right tour guide, and including their audiences in each live show. Based on your personal experience, would you recommend a move to New York or one of the major cities for any young band looking find their way? Is it for everyone? Hell, yeah, I recommend that kids do it. Get your ass kicked! Fucking throw yourself in the fire. That's exactly what we did, and it kicks your ass. It's really difficult when you first get here. Rent is exorbitantly expensive. You show up and everywhere you go looking for a job, you get turned away if you don't have New York experience or this or that. You have to fight hard to get a foothold here, and I think that definitely builds character and makes you feel good about what you're doing. Do you think the music itself has been affected by the city, too? I think it has. When we first got together to do things, it was difficult to divide up our time because you gotta go to work and you gotta go to work so much. The little time that you do have off, you've gotta sleep and eat. There isn't much time to focus on music, and you're exhausted from working and running around all day. That put us in a certain place energy-wise that might color the sound a little bit. Then a few things in the city might spark certain lyrics. Do you still feel a strong sense of connection when you go back to your hometown? Or does time in New York and I feel this way to some extent about time in L.A. make small towns seem kind of foreign after a while? It does, kind of. It's weird to say that because I've only been here for about three years, but I've been gone from my hometown for maybe seven years. It does feel foreign being there this small town in Pennsylvania where I grew up and nothing is going on, nothing changes, it's not progressive in any way. You know what I mean? Absolutely. And everyone knows you as the guy who moved to New York and is in a band, right? Totally, exactly. Local heroes. (laughs) You guys started playing together in New York. What had you been doing prior to that, band-wise? I'd been in a bunch of other bands, none of which were really noteworthy by any means. I grew up with Seth and we'd been playing together for seven or eight years we played together in high school and then separated but kept meeting each other in different places, like Boston or Ithaca. We moved to Florida for a while and played in a band down there, playing island beach music. Don't ever go to Florida. (laughs) What was your band in high school like? Our band in high school was uh, kind of funky. I dread saying the word "jam band," but Right on! (laughs) And before that, I was in a punk band. Miles comes from a hardcore background as well. Your partner in crime, Michael Gira, says that your band's "AK[pronounced "ack"] approach to music and the corresponding worldview had a great influence on him. Subsequent interviews have revealed "AK" to basically be a joke, but it's still given weight in a variety of reviews. Yeah, that's just something that Michael made up because we're dorks and we isolated ourselves from the scene and all that jazz. We even have our lingo, and "AK" is used to describe things that we like, or we do things AK-style. A lot of people blow it out of proportion to make it sound like we have some sort of philosophy on life. (laughs) Aw, so it's not a commune sort of thing? No, it's nothing like that at all. But it's cute the way that people think that. I suppose that sharing a label with Mr. Banhart helps perpetuate that idea. Totally. When were you guys first approached as being part of Angels of Light? When we went in to record our first record, Michael loved the way that we worked in the studio, so he enlisted us to do his next record, which was Angels of Light Sing Other People. We did that with him in the studio, and then, after that, he had the idea to tour with us as his backing band. When we got back, this record is pretty much a snapshot of what was happening at the moment trying to get what we did live onto a record. Do you have a sense of what Michael was drawn to, in terms of the way you worked in the studio? My assumption would be that Akron/Family would be a little more free-wheeling. Well yeah, kind of. For the first record we did with him, he'd write the songs and then, as far as orchestrations were concerned, he said, "Go nuts. If you have an idea, blurt it out and try it." That was a lot different than our first one, because with that, he was really trying to clarify and focus and present it as a nice package with a bow on it. That process was different, too, because some of that material was already recorded, right? Yeah, some of it was stuff that we had done at home. We had a laptop and Pro Tools and microphones at the house very limited resources for recording. We had to get creative with certain computer programs as far as drums were concerned because we didn't have the capacity to record them. We still have a catalog of tons of stuff that we haven't released and probably won't. There's a lot of stuff sitting on the computer not being heard. Quite a surplus, huh? Yeah, yeah. Like I said, we'd isolated ourselves from what was going on, so if we weren't working at our jobs, we'd be working at music at our house. You gotta put some of that out! Yeah, well, we did put together a little CD to sell on tour, a small run of 1,000. A collection of hits. (laughs) With the songwriting, then, there's a blend of sometimes bringing in stuff that you've worked on independently and sometimes hashing stuff out all together? Definitely. A lot of times someone will have an idea for a song and will just put it down. It seems like Akron/Family and Young God are in a pretty happy marriage at this point. Yeah, totally. At the time when you were sending out to labels, though, how targeted of a thing was it? Not really at all. When Seth first moved to New York, he saw Devendra and he found out through a friend that Michael was putting out new bands. That drew our attention to his label and his work, too, really. We weren't really familiar with him and his music prior to that. Miles, our bass player, was the only one who was and who had an idea of Swans of what he used to do. But it wasn't a matter of buying records off that label for a long time and wanting to be on it; it was more of a serendipitous meeting. There was one review of the new record that crystallized a question I had about your songwriting. It was a positive review, but the reviewer basically wished that the songs were allowed to reach peaks without taking sharp turns. As you're writing, are there ever discussions about "This is too predictable, we're sticking too close to the structure here" or does it never reach that point? No, I think it's just what we do. It's not really "We can't do this because this is predictable," it's more like "Let's try this here, let's try that there." A three minute pop song is fine, then. We have one! We have one and we embrace it, we love it. It's not like we're completely anti. We're definitely not trying to regurgitate things that have happened over and over what's that about? Within the songs, how much is spontaneous at the time of recording? I'd say a good percentage of it is spontaneous. A lot of songs have certain sections where it's very open-ended; we maybe have a rough idea of what we might want to do, but it's open to different interpretations on different days. You never know what's going to come out. And as far as live applications, that helps us get off the ground a bit, to be able to improvise like that. I haven't had the chance to see the live show I'm hoping to see you when you're out in January so, for those of us who haven't had the chance to see Akron/Family up close and personal, what are we missing? It's more expansive? Yeah, much more. The energy is way high. It's entertaining. When we play live, we like to invite the audience to participate with us. You see so many bands that present it as "band playing a show / you watch," as opposed to "We're all here having a good time, let's fucking hang out together." We're not standoffish people, and we like to allow everybody to have fun with us. So you break down that fourth wall, eh? Totally. Now that you're embarking on headlining tours, you're playing for audiences that are obviously familiar with and excited about the music. Does that beat the alternative of trying to win over audiences that come in with no (or low) expectations? Yeah, now they can sing along with you, you know? On the American leg of this tour, we got to a few towns where the kids knew the CDs and knew all of the words and they were singing along. It's satisfying. You feel like, "Alright, I'm making something happen here. This is great." You said that this new record is a snapshot of what you were doing on the road. Could you see yourselves actually doing a live album? Well, on this last tour, we've been getting a lot of video footage and I think we might put that out on tour. I like the idea of live records. I like to hear the differences between a proper recording and being played live. You obviously can't do everything that you did on a recording, so you get different versions of the same song, which I've always thought was pretty cool. Like when The Dead used to play all their tunes and the same song would sound completely different. Well, youve got a lot of shows coming up. There's a small tour in December and then a full tour come the New Year. What else is on the horizon? We have 10 shows, and then four weeks off for Christmas and New Year's. Next year looks pretty full already. We leave January 11th and are gone until February, and then we stay in Seattle for three weeks and come back East in March. We're going over to Europe in April to do some festivals, and then we'll hit up the summer festivals. I don't know if that's going to be the States or Europe or both. It's going to be a fun year. It's going to be a fun year. That's a true story.