Akron/Family | Interview

Montreal Mirror | Johnson Cummins

Seth Olinsky on Michael Gira, their marathon sets and the "hippie rock" tag

Jan 12 / 06

Long hauls and bong hauls

This is an Akron/Family story, but an Akron/Family story can't be told without mentioning their boss, Michael Gira. He's the underground icon in charge of their label Young Gods Records, and a former member of Swans. That band started as a pulverizing noise-rock outfit whose repetitive dirges and bowel-emptying low end added up to some of the most assaultive music ever laid to tape. Swans would later on branch out to grandiose epics like Children of God, but more recently, Gira has gone a full 180 degrees with his Angels of Light project, concentrating on traditional elements with a heavy leaning on folk music.

Above and beyond Angels of Light, the New York noise patriarch plays a heavy hand in the current freak-folk movement, having discovered Devendra Banhart and now proclaiming New York¹s Akron/Family to be the best "rock band" out there ‹their sound is nearly impossible to peg down, but their psychedelic tendencies rush to the front every step of the way, with prog, folk, improv, pop, Byrds/Beatles four-part harmonies, noise and much more all bouncing around in their bowl.

In fact, he liked them so much he used them as his backup band for Angels of Light, produced and signed them, and has just released a split record with them. Unfortunately, he got a bit more than he bargained for. The seven songs that Akron/Family contribute reach a plateau that even Gira can't climb up to. On his five songs (on which they play backup again), however, they generously leave room for Gira's baritone voice, but tend to play it by the numbers a bit.

"In our band, we all invest in and share in what is going on," says guitarist/vocalist Seth Olinsky. "In Angels of Light, we are there to serve Michael's songs. The two are really different. When you are playing in Angels of Light, you have to take on a totally different mind set. I think having such an intense artist, who has such a powerful belief in us, has been one of the biggest influences on us and has allowed us to fulfill a lot of things."

Journey to the centre of your set list

As good as they are on record, the band really has to be seen in the live setting to get the whole picture. Songs will change from night to night, thanks to the improv nature of certain sections, but it's really just the sense of jubilation that shines through, their thrill at playing in front of people, that has earned them their praises.

On a recent tour, with their opening set as well as their playing the Band to Gira's Ronnie Hawkins, A/F would spend an average of two and a half hours on stage while remaining inspired and in the moment at all times.

"That was really satisfying, but got to be actually pretty exhausting. It was really good for us as a band, but when you are playing that intensely for that amount of time, it can take its toll. I know that the Dead would play for hours, and the Beatles would play four-hour sets in Hamburg, but I don't know how they did it. We're really invested the whole time that we're up on stage, and two and a half hours can be a long time."

With their psychedelic tendencies, the freak-folk flag being draped over them by the press and Mr. Banhart as a label mate, no wonder they're often described as hippies.

The term 'hippie" can be something of a stain on one's rep. The odiousness of Jewel, hacky-sacks and a quarter of the population of Vancouver doesn't help, but Olinsky doesn't even blink when I ask him if it bothers him that people have called them hippies.

"Oh yeah, we play hippie rock. Right now I'm in my bedroom and I am looking at a big poster of Jerry Garcia looking down at me. I love the Dead. Somebody in Montreal once compared us to godspeed you! black emperor meets the Grateful Dead, and I thought that was kind of cool. I think I said, 'Jerry and Efrim, sitting in a tree, J-A-M-M-I-N-G.'  Having a beautiful orchestral crescendo like godspeed used to do, and then going into an acoustic sing-along that could've been on American Beauty, sounds like a great song to me."