Akron/Family | Review
See Magazine | Christa O'Keefe
Akron/Family's music is simultaneously a point and a waveEdmonton, Canada
Sound of light
It's mystifying how four regular dudes from small communities in the Eastern U.S. have managed to effectively blend the sprawling, ambitious country-prog rock of the early '70s with large-scale jubilant pop and the looped, evocative ideas of ambient music. Listening to Akron/Family doesn't immediately conjure up visions of their present day home in New York City, and not only because they totally lack the self-congratulatory archness and infestation of jaded referencing that tends to riddle the work of most of the young lions hailing from that creative Mecca.
The foursome offers up bucolic-edged, ebullient songs that celebrate emotion generated through wallowing in the senses. Lyrics are stuffed with the kind of imagery that formed the spine of psychedelia during it's hopeful, let's-change-the-world heyday (before it became a shuffling, soulless cliché). Instrumentation that could have been thieved from an Alabama high school banjo, tambourine, glockenspiel, flutes, harmonica,etc. thrives alongside the usual rock culprits, with the occasional piece of rhythmically squeaking furniture thrown in on top of group hollers and whistling. Songs alternately creak and skitter, then billow out to groan under an aural weight that would be ostentatiously Jethro Tull-esque if not for the balancing hand of playfulness. Yet far from being twee, Akron/Family make defiant, demanding, and curiously anti-background music.
In the spotlight
The bandmates jammed relentlessly in relative isolation after arriving in Brooklyn in 2002 from rural environs (don't think Alberta farmland, but more like Sleepy Hollow moved along 150 years). "We were insular when we moved here," acknowledges "mostly drummer" Dana Janssen. (All of A/F are musically promiscuous multi-instrumentalists.) "We'd get off work, take the L-train home, and have nothing to do but music. Now we have friends; it's our home. We didn't have any interest in jumping into a scene."
Although NYC seems like a strange choice of residency for people who didn't want to become a part of any scene, Janssen cites immersion in the overall culture of the city as a huge motivating force for the band. "It was about courage to try to do more your own thing," he explains. "New York is a great town. Hipster thing aside, there is unbelievable music going on here any day of the week. There was a romance to being here."
The boys garnered an undeserved reputation for being somewhat cultish, which the affable Janssen dismisses with a bemused shrug. "It's something to latch onto. Like the beard thing. Everyone has to mention the beards. Only a couple of us had them at first, but we were called, like, 'beard-folk,' " he laughs. And the fabled AK-AK (pronounced "ack-ack") Creed, which also gets invoked obliquely in many media references? "Something we wrote it on the dry erase board in our space. It was just this weird lingo to describe things we like, that meant 'Shit's hot.'"
Add an angel
New York is also home to the restless intellect of the dauntingly multi-talented Michael Gira, of the defunct-but-revered sonically confrontational art touchstones Swans. Gira runs Young God Records, the willfully eclectic label whose roster houses wide-ranging entities, such as Calla, Devendra Banhart, and Gira's current projects, including the ferociously cathartic, melodic drone-folk of Angels of Light.
Gira, while not responsible for unearthing Akron/Family, has certainly championed the band, acting as studio godfather and releasing their self-titled debut on Young God, while also recording and touring with the foursome as an Angels of Light collaboration that resulted in a fantastic, intense, near-devotional split record.
Working with the mercurial Gira was a joyful and challenging experience for the band, and the process depended on which role they were filling at the time. "We were making music with him, but on tour we were also his backing band. We'd have to switch mindsets and gears," notes Janssen. "With our stuff, it's very free, very wild, very loose. With Michael it's the same set every night. You push it and he'd turn and give you this 'stink face.' I mean, you can stretch it out, but it's structured, like a play. It was a weird but nice juxtaposition." Janssen that adds having Gira rein them in on tour was also a contrast to his studio role, where he encouraged them to "go nuts and do anything. Everything."
Janssen confesses they are looking forward to playing Edmonton. "We've heard stories about you," he smirks. "Our live show is for being crazy, and we insist you participate in what's going on. We push the audience as much as we can. We hear you guys dance. We won't stop until you do."