Love Is Simple | Review/Interview

Eric Dawson | Knoxville Voice

We’re really turned off by the veil of cool

Akron/Family drummer, vocalist and lord-knows-what-else Dana Janssen is in Williamsburg, Penn., having fled Brooklyn temporarily to hang out and rehearse with fellow band members who have relocated to rural Pennsylvania in order to escape escalating rent and the general crunch of the city. “It’s a quality of life thing,” Janssen explains. “If you don’t have money in New York… ” he trails off, sentiment understood. “Here it’s relaxing and productive, real mellow.” The musicians have gathered here to rehearse before embarking on an upcoming tour to promote their new album, Love is Simple. 

The album was recorded by Gone/Rollins Band bassist and Ween producer Andrew Weiss, a move that may at first seem a bit counter-intuitive but Janssen says is perfectly in tune with the band’s sensibility. “Those Ween records are fun, kind of our vibe. We like having fun, and this was an opportunity to capture what we’re actually like. It’s a different side of us than our earlier records might have shown.” The record features Akron/Family friends such as Baltimore’s crazed, all-girl singing group the Lexie Mountain Boys, helping to “deliver the vibe, the cosmic truth,” says Janssen. 

The vibe of the record is primarily celebratory — upbeat and affirming, with all the multi-instrumentation and multi-part song structures that are characteristic of the band. For all of its similarities to past efforts, though, Love is Simple possesses a more overtly accessible sound connecting it to a longer, more established thread of folk-rock than the somewhat fragmentary, collage-like sounds of past recordings. Attempting to posit this to Janssen, the best I can come up with at the time is: “This new record seems more…well…” and I pause because I don’t want to say what I’m about to say but am blanking at the moment: “…hippie.” Janssen is audibly upset over what is a lazy, reductive characterization, and I immediately regret having said it. “I don’t want anybody to think that,” he says. “I don’t think that at all. That’s ridiculous.” 

Maybe, but upon a cursory listen of the new record what stands out in the group sing-alongs, are lyrics such as: “Go out and love, love, love everyone” appearing within the first minute (and reprised at the finale), and “Don’t be afraid, it’s only love…love is simple” soon after, followed by a series of “la-la-la”s, on top of a laid-back guitar figure. “New Ceremonial Music For Moms” contains what sounds like a drum circle, complete with pre-language chanting and baby cooings. 

I mean, what do you call this music? Why call it anything? Akron/Family has always been hard to categorize, it’s part of their charm and allure. They were all over the map on their 2002 debut, incorporating elements of folk, psychedellica, jazz and rock, backed up by unique four-part harmonies. Though saddled early with the dreaded freak-folk tag, they were always more varied than most artists bearing that description, and their subsequent split album with Angels of Light and follow-up EP Meek Warrior demonstrated they were growing even more dynamic, all the while delivering forceful, memorable live shows. The band’s Web site states that Love is Simple is the “completion of our first cycle,” and that makes sense as the record draws from elements of the first three releases and synthesizes them into their most cohesive recording to date. Janssen explains that the record “reflects a lot of what we’re listening to, music from the ‘60s and ‘70s. A lot of new music I can’t relate to.” When asked if he feels he and his band-mates have any peers, he offers Do Make Say Think (whom appeared on Meek Warrior), Deerhoof and current Knoxvillian James Toth of Wooden Wand. And, of course, Michael Gira. 

For better or worse, it’s nearly impossible to speak of Akron/Family’s history without bringing up Gira. I ask Janssen if he can imagine where the band might be without the input of the Swans/Angels of Light frontman, who has served as a sort of father figure to the band, producing and releasing their records on his Young God label, without ever imposing himself as a Svengali. “Oh, wow,” Janssen responds, taking in the thought. “He’s been a great influence. I can’t state how valued his input has been. He trimmed the fat, so to speak, and pulled great songwriting out of us.” The relationship is certainly not one-sided, though, as Gira has employed Akron as his backing band on the last few Angels of Light releases, as well as utilizing them as his touring band, and they’ve brought a whole new sound into the project. 

Despite this symbiotic, productive relationship, Akron/Family are ready to be weened from Gira’s teat, and in addition to using Weiss instead of Gira as producer, Love is Simple will be their last for Young God. The parting is amicable, (“Everything’s mellow,” Janssen says), but you get the sense the band is anxious to see what they can do without Gira’s presence hovering over them, and without him repeatedly being alluded to in articles and interviews. 

They’ve never lacked for positive press and an enthusiastic audience, but the new record and tour, combined with their sense of a new direction, could very well put them in a whole new realm of popularity. When they first came to Knoxville back in 2005, they played to a fairly sparse crowd at Pilot Light. Upon returning there the following year, you could barely move the club was so packed. This time around, the band has graduated to the stately Bijou Theatre. 

Janssen is clearly surprised by the growing success. “It’s bizarre to me to see the numbers grow, but, you know, all are welcome. When I saw we were playing the Bijou, I was amazed.” Their live shows are exciting, highly energetic affairs, with the guys apt to cut loose and scream/shout/clap away from their mics. At other moments, they’re highly intimate affairs with the group performing a hushed, subtle song or huddled in a circle for an a cappella sing along. They seem to enjoy playing to and interacting with the audience, and it will be interesting to see how they’ve adapted their show for a stage such as the Bijou. “We’ve learned to work around big venues,” Janssen continues. “We’re really turned off by the veil of cool – the separation between performer and audience. We want the show to be engaging, not forcing itself on you like with some bigger bands. It’s meant to be inviting and inclusive.”