Akron/Family - Interview
Pitchfork | Grayson Currin
No one in Akron/Family is related, and no one is from Akron, Ohio.
But, at the behest of Swans and Angels of Light founder Michael Gira, the band added "/Family" to its name when it followed signed to his Young God Records imprint (formerly home to Devendra Banhart, Calla and Larsen) and released its sprawling self-titled folk/noise/gospel/rock/jazz debut. A split with Angels of Light and an EP featuring collaborations with members of Do Make Say Think and jazz giants Hamid Drake and William Parker followed. Last year's Love Is Simple, their second full-length and final title for Young God, attempted to tie those ends into 11 interconnected songs and a reprise that read, appropriately, "Go out and love everyone." Pastoral beauty, blazing skree, heavy rock, studio playfulness, big solos, boom-bap beats, tight arrangements, a mindset that would embrace anything: Instead of answers or self-definition, that's what Akron/Family's records have offered most consistently.
The pattern holds live. The first time I saw Akron/Family play, for instance, the band headlined for what they called their biggest crowd to date in a wide, low-roofed hall in Asheville, N.C. called the Grey Eagle Tavern. Some 500 loquacious people filled the room for the opening notes. When the quartet emerged from a gorgeous, damaged 90-minute drone two hours later, I was upfront, surrounded only by the half-dozen friends with which I'd driven four hours. They'd emptied the place. When I toured with the band a year later for a 4,000-word spree in Signal to Noise, they played the same room to half the crowd. But, in a reversal of outcomes, most of the audience climbed onstage by set's end, banging drums, squeezing toy birds and playing tiny flutes. The night before, at Duke University, a noise-filled set eventually led a conga line on a wooden floor strewn with busted beer bottles.
And when I opted to spend most of a work year's vacation touring with the band last September through Canada, they were, again, much different than I'd ever imagined them: Guitarist Ryan Vanderhoof quit months before Love Is Simple was released, so the Family expanded, inviting electronic and drone wizard Greg Davis and Durham, N.C. band (and my roommates) Megafaun to both open and play in a seven-piece Akron/Family. The two-hour affairs included a Grateful Dead cover, a patent funk jam, segues, feedback, wah pedals, sing-alongs, and guitarmonies. At one show, drummer Dana Janssen even penned a rap. It was never performed.
Sitting in the grass on a horse farm nestled at the foot of a valley just outside of Williamsport, Penn.-- the childhood home of guitarist Seth Olinsky and drummer Dana Janssen-- Akron/Family talked about self-definition, the need to keep changing and the long, strange road between being a hipster and a hippie. Then, they headed back into town to play in classical composer Rhys Chatham's new piece for 100 electric guitars. Remember, anything goes.
Pitchfork: So I understand you got the command to come down to Williamsport from Williamsburg for Rhys Chatham's piece, Miles?
Miles Seaton: I got the command to calm down?
Pitchfork: No, I know better than to tell you to calm down.
MS: Oh, ok. Yeah, to come down.
Seth Olinsky: It wasn't a command. It was a friendly, "Dude, I need to build some walls in my loft. Come help me pick up some 2' x 4's and build a wall."
MS: I told my girlfriend that I've known Seth for quite a while, and this is the first time Seth actually asked me, like straight forwardly said, "I'm actually asking you for help." This is the first time.
SO: I helped him build walls when I first met him out in his loft on Montrose [Ave. in Brooklyn] before we even were a band or anything like that. I think we'd probably started to play music together, and we worked at the same coffeeshop in Manhattan. He needed help.
MS: Neither of us knew how to do it, but we did it.
SO: What happened was, I've been setting up this thing for 100 Guitars since, I think, last Spring. I e-mailed Regina [Greene, who books Rhys Chatham], who I'm friends with and who books Rhys, and said, "You know, I just moved back to Williamsport. My old teacher has all these students. I think it'd be great. Let's do it in a few months, in September or something." She was like, "Why don't we do it a year from now." I said, "Well, OK," but thank goodness because it's been a lot of work.
Pitchfork: Seth, how did you hear about Rhys and 100 Guitars? And is this a piece he'd been working on just for this setting?
SO: I read about him in the New York Times a few years ago when the box set came out. I was at Berklee, and I was pretty frustrated for the small time I was there. I wanted to try and come up with an idea of how to bring all of the guitar players together because it was a very competitive situation. I was like, "Man, what if I just wrote an orchestra for like 100 guitars? That would be really cool." And then I found out it had already happened like 10 years before my idea.
Dana Janssen: Or 20.
SO: I played in a recording of Branca's thing, which never got released, in New York. It was two years ago. It was kind of chaotic. I had performed in that and kind of got a sense of what was needed for that. When I moved back to Williamsport, I went to visit my old teacher, who had since started this not-for-profit school-- mainly guitar, but some bass and drums, too. Now they're building this venue where Megafaun is going to play tomorrow. They're going to have a venue, a recording school, a drum school. When I walked in to visit him, there were all these kids practicing their tremolos for warm-up for the day, and it kind of sounded like that sound. The idea popped into my head, and I asked Dave the teacher if he thought the kids would be into. I played him a recording of An Angel Moves Too Fast to See. I asked Regina, and Rhys was into it. Once The Community Arts Center [in Williamsport] came in and helped us get the sponsorship and the venue, it came together pretty easily.
It turned out that for a time Rhys had-- because Angel takes six full days of rehearsal and the guitars are tuned differently and restrung and it's not in standard notation-- been working on something to combine the "Guitar Trio" into a 100-guitar orchestra setting and also to do things in standard tuning, so he can send the music ahead of time and it only takes two rehearsals. It's more easily produced. In the last few weeks, it became quite stressful. But before, it all came together pretty seamlessly.
When all of the music came in, it turns out it was a little harder than we'd initially anticipated. His stuff's a little more dynamic than Branca's. There were some younger kids it was a little too hard for, and some dropouts of people that were not great site readers. So I had to put the call out to the homies. Dana was going to do it. Miles came. Some people from MySpace.
DJ: We had some people from MySpace?
SO: Yeah, Derek and his friend, Elliot. Elliot's a Berklee grad, and Derek has come to our shows. It's kind of cool because they've been coming to our shows for like the last year and really look up to us. I was talking to Allie [Seth's girlfriend] about this today, how it's nice that one route you can go is you create or distance yourself further and further from fans. The stage height gets bigger. You don't go out in front after shows any more. People start to turn you into this other entity, this celebrity entity, and they build up this glorified version. You're not a human. You're this thing. I could tell with these kids, when they first started e-mailing about this, that there was that sense: "Oh, man, I saw you..." But asking them to be involved and working with them and talking, it's more like getting to share in what we're doing instead of creating some sort of celebrity situation.
Pitchfork: That's interesting. Maybe at this point we know each too well for me to see otherwise, but everything about your shows-- from bringing the crowd onstage to getting into the crowd to just hanging around after the gig-- suggests that you're trying to go beyond just being a band on a stage.
MS: I'm not particularly interested in making music that doesn't have that aspect. That is what makes the thing turn into something that's greater than just watching a film. You can just play a DVD and drop a screen down. I'd rather not even make a show. I'd rather try to have it be as engaging and multi-dimensional as possible.
SO: I think it must relate to improvisation a little bit, whether or not we're improvising, but the willingness to risk the spontaneity of having it be different with different people in the audience and approach every night like that, even though we're not doing what William Parker does or playing free improv every night. That intimacy that comes from that sense of improvisation, I think, is somehow related to incorporating the audience in a way that I feel like it's a lot less risky for someone just to show up, plug in, read the script and go. Not to take anything away from that. That's a different thing, I think.
MS: When you're improvising or those chances are taken, I don't know what's going to happen. The audience doesn't know what's going to happen. It equalizes everything because nobody knows what's going to happen. It's a really cool thing.
SO: I was talking to Josh Abrams, who's playing bass in 100 Guitars. Dana and I used to be really big fans of Town & Country, so it's really cool to meet him and talk. But he plays with Hamid [Drake, jazz drummer]. We were talking about the difficulty...I've been listening to this tape of Coltrane at the Village Vanguard in the 1960s in my car on repeat just because there's been so many things going on I haven't changed it. Then, all of the sudden yesterday, I realized how big the Village Vanguard is. They can only fit 50 people in there, and I imagined that music and being in a room with that music.
I'd always listened to all that Coltrane music and always thought of it being in outerspace, and all of the sudden I imagined it in that setting and it blew my mind. I couldn't even imagine it. Josh and I were talking about how hard it is to convey some of those things as the audience gets louder. He was telling me about seeing Sony Rollins play for a few thousand people at a free Lincoln Center concert and how they organized things rhythmically and melodically. That's something I think we've been dealing with, too-- learning how to create intimacy with different groups of people.
MS: For me, when I hear music that I really admire, a lot of times I imagine it being far larger than it actually is. I saw Pauline Oliveros play at the Deep Listening Institute, which was the back of a bookstore in Kingston, New York. There were eight other people there, and four of them were her students. In my mind, it occupies this major imaginary register. But meeting her and having that immediate contact with her didn't take away the sense of imagination that was there. I recognized that in my mind, and then I was like, "Oh, these are like buddies."
I like the idea that someone admires what I do. I mean, that's nice, but that's not really the point. The fact is that sometimes when some people admire something enough they might trust enough to let go and experience it on a deeper level, which to me is the only reason that is really special.
Pitchfork: Dana, you've been quiet. How do you respond to how people respond to your band?
DJ: I don't know what other people's perceptions are, really, so I can't really say. I don't generally talk to people after a show or engage a fan too much, not because I don't want to but because I get really reclusive after I play. I don't understand the fan-me relationship, so when someone writes that and think that, I can see why in one way because I don't really talk to anybody or communicate afterwards. But the whole perception thing...I don't really pay attention to what level anything gets to, so it's not weird.
SO: I'm really happy these kids came out. It's really cool. Looping back to the guitar thing for the night, I think the coolest thing has been the combo of all the people. The kids, and since we didn't have enough kids, we had to get some of the older blues dudes from the local stores and stuff.
DJ: Sir Licks-a-Lot? [laughs.]
SO: And Megafaun and us and all these worlds that don't really know a lot about each other. Obviously, Brad knows who David Daniell [of San Agustin and Rhys Chatham's bands] is, but the kid next to him doesn't know who Brad is but he looks up to the guy at the music store. There are all of these different people, and I feel like everyone has been appreciative of everyone else in this really cool way. It speaks a lot to community, and it's something we've talked about and I've gotten into more and more as we've listened to more African music. Learning about Ali Farka Touré and him being the mayor of his town and saying things like, "I'm a farmer first and a musician second." Whether or not that's really true with him or not, the musician is not this rarified celebrity like Amy Winehouse. People are like, "Whoa, Amy Winehouse headbutted somebody again, and she's pregnant and drinking. I'm going to buy her CD." I don't get it. That's the kind of thing where, if your cousin was doing it, everyone in the family would be worried. But if Amy Winehouse does it, you all go buy the CD for your cousin for Christmas. It's a backwards thing in our society.
To have the sense that a musician like Ali can be a musician of a lot of depth and genuine skill and be something in his community and bring some of the notoriety of his music to his community and be a mayor and a farmer, this 100 Guitar Orchestra-- regardless of what anyone thinks about the music-- I think everyone feels the sense of serving something bigger and working together and learning from each other in these multiple ways. Even the most seasoned pro from a city can learn something from a kid or blues musician from the local store, and vice versa. I think everybody's been open to that, and that's been really great. With those kids, too, getting involved in all those way, it's been really cool.
Pitchfork: I see that in your band, too. From the aspects I mentioned earlier to-this year-inviting Megafaun, Greg Davis and The Dodos to, in essence, join your band. You've stretched the music beyond the bounds of the band. You've created a de facto community.
SO: Especially this year, with Megafaun [joining] and Ryan [Vanderhoof, member of Akron/Family who left just before Love Is Simple was released] leaving and forcing us to... With Ryan, we had this insular quality. We kind of stayed to ourselves, and we weren't part of a scene, whether or not we were seen as such. We didn't really have a lot of friends in bands, and when Ryan left, we were really forced into, "How do we deal with this situation?" We had to call on our homies. That forced us to make more and more homies. Once we looked around and made a list-because we were thinking about making a compilation for some of the coffee shops we really love, the independent ones-- it's a pretty weird list. I remember talking to Joey [Westerlund, drummer of Megafaun] about it: It doesn't fit anywhere. It just ends up kind of manifesting the Family sensibility of our name, and I feel like that's really been brought to life this year in a way that we kind of set up for ourselves and started to embody.
But it really was insular in a way, but by including all of these people and learning about myself through them and learning about our music through other peoples' eyes and getting to teach our music to other people and learning how to do that... I remember when Megafaun came up, and we're like, "What's missing? Let's go swimming in the creek!" Just trying to figure out how to bring the whole journey to other people and let people in: That's moved our music forward this year more than anything else-- that sense of family and community. I hope that it is something that is beneficial for everyone on multiple levels-- musically and career-wise and individually as their own person. I think it has.
MS: It's definitely changed things for me a lot musically, and there's less space, which is really cool. And there's a level of having to arrange things for the bigger group and having to divide up roles rhythmically and harmonically in this way that creates the right sound. It's so cool because now we've been working on new music in a way that I feel is just informed by that-- by the need to consider and to listen. We just did this tour with The Dodos on the West Coast, and we had five hours worth of rehearsal. We got onstage to play Coachella. In some ways it was a little stressful, but there was a level of the whole thing feeling like it was alive and in motion.
DJ: And everyone was on their toes, too. Everybody was present in the moment because only five hours of rehearsal is...
SO: I think for me, it's a cool way to tap into... I love jazz and come from wanting to be that, and at some point I decided I wasn't just that. In some ways, we deal with that sensibility in different ways. This has been a really cool treat for me because I feel it echoes some of the things jazz embodies of having different musicians. You know, "Oh, this record has Sonny Rollins and Jim Hall on it. But, oh, this one has Ben Riley playing drums." Or the session that Monk did with this guy. To me, coming up with that mythology of having different musicians work with each other is something I always looked up to. I love The Beatles and Led Zeppelin and that iconic thing, too, but I feel like it's been a cool way for us to tap into that tradition even though we're not really playing that music. To create different relationships, to have the same standard material but to have it different ways.
DJ: I like the idea of sharing tunes the way jazz guys used to play this tune, that tune among different groups. I want to start exploring that a little more, playing some of our friends' songs and vice versa. I think that would be really fun.
MS: That's a good idea.
SO: Really, that comes back to community, too. You think about jazz and...
DJ: Even folk.
SO: Yeah, totally. Those are things that are not scenes. It's a community.
MS: The music functions simply as a sound or a sonic story of a communal structure of some kind-- a family or a tribe or whatever. I feel like that's the thing I relate to the most about folk music. It's always tricky when commercial stuff comes into play because it's hard to balance the fact once you get into motion and you're touring enough that you can't really have another job and you have to make money. The reality is that, for us, the more that we focus on trying to make the music really important but focus on ourselves being really good people and trying to remember that stuff, all of that tends to take care of itself. Ryan leaving made it so important for us to immediately look and see what we were doing, where we were at. We were always in motion. All of our recordings feel like snapshots almost. There's this constant evolution and growing.
I remember when I was sitting and I was like, "We should have Megafaun play. We should get people and just do it." In my mind, it came across more as a chaotic situation foreseeably, but it was more about the energetic situation of just having friends there. The cool thing about Megafaun is that they had a similar situation where one of their members that they played with for a long time left [Bon Iver's Justin Vernon], so they were just this trio. It's this healing thing. I know that people respond cynically to that kind of stuff, but there was this emotional link that was really helpful. I spend more time with these guys than with anybody in my family, especially at the time Ryan left. We've just been so fortunate to have the people that have come into our path be really sweet people, really good people generally.
They're there, and like, "It must have been really hard to have lost a member." We weren't even at the point where we were even talking that openly with it to ourselves. We were like, "Oh, yeah, right, friends, buddies." We were like, at the bottom line, we have shows to play, we got stuff booked, we got an album coming out, whatever. But really at the core of it, it's really sad. I love Ryan. I miss him. I miss playing with him. It forced us to be outward in a way that's really cool. I feel really lucky about it.
Pitchfork: Especially considering that you described yourselves as an insular quartet, it seems like the easier thing to do would have been to become a more insular trio. Why not just isolate yourself?
SO: Yeah, try and defend our position: "We've staked out this territory on the Risk board. One man down. Let's build up our barriers and not let the villagers know that one of the princes has..."
SO: No, there was this level of that because we'd built up this framework structure that had this mythology of The Beatles, where you had each person contributing this distinct thing. We really sanded the edges of our own contributions to the whole. We're all really dynamic people, but-- like any relationship, whether it's a family or a band-- it's like Miles contributes this and Ryan contributes this and Seth is the guy that contributes this. We had a, like probably any relationship in the world, a functional dysfunctional relationship. But you remove the one piece, and the house of cards sort of... You can create the allusion that the house of cards is still up, but-- as a testament to our real commitment-- it forced us all to look at ourselves and our own interpersonal relationships and the music. And, in a way, it ended up becoming this gift.
Love Is Simple: I'm happy with it, but it kind of felt like, at best, a summary statement of what had come before-- trying to find a place for it to fit in one place so everyone could come in and see. At best, because it tries to combine all those three things, it's not as distinct as any one of the past three recordings. Even if Ryan had stayed, I feel like we had hit this place where we were in need of reinvention-- of space, of time. "OK, we're not the same guys that started this thing 4.5 years ago."
In some ways, if Ryan had stayed, it probably would have been harder to get over the next hump because there would have been a tour to support the record. We would have kept going, and, in this way, I feel like we're in a position to record this summer. And we've been forced to create all this new music and all these new situations and all these new relationships. There's more to do than ever. It was a real cool gift that Ryan gave us in that way.
MS: We never talked about becoming more isolated, specifically, but we definitely talked about just doing the trio thing as one of the options. Finding another member was definitely right there, too...
DJ: It's more than an option. It's something we're doing.
MS: Right, but having that being the core of the group was the decision. We need to be able to perform as the three of us. That's really important.
Pitchfork: Is that for the logistical reasons of being in a touring band?
MS: Not just for logistical reasons, but in general. Until we decide it's the time to maybe bring somebody in permanently, we all need to make stuff that relates to the present.
SO: It was more of a live concern, too, because Dana is seriously multi-talented and can really play guitar and drums and bass and sing. And I can goof off and play lots of different things, too, and I think we're all capable of writing and recording and conceiving of things. It was more of a live problem: Can we be as dynamic as we want to be as a trio? That's something we're working on.
Pitchfork: I haven't seen a trio set yet, mostly because you haven't played a lot of them in America. What's it feel like? What's hard?
MS: It takes a lot of attention, definitely learning how to energetically relax a little bit. Our music can be a little intricate. Just physically, there's a level of trying to maintain the energy but remembering to breath a little bit and let the pace take care of itself because we can get into frenzy mode.
SO: We end up, all of us in our own ways, more involved in our instruments and the music than with the audience than what we're used to. To me, it [as a quartet] felt like, "Psssssssh!" into the audience. With the big band, since there are so many people, each of us could even be hype guy or put down our instrument or just play a drum or interact in that way. There was a freedom to give up and move around. With the trio, everyone has to be real on point to keep the ball in the air.
One of the difficulties we've dealt with is how to still bring the audience in even though we have more responsibility with our instruments. Something I've been wanting to explore, too, is that we've played with jazz musicians and with African musicians, and there's a certain level of, "It's not punk rock." Punk rock feels really tense, bleeding on the audience almost. It's everything you have, and I remember distinctly learning some of that feeling onstage with Michael Gira [who released the first four Akron records on Young God Records and who toured and recorded with the band as Angels of Light]. I had come from this jam band thing where, when you dipped into the flow, you were there. You were always trying to catch the ride. And with Michael Gira you just fucking grab onto it and push it out. That was a really fun thing to learn energetically. I gained a lot from that, and I think we did too. But playing with Afel Boucoum [guitarist from Mali], they just walk right into the river. It's no thing. It just is. I think we've talked about wanting to develop that, too, with our music, being able to relax into the music.
MS: With that also comes the effortlessness of playing so fucking well.
SO: Yeah, I think there's a quality to jazz musicians that developed that. You picture late-era Dead, and they're on that rug and they're not moving. It's more to me absorption than it is projection. There's a way that you can do that that there still is an open door to the audience. The punk rock projection thing is a way to engage the audience and get them captured. There's also a level with these other musics that there is a way in for the audience, but it's different tastes. It's absorption instead of projection. We're trying to learn that and trying to learn to balance the two and do both and turn them on and off and how to teach the audience when we're trying to do something that's more absorption-oriented. [laughs.]
MS: The attitude of punk rock being this full-fledged out thing is not just the cut-and-bleed Gira style. There's a level of the structure of playing on the floor and just going out and being part of that and being sweaty with people and having that feeling of it being a collective experience and putting yourself in that path. The reality is it takes a lot of energy to play a two-hour show, even if you're just playing something that's mellow. There's a lot that goes into that, and-- with four people-- there was a little more of an energetic pass around on stage, and with seven there's a lot of energy to draw from. But with three people there's a level of the audience and their energy and focus. Drawing from that becomes very important, and that's a real challenge.
SO: Visually, too. Surprisingly enough, but it really feels like visually the three-piece, especially when we go into instruments, there's not enough stimulation for the audience. I was asking Regina last night with the 100 Guitars, like, is it loud. And she said, "Well, the P.A. system is not really the best, and it's not always as loud as you might want it. But there's so much visual stimulation that that almost makes it louder because there are 100 guitar players playing." With the three-piece, there's a level where I think we all three want to try and explore some kind of staging or lighting.
DJ: Right, but something I was thinking about with that is something we take for granted in a way: There's the simple fascination of watching some people play their instrument. Like, when I go and see Deerhoof and it's just three people, I'm still engaged in this way because they're all great players, and I can watch Greg play the drums and Satomi do her dance and this and that. It's still engaging in a way, and it's almost less difficult to approach because it's not as loud.
SO: And with a three-piece you can also approach the interaction between the three people. It's clear to see the dynamic between three, more than it is between seven.
Pitchfork: I want to talk about the hippie thing. The last Pitchfork review mentioned your "unmitigated hippie gaiety," and I know that was somewhat bothersome to you. But you guys will be playing your first "jam band" festivals this summer, and you've been offering tapers guest list spots. What's the plan?
DJ: The hippie thing? Like inviting a hippie to a show as opposed to being a hippie?
SO: No, I think he's talking about jam band stuff and...
MS: Going to the Jammies. [laughs.]
SO: We're not starting from the beginning here, but I think we all know what we're talking about. We played in Cleveland the other night at this place called the Grog Shop, and this Russian guy who had seen us before on accident and who works at the Grog Shop really loved the show. He said, "You know, I saw somewhere online that in a bio that these guys love The Grateful Dead." And he's like, "I just think that's totally wrong. It's not like The Grateful Dead described themselves as The Grateful Dead. The Grateful Dead described themselves as world beat. And that's what you guys are: world beat." And this guy was kind of like a metal dude, and he wasn't bagging on The Dead. I think he was just making a distinction that we're not a jam band. To him, when he thinks of as a jam band, it's music he doesn't want to hear. He's a metal dude. But he likes listening to us, and he loved the show. Yet we jam a little bit. There's things we do that people that like jam bands I think would be into. It was cool to hear from someone else that there is a distinction.
To me, my understanding of The Dead and the spirit of The Grateful Dead and what it means to me is a lot more in depth. I've been into them for a long time and thought a lot about it and what it means to the culture and society. It has a lot of meaning for me, but for a lot of people it just means you play hacky sack and throw a Frisbee, you know? I feel like there's a deep heart there that I relate to and I feel like some of what we do relates to. At the same time, it doesn't necessarily fit squarely into the hacky sack/Frisbee thing, not that I'm scared of that by any sense of the meaning. But I don't want to scare off the metal dude. He likes it, too.
DJ: Everyone's invited, you know.
SO: And that's the thing about The Dead. There's the famous Jerry quote about just being a big generator anyone can plug into. I talked to Josh [Abrams] about this last night, too: If you're going to do something, a lot of people really crave out of the ordinary. They crave creativity. They crave something different than what is presented to them everyday. This is no bold statement, and yet still most things are ordinary. And the things that are out of the ordinary artistically are generally for the few, the educated, the experienced. To try and cross those two, I think you just need some door. That could be a frontperson, a motto, a philosophy, a spirit, a look, anything. People just need some welcome sign or a map that says, "Look over here." And if you invite them through the doorway, they're a lot of times open to experiences that are out of the ordinary but that they really enjoy. If it's like, "Don't come over here. This is for members only," then they don't come. I think different people deal with it different ways, and I think The Dead dealt with it in a pretty cool way, which was just like genuinely open to anyone. It ended up, in retrospect, spilling over into this thing that wasn't that artistically interesting, what became known as this jam-band thing. The roots of that, I think, are pretty cool.
Pitchfork: That's the invitation thing you mentioned. When I first toured with you guys for Signal to Noise, you were a four-piece, and those shows always had some sort of moat for the audience to cross. I remember Miles picking on an audience member in Richmond because he was complaining the song was different onstage than on record. But, last September, you were starting with soft singing and a fun drum section. It is more of a welcome mat.
SO: I think that really is it. People have a lot of depth and character. Everyone has a really in-depth story. You can't even comprehend it. There's life and that ability to appreciate it. Not to like go out on an edge and say we're the artist-creator-architects that know what everyone needs, but we're just human just like everyone else. Music is in the air, and we can all share in that similarity. Whether you like boutique hipster bands or country music or whatever kind of music you like, there is that common thread and universality and timelessness. That's what I love about Bach or Dylan or Hendrix or Coltrane, whether or not we get to achieve anything like any of those people that I look up to. Who knows what they were like individually, but that's the common thread for me. It's the thing that speaks to me regardless of the clothes they wear
MS: I think that Seth summed it up pretty well, but also what you're talking about is...It's hard to formulate a way to address it. There's a frustration with this idea of people having an idea about something being cool or not. I remember one time someone saying something about us like, "I've never heard Phish, but I think this is what Phish would be like, so I don't like it."
SO: That sums it up. [laughs.]
MS: For me, I never heard Phish until 10 years after they were broken up and somebody played it for me. I don't like it. I don't want to be a part of it musically. That doesn't mean that I care: If someone's way into them and they see that in us and they feel great about it, great. If someone isn't into them and they see that in us, to use that as a catalyst, is kind of natural.
SO: I remember early on people were like, "Dude, you guys sound like Zappa, and I love Zappa. This is great." And as I got older, I realized we don't sound like Zappa or...
MS: Maybe we do.
SO: We have drums and guitar, but whatever: That person loves Zappa and they found something they loved in us and related it. Or that person hates Phish and he decided to find something in us. It's really a reflection of that person more than it is anything else. And of course we reference all sorts of other musics.
MS: I get that aspect of it. It makes sense to me that people would do that. It's a natural thing, but I think the desire for people to find something they can connect to, that can make them feel comfort in a world, that's what comes into play. I feel like music is this universal tool that human beings have to be able to create something that's the closest thing a nihilist can say is something bigger-- that weird feeling of being transported. I do believe that even the reviewer that bagged on us for being too hippie-ish probably has some music that really blows his mind. I think that's what I want to try... make music that's better and more artistically successful but energetically successful. I think there's a reality to the fact that the more you're focusing on those kind of ambiguous goals, people aren't going to be able to fit you into the "thing," and they're not going to be able to derive the comfort from being able to categorize you. They're just going to find a way to bag it, to write you off so they don't have to deal with it. There's so much stuff, too. There's so much stuff that, at a certain point, I don't expect everyone to like us. There's so much music now that everyone can make their own band with a laptop and sound like a symphony. That's fantastic. So there's a level of trying to cut it off. So, to address the hippie thing, when the Dead came out, when they were starting and playing these happenings, it wasn't even about aesthetic success. It was about opening minds and everybody taking acid and having this crazy trip.
SO: I wasn't a huge fan of The Fader article on Jerry. I just read it recently, that thing, and I wasn't a fan. But there was one quote that was Mountain Girl [a Merry Prankster married to Jerry Garcia] saying that they were just impressed anyone was willing to get up and play at the acid test, to have the balls to get up in that environment and play something. It's really hard to address because there are so many layers. I feel like we can say one thing and people will think it's ironic. I don't even know how we can address it in this format for Pitchfork in a way that speaks genuinely to the issue without whoever's reading it taking it in whatever ratio of irony to sincerity. It's not that I feel like what we're trying to say or do is so bold. It's just that...It just doesn't fit squarely into either side. Since we began and we played Tonic, it's like, "Shit, we're not as out as this group that does this one drone thing," but if we play at this one place, we're not just doing this Interpol thing. Are we ostracizing people? Are we accepting more people? Are we just watered down? For some people, that's what Phish sounds like: They're not bluegrass, they're not reggae, they're not a rock band. I think we've dealt with that since we've started.
DJ: That's true.
SO: But, to me, that's the beauty. Dana is listening to R. Kelly and maybe that comes into our music some way, aesthetically or compositionally. I don't think any of us ever consider many things too far out to consider adding to the mix. I think that's just kind of the way we've all approached it. That's the way I've always approached music, and, in any situation I've ever been, I don't feel like it's been the easiest for me. When I was at school playing jazz, I wanted to approach it this way. It's not because I feel I'm a misunderstood composer or anything. I have a tendency to want to have a more holistic approach to music and to life, and it's something I see myself personally doing for a long time and getting better. All this will make more sense in 10 years when it turns into this other thing, so it doesn't make any sense to limit what we do to anything because of boundaries of style.
MS: Or more like fashion.
SO: Or more like fashion, even. As I've grown up and gotten out of New York City, for me-- I love New York-- but it's helped to come to a place that I'm from and get to be a little bit closer to the Earth. No one here's ever even heard of Pitchfork. I've realized that Pitchfork is really pretty cool, and it's amazing because I've had friends who have gone on to great success because of it. And we've had some, too. Some people look at us as "the darlings of Pitchfork." To us, we don't feel like that. It's all a big mindgame, this media thing, but I think we're learning to trust in our own sense of what we want to do and achieve. The hoped-for longevity of it is that it will all come out in the mix. [laughs.]
Pitchfork: Part of the difficulty with this band is that no one knows what you play, or how to describe it. Was that always the goal--to avoid easy definition-- or is this sound achieving some sort of definition for you?
MS: We never talked about wanting to make X kind of music. That's actually never been a conversation we've ever had.
DJ: The realistic way we went about it was to go at the rehearsal space at 12:30 a.m. and turn off the lights and just jam in the dark until 5 in the morning and then drive to Coney Island and take a photo on the beach. That's pretty how much we defined a lot of what would come out of us in the early stages.
SO: And I think we were recording a lot at home too and sending those demos to labels and then going and playing rock shows. I feel like we always just kind of jumped in. It happened to us in retrospect. I think the first time we had to address it was when Michael Gira came out and was like, "All right, I want to put out a record." "OK, what are we going to put on a record? How do we write a bio? Who are we? What do we look like?"
Pitchfork: So the first real "Akron/Family definition" came about for the self-titled record?
SO: Yeah, you have to at a certain point because they're going to write up a bio, and there's going to be press, and you're going to go on tour. That was when we first tried to put it within a parameter that we fit. I wanted to call the first record Early Works. [laughs.]
MS: I wanted to call it Greatest Hits.
SO: To me, it was like a collection of what we had done. It wasn't full in a way, and I still feel like we're still working on living up to our potential.
MS: Thank goodness.
SO: We've made four things that have gotten us from Point A to Point B, so that now we can get onto Point C. Not to say we're beyond wondering what we are. People ask all the time.
MS: The real thing is that irony can become real delicious, and cynicism and irony can become really comforting and they can become a way to protect people. The thing that I admire the most in seeing musicians playing-- the thing that I look for and the thing that I relate to-- is stuff that puts that at stake: that comfort and that security. It can be because it's really beautiful, personal. There's a certain feeling that I'm looking for, and for me it's more of a broad sort of thing instead of just this aesthetic parameter.
If you're going to communicate anything to people, there's a level of, "No, this is sincere," even if it's goofy or whatever. This guy was screaming at us at the show we played in Las Vegas, and he was over on my side: "Fuck you. Get the fuck out of here." I was thinking I bet that guy has never probably tried to go get onstage and have to do this, but I really mean it when I'm up there, even when it's really hard. [He was yelling that] at the beginning of the show, and I dedicated my 33 percent of the set to him, and he was really happy.
When we play for a room of people, I always want them to turn up the lights enough so that I can see the people. When we do certain things and I see people smile, that to me, that's amazing. That was what makes this the best job in the world. That's what makes this spectacular and really amazing. I want to say that to someone, and I really feel completely blessed to be able to have that be something that I get to do. That's amazing, but if I say that, at the back of my mind, I'm a little nervous that that's going to be taken as me being just ironic. ... I definitely want to do something that's beyond just making cool music. I want to make people smile. I want to do my part in that way to make people happy. I feel like that's a way I can really contribute to the world, and I want to do that. And if it doesn't feel like I'm able to do that, then I'd rather just get a regular job and do this on the side just to have fun and make songs.
Pitchfork: Miles, you came up playing punk rock in the Pacific Northwest, and-- from our discussions about that and the politics of it-- it never seemed like making people smile was part of the plan. When did that happen for you?
MS: Being in this band was a huge part of it. When I played punk rock, I was young and upset. I wanted to move people but I wanted to move people to look at what was wrong, which I think is a natural thing for people that are 15 years old. They're looking at things that are wrong a lot of the time, so it's a reflection of that. But really playing in this band, once we started performing and started touring and started having things happening, I started to see that, "Oh, well, now I'll be in a position..." I had thought about that conceptually, like wanting to give to the world spiritual aspects of music. I've always thought about that to a certain extent, but when we started touring, you see audiences and start to feel, "This is a place I can do good in the world." It's actually real. It's actually something that I believe is a tangible way I can benefit, rather than canvassing or doing some kind of political act. That's a way to really contribute. That's a real gift to me. It comes back to that family or community aspect, too.