On their latest album everybody’s favorite “exasperatingly unknowable band” set out to thwart their perceived reputation as freaked-out freak-folkers via spontaneity (and maybe even a little spontaneous combustion, too).
BY ERIC SWEDLUND
Searching out a new sort of heaviness, both sonically and thematically, Akron/Family found inspiration in the vast open deserts of the Southwest. The band has always placed a significant value the process of creation – their last album was written near a Japanese volcano and recorded in an abandoned train station in Detroit – and naturally infused that harsh and primal landscape into the new Sub Verses (Dead Oceans). In doing so, the trio of Dana Janssen, Seth Olinsky and Miles Seaton called on their experimental and improvisational live show to boost the record’s intensity.
After writing, recording and touring for 2011’s mystically sprawling and vividly expressive Akron/Family II: The Cosmic Birth and Journey of Shinju TNT, Olinsky and Seaton both relocated, Olinsky to Tucson and Seaton to Los Angeles. The moves brought a sharp visual sense of what they wanted the band to capture on Sub Verses, Akron/Family’s seventh album. From the ancient expanses of scorched earth, the hot winds, the jagged isolation and the grand stone mountains, the band started drawing musical ideas and snippets of stories to explore in the lyrics.
“Seth and Dana and I wanted to make something intense. All of us wanted to make something that felt big and large and had a lot of sonic power and depth,” Seaton says. “I definitely had some ideas about sound and feeling and themes that I was really looking for. Interesting things started happening when we found what those different things meant to each other. Heavy means a lot of different things, emotionally heavy, or loud, or having a lot of bass.”
Akron/Family found what they needed in El Paso with producer Randall Dunn.
“We were pretty set on recording somewhere in the American Southwest. We were both pretty inspired by the vastness and the dryness and the ancient magic of the open space in the desert,” Olinsky says. Dunn pushed the band to expand, bringing synthesizers and other synthetic elements to the recording and creating a deeper world of sound on the low-frequency end.
“Randall is just a really top level engineer who really has subtlety and an amazing way to capture and represent sound. He got us to stretch our boundaries and adding some noise and chaos and unknown elements,” Olinsky continues. “Randall is such an expert sonically. One of the things he does is reveal this conversation between these sub-frequencies. I don’t think any of our records had before this sculpted low end. I thought that was really cool thing I didn’t even anticipate.”
That unexpectedness, he notes, fits right into the plan for a band that relies on improvisation and in-the-moment creativity. “It’s a combination of what we went in thinking we were doing and getting surprises in the middle of the process. It’s a balance of what we were planning and what was actually happening, riding that line of making something that we have the intention of doing and being aware of what’s happening. An Akron/Family record is when the three individual ideas get mashed together and is something that’s sort of unfamiliar to all three of us.”
Or, like Seaton suggests, it’s like a big rock tumbler is at work: “It eventually comes out feeling like a different object than what we thought we were looking at. It keeps changing until at some point it emerges.”
Creating a heavier rock record also lets the band step further away from the folk or freak-folk tag that’s been a misapplied label since Akron/Family’s debut.
“I don’t think we ever necessarily saw ourselves as a folk group in the way it came off the way the world interpreted us,” Olinsky says. “We had to record quietly in these apartments when we were in Brooklyn. And then we were out on Young God (Records) right after Devendra (Banhart) and we became part of this scene that was almost specifically folk, but we were also playing with free jazz players and rock players. This label of freak folk has sort of followed us around because of that initial time, but we’ve always been a dynamic band depending on which lens you catch us through.”
Seaton appreciates the term “folk” in terms of being a traditional music of the people, but not as a specific genre. “I’ve never really identified with the idea of folk as a genre, but I heavily identify with making music that can speak to people, something that’s very true to me and has this immediacy to it that comes from telling the truth and not hiding from that,” he says. “Folk music has a very truthful quality to it, so it can resonate. But to me rock and roll has that too in an interesting way.”
Captivated by the almost futuristic type of sounds the band was getting in Dunn’s studio, Olinsky developed a sci-fi aesthetic with his lyrics, explaining, “I feel like it brought out this intensity of this modern present/futuristic sort of overload. I had come to the table with the sound feeling really saturated and distorted and blown out and the intensity of colorful harmonics that come out of that.”
Having just read Frank Herbert’s Dune saga, Olinsky says the plots of the books mirrored the layers of sound the band was creating in the studio, creating a musical atmosphere fitting for lyrics that delve into the sci-fi realm. “For me it felt like a very failed future, from an overwhelming technological perspective. The oldness of humanity and basic human narrative confronted by the non-humanness of the way machines and computers and modern life is structured and operates. A lot of sci-fi takes place where those two things are being juxtaposed and then explores what that means.”
The title Sub Verses works within that same context, describing and album that invites below-the-surface exploration.
“When I write words,” says Seaton, I work on trying to make them have different interpretations. There’s the surface meaning and what’s beneath it. With all the music, I feel like there’s a lot of stuff buried inside of it. With this record, moreso than most of our records, there’s this level of being a lot of things being encased in other sounds.”
Part of the band’s boldness in adding layers upon layers of sounds comes from an experiment during the last album. Akron/Family produced a series of alternate mixes of The Cosmic Birth, often burying the songs in wild and harsh bursts of noise, then leaked the mixes, which they called “bombs” online. Because it was essentially a prank, the bombs allowed for an extremism the band had never attempted before.
“The bombs project was letting ourselves be totally, unapologetically extreme,” Olinsky says. “As we try to meet all these different places artistically and balance it out, we ended up with something that goes to all these different places we’re interested in. On this record, we were going for a similar intensity in the expression. There was the idea of ‘Let’s go all out and be totally heavy.’”
With Sub Verses another artistic statement that, at the very least, challenges listeners, Akron/Family met their own goal. But how does the band confront its reputation as being an “exasperatingly unknowable band,” according to the All Music Guide.
“Life doesn’t feel like it follows any linear progression and I feel like our art reflects that,” Seaton says. “A lot of singers, I can hear their voice and read their lyrics and I can feel a lot of validity with that, but I feel like they’re not singing my song. Over time we’re tying to be as honest and truthful as possible and ideally that connects with people.
“When I’m making music, the idea is to try to express this thing with as much intensity and trust and presence as possible and ideally that can resonate with people. Reviews are centered around recordings of music. There’s a level in a room with people that we have a really different effect with the music that we’re making.”
Olinsky adds he sees the truth in the band being “unknowable,” a sentiment he feels to a certain extent even having participated along the way.
“I think there has been some sort of a commitment and an attempt to this idea to explore and change and follow our whim with a certain sense of spontaneity,” he says. “If I look at our whole career as an arc, I think our live show has been a little bit more successful than our recordings. We’re exploring all these different aspects of life through music and when we do that live, there’s a way of being present there with the people and the willingness to go in different directions works.”
[Photo Credit: TJ Nelson]