Interview

Akron/Family

Akron/Family

Monday 9th August, 2010 11:48AM

Formed in 2002, Akron/Family’s energetic, musically diverse folk has seen them win critical and audience acclaim since their 2005 self-titled debut album. Tied into the “Gimmie Coffee” scene set in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and unfairly lumped into the freak folk scene of the mid-2000s, the band’s loose, improvised, multi-instrument show has led to considerable plaudits. Their latest album, Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free was the band’s first as a three-piece (founding member Ryan Vanderhoof left the band following 2007’s Love is Simple), but continues the band’s unpredictable and restless sound.

You guys are extremely prolific, yet each album seems very distinct - how do you go about preparing for recording/writing songs? How different was the way you recorded the first album, say, compared to the latest one?

Writing songs is always different. Always changing. Some come from one. Some another. Sometimes it is the reflection of sunlight off a helicopter, or the inspiration to try some beat from a North African Acoustic record, or a lyrical idea about a Silly Bear.

The first album was really split between songs that were started totally simply in an apartment on a Dell computer, and built up track by track, and then songs that were performed by us as a band. On the new record, it was a lot more about creating together, making things up simultaneously, or exploring individual ideas together. Over the past few records, we had worked off we stuck to the model of starting with one person’s song, jointly arranging, and then recording. With Set 'em Wild we tried to write more together, develop ideas together, and start more from the ground up in the studio.

Your live show is so well regarded. For a band where a lot is improvised, does this create specific pressure to get it right live? How do you approach your live show? What role do the audience play?

Definitely. I think early on we were in a lot of ways more adventurous. Experimental even, in the sense, that some times it was a totally failed experiment. But we learned from and processed that and moved on. We still tend to change a lot from night to night, and a whole lot from tour to tour....but there is part of us that also really wants to give each crowd and every night, a sort of overwhelming total experience. In some ways, this means if we do certain similar things we can expect certain similar results. Oddly though, each night, each place, each crowd, each moon has its own particulars, and unless you shift/change/improvise or are spontaneous, you won't get that desired goal experience either. So in many ways we are always shifting back and forth, night to night, in search of the correct ratios.

You guys have spent your career being tied into scenes – Gimmie Coffee, freak folk etc. How frustrating is this process being tied into a subculture or scene? How conscious are you of the labelling process, even if it's ultimately pointless - is this something that happens to bands who are difficult to classify? Your name/collaborations seems to suggest there's a collective nature to the music...

I can only imagine being tied to anything (pole, chair, building, tree, car, mast, hook over a shark pool) is frustrating.

I think there are varying levels of frustration. One for me is the expectation that because people believe we are part of a "scene" (which doesn't actually exist by the way) , they expect us to act or do things a certain way. Make a certain kind of music. Develop in a certain trajectory. We never really intended to be part of a scene, and so it is quite frustrating to be expected to relate to one.

Our music is most definitely a collaboration. I feel like we are always striving to grow and communicate better, and allow this openness to inform our creative growth.

Your sound is very restless - and always has been - is that something that's natural from having such distinct personalities throughout? Is it hard to keep control of the music, especially when it comes to recording an album? Set 'Em Wild, Set 'Em Free for example manages to merge a huge array of genres and styles and sounds.

This is certainly a challenge for us. Part of it, as you mentioned, is 3 people with lots of ideas, collaborating and working hard to incorporate many of them. Part of it is this natural, youthful enthusiasm to try and include everything. To connect all the dots. To use all the legos and make a fort that welcomes all and whose architecture considers the needs of many. I feel like each time we make a record, it is like perfecting another wing of this giant lego fort. Or mastering one of the colours. Eventually, either on one record, or if someone were to sit and listen to them all at the same time, hopefully it would be the largest grandest most thought out lego building they'd ever seen!

Your music makes use of counterpoint and contrasting ideas - is being made up of strong personalities help in this regard? Allow for your music to remain unpredictable, different, prolific?

I think we all naturally tend towards juxtaposition. It is almost too automatic sometimes. Something is quiet we have to get loud. Something is beautiful, we have to take it in another direction. This is certainly a strong element in what I consider to be our most successful musical moments. It is something I am thinking about these days....how to balance dynamics with a sense of evenness.

Obviously there are considerable different sounds in your music, but in a song like River, there is a particular influence by (pardon the simplification given the sheer diversity in Africa) African sources present in Akron/Family's music - the influence of rhythm and specific ways of using the guitar? What particular "African" genres attracted you as a listener and as a musician? Do you ever feel conscious of "appropriation"/how do you pay due respect to some of the musical traditions that influence you?

This is one thing I am hoping in the future to move beyond. I think a lot of our music draws from so many influences, and takes meaning from not only the idea or feeling of the song but also the juxtaposition of various references. The comedy or seriousness of it. But I think in the future I look forward to trying to absorb those references deeply as inspirations, but to create from a less definable place. Something perhaps more slippery. more futuristic. So the listener can't stop simply at a categorization. Not that I don't feel that there is an "usness" about all of our records, I just think this "usness" is deep in the heart of it all. And the surfaces are changing, searching, looking. I am hoping to flip it. Or flop it. Depending on which way you look at it. Or what it means.

How was Set 'Em Wild, Set 'Em Free to record without Ryan Vanderhoof - did it take a while to figure out the sound the three of you (plus all the others who helped) would make?

Yeah. The sound, particularly live took a long time. I think for us, the making of the record was a process into finding that sound. It was a very open and confusing and fun and creative time. We really went for it and opened to it. And the success in that is that I feel like we are only at the tip of the iceberg now. I see Set 'em Wild as a process record for us, a very foundational record in some ways, and feel like we are just starting to see some of the creative fruits of our labours now, as we speak.

Brannavan Gnanalingam

Akron/Familyn 2009 NZ Tour Tuesday 15th December, Kings Arms Tavern, Auckland Wednesday 16th December, SFBH, Wellington



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