by Holly Day
It’s almost like hearing two different bands. When Akron/Family’s eponymous first album came out last year (featuring Seth Olinsky and Ryan Vanderhoof on guitars, Miles Seaton on bass and Dana Janssen on percussion), the only word I think I could use to describe the music was “big.” The layers of sound were incredibly thick and textured, with undercurrents of buzzing and things clinking constantly, something you’d expect to hear in campfire songs composed and performed by a vegan robot choir that crash-landed in the Appalachians. There was an incredibly expansive feel to their debut album, as if the only thing keeping the band members from flying into space was a tenuous understanding of gravity.
Concurrent with their debut’s release, however, they did a record with ex-Swans’ front man Michael Gira’s Angels of Light project, and it was a completely different sound for them. Where before they were big and airy, they were now incredibly claustrophobic and concise, the clicks and buzzes that seemed so melancholy and homesick before now sounded growling and menacing. And, of course, having Gira involved could make even a walk in the park seem like an intense but leisurely stroll towards Armageddon.
It’s kind of strange to think of the two acts collaborating to begin
with. The boys of Akron/Family are
incredibly laid-back, charming, and very friendly—Ryan was eating his
mom’s homemade cookies and raving all about them during our interview—while
Gira is known for being an incredibly intense and intensely reclusive personality.
“Seth was working very hard at sending packages--our CDs and letters
and stuff--to lots of different record labels that we liked, independent record
labels that we liked, and Michael’s Young Gods was one that we thought
was a very interesting label,” explains Ryan. “And Michael responded.
He was one of the few people who responded, who commented on our music, and
told us to keep up the work and to keep him posted. That was basically all he
said the first couple of times—we sent him, like, four different CDs over
a year. And he always responded nicely, and with good feedback. But we didn’t
really hear from him for quite a while, and then out of the blue, he wrote to
us and said he had revisited one of our CDs, and he really loved it, and he
wanted to come and see us live. So we happened to be playing a residency at
a place called Pete’s Candy Store—we were playing every Monday,
I think, of March 2003—and so he came to hear us play. And that’s
how we first met him. We were all pretty nervous. He was standing in back with
his signature cowboy hat, hootin’ and hollerin’, and cheering us
on—it was really cool. A little while later, he invited us to work on
his Angels of Light record, and record one of our own for his label.
“It’s been a real learning process, getting to know each other
as people and as co-workers. Definitely, in the studio, he’s a very demanding
presence. He’s a dominating type of personality, which I think really
propels the creative process to really keep moving forward. It keeps it very
live. He’s very inspiring in the studio, and pushes us to do our very
best in every aspect. Especially in the vocals. He really pulled the vocals,
our singing, right out of us, and saw all the good potential we had, and really
pushed us to really keep working at it, despite it not really sounding all that
good to us in the beginning.
definitely got a different style than us. He condenses things, and really packs
a punch into a small piece of music, where he takes them and really fills them
with lots of intensity. It was a challenge for us to do that because generally
we were coming from these more long-winded kind of songs, more spacious pieces
and a little more meandering type of sound than a concise sound. I think we
both influenced each other in good ways in that, because we really needed that
ability to create concise statements and themes and to be able to present something
in a short amount of time is really fulfilling. And I think we brought an element
of spaciousness to his sound, which I think has been beneficial.”
Nowhere are the benefits of this partnership more apparent than in the new
Akron/Family & Angels of Light LP. On the first half of the album,
Akron/Family takes the front stage, with Michael Gira lending instrumental support,
while on the second half, the players reverse roles. On this album, the Akron/Family
pieces are wild and chaotic, much blunter and aggressive and sure of themselves
than on their previous release. The Michael Gira pieces, however, are definitely
some of his most lighthearted work, including a cover of Bob Dylan’s “I
Pity the Poor Immigrant” so laid-back you can almost picture Michael Gira
cracking a smile. It’s not all sunshine and roses, of course, but if I
were a marriage counselor and Akron/Family and Michael Gira were my patients,
I would say that this was the healthiest partnership to walk into my office.
“We definitely communicate musically better than we do verbally,”
admits Ryan. “I mean, we are all kind of naturally musicians, that’s
something we’ve done all our lives, and I think, as people, we just developed
our musical communication skills better than our verbal skills. But we’re
working on having good personal relationship skills as well, because in order
to keep the band alive and moving forward and stuff, we need to be able to work
together as just people--outside of the music--too.”
Akron/Family perform on Sat., Mar. 11 at the Seventh St. Entry with
The Field and The Dad in Common. 8 p.m. $8. 21+. 29 N. 7th St., Mpls. 612-332-1775.
For more info, check out Akron/Family’s official website at AkronFamily.com.