Jeremy Simon - September 16, 2011
Akron/Family emerged from the Brooklyn experimental folk scene of the mid 2000s. Over the past six years they have been noisily doing their own thing, including flirtations with free jazz, art pranks and some seriously out-there mysticism. Their latest album, released earlier this year, is called "S/T II:The Cosmic Birth and Journey of Shinju TNT", the meaning of which remains obscure even to the band. Though the three core members are now flung across the country, their approach to music remains as cohesively fresh as ever. The Deli caught up with founding Akron Miles Seaton, shortly before a rousing set at the Festival de Musique Émergente (FME) in northwestern Quebec.
Why are you here, at FME?
We came up here to play a rock show in a church. It's a really great remote location. We are always excited to play events that are off the beaten track. All of us come originally from rural areas, so it's nice to play somewhere that's different.
What's been the most memorable show you've played?
Actually the last show we played in L.A. was my favorite show in years. It was one of those times when I wanted to capture it and broadcast it to people, like: this is what you should expect for the next year. It was an all-ages show at the Echo, full of crazy energetic kids who were crowd surfing. It was super-positive and really wonderful.
It seems you never know what you're going to get from an Akron/Family show.
That's why we do what we do as artists. We don't rehearse. We all live in different places. I've been living in New York, Seth is in Tucson, Dana has been in Portland, so when we play is when we tour. It keeps things interesting, but making new material is challenging. It's harder to do that on the road. But what it does is pushes us to make the time count, and to improvise more and be more spontaneous when we're performing. It forces you to be present and put yourself out there, to be vulnerable and to leap. As an audience it demands that as well. For some people it's exhausting when they're expecting to come and be passive. It creates an active participatory experience and it unified the room. We don't know what's going to happen, you don't know what's going to happen.
It sounds like Akron/Family have something in common with jam bands
I feel we get lumped into that. For people who are hipster it's a really poor reference. I grew up playing hardcore music. I love the Grateful Dead and a lot of psychedelic music. But the modern Phish jam band I never got it, I never heard it, I didn't know what the deal was. When we started getting people compare us to this we were like: what are you talking about? But then our friends said we should try playing at these jam band festivals because it's all these really open minded people. I felt like we hit it really hard there and they were like: "what?", and then we go and play more conventional rock club shows and people are like: "huh?". We're a little too inside for the outside people, and too outside for the inside people.
What drives you as a performer?
I believe very strongly in the power of entertainment. There's some nobility in the idea of people needing some solace from how life can beat you down. As an entertainer there's a feeling of singing to people and drawing them in and making them feel good. Push their buttons a little bit, but more to soothe life for people. Ideally you're challenging people to feel the nobility in themselves, and the nobility in their experience as humans. It seems lofty, but I don't really give a shit. I'm over thirty, I want to reach for something that's greater in my life.
What first inspired you to make music the way you do?
When I was 15 years old or younger, and went and saw hardcore shows for the first time, there was no stage. The band were in the crowd, confronting people. It was really inspiring. It made me feel like I wanted to do that, I wanted to pick up a guitar. It was the feeling, the energy, and everyone together. It's about being totally yourself. You watch those people performing and they're hyper-present. Whether the music is good or not, you can't deny it. Bob Dylan is the same way. Shitty voice, but amazing singer. He's totally convincing because he is so present. He doesn't hide, he's vulnerable. I feel like that's the standard I'm holding myself to.
Is current music losing its edge in that respect?
There's millions of people in America, and millions of musical scenarios. Plenty of people that started around the same time as us are playing huge places and pushing the commercial angle of what they do a lot. That's totally their choice and I respect them - the music is good. But I feel there's always going to be an audience for music that's simply from the heart. In New York and L.A. there's a lot of weirdos. There's enough people that someone's going to like your shit.
Which live performers do you respect?
We played with William Parker at this festival in New York City called the Vision Festival. It was a real honor for us. He had another guy playing with him called Flip Barnes. Flip plays trumpet and his son Asim is 19 and plays guitar. These guys are heavy duty free jazz musicians. That was the group that opened up, and they also joined us on stage. There was a lot of improvisation, it was really beautiful. We told Asim, "Hey man, come up and play guitar whenever you want". At some point it was really raucous and Seth was like, "Yeh man, come and take the guitar". He shook his head, "No, no, no". Later we went down to this very delicate space. One person would make a sound, and then all this silence. It got to this point where I'm getting chills, it was so beautiful. I look up and Asim walks onto the stage, quietly puts on the guitar, turns everything up to ten and goes "AEEEIIIWHAWAAWAHHH". Everyone in the room was like: "what the fuck?". It was the most inappropriate thing possible. And you look over at William and he's just quietly nodding. Because everything is permissible. That's what I want: saying yes constantly. William Parker doesn't play stadiums, but what he does have is a powerful impact on the people around him. He's generous and respected based on the way he's trusted. He's built a community around him, and I have a lot of admiration for that.
What message are you trying to send out to the world?
I feel like the world needs to have art that reminds them of the intrinsic value of humanity and of life. When I see good art it makes me feel good about being alive. It makes me feel like I want to be myself. It doesn't make me feel that if I don't change myself to be more like the person performing it that I'm not going to be cool. There are too many things in the world that are projecting messages that you're broken and you will only be whole if you have this medicine or this alcohol or this fashion.
What does success look like for Akron/Family?
Success is about continuing to grow. When I first met Seth I'd moved to New York, and I was ready to leave. I couldn't get a job and everything felt like it was falling apart. I had this feeling that was like a prayer. I needed to find people that I could make music with. High quality people that wanted to grow as human beings at the same time as growing as musicians. When I met Seth we started talking about how wanting to continue to grow personally was of value to us. Success isn't an opportunity to check out and play Peter Pan for the rest of our lives. It's an opportunity to go deeper into mystery, into what it means to be ourselves. We worked on a project, "Woody Guthrie's America", that reached out to a lot of people. For us to work on projects that help bolster community, that's a really important thing. To connect to people is success.
What's the best complement you could be paid, as a band?
The most moving thing that happened to me was that someone came up to us after a show in Montreal. He said "I don't know what to tell you, my brother died a couple of days ago, and we'd bought these tickets. I didn't know if I should come to the show. But I could feel with you guys there's so much positivity, I just wanted to thank you". He came because he didn't know what else to do, and was so glad. He felt like someone was with him. We went to Japan, and people were talking about these artists that wouldn't come because they were worried about radiation. It makes me so angry. People need to know that someone is with them. Connection and compassion.
Before you put your latest album out, you invited your friends to remix the songs, and leaked their versions online ('the <bmbz> project'). Why?
In some ways we were referencing Banksy and the art prank vibe. We always wanted to leak crazy shit. To be honest some of the <bmbz> versions of the record sounds a bit more like what we go for sometimes. The album is beautiful, but it's quite a bit more well-rounded. We felt that once we turned it in we had this wide open space to do whatever we want. We smashed the shit out of the music, gave it to friends to rework it. We were just inspired to put it out there.
" ...someone came up to us after a show in Montreal. He said "I don't know what to tell you, my brother died a couple of days ago, and we'd bought these tickets. I didn't know if I should come to the show. But I could feel with you guys there's so much positivity, I just wanted to thank you". "
"S/T II:The Cosmic Birth and Journey of Shinju TNT"
listen to "
Avant Folk flirting with free jazz, art pranks and some seriously out-there mysticism