CULTURE- Splitsville: Akron/Family's 'nonsensical' blending

As even guitarist Seth Olinsky will admit, if any of the Akron/Family albums had come from a single composer, it might have suggested mild mental distress. As it turns out, there are four people in the band, but I'm still not entirely convinced.

They're just too comfortable with too much. For every cacophonous and epic "Dolphin Song," there's a charming and disarming pop nugget like "I'll Be On The Water" or a riff-rock sing-along like "Raising The Sparks." Every once in a while you'll realize that they're serving up all three simultaneously.

It would, however, be a great disservice to the band for me to claim that they strike a balance between these extremes. The truth is that they're all over the map, with no unifying stylistic thread save a compositional sense that is at times brilliant, and elsewhere never anything less than utterly precocious. These guys know how to write a hook, sure, but what sets them apart is that they also know when to ignore it– and they're not afraid to force you to sit through six minutes of nonsensical racket while you salivate at the thought of hearing it again.

What's more, the latest album is exponentially more loony than the preceding self-titled releases. If you don't grab hold right away, you're apt to be left behind as they pump themselves full of hallucinogens and take off for the moon. Label boss and general father figure Michael Gira, who commandeered the band for use as his backing ensemble, ascribes the idiosyncratic aesthetic sense to "a playful but hermetic quasi-religious/sonic worldview/creed" known rather cryptically in band lingo and inside jokes as "Ak-Ak." If you don't quite "get it" when you're finished listening, you'll probably need to listen again to be sure. And if you don't "get it" after that... well, you'll just have to try again. We'll very quickly enter a logical feedback loop if we continue this line of discussion.

After letting three Akron/Family records ferment for several weeks, I've concluded that while "religious" might be a little grandiose, it's headed in the right direction; the last time I had a listening experience this humbling, it was Bjork. I'll be disappointed if these guys aren't still making records in ten years, and I'll be astonished if they haven't outpaced my intellectual capacities as a listener in five.

The Hook: How long after your move to New York did you start making progress with Michael and his record label?

Seth Olinsky: All four of us were there in the spring of 2003, and we all moved into a loft out in Brooklyn and started playing and recording together. We started sending Michael stuff probably that same spring. We finally started recording in 2004.

The Hook: Is that when you did the split record?

Seth Olinsky: The summer of 2004, we recorded the first Akron/Family record, and after that was done, Michael was pretty excited about working with us. He was planning to record a new Angels Of Light record, so he invited us to come hang out in the studio and record a little, and it went well. We ended up doing the entire record with him. Then in the spring of 2005 we did our first national tour, where we opened up for him as Akron/Family and then came back out and played behind him as Angels Of Light. Then in the summer of 2005 we recorded that split to try to document that period of time.

The Hook: So how has being on Devendra Banhart's old label affected your career?

Seth Olinsky: It ended up being good because there was some attention on the label because of Devendra. Interestingly enough, I feel like because of that we got grouped into this "freak-folk" thing. I don't see what we do as part of that.

The Hook: Do you have a better suggestion?

Seth Olinsky: I would just put it under "Rock." Ultimately, I'm not worried about what we're called. At the same time, I don't want to look at our project as just a rock band, because that's limiting too. I look at freak folk, and it's not really a musical thing. It's a style, a fashion that the media has come up with. We're not really all that fashionable, we're just dorky guys who make weird music. Recently we've been leaning towards calling ourselves prog rock, but I don't know if that has a really good connotation. When we first came out, people were calling us "free folk."

The Hook: The last record is pretty proggy.

Seth Olinsky: Yeah, jazzy. The intention wasn't to make it any weirder than anything else. I think part of it was just that we had less time to make it and a smaller budget, so it was a little rougher around the edges. I think our new record is going to be our most accessible record to date– so clear, so produced. I don't even know if people are going to like it.

The Hook: How do you straddle the line between sensible and insane when composing?

Seth Olinsky: There's different songwriters in the group. Whatever the basic idea is, it's pretty different from song to song. And then you do it live over and over and the details emerge. Even the stuff that seems totally chaotic is actually intentional and somewhat composed, even if it doesn't sound as controlled.

The Hook: But there's obviously a decision at some point about whether to reach for the acoustic guitar or the distortion pedal. Does that point come before or after you've composed the part?

Seth Olinsky: A lot of times, things are just written simply on acoustic guitar and then orchestrated. "The Blessing Force" is nine minutes long, but I started with a demo on keyboards and clapping and acoustic guitars. I don't know if we look at all things as a juxtaposition– "Is this going to be acoustic or loud?" The song kind of dictates that.

The Hook: How much of it is improvised?

Seth Olinsky: It varies from show to show. This last tour, we said, "Okay, every night in the middle of the set we're going to have a pure improvisational moment." It's kind of a little bit terrifying now that we're playing bigger shows; sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't. Some songs will be really rubato one night, and then really fast the next, or we'll all be playing slide whistles.

The Hook: What sorts of evolutions do you see when you look at your own records?

Seth Olinsky: The main difference is that the early stuff, the things that we were recording at home and the things we were doing in the studio were really separate. We were doing this quiet thing at home, but live we were doing this rock thing. Now, the band incorporates both those things. The music doesn't seem all that continuous; you might even think it was a different band on each one. It's so schizophrenic because we're trying to do so many things at one time. I'm hoping that ten albums down the line, you'll be able to look back at it and it will make sense.

Akron/Family and the Great White Jenkins at the Satellite Ballroom, Thursday, February 22. $10, 8pm.