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Rob Trucks’s “Possibly 4th Street” expositions, in which he invites musicians to perform live and impromptu somewhere in New York City, run intermittently here at Sound of the City.
Akron/Family headlines and curates the Knitting Factory’s farewell party this Wednesday, December 31. Tickets are $35 and still available here.
photos by Rob Trucks
Possibly 4th Street
Number 25 (Part One)
by Rob Trucks
By the time the three (or more) members of Akron/Family take the stage for their show-closing, year-closing, Knitting Factory-closing set on December 31, six months will have passed since we spent the better part of an afternoon in the backyard of the band’s last remaining New York outpost. (Thankfully we can report that their MySpace page has been updated in the interim).
Seth Olinsky’s moved back to Pennsylvania from New York, Dana Janssen down to Tobacco Country, and Ryan Vanderhoof has left the band completely. Only Miles Seaton remains in Brooklyn.
Following three songs by the collective’s now three-man core, we sat down with Olinsky to discuss the differences between free folk and freak folk, Albert Ayler and Ornette Coleman and how a band that once lived together now functions from three different states.
Possibly 4th Street
Number 25 (Part Two)
Seth Olinsky of Akron/Family
Wednesday afternoon, July 23, 2008, one day before the band’s show at Castle Clinton.
The backyard of A/F’s Miles Seaton’s Brooklyn living space
Your band’s MySpace bio reads, ‘Four extremely nice, sincere and well-mannered young men.’ Obviously four is now a prevarication, which kind of kills the whole sincere thing, but are there any other untruths I should know about before we continue?
[laughs] Well, it is sincere. We were four people. We were a four-piece for the longest time. It’s a Billy Joel day. I think four and a half years ago we started, and we were a four-piece for about three years. And then last summer, about a year ago now, I guess, our fourth member left, Ryan, and so it’s kind of been all over the place the last year. What you just saw was the three of us who are kind of a core now, but we’ve fleshed it out with various assortments of friends and musicians and done five-piece groups and seven-piece groups and twelve-piece groups.
So it’s not so much that you’re a liar as much as you’re not particularly timely when it comes to updating your MySpace page.
Right. Well, we don’t have one number that we’ve settled on yet, and yeah, we don’t really edit our mySpace page that much. But we are fairly sincere. Or we try to be.
Tell me about the derivation of the band name. You may be the only band that I can think of with a backslash.
Right. AC/DC has the lightning bolt but . . . There’s no real mystery. I mean, as I said, we started as four, but really Miles and I met in New York and started recording in my apartment and making stuff on a 4-track, and eventually had enough to kind of make a little CD-R and hand package it. And we were like, ‘Well, what are we going to call this?’ And we decided to call it Akron. And then Dana moved to town, and I grew up with Dana, so we started playing as a three-piece and then Ryan, who I mentioned before, joined the band and it kind of kept growing and growing, and we had this e-mail address that we called Akron Family, and eventually kind of tried to decide as we were growing, should we call ourselves Akron Family or just keep Akron? And I think at some point I mentioned to my mother and she said, ‘Why don’t you put a slash in it?’ So that’s where the slash came from. It was my mom’s idea.
But why Akron? None of you are from Akron. Did you have a really good weekend there?
No, no real reason. Through no real planning of ours we ended up playing our first gig in Ohio, actually at Oberlin. We drove out there and that was the first time we’d ever played in front of people, and we stopped in Akron on the way home. But no, no real reason. Is Chicago from Chicago?
I think they are, but I wouldn’t swear to it. Boston’s from Boston.
Yep, that’s true.
Alabama’s from Alabama. And that’s probably as far as we need to take that.
Okay. So there’s another breach of our sincerity. . . Yeah. We’ve never played there. I don’t know much about it. I know we got one comment on mySpace like, “You guys don’t represent Akron with your hippie crap. Give us back our name.”
But it works.
I’ve read interviews with you in particular where you use a good amount of really big, polysyllabic words in conversations with blogs and publications that I’m not all that familiar with. Give me five publications that you might catch yourself reading.
Wow. My girlfriend just bought fifty years worth of National Geographic, so I read, I guess, kind of older ones. And she also just got a bunch of Whole Earth Reviews, so I’ve been reading those. I got a subscription to Tape Op, which is pretty cool. They’re pretty cool guys, and pretty nice, and their subscriptions are free, which is pretty awesome. What other publications do I read? I’m trying to think. I guess I don’t read that many magazines. I live on a farm in Pennsylvania now [laughs], so I’m kind of like removed from media. So I don’t really read that many current publications, I guess.
You live in Pennsylvania now. But I’m pretty sure that a standard part of the A/F bio, updated or not, is that all of you lived together in New York for a year or so, recorded about three albums worth of material, parsed them out as needed, and then scattered in the wind like so many dandelion spores. Where is everybody else now?
Miles lives here in Brooklyn and I’m living on a farm in Pennsylvania. Dana and I actually grew up together in Williamsport, Pennsylvania and I moved back there, and Dana is in the middle of moving to Durham, North Carolina, so we’re all kind of spread about.
You went from living on top of each other in New York to spreading out across the eastern United States. What has that done to the band? Are there any positives to being apart and getting back together infrequently?
It’s definitely hard. I mean, we came from what I feel like what was kind of a common New York City band routine of working various day jobs and having Wednesday night rehearsal or whatever, this fairly regular rehearsal schedule and writing and recording. And then, at that point, when we were in New York we’d probably play once a month somewhere in New York, and so you’re rehearsing and writing and working on all this material, and then only performing once in a while, so you generate a lot of material and we got to really dig into things. And I think that that was a really formative period because it kind of let us kind of work through an aesthetic and kind of different things that we wanted to do artistically, and we were able to generate a lot of material and break it down and re-evaluate the material, so it wasn’t just like the singer or songwriter brings the song to the band, they learn the chords and go play the gig. And so that really helped as far as the genesis of us getting a sound.
And then touring, obviously, helped that a lot too, because we’d have to play every night. But now it’s at the point where, yeah, we kind of get together to work in relation to a thing that we’re doing. Like if it’s going on tour for a week so we get together to rehearse for a few days before that tour, or we’re recording a record so we get together to write. You know, it some ways it’s nice that when we get together we can focus on a task so it’s not this amorphous, you know, go to the rehearsal studio on Wednesday nights and wait until you get the big MTV video. But it’s also hard to be separate. You know, everyone separates after tour and has their own life that they lead.
How does the separation particularly affect your upcoming album? Because your last record was in ’07, so unless something’s in the can and mastered, the likelihood of seeing one before year end is pretty slim.
No, I think spring ’09 maybe. I mentioned Ryan before. When Ryan left the band it was right before the newest record had come out, and we were like, ‘What are we going to do?’ It was really hard in the moment, but it actually forced us to kind of like reinvent ourselves pretty quickly, which was kind of a nice blessing in disguise. Rather than just go out and tour the record and play the material we had to rearrange the older material for a three-piece or a seven-piece or whatever it was. And then also, you know, it was like, ‘Well, this old material doesn’t feel as good because it was written around this group of people,’ so we started writing a lot. And so now we’re working through that material and we’ll probably start recording at the end of the summer, and the fall is going to be mostly recording.
Not being together as much as you used to be, is that a good thing or a bad thing in terms of writing songs?
Writing material is not necessarily our problem. I think we’re all pretty prolific in our own ways. I think the good thing about when we lived around each other and were playing around all the time, the positive thing of not having to work for a project, that you’re kind of working for yourselves, just kind of open-ended creation . . . So I think I sometimes we have two days to get ready for this tour and we don’t always leave ourselves with the most open-ended way of approaching things. It’s kind of like, ‘Okay, we know we have this much to do. We know we have to do this and do it in this amount of time,’ so it can get a little formulated sometimes. But I don’t know, I think we’ve really learned a lot from the past few records and all the different experiences that we’ve had, and I think with this record we’re really giving ourselves the proper amount of space and time, based upon things that we were frustrated with before, to develop the new material and take it out on the road and then come back and rework it. I don’t know. I think we’re trying to give ourselves space and time.
What, if any, effect did New York the city, New York the energy, New York the people, New York the pace, have on your songwriting when you were all here?
I mean, for me, coming from a small town, New York was like hearing ideas or seeing ideas in art or in music. I mean, ‘What is it that they’re doing? How are they doing that?’ And, for me, New York was kind of like coming to the place where a lot of that stuff was made, whether it’s free jazz and William Parker and the improvisers or going to Chelsea or a museum or whatever, I think for me it was absorbing a lot of different ideas and trying them out.
I think our band tends to try on a lot of tangential ideas. We kind of get into Stax soul recordings or African music or Indian music or punk rock and try on a lot of things. Maybe go a little too far in that direction and then reel it back in and add it to the palette that we use. And so I think New York was a period to really absorb all these things that I wasn’t totally exposed to or didn’t have the direct contact with, getting to meet people that are doing these things or hear these different ideas or play shows with these different musicians. So I think it was kind of just that period of absorbing all these different creative, you know, momentums. And it even got to a certain point where I feel like before I moved away I wasn’t really even going to see that many things, but at a certain point it just feels like it’s in the air.
A little osmosis.
Yeah. Everything’s feeding off of the advertising and all the other things, so sitting at the coffee shop, even if you’re trying not to absorb ideas from other people, they’re just there and it’s actually kind of led me, for one reason, wanting to get out of the city. Just to kind of have space to let some of the other stuff settle away and get back to my own thing.
What are your personal feelings regarding the term “freak-folk?”
[laughs] I don’t know. People always ask us. I guess this is the genre that we fall into. I mean, I don’t think individually any of us are that freaky. I like folk music. That’s usually the word I focus on when people ask about it just because I like the music of the people and the concept of what that means.
Is there a better adjective?
Than freak? When I first heard about it as a genre, I thought that people would use the term “free folk,” which, you know . . . I went to school in Boston and I had seen people that were improvising music, but there were also elements of folk music involved in it. It wasn’t just purely jazz-derived or free improv-derived, and so I kind of associate it with that because that was really what I always . . . The two things I always loved the most were like songwriting and/or folk music or traditional folk musics of different cultures, and then, you know, improvising. Free folk. I kind of like that better than freak folk.
So if someone called you Ornette with an acoustic guitar you not only would not argue, it might actually make you beam a little bit.
Yeah. No, I love Ornette Coleman. I mean, I don’t know. I somehow see us a little more Ayler-esque than Ornette-esque because I think the harmonic sensibility is the same. Ayler has this kind of wild energy around it with kind of a more simplistic folk melodicism.
You played three songs this afternoon, “Woody Guthrie’s America,” “Crickets” and “Lake Song.” Tell me about the composition process for one of them.
“Lake Song” has been through the most transitions. It was a song that Dana, our drummer, wrote. He has a pretty cool brain whenever he composes. It’s oftentimes in strange time signatures or he just has a unique way of combining melodies and rhythms and stuff, and that was one he kind of just laid all the drums down on the ProTools and added vocals and brought to us and it’s been through all these various transitions. And then when we do it live we use a sampler for the drums and stuff, so that one changes quite a bit.
You talked about Dana bringing in “Lake Song.” What song, brought in by someone else in the band, made your jaw drop, like, “Holy shit. That’s the best thing I’ve ever heard in my life?”
[off-camera from Dana] That never happened!
I don’t know. He seemed fairly positive towards “Lake Song.”
[more Dana] Yeah, right. It’s just because I’m here.
[back to Seth] Are you a curmudgeon? Do you not like anything anybody else does?
No, I’m not a curmudgeon. I’m trying to think . . . I mean, last night we were working on a new song that Miles wrote and we’d worked on it before. We’d played it live and it was kind of coming along and it had this kind of Afro-pop feel. And it was a nice song and then he worked on a rearrangement and we put it together last night. I was also delirious because I had driven in from Pennsylvania early in the morning and we had rehearsed all day, but I was definitely kind of blown away by how easily he kind of came up with this new feel. A lot of times Miles will come up with these . . . He’s kind of the guy . . .
We just heard a story last night about Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead first listening of the newly completed American Beauty. And he thought that it didn’t have a certain feel or environment to it, so he brought all the equipment out to the Nevada desert and recorded 60 minutes of just Nevada desert air and put it underneath the whole record for vibe [laughs]. And that made it work for him. And Miles was like, ‘Wow. I would do that.’ And looking at it from this point of view, it’s like, ‘Yeah, that’s kind of fun. That’s a cool idea.’ But if you imagine it from the band’s perspective when it’s like, ‘Okay, we just finished this album. This was a lot of work. Everything’s ready. We’re ready to sign off on this, and Phil needs to carry . . .’ You know, back then there weren’t handheld recorders. They had to take all the reel-to-reel equipment out to the desert. So yeah, Miles sometimes will come up with these things that seem like a lot of work for something, so you know . . .
Give me a working title or a line in the chorus or something so we’ll be able to recognize it when it . . .
I think this song is called “River.” Or “A River Song.” Or “No Longer a River” I think is what it’s called. Yeah. He gave it this rearrangement and all of a sudden it just had a few simple elements that just took on a whole new character, and it just really had a quality that was kind of rhythmic, and yet ambiance. I don’t know. It reminded me of some of the like King Sunny Ade stuff with the pedal steel.
And you’ll probably play it tomorrow night. It seems like you’d almost have to if you were practicing it yesterday.
Yeah, yeah. And that’s the thing. We’re trying to play all these new songs and force ourselves to play them live because it’s really just the best way to, you know, develop a song. Otherwise you kind of write it and you’re like, ‘Okay, this is great,’ and you go into the studio and you record it and you’re like, ‘Ah, that’s not quite right,’ and you end up having to like overdub and try and fix things to try and take it in a new direction. Playing it live just saves so much time. You work out the material.