As an antidote to the money flying around this issue, Miles Seaton of Akron/Family ruminates on love, joy and being part of a quasi-religious hermetic brethren.
“Love is simple,” Miles says. “Love is a simple and boundless force that suffuses all life. It has no agenda; it’s like a fire burning inside you.” This is a view that won’t surprise anyone familiar with Akron/Family and their particularly joyous and love-ful music. If you’re not familiar, then perhaps Pitchfork’s label for them, ‘unmitigated hippy gaiety,’ could go some way to summing up their sound. Or are they being simplified and misunderstood by a music press too eager to place bands into categories?
“A little bit. I think we’re operating in a system that is constantly looking to be impressed or to impress. Our music is sort-of hippy,” he says. He’s not wrong – their latest release, coincidentally called Love Is Simple, is full of homages to the more flowery periods of 60s psychedelia. The opening track, “Love, Love, Love (Everyone),” could easily be passed off as a Beatles recording from the Sgt. Pepper’s sessions, and with titles such as “Don’t Be Afraid, You’re Already Dead” and “There’s So Many Colors” the transcendental themes run rife, as they did on their split release with Angels of Light, and their previous album, Meek Warrior. Throughout they use their signature bluegrass vocal harmonies and old-time Appalachian mountain sound to refract old rural ways through a lens of modernity. But isn’t all this shameless emotion horribly out of sync with our mature and Thatcherite times? “The indie community produces so much stuff that is soft and mushy that doesn’t have the muscularity of our sound but that isn’t referred to by the media as ‘unmitigated emo gushing’,” Miles retorts.
Akron/Family began as a group of friends from far-flung areas of rural America who moved to Brooklyn together with the aim of integrating themselves into the local music scene. Yet after finding nothing quite like the sounds they wanted to make, they locked themselves in their apartment and recorded their self-titled debut, Akron/Family, releasing it on Young God in 2005. A beautifully constructed record their folkish influences and unbridled enthusiasm for life found them compared to other “freak-folk” acts emerging around the same time such as Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom, but these comparisons were lazy at best with a band who can at times out-crazy Animal Collective and construct post-rock landscapes to rival Tristessa. Incorporating electronic sampling and instrumentation more commonly associated with post-rock, they had created a weirdly unique sound, where television static sat alongside glockenspiels in some un/holy psychedelic symbiosis. But whilst critics loved it, this oddness unsurprisingly found them never more than skirting the edges of popular appeal.
“When it comes to our record, I’d love people to feel delighted. I’d like people to feel happy, heartbroken – but not in the bad sense – and human, uncomfortable sometimes and then back to comfortable again. I want people to feel what they feel and just go with it. I believe we’re trying to communicate something about joy to people.” It’s perhaps this emotional directness and honesty that can put people off delving into their work or seeing them live which is perhaps the greatest shame of all. Miles explains – “When we’re performing live, I want the room to feel a little bit less like a rock club, a little bit less like a spectator situation.” Their reputation as a live band is built upon their experimental and raucous nature, whereas their records, though shining and loving, are ultimately frail and subtle. Live, they often invite the audience to stage invade, dance and play instruments. There’s an almost primal aspect to their show, a collective effort with everyone in the room as one tribe making music together. There’s spirituality to this rain dance, too.
“Everyone in the band has different religious views, whether or not they are religious. I think, like anything, it is a part of life, and I think about it a lot, so it informs our music. My personal religious views are pretty supportive of me being human,” says Miles. The religious aspect of Akron/Family, whilst personal to each member, have clearly affected the band dynamic, most clearly seen earlier this year when their bassist, Ryan Vanderhoof, left the band for “a Buddhist Dharma centre in the Mid West,” as the band put it, shortly after completion of their latest album. How did the other members feel about this?
“I feel incredibly happy that he has had the courage in his life to do what he really wants to do. A lot of human beings don’t take the opportunities they have to live with authenticity, and I feel like that’s something really great and I support him very much in that,” says Miles. “I feel it creates an amazing opportunity in a way that maybe if he was to stay in the band we wouldn’t have had the ability to stop, regroup and try something truly new. I think this whole frickin’ Beatles model is just so outdated, now we can all put that to rest and move forward into some new wild thing that could include any number of possibilities.” So where does he think the band’s music is going to move to now?
“I think definitely a lot of rhythm; we’re all really excited about rhythm. We get really excited about drum machines and direct input things that make it really heavy and loud. We’ve been listening to a lot of African music, which I don’t think we were listening to so much a year ago when we were started working on ‘Love is Simple’. Or maybe we’ll just go to Africa and record with people there. I don’t know – I’ve decided to ‘not know’ for once!”
Interestingly, for a band so consumed with love for humanity, Akron/Family seem to have trouble making friends in the musicians working around them, and some have gone so far as to call them “hermetic.” When they finish their current US and European tour, and find themselves back in New York City, are they going to try leaving their bubble every once in a while?
“Yeah. We wanna make friends, but sometimes I feel we just don’t relate to people in the same way,” explains Miles. “I think that may be something we’re moving out from now we’re moving away from our old self a little bit. We’re going to try to be involved with people next time.” It’s an odd sentiment from a band who, on the surface, sound like they spend their evenings dancing round a campfire surrounded by close friends, but then Akron/Family have never been one for sticking to expectations.
By Sophie Pearce and Ian Steadman