Akron/Family has been especially difficult to pin down since their first album appeared in 2005, drawing from classic rock, freak-folk, jam bands, and improv. They've backed former Swans leader Michael Gira in Angels of Light, collaborated with the likes of avant-jazz greats Hamid Drake and William Parker, and toured extensively, winning acclaim for their lengthy, improvisation-heavy performances. It's not uncommon to find hippie and hipster, indie kid and frat boy, Deadhead and record-store snob rubbing shoulders at the band's shows.
The departure of singer/guitarist Ryan Vanderhoof in 2007 resulted in the most dramatic change for the ever-evolving band, now a three-piece that features occasional guests on record and stage. Only bassist Miles Seaton remains in the group's original home of Brooklyn; Dana Janssen and Seth Olinsky having lighted out for the west, landing in Portland, Ore. Having band members on the other side of the continent presents obvious logistical difficulties for writing and recording music together, but Seaton says they've enjoyed the challenge.
"The cool thing is we get to work on things in a new way," he says. "We mostly share Internet files. And it's freeing because no matter how comfortable we are around each other, put everybody in a room together and a self-conscious response to people whose music you like and respect kicks in. Alone you can do whatever you like, and I personally feel I'm working on things that are more adventurous, and have no idea how they're gonna turn out."
Seaton says the band will assemble in a studio to start recording a new album in June, and though they're playing some of the new songs during their current mini-tour of the South, they're still ostensibly touring on the back of 2009's Set 'Em Wild, Set 'Em, Free, which shows the band in a leaner, tighter mode. All the "classic" Akron elements are present—group vocals, extended improvs, proggy bits, pastoral folk ballads that lead to mid-song freak-outs—but the song fragments and meanders that categorize earlier albums have all but disappeared.
While Akron/Family seem to be crafting their albums with more precision with each successive release, at heart they remain a band that thrives on playing before an audience. Seaton says the dynamics shift on any given night, depending a lot on the crowd. They'll be returning to Pilot Light for their third show there, having played the Bijou Theatre their last time through Knoxville in 2007. Known for rowdy, spontaneous sets (they invited the entire less-than-capacity audience at the Bijou on stage for a pre-show dance party), Seaton says the band is particularly fond of playing the Old City club.
"That last show we did at Pilot Light was probably the most violent, intense show we ever played," he says. "I had put a microphone in my mouth and I looked over and Seth had two in his mouth, and we looked at each other like, ‘What is going on?' We were just in a mood that night, and that room just has an edge anyway. You feel like you can do whatever you want there."
The band still plays all shapes and sizes of venues, from large stages at international festivals to small clubs, but Seaton admits that the amount of curiosity seekers they attracted after an initial surge of Internet-fueled popularity has thinned somewhat, something he insists the band is more than fine with.
"People come to see us now because they want to hear us, and I'll take that over a room full of people who are just there to be there," he says. "The marketing machine is not something I want to have much to do with. You want to try to be positive, but when you create something and drop it into the culture machine, our conditioned response is so much about commodity. And I hesitate even saying this, because I know how it sounds and people are going to see it as some pitch behind a product, but I truly want to make people feel good, to feel joy. This is something we talk about in the band all the time—how do you create that intimacy in the midst of all these products? We'll still keep making albums, but playing live we can create this feeling and connect with people and make something special."