music (2006-03)

The Zen of Snoop

Indie-folk band Akron/Family loves gangsta rap, too

STANDING PROUD: Akron/ Family isn’t afraid to wave its freak folk flag.

by Molly Kincaid

Snoop Dogg just might be the great mediator. No matter where you’re from or what type of music you like, there’s got to be at least one iota of your soul that gives it up for Snoop. So it’s clear that Dana Janssen of Akron/Family is my homey right off the bat when our interview begins like this: “I just woke up in Montreal and it’s the best feeling in the world,” he says, sounding a bit groggy though it’s 12 p.m. “Oh, yes! And Snoop Doggy Dogg is on the radio—‘I keep comin’ up with funky-ass shit like every single day, yay-ah.’” Janssen hardly takes a breath before adding, “Man, we were up ‘til 5:30 a.m. These Canadians really know how to party—you wouldn’t think it, but they do.”

After trying to convince me he was raised in Compton, Janssen admits to his slightly less “street” homebase in Pennsylvania. But he and the other three bandmates met and still live in Brooklyn, where they are carving out a place for themselves within the burgeoning scene of what critics have come to term freak folk. Considering the somber, cataclysmic tone of the band’s music, Janssen’s surprisingly chipper. “I’m one of the most optimistic people in the world,” he says. “And I don’t really see our music as dark, but if it is, I guess that’s just the way of the world—the yin and the yang, the dark and the light….” Trailing off into what might have become a definitive freak folk rant (observing life and its sounds and documenting them, etc.), Janssen gets side-tracked again, yelping along with Snoop, “We don’t love them hoes.”

All this is to say, though its fare appeals to those of ethereal, avant-garde musical leanings, the band’s members don’t take themselves too seriously. At the suggestion that Akron/Family should include a hip-hop component on its next album, Janssen laughs and says, “Oh, it’ll happen. We actually have been known to rap onstage.”

But the band’s alleged mad rap skills aren’t the only reason to make the trip to an Akron/Family performance. Its self-titled album, released on Young God records last year, is heavily accented with found sounds that function as captivating devices of setting—like the squirrels in a Bob Ross painting, a faucet’s slow trickle or a grandfather clock’s chiming. But its onstage embellishment must be improvised. “When we were recording the songs, there were certain feelings that weren’t coming out, so we would use sounds like the chair creaking that we thought would convey those things more,” says Janssen. “But the shows are more energetic than the recordings…we might grab the cookie jar from the bar and bang it against the wall. When you go to a show, you don’t want to hear exactly what’s on the CD. And trying to recreate what’s on the record can be really limiting.”

Not only that, but one gets a sense that recreating these tunes precisely would be nearly impossible. They are ripe with immediacy, with an addictive intimacy about them. The songs fluctuate in theme and mood between bleak chaos and docile ambience, transforming in setting from bucolic to urban at the slam of a car door or the rural-sounding creak of that old chair.

As in life, there’s no real common thread here, just a string of observations from four differing perspectives. Janssen explains that there’s no lead singer or guitarist, but a loose collective; perhaps one reason for the “family” part of the band’s name. “I myself play drums, keyboard, glockenspiel, saxophone, guitars,” he says. “And we’re all pretty sick kazoo players.”

The band’s latest offering, an untitled collaboration with Young Gods’ founder and experimental music legend Michael Gira, is less focused on outside noise and more saturated with vocal harmonies by the four members, giving it a chilling air of purity. “He’s a great influence on us,” says Janssen of Gira, who also works with freak-folk vanguard Devendra Banhart. “He’s pulled out major elements of clarity by really having us pull out the vocals. And he’s so fucking supportive. Just to have someone like that backing you is overwhelmingly beautiful.”

Though its innate oddity would prevent any artist of this genre from blowing up on the same scale as Snoop, that’s no reason to shy away from Akron/Family. Despite a lack of bling, the bands beguiling mystery is sure to win you over. Or, in the immortal lingo of the D-O-double G himself, it’s tha shiznit.

Who: Akron/Family w/ Mi and L’au and may gray