Last time I saw Akron/Family multi-instrumentalist Dana Janssen, he was coursing across a homemade Slip 'N Slide made from a large piece of linoleum found by the curb in front of a frat house in London, Ontario.
Though the temperature checked in somewhere in the 40s that night after the band's show two and half years ago, Janssen, bandmate Miles Seaton and members of its tour support act, Megafaun, stripped down to their underwear and spent the early morning hours drinking and sliding across the watered-down linoleum in a fan's front yard.
Kind of a weird sight to be sure. But it encapsulates the band's willingness to try just about anything.
Akron/Family performs with Warpaint and Matthew and the Arrogant Sea on Thursday, March 25, at the Granada Theater.
Certainly, since releasing the band's self-titled 2005 debut, the improvisational folk-rock experimentalists have wandered in several directions. The first release offered ramshackle country-folk sprinkled with odd sounds, spates of clanging percussion and lethargic spaciness that suggested one-time labelmate Devendra Banhart haunted by the whispering ghosts of The Flaming Lips. Their second, split album, with Michael Gira's Angels of Light, released later that year, continued their predilection for hypnotic repetition, dipping into greater skronk, more shambolic group singing, paisley-drenched psychedelia and a rambunctious campfire rock aesthetic. And, working with avant-jazz drummer Hamid Drake, their 2006 third album, Meek Warrior, disappears into a haze of world-beat polyrhythmic workouts, mantra-like vocals, extended jams best described as jazz-psych and undulating build/release post-rock dynamics. It reads more like a cookbook than a typical band catalog.
So perhaps it's natural that 2007's Love Is Simple proved something of a retrenchment. It marked the band's first recording produced by someone other than Gira (in this case, producer Andrew Weiss) and, in some sense, signaled flagging energy. It showed up in the way that the album's recording process unfolded, expressing itself in a more limited stylistic palette. While still a fine album, it rehashed where the band had been before, more than breaking any new ground.
"[The recording process] was very relaxed—in fact, too mellow," Janssen says now, speaking over the phone from Portland, Oregon, where he and guitarist Seth Olinsky have recently taken up residence. "We were about a week out from our deadline for being out of the studio, [when] we all realized, 'Wait a minute, we have so much left to do. What the fuck are we doing?' That may have had something to do with that—having too much of a loose structure to work within. That didn't really force us to examine what we were laying down."
Since forming, Akron/Family has been known both for its hectic touring schedule and lengthy two-plus-hour shows that indulged the band's improvisational spirit, billowing out like sativa smoke. Sufjan Stevens once told the band, after witnessing its boundless stage energy and hearty touring regimen, that such a chosen path "just isn't sustainable."
Time would prove Stevens prescient: Singer-guitarist Ryan Vanderhoof left after the band's first tour supporting that album. He'd recently discovered Buddhism and was more excited about that than spending eight months of the year in a smelly van. Rather than add another member, Akron/Family simply slimmed down to a three-piece, changing the entire energy within the band. Suddenly, there was more space in the arrangements and a void in the vocals where Vanderhoof had done the lion's share.
The pulling together his departure engendered revitalized the outfit, though: Akron/Family's latest, Set 'Em Wild, Set 'Em Free, the first album the band has produced on its own, is its catchiest, grooviest, funkiest release to date.
"[With] less cooks in the kitchen, it's easier to navigate around everybody's ideas, incorporate them, and have room to speak up and express yourself without feeling like you're cluttering the songs or just the air in the room," Janssen says, going on to explain the band's new vocal approach. "We're doing more harmonies between the three of us—different people are taking leads—and we're passing that ball around a little bit more. I think it adds an extra dynamic to the show where it's not just the same voice or thing going on the entire time."
Producing this album also offered the band the time it lacked on the last album—to break down the songs, explore different approaches, refashion what wasn't working. Everything, really.
"It's awkward," Janssen says. "Sometimes you get into the studio and you realize some songs aren't exactly working, so you have to crack them open and completely rework the arrangements in the studio, which eats up time. With Set 'Em Wild, we had a lot more time to do that, to do different takes and use different miking scenarios."
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While still dreamy, the new album isn't as spacey, staying closer to the melody while skating over intricate, bustling percussion. It's still firmly within the folk-prog realm, but feels crisper and more focused, even as it goes from elegant roots-pop warmth ("The Alps & Their Orange Evergreen") to cinematic, whirling dervish, skronky post-rock roar ("Gravelly Mountains of the Moon") and exultant world-beat gospel-funk ("Everyone Is Guilty"). None of the band's influences are gone—they're just more finely pruned.
On Akron/Family's next album, the band is hoping to capture the rousing, infectious spirit of its live shows, which feel more organic and less directed than the albums. To that end, at live shows, the band will be playing a number of new songs that, at this moment, are only half-formed. While the members have traded ideas on these new songs over the computer, they've only had about a week of rehearsals playing them together so far.
"We have an idea on what they could be, and we are all individually working on them while we're at home," Janssen says. "But doing that leaves a lot of room for it to grow over the course of the next tour, when you're playing a set every night, getting lubricated. This way, we allow them to breathe and become what they are in the live context before we hit the studio. We've always been much more of a live band, so we want to make a piece of music that is as good as the live show on a recorded medium so people can enjoy that all the time."
Of course, the only way that Akron/Family will ever be as fun on your stereo as it is live is if you have your own Slip 'N Slide nearby, ready for use immediately after.