Coming off the heels of numerous shows at SXSW (one of which had all of team Drunkard in awe) Akron/Family is primed for the release of their fourth record, Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free (out May 5th on Dead Oceans). AD spoke with Seth Olinsky, guitarist and vocalist with the group during some downtime between tours. Among other things, Olinsky discussed the re-formating of Akron/Family as a three piece, live performance spontaneity, the abundance of ideas that led to their new record, and the groups growing confidence.
Aquarium Drunkard: When Love Is Simple, your last record, was released both you and Miles said that you felt like it was “the end of an era.” Do you think that happened, and, if so, what is the new era shaping up to be?
Seth Olinsky: The thing I was referring to… well, Ryan left the band. Ryan was with us since the first record on, and he decided to leave after Love Is Simple, pretty much right after it came out. From then on we started touring as a seven-piece, a six-piece and then eventually as a three-piece. So in a way, he kind of jump-started our process of reinvention and change and forming new ideas.
Why I was originally saying that, before he left the band: we had made the first record (self-titled) and the split LP (with Angels of Light) and Meek Warrior, and with Love Is Simple we felt we’d made something that touched on the things we had made before and incorporated them into one spot. Each of the first three things felt like they went off into different directions, kind of unrelated to each other. And with that record, it felt like we had gotten to the point where we could finally, cohesively, meddle together.
It was the first time we were able to bring all these things together, but also, now that we’ve brought them together we’re gonna have to go out and explore new ideas — that’s a bit of how the record felt. With Ryan leaving, it jumpstarted that whole process of really changing the things of how we wrote songs together, and how we approached recording together. So I do think, in some ways, that Love is Simple was the end of an era and this record in some ways is more a beginning of a new phase.
AD: Do you see Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free as a cohesive effort, a culmination of sorts, or that of a number of songs put together?
SO: I think that when we went in to making the record, in some ways there wasn’t a cohesive perspective on what the band sounded like, cause like I said, with Love, without becoming formulaic we had a formula in the four-piece of how we made songs, developed them, recorded them and I think for this one we threw that out the window.
We went into the studio with different material, some slow, some fast, some that we had been playing live as a trio, some that we hadn’t played before at all. And we kinda just started working on everything and trying it different ways so I think the record is the closest to a live show we get because of the way that we’re learning to play together, as three people. I think there’s a reflection of the live show on the record that really is the best we’ve captured yet.
In other ways the record became a grounds for us all to experiment and create together — similar in some ways to our first record. Kind of… creating a blueprint for us to go out and explore as a three-piece, as a new thing.
AD: You have spoken before about how the live experience cultivates your sound, shapes songs and warps them. How much did the transition in a live setting to three pieces transform the way you had to go about changing a song, until it reached it’s more final form?
SO: Obviously, for us, the three-piece has been complicated in various ways. We really like our music to have this sonic fullness to it, with a three-piece it tends to be a much more stripped-down sound. And then us learning how to use the space of a three-piece but then also try to use little bits of samplers and drum machines or keyboards or extra instruments so we can create this larger sonic picture.
In some ways, from the beginning as a three-piece, using things like samplers and drum machines or whatever, those things kind of show up in the recording a little bit. I think in a lot of ways, the recording… it’s not like we went out as a three-piece, performed songs and were ready to record them and went to record them. I think the recording ended up us working on working with each other as a three-piece and learning about what kind of sounds we could make together.
For example, Dana (Janssen) plays drums, but he’s also a great singer, great bass player, great guitar player, all these things. In the recording world, we can take advantage of all these things. We spent a lot of time during the recording experimenting and trying out ideas which I think, as opposed to trying out ideas live and then saying it’s a record, we tried things and those are now things we are getting to take advantage of now that we’re touring again.
AD: You’re an admitted Grateful Dead fan, and many see a jamband influence in Akron/Family. How would you describe the journey a song goes through during a show? Is it within very strict confines; is there much room to explore? Are there moments where you plan to stretch it out?
SO: On the overall, I think that certain songs have more space than other songs for opening up into improvisation. I don’t think we totally organize things the way the Dead, or any other modern jambands do, but certain songs we can open up to percussion and can go into different places. Usually I compare it to having a roadmap, and on different nights we can take different routes to get from one place to another.
And some nights, when we’re feeling it, we might make up a whole new… trail blaze a new route and that feels like improvisation. Some nights when, for whatever reason, the crowd’s not feeling it or we’re not linked up… a setlist can be a more stripped version of those songs with less playing around — within the song or from song to song or just the moments that are more open.
We leave ourselves a lot of room and openness within the songs, and how we get from song to song, but there’s not a lot of time where we’re just “jamming” and we have no idea where we’re going and we’re just trying to “jam.” Some nights new things happen and sometimes they don’t. Especially at the beginning of this tour, we were playing new material and these new transitions, so from night to night it would be radically different. One night we would a drone, the next we’d do a percussive thing. We became more familiar with it as the shows went on and the set took shape. By the end of the tour it was more composed.
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AD: Prior to Love Is Simple the band got more into African music together, specifically Malawian music. Was there a similar introduction into your world as a group that you feel pushed this record? Maybe not even music but a thought or piece of philosophy?
SO: There’s definitely still an influence of us listening to various African music on this record, but even more than that, we were talking about things like Sly & the Family Stone or Prince, more rhythmic records. I think we were all focused on rhythmic aspects of recording and song making. We were focused on the rhythm of what we were all playing together; I think some songs are more evident than others.
But even the songs that are slower but not as groovy, I think there is still more than any of our other records, an acknowledgment, of focus on the tempo we were playing things at, and the way the instruments we were playing were relating to each other rhythmically as opposed to, maybe, sonically.
AD: Several of the tracks feature all three of you singing at once, some might call it harmony, or just group singing… but is this something that the three of you have become more comfortable with, have you personally?
SO: As we all get more experienced I think we are getting a little more comfortable with our voices on recordings, but it is kind of terrifying at the same time. In a lot of ways I think when Ryan left that was one of the more complicated things we had to deal with because Ryan was a great musician as well as a great singer. He just happened, from the beginning, to be the most experienced singer coming into this group. But the group developed this identity of group singing and harmony, so we all did it with him as part of the equation. So when he left, it was going from four people singing to three people singing and was in some way more complicated than we had figured. It’s been taking us a while live and on record how to organize group vocals, and arrange for three voices and simplify. I think the record was a great experience in learning that and when we play live, the more I think we’re learning how to arrange vocals and also learning, how to give the arrangements of a song space so that it’s less us screaming over ourselves all the time and the vocals can better reflect the instrumental arrangements.
AD: Many artists claim to feel very removed from a record by the time it actually is released, are you already on to newer material or are you looking to expand what you have done even more on the road? Is it still fresh?
SO: It is in some ways, but there’s always that experience where you reach the mixing stage and the mastering phase and you’ve heard these songs over and over and over again, and you… crack a little. And then you lose a little bit of perspective on the whole. That’s happened with every record we’ve done.
But with this one I still feel excited and very good about. The feeling amongst the three of us is the same, and more exciting than any of the other ones. Which is (laughs) a pretty nice thing. After a month out on the road some of the songs off the record that we’re playing live have already developed and grown into new things. I haven’t actually listened to the whole record in a while but when certain songs I’m like, “Oh wow, it sounds totally different than the way we’re playing it live.” It just seems like things are always continually developing.
So, in some ways, recordings end up being snapshots and we keep going as a band and the snapshot exists in time. For this record, I look at it in some ways as having the chance to experience and develop new ideas as a three-piece; it’s this moment in time where we got to do this thing — I have good feelings about it. I’m not sick of it but at the same time I’m not listening to it that much.
SO: I think with any project you have to balance between… you can keep recording and remixing and redoing forever (laughs) because they’re not static entities, these songs. If we hadn’t finished the record yet, we probably would go in and rerecord a lot of the songs because live they have improved and changed.
When you think about folk songs there’s all these different versions, sometimes there’s famous versions, but really there’s not a definitive arrangement or sound for these songs. They’re these blueprints that Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger all performed. The same can be said for a record, though pop music kind of strives for the contrary, there is a level with music where ultimately you’re just capturing a snapshot in time.
These songs, especially by the time we got to the end of them, it felt like you could take each song in four different directions; we could mix or remix and make them totally different things. There’s a sense that this is not the definitive version of these songs, or the representation of all this material, it just happens to be the way we went with it at the time with the tools we had at our disposal.
We got to take this record to the places we wanted technically and creatively a lot more than any other record of ours.
AD: I want to ask a specific question about a song on the record… why start Set ‘Em Free with “We’re rolling?” – a lot of bands have a track an album that does that… is it to give a live feel?
SO: I don’t think, for me, there was a conscious decision about that. I think in particular, Dana said he liked it and we said “Okay, sure.” The thing that I like about that song, at that time on the record… the record feels sonically pretty big, and at that point, to hear that and that song which sounds like people playing acoustic guitars in a room – it just adds a dimension, for me, to the record – a vulnerability, or a healing quality. You get this thing that has all these tracks and all these sounds and voices and things, it’s larger than life. And then the next scene is just three people in a room doing something, it seems to accentuate that.
AD: What went into the writing and recording process to begin this record?
SO: This is the first record we’ve produced ourselves. Even when we were touring Love Is Simple in the fall of ’07, we made the decision that the next record we wanted to go as a three-piece. And we knew we were going to be changing record labels so there was a sense of waiting for finding that, to begin the process, and also entering the process of beginning songwriting.
All the while, we knew we were producing ourselves so we started just kind of doing preproduction, sending notes to each other or whatever about where we could record or what engineers we could work with, what we wanted it to sound like, what records we were liking, why we liked those records.
All of the sudden here was this freedom, we felt like we’d developed this formula for Love is Simple and then we were thrust in this chaos of not having a formula. So it felt like we were dealing with a lot more options, so in a lot of ways, by the time we got to the actual recording, we had loads and loads of ideas, like we had a script for a ten hour film and we were supposed to go in and make a hour-and-a-half long one.
We had all these songs and all these ideas and all these things we wanted to explore and we showed up at all these different studios we were planning on recording at with a crazy amount of ideas and possibilities and it was a little bit chaotic. So we just decided to start and go and see what happens. About halfway through the recording process certain songs seemed to take shape and life and fit together. A story, or an abstract of a narrative emerged from all these things we had laid down on the table. It was an exciting time because we’d gone in, it was a little while of trying all these different things. What emerged was the record.
We did a lot of preparation for the record, but had less of a defined outcome — even though we were more prepared that other records — we had a less distinct idea of what we’d come out with.
AD: When not recording and not on the road, what are you doing in your downtime?
SO: The last six months I’ve been traveling a lot. My girlfriend and I went to Chile for a while. Then I went to Ghana for a little bit, we were helping recording and teaching this drum group different things. Now we have another month off and I don’t know, it depends. Usually, splitting time between writing and recording new things — various other musical projects. I worked with Rhys Chatham on a project called “100 Guitars,” organized in Pennsylvania. Then we ended up doing “200 Guitars” at Lincoln Center.
Last summer my girlfriend and I lived on a farm, we had a huge garden and farmed a bit which was pretty fun.
AD: What’s the most interesting, or most shared, thing you discovered/read or heard/studied in 2009 so far?
SO: Recently I’ve been reading this book Iron John which is interesting, by Robert Bly — a translator, he translates (20th century poet, Rainer Maria) Rilke and Rumi (13th century poet and theologian). An interesting book, a perspective on being a male in modern times.
AD: Is there a question you are sick of being asked?
SO: (laughs) There’s a few. I hate “Where did you guys meet?” Ultimately I just get annoyed at the basic questions, “Where did you name come from?” I feel like we’ve answered these questions, (laughs) four hundred times (laughs) they must be somewhere on the Internet.
We’ve had several good interviews for this record, seems like people are listening to it, they’re more familiar with where we came from — it’s nice to talk to someone about music and make yourself think about what you did. words/ b kramer