The guys in Akron/Family have changed. A lot.
In just a few years time, America's favorite indie-freakout rockers -- when not releasing brilliant albums or giving the greatest live shows you could possibly imagine -- have had to deal with a lot of changes. First off, core AkAk'er Ryan Vanderhoof amicably parted ways with his long-time compadres in late 2007, making Akron/Family a trio for the first time in their professional career. Secondly, the band has switched from their long-time home of Young God Records to the newer, fresher Dead Oceans records. Then, to top it all off, they've decided to put out Set 'Em Wild, Set 'Em Free just this last week, and it's a fantastic, infinitely repeatable disc of pleasures both expected and surprising: it carries on great AkAk traditions (note the shouty folk-rocker "River") while also unveiling new elements of noise rock ("MBF") and breathy post-freakout piano closers ("Gravelly Moutains of the Moon"). It's a sprawling, stunning disc, and it hasn't left the Globecat stereo since its arrival. Yes, it's that good.
Speaking to Evcat by phone, band member Dana Janssen speaks humbly about his new disc, explaining that the trio format has allowed the band to explore new sonic possibilities, and also hints at yet another furture collaboration with Globecat friends Do Make Say Think. Dear friends, we give you ... the Ak!
So let’s get to the quick of it: how was it like writing and recording without Ryan this time?
On one hand I miss the strengths that he brought to the table, but on the other hand, the three of us have a lot more room to breathe and create and explore ideas between the three of us. It really gives us more space to interact. It’s also interesting ‘cos we’ve sort of had to, like, reinvent the band a little bit.
You guys have gone through a lot of changes these past few years. Is it weird not releasing something on Young Gods after all these years?
[It seemed like] time to move on from that, you know? We’re actually happy to be working with somebody else, because -- I like Michael [Gira, Young Gods label head] and I really appreciate what he’s done for us -- but you’ve got to move on. It’s also nice to have a fresh team of people really pushing your record.
With all these changes you’ve had, would you go as far as to say that this is AkAk Mach II? More specifically, do you feel that this is the same band or a different, more streamlined version of it?
It’s the same band -- well, it’s tough to say. The same spirit, I feel. A little different -- that’s to be expected. Not terribly different. I don’t know.
Well once you take it out on the road, then you’ll know.
Yeah, we’ve been out doing the trio shows for a little while now. A bunch of residencies all over the place -- [they] went really well.
Well this gets us into talking about the latest disc, Set ’Em Wild, Set ’Em Free, which has everything from string and horn arrangements to classic AkAk freakouts. One of the most curious tracks, however, was the noise sludge that is “MBF” ...
In [our] live show, there’s a lot of aspects of noise -- it’s just a part of the live experience that [isn’t] part of the albums; it rounds out the listeners ears in a way that they’ll be shocked when they come see it live, ‘cos I feel that the first record, when that came out, by the time we hit the road, we had a lot [of our songs] done in an apartment: it was very quiet. So there were limitations that that created. With this one, we had a rehearsal space with a whole band setup, so there were new tunes coming about. When [fans] hear the record, they expect that when they come to a show. For me personally, I’d enjoy it [more] if I expect to see something unexpected. [The song] allows people to see all 360 degrees of Akron/Family. That’s what we tried for.
So this is the record that fully integrates the orchestral stuff and folk/pastoral stuff and the crazy freakout stuff ...
But not in being some sort of overarching “trying to fit too much into one” record. I feel like we did a pretty good job of navigating the emotions [of this record] fairly effortlessly. It has a very natural quality throughout -- as opposed to having it feel like you’re trying to say too much.
We’ve been having this debate here at Globecat about what the best song off the album is: I feel it’s “River” while Dave sides by “Gravelly Mountains of the Moon” -- is there a personal favorite amongst the band or just a song you’re really excited about playing live?
Not really. [Laughs.] I like all of them, to be honest with you.
Given how this album is more sonically dense, how do you expect that to be integrated into you live shows?
Depends on where we are, I guess. When we’re playing in New York, we have a horn section here, and on the West Coast, we have some friends who can play, so it’s sort of like a regional thing: depends on where we are. I’m blown away that it’s always just so fresh. We need fresh blood -- [it’s] a good inspiration to have.
Well you guys have also had a crazy year in terms of other projects as well, notably contributing your voices to the last Do Make Say Think album.
We were in Toronto last month and did a [some] more voices for them.
For a new one?
For their next record yeah -- it was pretty cool.
What was that experience like working with them?
Oh those guys are great guys -- coolest people I know. I remember when I first came to New York, I had three CDs that I kept constantly in rotation all the time: My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, Built to Spill’s Keep It Like a Secret, and Do Make’s & Yet & Yet. We went to a show early on and later found out that they liked some of our songs and we loved theirs -- it just blossomed from that point onward. But what great guys -- really sweet and really honest.
One last question: so far in your career, what’s been your biggest regret and -- conversely -- what’s been your proudest accomplishment?
Proudest accomplishment: being able to play with some of our heroes, bands we really look up to. It’s such an incredible experience to play with these guys and learn from them. As for regrets: I don’t know. I don’t think we’ve had one.
Visit AkAk's official website here.