Brooklyn’s Akron/Family first came to notoriety in 2005 with their self-titled debut. A mass of field recordings, Cherokee inspired chants, delicate pastoral meanderings and drippy psychedelia, the album introduced the band as a collection of individuals well aware of the versatility and malleability of recorded sound. The group continued to hone their project through the next few years, recording with Michael Gira’s Angels of Light project and developing a raucous, energetic live show that could be described at once as chaotic, ethereal and complete conscious absorbing.
For their fifth studio album (and only the second without founding member Ryan Vanderhoof), S/T II: The Cosmic Birth and Journey of Shinju TNT, the group set up camp in a small cabin on the volcanic Japanese island of Hokkaido. After completing the writing process on Hokkaido, the band traveled halfway across the globe to urban Detroit to record the album in an abandoned train station with producer Chris Koltay (Liars, Holy Fuck, No Age). Under the influence of Japanese noise cassettes, microtonal case poems and Cagean field recordings, Akron/Family have constructed an album which explodes in a great fury of light and fuzz as opposed to the slowly rising bubble of their previous work.
Dana Janssen of Akron/Family was kind enough to speak for a few minutes with The Aquarian Weekly, shedding some light on the new album and the band’s newfound comfort as a three-piece.
First of all, I’d like to ask you how working in two very unique environments—Hokkaido and Detroit—affected the writing and recording of S/T II: The Cosmic Birth and Journey of Shinju TNT?
The writing process, well actually all of it, had a pretty profound environmental impact on all of us just because inspiration can be taken in so many different ways, and I think that that’s just something that we’re really sensitive to and responded well to, in terms of where we were when we were writing and recording. In terms of specific stuff, I don’t know.
Japan’s a magical place. When I first went there I had this… I don’t know, this completely different energy than what I am used to. It’s very foreign and very inspiring. I have no idea for words that might be able to articulate what I mean by that, but I feel that might be the best way to sum it up.
For the recording aspect, in Detroit you have this city that was once one of the great cities of the country. It had Motown. The auto industry was booming. Whatever it was, it was just this hub of both creative expressions and output. Obviously, it’s been quite a different story as of late. A lot of factories have been abandoned, and this city is like a ghost town. In that regard, there’s a blank canvas over which you can just create over this once was greatness.
It’s a pretty awesome and inspiring location to be at. Like the train station once was a booming, bustling hub full of life and travelers, and now every single window is broken out, the marble on the walls is falling off.
But it’s all kind of still there. It’s pretty neat.
So while listening to the album and looking at the track listing, I noticed there was quite a bit of Japanese imagery. Not to mention the fact that you wrote the album in Japan, and ‘Shinju’ is a Japanese term for group suicide.
I want to say somebody brought that to our attention. We didn’t really know that was the translation when we decided to this. To us, Shinju is this mythical character we made up while on tour. I want to stress this has nothing to do with the group suicide aspect of it.
Okay, got it. So, overall though, how would you explain all these Japanese references strewn throughout the album?
The Japanese references are completely inspiration. When I saw the Boredoms play for the first time it changed me. They put on the best show I’ve ever seen in my life. Hands down, it was a moving experience for me. Most recently, actually, was the one that was the best. I saw the 99 Boadrum performance in 2009 in NYC. God, I was totally floored!
The inspiration of that paired with having gone there for the very first time two years ago, and experiencing in person what it was like to be on that island, and just feel the vibration of the Earth right there, to me, it’s very unique, very different and very special. We wanted to celebrate that: that inspiration. Sort of that—I don’t want to call it the knowledge that I gained—but the experience that I’ve gained through it.
Going back to what you were saying about the Boredoms, many fans would say Akron/Family performances tend to transcend simply being rock shows. They are experiences that seem much more powerful than simply live music. What is it that you think takes a band’s live show up to that next level?
I think it partly has to do with our commitment, our dedication and the sincerity with which we play and what we write. It’s tough to make social commentary on what people’s intentions are, but I suppose I don’t really see as much sincerity these days because of so many trends and fashions and things going around, passing from friend to friend. And I mean it might be just as simple as being influenced by your friends and wanting to do that for yourself.
I don’t know. It’s really tough to make some sort of social commentary on it, but for me personally, it’s very much that I think people respond to the truth that we play with. It’s not contrived. It’s not trying to be something else. Obviously, there are influences involved but when we play, we try to communicate.
We’re dedicated to music. I think that’s probably what people respond to most. And there’s a lot of really great energy that happens at the shows as well. But that’s not all us. People bring that with them when they walk in the door. We try to just give that back. It’s a nice symbiotic relationship.
So just to backtrack a bit to the album, I’d like to ask if you could explain the album’s title, S/T II: The Cosmic Birth And Journey Of Shinju TNT?
Shinju is like a representation of just this burst of joy that we all started to experience in being more comfortable with being a three-piece and becoming comfortable with who we are individually. I feel really excited and really happy about where I’m at. I think that’s part of what’s being sewn in; this collective joy that we’re sharing at the moment needed a name. Shinju happened to be the point that we agreed on.
And how does the volcano imagery on the album cover fit into all that?
The iconography of a volcano, the impact something like that has on the Earth, is a pretty powerful image and a pretty powerful part of the planet. Immediately when you see that, this thing that looks like a mountain, but when it is activated and it erupts, it has a profound impact on everything. It shuts planes down. It turns things upside down. It turns the world we’ve tried to create upside down and let’s us know that the Earth is still in charge.
The photo is just striking. The guy that took these shots hikes to a location and camps out for days and sets up his stuff and catches some magic. It’s pretty incredible.
But I think that’s just me though. This energetic burst of joy that we are trying to express is pretty accurately represented through the volcanic imagery that runs through here. Once it spills then it flows and then it keeps going and it eventually solidifies itself.
Will you be touring as a three-piece or with additional musicians this time around?
It’s just going to be a three piece. I feel like we’re all getting a lot more comfortable in being a three-piece. I feel the music right now doesn’t necessarily need to be as ornamental as it once was. Not that playing with other people takes away from anything. It’s a great contribution, and I appreciate everything that’s been done. But it’s nice to be able to find out how to do it as the three of us. It gives us a lot of room to express our ideas and not step on anybody’s toes or anything. The sound still fills up.
Your producer, Chris Koltay, said, “This album will transcend the Internet.” Would you care to elaborate upon that statement?
I don’t want it to be as disposable as an mp3. I don’t want it to be as fleeting as the Internet—you know, pop-up ads and new blogs and everything growing exponentially every day. Twitter—this constant stream of people just rapping at you—what do you actually catch in that? What do you actually see and what do you actually sit with for a while? I don’t want this to be lost in the boundless amounts of information put out every day. I want it be something that you sit with and you hear and you feel and have time to respond to and understand. I think there’s a lot of good intention behind this record that can be a positive thing for people.
Akron/Family will begin their tour in Brooklyn at the Knitting Factory on Feb. 17. For more info, go to akronfamily.com.