Interview: Akron/Family

Miles Seaton is on a mission. The bassist of the ever-morphing, sorta-psychedelic Akron/Family is less concerned about image and record sales than helping the band truthfully express itself. He talks to Ben Wood about love, magic, Eastern philosophy… and being compared to the Manson Family.

Posted on Jun 12th, 2011 in Features and Interviews, Akron/Family, Crammed Discs / By Ben Wood
Interview: Akron/Family Akron/Family are not like other bands. After five albums (and one collaboration with Michael Gira’s Angels of Light), this trio of New Yorkers continues to explore a wide range of styles – more concerned with personal exploration and ecstatic communication than marketing, hit records or hipness. And while some bands can barely raise a grunt, bassist and sometimes singer Miles Seaton seems fascinated by pretty much everything. A simple question can send him spinning off on a multitude of tangents.

The band’s soundcheck has overrun, like all soundchecks, by an hour – but though time is short and he hasn’t yet eaten, Miles plonks himself down backstage and is happy to give Bearded 40 minutes of his time. And the ideas come in torrents…

While some still see A/F’s music, particularly live, as relatively freeform, Miles says the band make a conscious effort to give the audience what it wants: “I feel we’re relatively contained [nowadays]…I’m really interested in the difference between the pursuit of an artist, and that of an entertainer. I feel like there’s a responsibility that comes with entertainment that is really tied towards dealing with people’s expectations [but] I feel like an artist’s responsibility is to create the most passionate, sincere and vulnerable work that they can. So I’m trying to find a way to smash those two things together and actually acknowledge both sides…”

A/F have a pretty eclectic range of artistic influences. Miles says “We all have a real love and passion for radical expression, for ideas, for conceptual art, for free jazz, for comedy, for absurdity, for Dada.” The band are all voracious readers, with a deep interest in Buddhism and religious mysticism: original member Ryan Vanderhoof left the band in 2007 to live in a Buddhist Dharma center, and the band’s most recent album is called S/T II: The Cosmic Birth and Journey of Shinju TNT.

This side to the band manifests itself in an interest in encouraging a flow of energy between the band and the audience: “When we play live, the spontaneity is in service of a deep desire to connect with people, like punk rock, free jazz…”

And while they bicker like any band, Miles is very un-English in his willingness to declare his love for his bandmates. He says it’s important to look across the stage during a gig and remember: “I’m really lucky to spend time with this person: he’s brilliant, he’s such an amazing writer, a gifted musician, he works so hard on himself, he’s so smart…. We really work at it ‘cos we really love each other and we’ve really identified that, and we honour it. A couple of weeks in on tour though..!,” he laughs.

Unlike most outfits, it’s not easy to play spot the influence. Miles reckons this is largely down to the band’s insular and geographically isolated formative period. He explains: “When we started, it was [vocalist/guitarist] Seth [Olinsky] and I in his apartment working a shitty job, getting off at 3 in the morning and working til 7 in the morning making these weird bedroom recordings. Then [drummer] Dana [Janssen], [original member] Ryan [Vanderhoof] and the other guys came along, and we became a band – and we became more and more isolated ‘cos all we wanted to do was play and record as much as we possibly could, and explore the music.”

However, while this process really bonded A/F and helped them become a super-tight musical unit, Miles reckons it might have cost them in terms of popularity. He says “A lot of bands who started up around the same time as us had more commercial success, because they’d been part of a community or a scene and had those identifying factors. They placed more stock on having a particular style, and we haven’t done that. We’re a lot less definable, and less easy to digest. Our music is harder to understand sometimes, it’s a lot more unpredictable. We’re… [inspired by people like] Hendrix and Coltrane and [free jazzer] Albert Ayler.”

The band got its first break thanks to Michael Gira, founder of US indie legends Swans and boss of Young God Records, who also released the first three Devendra Banhart albums. Miles explains: “Our first exposure playing shows outside shitty places in New York was playing with Michael, opening for him then backing him up as his band. So people really saw us through his lens. And because we were pretty unknown, he wrote a pretty fantastical version of us because he felt like he experienced a lot of magic in what we were doing. He saw us as this kind of hermetic, had-our-own-language kind of thing, and told our story in a really colourful way. So when people came to see us they felt like they were looking at some crazy hairy dudes, like the Manson Family or something!”

The band’s new album is a warm, melodically rich and surprisingly mellow collection that should resonate with fans of the more open-hearted end of current American indie. Eclectic and packed with hooks, it is just as questing as the band’s past work but maybe more accessible to the average punter. Nevertheless, Miles is adamant that A/F have never caved into record company pressure to be more commercial:

“We don’t fuck around with those people… fuck those people! I don’t even want to talk to people about that shit. We had a management company for a while and… we’re capable of concocting something we could drop into the system, that perfect piece of candy. But I just can’t give up and do that… it would feel totally disingenuous. None of us want to make a Devo pop art project. We want to express whatever’s happening inside.”

While many of the band’s records have featured extended instrumental passages, the most recent album features more lyrics. The band’s collaborative nature means that, all of them sing, and “There’s been a real move toward equality as far as songwriting goes, for the last couple of records. But I feel like Seth is a really prolific songwriter… [while] it takes me a long time to write lyrics. I get really into having at least three layers of meaning for each line, and it’s in iambic pentameter! I write lullabies and love songs, and connect those subjects to more esoteric thought, but hide that a little bit ‘cos I don’t want it to sound too dry.”

After years in the business, A/F remain proudly idealistic: “We’re looking for something that’s poetic, romantic, idealistic and magical. I think it’s an artist and a performer’s job to point to the magic in the world. Life beats you down so people need a heartfelt connection with a band – it’s not an escape, it’s reminding people of the inherent nobility of being alive. It doesn’t necessarily sell more records, but I want to be happy with what I’ve done. I don’t want to keep trimming off the edges to the point that our music is unrecognisable to me.”

And while people may see the beards and the cosmic album titles and assume they are a bunch of stoners, nowadays, that’s far from the case. Miles may still be a big Grateful Dead fan, but he explains: “We’ve all really prioritised personal growth. All of us read a lot, and are into self-help and spirituality. Dana works out and is pretty strict about his diet. All of us are really into health. That’s part of the reason we don’t want to be on the road a million years. We’re looking for that balance… I used to do a lot of drugs and I don’t want to be in that world anymore.”

He feels ambivalent about our current age of social media and digital culture: “At some point there will be a ‘pop’, cos people can’t take this information overload anymore. At the same time, it’s expanding people’s consciousness, similar to the way that LSD did in the 60s. But I don’t feel that people’s processors have caught up with it yet.”

However, the last few years have seen an explosion of open-mindedness in indie circles, as some pretty weird shit has found a sizeable audience – a development that Miles is delighted by: “Take a band like Animal Collective: we played an ATP festival in New York a couple of year’s ago and caught their show and it was fucking out there! It was weird, it sounded fucked up, it didn’t sound totally great a lot of times, it was hugely loud… I was impressed that there was a couple of thousand people getting their heads blown by something this far out. I thought ‘this means that there’s hope [for my band]!”

Let’s hope so...