by Zach Partin
Most of us like to soundtrack the things we do on a daily basis. When we’re working out, walking, cleaning, cooking, getting ready to go out, or actually being out, music is ever present. Outside of festival season in Chicago, you can define yourself by what shows you go to during the week, if any at all. There are certain scenes and adjectives that describe the people in said scenes that are only spoken outside of said environment. Akron/Family, for one reason or another, stay within the realm of the hipster world, although they juggle genres from psychedelic to noise to pop to folk to indie to jam band. That’s why everything about each release is as interesting as the next, and most importantly, why their live show is a huge dance party. With their most recent release, ST II: The Cosmic Birth and Journey of Shinju TNT, Akron/Family’s styles have all converged into one cohesive idea, which may or may not be why it is getting nearly universal praise from critics.
I have an amazing relationship with Akron/Family’s music. In 2009, my college radio (KBGA at University of Montana) flew the general manager and I down to Austin, TX, for five days of musical heaven otherwise known as SXSW. Over 1,600 bands, DJs, and artists from all over the world collectively gather for one simple reason: live music. That may be oversimplifying what actually happens down there (hand shaking, important panel discussions, networking, oh, and um, lots of drinking), but really, like any festival, there is always that one moment. Some band you may or may not be familiar with literally makes you forget what is going on around you, transcending whatever is going on in your head and allows you to connect on a level that is indescribable.
They started their set in Austin with “Everyone is Guilty.” Or maybe it was “River” (both cuts off of their previous album, Set ‘em Wild, Set ‘em Free). Before I knew it, my boss and I danced through their whole set, drinking too much and smoking just enough. And this happened more than once. We had time to kill between bands, found out Akron/Family was playing, would go just to check a song or two, and before we knew it, their set was over and it was forty minutes later. We wouldn’t complain when this happened.
Finally, after over a month of unanswered emails and text messages, blown deadlines, and pleas to finish and turn in their new album, last week, a large brown cardboard box showed up at the Dead Oceans doorstep. It had "SHINJU TNT" scrawled across the bottom of the box in black magic marker, and the return address read only "AK, Detroit."
Opening it revealed a sincere but poorly made diorama of futurist swirling spaces filled with toy astronauts and dinosaurs, four blown out song fragments on a TDK CDR in a ziplock bag, three pictures, and a typewritten note from Akron/Family. A post-it on the bag declared the band refused to send the full album to anyone but the vinyl pressing plant, for fear of leaking and possible lost revenues.
From the note and a short video that arrived days later, we've pieced together that the album was written in a cabin built into the side of Mount Meakan, an active volcano in Akan National Park, on the island of Hokkaido, Japan. It was recorded in an abandoned train station in Detroit with the blackest white dude we all know, Chris Koltay (Liars, Women, Deerhunter, Holy Fuck, No Age). Chris, on tour after finishing the record, commented: "this album will transcend the internet."
Akron/Family spent the end of 2009 and half of 2010 exploring the future of sound through Bent Acid Punk Diamond fuzz and Underground Japanese noise cassettes, lower case micro tone poems and emotional Cagean field recordings, rebuilding electronic drums from the 70's and playing them with sticks they carved themselves. Upon miraculous resuscitation of the original AKAK hard drive, the album layers thousands of minute imperceptible samples of their first recordings with fuzzed-out representations of their present beings to induce pleasant emotional feeling states and many momentary transcendent inspirations.
This album is titled S/T II: The Cosmic Birth and Journey of Shinju TNT. We have no idea what that means.
Below is the transcription of the note found in the brown box delivery:
It started. a note left for us in an old abandoned space reads:
"Do Not Erase
I Was Ak"
Flourish.Flourish.Flourish. Fuck Shit Up.
We took this to heart.
Hidden out. Abandoned train station Detroit summer. Odd purple light. Rooms converted into serious makeshift portal creation zones to dimensionalize the recording fully in imagination. Honey bee mexican grocery behind. Sky is night. Song construction think back a submarine culture inspired side of Volcano futurism forested in old backbrain Japan.
Birth of early adulthood ideal tribalist experimentation before belief of the best better ways. Little dreams written in communal books. These memories recovered from old coughing hard drives, spliced infinitesimally small and reconstructed into front lobe acid punk outsider emotional music spaces. A true fantasy story that ain't no lie for direct to our fans and for the rest of 'em. All welcome and fuck 'em all or at least the rest of 'em simultaneously.
A great flourishing of friendships and joint creativity and hard work. Brought about by the still stubborn belief in a vision creative and encouraging.
Catching the Big Fish. An Eastern European blue van dream up. Follow the 12-foot yellow paper roll from SE Portland. A dream roll of visions and bulldozers organized by Future Librarians unemployed, Intoxicated, Artistic-bent, Roving Aimlessly Free of expectation 100 years later.
So the album was conceived on the side of an active volcano in Japan (!!!). Recorded in an abandoned train station in Detroit (?!). I had the opportunity to chat with bassist Miles Seaton for over 30 minutes about the new record, the tour, Missoula, Montana, and of course, Chicago.
UR: I am very excited about all the positive feedback you guys have been getting. Not that that matters, but a lot of critics really seem to be coming around on this album. Do you think this one has some potential to bring some new fans into Akron/Family?
A/F: I think it does in some ways. It has a unified style, which is something that makes it a little more easy for people to understand sometimes. In a lot of ways, I feel like if there is anyone who lost touch with the stylistic shifts, this really ties a lot of our other works together as well. We’re getting to the point now where we have a big enough catalogue where you can look at it in the context a little but more…you can put it next to our work, instead of the millions of albums that come out every year.
Can you explain the title of the new record and the influence that Japan had on the creative process?
The title (laughs) is kind of crazy drawn out…we just went for it with the title, and some people are going to have a major reaction just because of the title. We can reference ourselves a little bit more.
When we first started putting out demos, one of the CD-Rs [that was sent to Dead Oceans] was titled ‘Tranny and the Portal to the Fractured Universe of Positive Vibrations’ (laughs).
Also, Shinju TNT was born of this, like…[we] went to Japan and the experience was just this magical burst of inspiration, all of us felt so excited, lit up, and overwhelmed and crazy about the situation. One night, we were talking about the record with [Producer] Chris Koltay. We were excited and on tour, and we’re like ‘we have to give birth to the giant cosmic baby that represents the divine in all people,’ and [Akron/Family drummer] Dana [Janssen] blurted out ‘Shinju TNT!’ and we were like ‘what?’ and he says, ‘that’s the baby! Amazing!’ (laughs)
We went and got a white bed sheet and spray painted the sheet with ‘Happy Birthday Shinju TNT', and did this crazy-stupid thing where we ran through the sheet like we were being born. This was in Belgium and people were just like, ‘what the fuck?!’ It was like this feeling of like…spontaneity…this Dada-like, divine absurdity.
When you guys were in Japan and you were having all these otherworldly-type of experiences, were you guys performing at all, or were you just trying to work everything out that you wanted to get on the record?
We performed as well, and the performances and audiences were incredible. The bands were unreal…everybody took over the stage. For an hour of [one of] the shows it was just like, total pandemonium, it sounded amazing, and it was totally free and improvised. At the last show, everyone we toured and traveled with looked back and people were crying and it was so emotional and beautiful…I don’t know how else to describe it but it was totally inspiring.
Maybe that’s what the album was for…
I hope that the album, if nothing else, sounds inspired.
It definitely does. Would you say that a lot of the ideas came back with you to Detroit? What was the influence on Detroit with the songs from Japan?
Recording in Detroit was an amazing situation as well because there is a lot of wild inspiration and rebirth happening there. The whole place has been just about vacated in the last ten to fifteen years. It’s like these crumbling architectural bones, [and] all this life and grass is re-growing…it feels like nature is reclaiming that space in this really awesome way that feels feral. The energy there is kind of ‘devil-may-care,’ but it has this soul to it.
What was the influence on the songs as they came back from Japan into Detroit?
I feel like there was a lot of thought with style, color, and feeling. Working with Chris Koltay has been really amazing, and I feel like we really invested a lot in that relationship and getting to a closer place with him creatively. We felt really confident that he was going to get the sound with us. We wanted the record to feel very physical and visceral, but at the same time have a sweetness, joy, and color in it. We wanted to make sure that we were very committed to each performance when we were recording, very committed to each moment.
And you guys recorded in an abandoned train station in Detroit…
How did you guys pick that location?
The first time that we were in Detroit we got in late and we were driving around. It was the last show of the tour. We were supposed to be at the club at 7 and we got there at 8 and there was no one there. It was like it was fucking abandoned and shit was falling over. We’re like, “What the fuck? This is crazy.” It’s dark, all the streetlights are out. So we went driving around (this is maybe five, six years ago) and we came upon Michigan Station, this massive abandoned train station. All of us were mystified and mortified at the same time, ‘cause it’s this insanely beautiful crumbling building. It’s a source of inspiration. Chris lives right by it.
You guys released videos for “So it Goes” and “Silly Bears.” What’s the plan for the next single?
Not sure yet, we have a couple videos we actually just saw. There are four videos now, and another in the works. Not sure exactly what is going to happen. The two videos I just saw I’m really excited about. I’m psyched about all these songs on the record, you know? It’s going to be a matter of how it feels at the moment. We really excited to come out and perform. Delicate Steve who is opening for us is phenomenal. And Josh Abrahms who is from Chicago is a really phenomenal musician. All of us are really focused on that: being really present in our performance.
So I gotta bring this up. I spent the better half of five years in Missoula, MT for school, and you guys thanked Missoula in the liner notes of Love is Simple. I’ve heard the story before, but I was curious if you still remember playing in Missoula at that house show? (Editor’s note: Akron/Family showed up to play a house show in Missoula. Around 50-100 people showed up. From the first note played, every single member of the audience sang every word to every song. Each member of Akron/Family looked shocked and stunned in the best way possible.)
Are you kidding me? Of course I remember that (laughs). It was like one of the best moments of our fucking playing. It was amazing. It was totally absurd. And we were on tour with someone, it was an off day. And we were kind of like..it was just strange, and it was so much fun, and there was so much love. And it was really amazing. It was a completely personal experience. Everyone didn’t even acknowledge that there was a difference between us and them.
The tour kicks off on the 17th and you’ll be in Chicago on Thusday, Feb 24th at Lincoln Hall. Have you guys played Lincoln Hall?
No we haven’t. We’re really excited about it.
You guys have a pretty deep history with Chicago. The last time you were here was at a street festival.
We’ve played some of our more adventurous shows in Chicago…we had a great time at that show. We were in the middle of recording in Detroit, so it was a little cathartic to, you know, just get out there and play. We had been really focused. The rain, people dancing in the rain, it was a really beautiful moment. I’ll always remember [that performance], I never take that kind of experience for granted. It really formed the way that we actually ended up orchestrating the song that we were playing at that time. The rain storm, the feeling. We took it back and we were like, ‘what can we do to make it feel like that?’
And what song was that?
It really says something about the music when you’re playing it for the first time and it doesn’t sound foreign to the audience, especially when they’re still dancing.
Tell me about it (laughs). It feels great to me. ‘All right, let’s connect.’
And as I was thanking Miles for taking the time to chat with me, and of course for all the incredible experiences and music over the years, he conveyed something that I think best represents what Akron/Family is all about: connecting. “I really appreciate [the interview]. It feels good. I also just appreciate your enthusiasm and positivity, it doesn’t go unnoticed.”
Akron/Family take over Lincoln Hall on Thursday, February 24th at 9 p.m. Tickets are $15 in advance and the show is 18+. Josh Abrams and Delicate Steve are also set to perform. More information at www.lincolnhallchicago.com.