Brooklyn psych-folk quartet Akron/Family just wanna have fun. They can't help it if sometimes it seems like the inmates are running the asylum when they play. After all, they get bored easily.
"We tend to bring people onstage whenever we can," says bassist Miles Seaton, explaining the band's outrageous live antics. "We ended up going into the crowd and that was really fun for a while. We'd invite people onstage who don't know how to play instruments. Or we'll find the drunkest guy in the audience and hand them a recorder."
The odd, colorful crew came together five years ago, and began peppering Michael Gira (Swans, Angels of Light) with almost monthly demo submissions until several months in, he rescued them from the slush pile, signing them to his label, Young God Records.
The entire band cohabitated for several years in a hardly-renovated warehouse ensconced in a dangerous part of town, with loft beds, no walls conditions Seaton describes as "unlivable." But this fetid, underinsulated hole proved a crucial hothouse for ideas as they recorded and collaborated on all manner of tracks. Those became 2005's self-titled debut and the follow-up split CD with Angels of Light later that year.
On their debut, Akron/Family's generous melodies amble through an array of dulcet sounds that billow expansively. On "Suchness," the song swells toward a climax, cymbals and a raw distant clanging like a banging garbage can lid that underscores a majestic, droning guitar line ... before everything drops away except a trilling flute and quaking vocals. It's reminiscent at times of the shambling, experimental Syd Barrett-worship of early Flaming Lips with better harmonies. The tracks move languidly, dotted with snatches of ambient noise or burbling loops.
"We were kind of arranging things really densely to offset the fact that we couldn't make loud noises in this loft space," says Seaton. "There's definitely a deconstructionist and postmodern element to what we do. We all kind of grew up on that, so it's unavoidable."
The first tour cemented their live reputation for improvisational forays as much as their wild antics. Unaccustomed to the grind of life on the road, they began playing wild-eyed, drooling, stratospheric excursions that knew no real end and only bore a passing resemblance to the material on the record.
"After a while, we just went insane," Seaton explains. "We were all so tired that we just lost it, and started playing two to two and a half hour sets. It was a great but also frustrating thing because our live shows ended up being epic."
According to Seaton, indie icon Sufjan Stevens saw their show, shook his head and told them: "That's not sustainable." Nevertheless, they simply didn't know any better. Not that they've ever been ones to worry too much about expectations, unless it's fucking with them.
"Before it gets rote and starts to get really worked over, everything starts to evolve. We get it to a place where everything is working for just a little while. Then we get sick of it and move onto something else," he says. "You start to know each other so well, it's like, 'I know the 15 variations on this that are probably going to happen.' It's not really improvising anymore. But it sounds good."
Their adventurous spirit manifested itself via their choice of Andrew Murdock (Godsmack, Avenged Sevenfold) to produce the new album, Love is Simple (out next week), the follow-up to last year's excellent Meek Warrior featuring guest percussionist Hamid Drake.
After the "hot take" approach of Gira, Murdock's painstaking method was a switch. Seaton isn't entirely pleased with the sessions and may have preferred Gira's gift for capturing "the urgency and visceral quality." But, at the same time, he notes that some of the best-sounding music comes from Murdock's exacting work manner.
"The Beatles, Sly and the Family Stone the reason some of that stuff sounds amazing is because it was performed with a lot of exactitude," Seaton says. It's certainly something they take advantage of live, where they've grown more seasoned as performers. "There's now a sense of precision there to fall back on when the shit hits the fan."
While there's no telling where they'll head next, the opposite direction is always a good guess. Seaton suggests that the band's getting into African polyrhythms and body-oriented grooves. They were influenced by a pair of African drummers they met in Denmark, who (along with their deaf students) joined Akron/Family onstage for a half-hour show-ending jam.
"[Afterwards] they were like, 'We can teach you to do African music.' And we're like, 'There's nothing worse than a cheesy white guy who can play African music really well.' And they're like, 'No, we can teach you like you're deaf,'" says Seaton, jovially. "I was like, 'Well then maybe we do have a chance.'"
Thursday, Sept. 6, at the Magic Stick, 4120 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-9700.Chris Parker is a freelance writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org