TWO-THIRDS of Akron/Family have found a home in the Pacific Northwest. Seth Olinsky and Dana Janssen, the band's guitarist and drummer, respectively—although those roles are blurry, at best—moved to Portland at the end of 2009, while bassist Miles Seaton remained in New York. But the band's nomadic sound has never been tied to a specific place, whether Portland or New York. In fact, their new album, S/T II: The Cosmic Birth and Journey of Shinju TNT, was conceived on the side of a volcano in Japan, long before the recent tragedies there.
"When we went there in June 2009, we were just inspired by the place," says Janssen of the Japanese element in S/T II. "It was really a foreign experience for me. I've been to Europe multiple times and this and that, but in Japan there's something really different about it. Obviously the whole Kanji aspect, which I just don't understand one bit, and hearing the people talk I couldn't even start to make out the words. So I was an infant. I needed the help of a translator to get anything."
The band collectively retreated to a cabin on Mount Meakan, an active volcano in Akan National Park, on the island of Hokkaido. "I noticed the vibration of that whole island is pretty unique—a unique and inspiring place for all of us. We wanted to immerse ourselves in that. It's going to be a lot different when you write a song in your room versus writing a song on the side of a volcano in Japan," Janssen says. "We wanted to incorporate that aspect of something we all agreed on, in nature and sound, to be something we could just say yes to, and use it as a tool." Belying its gestation, the album at various points sparkles like candy, with a dizzy momentum that hints at the technological focus of Japanese culture. But it also contains a deeply meditative quality, indicative of the band's peaceful volcanic retreat.
Akron/Family released their largely acoustic self-titled debut album at the height of the so-called "freak folk" movement, but its gentle, subdued qualities only hinted at the band's stylistic breadth and experimental bent: 2006's Meek Warrior explored the band's free-form side while 2007's Love Is Simple was a shamanistic, totemic celebration of good vibrations. 2009's Set 'Em Wild, Set 'Em Free—their first without founding guitarist Ryan Vanderhoof—had their most conventional rock songs alongside their most pastoral interludes. Meanwhile, Akron/Family's ecstatic, intensely physical live shows are tribal experiences, and the band has been cavalierly described as a jam band for people who don't like jam bands. But this dismisses Akron/Family's ultimate strength—they unabashedly and unflappably strive for transcendence through music, a quality they share with experimental and religious musicians from around the globe. It couldn't be more different than the jam-band modus operandi of corralling a lite-funk groove for three hours at a time.
S/T II: The Cosmic Birth and Journey of Shinju TNT is a different beast altogether. Its title alone is striking—S/T II refers to the erroneous "S/T" tag that accompanied illegally downloaded MP3s of their first album, and it shouldn't necessarily be interpreted that the name of the record is Akron/Family II. The new album is possibly the most well-integrated collection yet of Akron/Family's globe-spanning influences to date, paced so that the wide range of dynamics and tempo flow effortlessly. It's also their most futuristic, using more synthesizers than ever before, and making full use of the BreakOut Pedal, a piece of hardware designed by Olinsky for his New Signal Process company that allows easy recording onto an iPhone or iPad. "The apps that you can get on those devices are pretty insane these days," says Janssen. The record was recorded, guerrilla style, in a completely abandoned train station in Detroit.
"The thing we like about Detroit so much is that, well one, our engineer is there, that's where he lives. But also, everything you see is like it was at one point, this magnificent epicenter for everything: when the automotive industry was there, when Motown was there. It was amazing," Janssen says. "But now it's almost forgotten in a way, which is kind of great [from an artistic standpoint], because it's like a huge blank canvas that you can just kind of have what you will, create what you want, and not have to worry about anything. When we went over to the train station and broke in, and set up some shit and just started making noise, it didn't matter. Nobody cares. Nobody's gonna come tell you not to. You can go burn down a house if you want; nobody's gonna tell you not to. It's amazing.
"Not that I did that," he adds.
Meanwhile, the band has arranged for the Portland show to be a special event. "We want to emphasize that it's not just an Akron/Family club show," Janssen says. "It's a celebration of the Portland artists that we've met and come into contact with and have been inspired by and are hanging out with. It's more like a mini-festival, in our opinion." Four bands will play on the Wonder Ballroom stage and two more will set up on the floor, while Rob Walmart performs all night in the basement bar. "There'll be papier-mâché volcanoes, a Greg Oden experimental film—who knows what will happen?"