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Posted Jun 8th, 2009 (10:51 am) by Matt Midgley

Hot off the heels of the release of this year’s Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free (which is one of our favourites so far this year at IYS), Dana Janssen of the fantastic Brooklyn, NY freak-folk outfit Akron/Family sat down with us for a quick interview.

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Akron/Family: How are you doing?

InYourSpeakers: I’m doing pretty well. How are you doing?

A/F: Oh man, I feel good today. It’s such a beautiful day here today, here in Brooklyn, and I took advantage of it. I did.

IYS: Oh yeah?

A/F: Yeah, I just kind of moseyed around in the nature park of the city. Had a lot of fun.

IYS: For those of our readers who aren’t familiar with Akron/Family, can you explain your role in the band, as well as that of your bandmates?

A/F: Well my name is Dana. I play the drums. Seth [Olinsky] is on guitar and Miles [Seaton] is on bass, and uh... Yeah, that’s my story.

IYS: ....each of you also plays other instruments as well, right?

A/F: Sure, sure. [Dana is playing this off very humbly here]

IYS: Can you tell us a bit about that?

A/F: Well I guess it depends on where we are. I mean, in the studio, there’s no definition of who is what, you know what I mean? I mean, we take care of business on our respective instruments for the skeleton of the music. After that, though, it’s just....it’s just unruled.

IYS: Whoever picks up what?

A/F: Yeah, I mean, I’m moving over to the slide [guitar], maybe over to the piano, to whatever. We’ll all be doing the same exact thing on different instruments and just moving with it. It’s very loose. Very loose.

IYS: Is it the same way out on the road? Improvisation is something familiar at your shows, but does that extend even to the roles of who will play what part at a particular show?

A/F: Well, we generally stick to a general set thing, but as we’re going, we sometimes change it up. I think it’s more just about making sure it sounds good. Of course it’s interesting to experiment and whatnot, but there’s also different parts that have been rehearsed a ton by different people, you know?

I guess it’s all about trying though. Maybe one day we’ll give a show like that a shot -- whoever can play whatever part. [Laughter]

IYS: Akron/Family recently made the jump from Young God [Records] to Dead Oceans. That coupled with [Ryan] Vanderhoof’s departure at the end of 2007 made for a lot of changes between two albums.

A/F: Yeah, it was a lot of changes.

IYS: Do you feel like those changes had an effect on the album creation process or the way it was recorded?

A/F: Well, there were a lot of things that contributed to that. For one, we all had more time in the studio. Two, we just had less cooks in the kitchen, you know? That’s important no matter what anyone says, just for easy passage in the way of getting your ideas out and whatnot. Also, it was our first self-produced record.

Someone was mentioning it to us the other day... We’re at a point in our career where most bands would find some sort of stability, and some sense of what I think is comfort, in a way, but I think with us the opposite happened. We got to that point and everything changed, you know? Including the lineup.

So, it’s a unique approach. It’s cool because we get to reinvent ourselves in a way. I mean, I feel fortunate for that. I mean, on the other hand, older fans might be bummed by Ryan [Vanderhoof]’s leaving, but whatever, you know? That’s part of it though. Nothing is permanent.

IYS: Well, I think they’d only really be bummed if his leaving made this album a let-down, which it is far from.

That being said, Set ‘Em Wild is a very varied album -- probably more varied than any of your previous records -- yet somehow it comes together as a cohesive whole. Do you have any insight into how you were able to pull that off?

A/F: That’s an interesting question. I would just say, if it’s anything we did, we just had a better direction to move in as a group. We had a more clarified and unified vision of what we wanted. I mean, this was the first album that we had had the experience that taught us to spend so much time in pre-production identifying what it really was we wanted out of the record. Through that I think we were able to move with greater ease in working on each song, and crafting each individual song to benefit itself as an individual song as well as the album as a whole. Not that this is the album’s album or anything, but I feel like [the songs] all acknowledge where they will fall in line with other songs to create an album, you know what I mean? That was a major help.

Also, just the fact that we had more time in the studio. I mean, that alone is a tremendous benefit. Actually having the time and space to allow these tunes to kind of come to their own fruition.

IYS: The extra time you had, did that come from the fact that it was being self-produced?

A/F: Partly that, but partly we also just found a way to make if financially possible, as well. Whether it was relocating our studio, or whatever.

IYS: Can you give us some insight into the song-making, and eventual album-making process? What’s the approach?

A/F: Well, it varies. This one was more about just songwriting, and with only songwriting in mind, and then the album was sort of approached after some of these songs were pretty decided.

Then again, you can have a tune and record it in such a way that it’s a song that fits at the beginning of the record, the middle of the record or the end of the record. We had to take that approach with a few of the tunes. Specifically ‘[Everyone is] Guilty’ and ‘Sun Will Shine’, you know? Where they were going to fall, we kinda had to modify the song structure and style based on which was in going to be at the end and which was going to be in the beginning. With that kind of direction, you know, you can really craft a tune. You can mold it to fit those patterns.

As far as the songwriting is concerned, however, some of it was different people who had tunes that they brought to the table and it was orchestrated with the band, or some of it was pretty improvised or from a rehearsal session where something we were just playing around doing became a song, and some of were things that came from an idea -- someone came up with something and we figured out a way to make it work.

IYS: With all these different methods, did you end up with a lot of unused material? Is there a lot left on the cutting room floor?

A/F: Yeah, of course! The original intent, or at least what we had in mind was that we wanted to do two records in one session. So we went in there with like thirty songs, and we wanted to demo out at least, you know, the majority of them, or whatever, and from there whittle down to the ones we wanted for the record. So yeah, there’s a great amount of unused material still sitting around.

IYS: Is that still the plan? To release a second album from the same sesssions of material?

A/F: Some of the songs, for sure, yeah. Not the recordings, so much, I think. I don’t know. We’ll have to see.

You never know how you’re going to feel in the next year.

IYS: Can you explain a bit to us about the use of the iconic [American] flag that you use as the cover art for the record and at every live show? Is there a specific meaning associated with it?

A/F: Sure man, it’s art. You take an iconic image such as your nation’s flag, and you twist it, and give an alternative perspective. You know, a tie-dye swirl where the stars go, it’s a pretty incredible idea, if you stop and think about it.

There’s a lot more to this country that what’s projected in the media, through the face of a leader, whether it’s George Bush or Barrack Obama. There’s a lot more to this country than that. It’s important to maintain that perspective of, you know, past or present... Woody Guthrie has been here; He saw it in this way. Fucking Jimi Hendrix was here; He saw it in this other way. And now we’re here, and we sit it this way. You know? There’s just such different perspectives and different people, and such a unique melting of minds and people and ideas and passions and artistry that comes out of this country that’s really incredible and important to keep in perspective when thinking about something as iconic as the American flag and the American people.

The land that we live on, for one thing. When you go from New Jersey to California, you are on such incredible, expansive geographical....oddities, you know? Just amazing moments on the earth. It’s pretty expansive and inspiring. The flag is a representation for that as well for us.

So there are a lot of ideas conjured when you look at an image as strong and bold as that. Also, a friend of ours had sewn that for us, so there’s also that vibe to it.

IYS: It’s that same flag that you take to every show?

A/F: Yeah, we take that everywhere and just hang it up. Some nights it’s tougher than others to find a spot to hang it from, but whatever.

IYS: Fellow freak-folkers Animal Collective this year put out what is arguably their most accessible album to-date [Merriweather Post Pavillion], and have, as a result, stirred up a bunch of new listeners and interest. By contrast, Set ‘Em Wild holds the Akron/Family tradition of defiant in-accessibility. Was there a point at which you realized your music wasn’t necessarily for the masses?

A/F: Well, I wouldn’t want to say that. I never put limitations like that on my music. Or my art. Or anything! For a few reasons. I mean, for one, if you limit yourself like that, you’re doomed from the beginning. The possibility is dead from the start from that kind of thinking. Why not shoot for the stars and allow everybody in? Because [our music] is not just for this person or that person, it’s to be shared by all, it’s unity in the community of humanity that we want. It’s not exclusive at all.

An important thing to look at, and I know it’s a bad reference, but look at The Beatles. I’m not comparing us to The Beatles by any means, but if you listen to their music -- The first radio broadcast, it had an odd time signature in it. It’s been said, ‘All You Need is Love’, there’s some odd bars in there. A lot of their catalogue is like that, with intricate and intriguing orchestrations and arrangements and just really really interesting music. I mean, obviously it has inspired millions of people.

So if you think about that as mainstream, which it was for a very long time, and then compare that with what happened to the eighties and the nineties, and consecutively since then; things have become much more square. Much more put into a box. The things that people are willing to put money behind, whether it’s Disney or Warner Brothers (which is Disney), or whoever -- it has become much more square. Square in a way that there was a formula involved. Like, if you do this and you do that then this is going to sell this amount of copies, because it’s catchy, people will get it really easily, they won’t have to think about it too much, they can put it on in their car and not pay attention, and it doesn’t really inspire that much thought or anything outside of itself. You can maybe dance to it, but...

Nowadays there are just these disposable hits. It’s like, there’s Akon, who is notorious for just spitting out one disposable hit after another, you know? There’s no longevity like The Beatles had. The Beatles had records which are still, to this day, acclaimed as incredible pieces of art. Which is true. So I feel that in that light, I would be a fool to say that I couldn’t hope that my music would be accessible by the mainstream masses. I mean, people, they believe what you tell them, in a lot of ways. If you’ve got two different kinds of peanut butter, and one peanut butter is like ‘This is the best peanut butter in the world’ and the other one is like ‘Well, this is peanut butter too, so it’s good’, people are going to buy the best, they’re going to buy the one called the best because they’re told that it’s the best. They all want to be involved in something great.

So I think that if you just tell people that this is great music, people will catch on and really see it for what it is, great music. And it’s true, we’re not trying to lie. We’re not trying to pull the wool over anybody’s eyes. We’re just exposing them to things that are great as well.

That being said, while Animal Collective’s new album is by far their most accessible, I sill love it. It’s amazing. The tunes are very interesting, and they’ve got really interesting sounds in there.

I just don’t think I can put a limitation like that on my music. I think once you do, then you’ve succumbed to whatever prescriptions are being fed to you, whether it be Akon’s new single or whatever.

IYS: While Set ‘Em Wild was only just recently released [May 5, 2009], it leaked online nearly three months prior. How do you feel about that? Do you feel it had an effect on the legitimate release?

A/F: I think it’s fine if it gets to the people. I mean, sure I’d love for people to guy out and buy the record, but if they can at least hear it, and enjoy it -- more power to them.

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