When Akron/Family first came through town a few years ago with former Swan Michael Gira's Angels of Light, they played an opening set and then joined Gira onstage as his backing band. It was a formative experience for the Brooklyn-based group that considers collaboration a key part of their concerts.
"It was our very first tour," says drummer Dana Janssen. "We were playing to somebody else's audience. I really had a good time. It was a big learning experience. We jam a little in our sets. With Michael, it was the same set every night. He thought of it as like a play, and you find nuances as you go on and create a different feel for the songs. It was really neat because I got to learn a different role as a drummer and singer and musician."
Akron/Family (they picked the name because it "sounded good") formed in 2002 when Janssen and Seth Olinsky, friends since high school, invited Miles Seaton and Ryan Vanderhoof (who's since left the group) to jam. "We made a deal," says Janssen. "Seth said, 'I will not go back to college if you don't take that teaching job and join the band and move with us to New York.' I said, 'Sure.'"
Once in Brooklyn, the band began playing regularly at a coffee shop, sharing the stage with the odd assortment of characters who frequented the place. They sent a demo to Gira, who agreed to produce their self-titled debut in 2005.
"Michael knew how to pull the songs out of us," says Janssen of the band's first album, which placed them in the company of experimental freak-folks like Devendra Banhart, a designation that Janssen says is a bit limiting.
"I'd say our musical backgrounds are pretty big," he says. "I like a lot of hip-hop and R&B and the Grateful Dead and all sorts of stuff. Everybody does. As far as folk is concerned, it means music for the people. By that definition, you could take it into a broad spectrum."
For their follow-up, Love Is Simple, the band recruited producer Andrew Weiss (Ween, Henry Rollins) who refined the group's freewheeling approach even further.
"Andrew Weiss helped us define certain roles, whether it's basic tracking or mixing the drum part with a little more vocals," says Janssen. "Small things like that that we take for granted."
Released earlier this year, Akron/Family's latest, Set 'Em Wild, Set 'Em Free, is, as its title implies, an eclectic affair that finds the band exploring everything from Sly & the Family Stone-inspired funk to Animal Collective-like mayhem.
"I think it's a big departure," says Janssen. "It's the first one we got to self-produce on our own. We had more time than we did with the other records, as far as being able to flesh out tunes and crack songs open in the studio. That was great for us because it was something we always wanted to do. We went to three different studios in Detroit, Montreal and Brooklyn. We wanted to have a different sound, almost a living-room collage. Not that having a producer was a negative experience by any means, because we were able to take those experiences and learn from them. We proved to ourselves that we could do it."
On tour now with like-minded acts like Wooden Wand and Jeffrey Lewis, Janssen says he wouldn't mind returning to Japan, where the band recently played.
"It was a great experience," he says. "There's this level of respect that's unparalleled. The people at the shows went nuts. It was very cool."
Akron/Family have a small but loyal following who will undoubtedly search out the new 7-inch series the band has just released. Janssen says he's happy to nurture that cult following as long as possible.
"Everyone is like, 'I want to make a lot of money and sell a lot of records,'" he says. "Especially today, if you start playing music to make a lot of money, I don't know if you're making the right choice. I could be like, 'This is the only thing I know how to do,' but that's just not true. I'm good at a lot of things, like carpentry. This is fun, and it doesn't have to be forever. But I definitely want to do this right now because it's what I love doing. Being able to go out and play music is a really special experience. You can travel the world and see special places, even if it's only for eight hours at a time. I think of it as previewing where I would like to go back to. It's like a trailer of the Earth, and I get to decide if I want to see the movie or not."