The hippie stick waits for us all, somewhere.
Pseudo Beards for Pseudo Freak-Folkers
Akron/Family is four guys in their twenties who currently live in Brooklyn, New York and play music together on a regular basis. They came out with a self-titled LP last March, on Young God Records. It’s really good. You just may like it, too. And they’re on tour. Band member Seth pays his bills working at a coffee shop. It’s called Gimme Coffee and it’s in Williamsburg, a neighborhood largely filled with young white adults who like art, or like being around people who like art. I had the distinct privilege of interviewing Seth and fellow band member Ryan at this very coffee shop. The coffee was good and I remember the walls being mostly bare. Anti-atmosphere atmosphere, perhaps. Ryan claimed that Gimme Coffee has the best coffee in New York City. If you’re in the area, try it out, and maybe, if enough people buy coffee there, they’ll soon be able to weather the costs of putting things up on their walls. Unless the owner is opposed to having things on the walls. Those damn owners... thank god we have good people like Hugo Chavez in the world to keep a few of them honest.
A few of the questions and answers in this interview relate to a band bio that Michael Gira, their label’s owner and former member of Swans, wrote for the Young God website. I, like every other music journalist who has and will write about this band, heavily relied upon it.
So what do you guys do in the band?
Seth: Well I play guitar and, um, sing, and on this record I did some, I guess you would call engineering. But not really engineering -– a little less than half of the stuff was recorded at home. But I did some computer stuff on that, too.
Do you have a Pro Tools setup or anything like that?
S: Now I do. This stuff was actually all done on Fruity Loops.
Ryan: Pretty impressive.
A friend of mine used that to make hip-hop beats.
S: Yeah, it’s like a hip-hop beats program.
R: We’ve got some hip-hop beats coming up.
Oh, is this going to be a side project?
R: Oh no.
S: We have a split coming out in September, and we used an excerpt from a long lost Fruity Loops hip-hop beat. But yeah, some of the stuff [on the album] was recorded on a four track and then cut up into pieces and put back together in fruity loops so we could arrange. It was a weird process.
From reading the band description on your site written by Michael Gira, which I’m basing a lot of these questions on, it sounds like you started from a pretty organic place making the music and performing it...
[Ryan emphatically shakes his head "No"]
S: Well some of the stuff was simultaneously being written and worked on at home while different stuff was being written and worked on as a functioning band that was playing live. So we were playing some of these songs like "Running Returning" in a different form or "Lumen" in a different form. We were playing those as a live band. But the songs we were working on at home were a little more stripped down, sort of by their nature. And the songs we were playing as a band became a little more epic. So when Michael talks about editing, it’s more about him coming in to work on producing songs we were playing as a band that hadn’t been recorded. And we had to work out ways to record that stuff.
How did you hook up with him?
S: We sent him some recordings of the stuff we’d been doing at home.
And were you sending stuff to a lot of different people?
S: We sent it out to a fair amount of people. He was just one of the few that replied. Looking back, it ended up being a really fortuitous thing, because he’s a very interesting guy. And working with him can be up and down, but it’s just been a total hands-on relationship that I don’t think we would have gotten from any other label in the world. I personally think we’ve learned a lot from him.
And you’re both from small towns. Now, did you all come here on your own wanting to be in a band or – how did everything come together?
R: Right now? Over me? I’d say... Seth moved first.
S: I moved here right before Miles moved here, the bass player. He and I started writing songs in my apartment and I grew up with Dana the drummer. He was living in Florida at the time. He had visited and talked about moving to the city. And he moved here and started playing with us, maybe four months after we’d started writing some stuff. We’d played up in Ithaca as a three piece and Ryan opened up for us. Dana and I had known Ryan from upstate playing in a different band there. So we convinced Ryan to move to the city. That was all within 8 months or so.
And that was, what, 2003?
So what was that life like for those two years between – or how long did it take between everybody getting down here and getting hooked up with Michael?
S: Less than a year. When Dana moved down here we moved out to a loft in Bushwick. Then when Ryan moved down he moved into the loft. Then Miles’ girlfriend left for the summer so he moved into the loft. We were all living in this one big open space for the summer and it was really hot.
R: It was ridiculous.
S: We were all kind of miserable... poor and miserable. And I’d stay up all night working on the computer and keeping these guys awake making weird noises. And another friend came and was staying in the place, too. So it was five of us in one place and it was so hot.
But you’re smiling as you’re telling me all of this.
S: Well, looking back it was – it was ridiculous. The fact that we did that. Cause if someone posed the idea of it now to me, it’d be like, "No way. I’m NOT doing that."
But that was only for the summer?
S: Well, no. We stayed all the way through the winter. We had the year lease and we all moved out and did our things. But, we got a lot of recording done.
"Maybe we’re not so normal about the way we approach making music, as we’re really intense individuals, in that we seek to make the best music that we can. Maybe that’s not normal. I don’t know. Maybe it is." -Ryan
Ryan, would you say that you hated it more than anybody, or would you say your animosity is matched?
R: Uhhhh, I think we all didn’t like it very much. But personally I had a really hard time.
S: Well, you had just moved to New York, too.
So you were going from a country –
S: Right, nice Lake house...
R: To not having a job. Living in New York City. Living with these people I didn’t know - without a bedroom.
So you didn’t even know each other very well...
R: We were acquaintances.
S: We were acquaintances, yeah.
R: We hung out a few times at parties and stuff.
S: It was kind of like seeing a girl that you’d seen around for awhile and being like, "you wanna get married? Wanna come to New York and marry me?"
R: "And move into a loft!?"
Right. So you wrote most of the songs in those eight months?
S: Yeah, for the most part everything here was written. "Before and Again," "Suchness," "Corey." "I’ll Be On The Water" was a little older. "Afford." Uh –
R: That was a little older too – "Afford." Wasn’t it?
S: No, "Afford" I recorded in the bathroom.
R: While I was there?
S: Yeah. I would go into the bathroom to try and get away from everybody. And sit in the bathroom, you know, with the microphone on the toilet – playing and singing into it. That’s the recording. "Afford" was recorded in the bathroom in the loft.
So how much time has passed since the loft?
S: A year and a half.
Have you noticed the songs changed or any kind of shift in the music since you left?
R: We didn’t have any – there was no way that things were happening. So, it just continued to change...
S: There was never any direct idea of what we were doing, ’cause we were doing stuff at home and then we’d go to the rehearsal space and work on different stuff. We were playing live. I don’t know. We were trying to figure out what the hell we were doing. Looking back and even looking at this album, it seems like a bunch of creative people figuring out how to work together. Trying to figure out how to combine their specific creative outlets and make it work. So one song sounds like this, and the next song doesn’t really sound anything like it. But the thing that ties it all together - I think we all do have some place where we all connect. And since then we’ve continued to develop that and focus more in one place. But I hear it and it sounds like four creative individuals trying to work it out.
I had to ask if you guys have found the "strains of magic" within the NYC music community.
S: Oh, that’s from the press release right? Yeah, I mean [Michael’s] talking about the myth of New York - the Frank Sinatra "New York, New York" idea of making it here.
Yeah, I thought more of the punk movement or musical cultures coming out of the city.
S: Well, yeah I think it’s for everybody. Whatever, if you’re – I came here as a jazz musician. I wanted to play jazz. But it’s the same thing I think for a lot of people who come here to find what they’re looking for.
[to Ryan] Do you like New York?
R: Yeah, for the most part. I’m coming to realize that I’d rather be living in the country. But this is where I am and what I’m doing right now. There are qualities about it that I love.
S: I mean I would say that I’ve found a fair amount of magic living in New York City. For me, and it seems like this for other people, it seems like going to New York City, especially when you’re a young person looking to do whatever it is that you’re looking to do, you undergo some sort of transformative experience where, in one way or another, if you do decide you want to do what you wanted to do – it enables you to do that. It can take many different shapes like if you meet someone like Michael Gira who maybe lets you into the business or you discover this thing about yourself or you – whatever situation – and you come there wanting to do something and not being able to do it, not knowing how to do it. And you go through these trials and tribulations – trying to find a place to live, trying to find a job, and everything’s so intensified and it’s hard to find work, it’s hard to find a place to live. You can’t do this, you can’t do that and then all of a sudden you find yourself doing the thing you wanted to be doing. And you look over and you remember that person and running into them three years ago and now they’re doing the thing they wanted to be doing. However people get there - that trip from A to B in New York City – it IS a magical experience... if you want to look at it that way.
Well, yeah, as much as you were talking about this album being you guys just feeling around and figuring things out, you do seem sure of yourselves to release an album like this. That is...
R: Kinda random?
... more stream-of-consciousness as a listening experience. You’re not worried about -
S: Having a specific audience. A niche. Yeah, well the tunes that were worked on at home – there were kind of like two completed albums of home stuff which both had their different kind of vibe. And then the songs we’d never recorded as a band. And we picked different songs from each three categories and then...
R: Put it on The Best of Akron/Family.
S: ... thus far
R: We actually thought of calling it that.
Wait... do you have a title?
S: It’s self-titled.
R: We couldn’t decide on a title.
Why decide on a title if you don’t have to?
S: Well yeah, I mean the Grateful Dead; their first album is self-titled...
On the other hand, you have to decide on titles from this point forward.
Two self-titled albums?
R: Just keep doing it self-titled.
S: Led Zeppelin did it four times in a row.
R: But they had numbers with them.
S: Still, "Self-Titled 1," Self-Titled 2."
R: I think we should do it without titles. People would be like, "You know the one? Not the one with the thing on the front but... "
Or you could really confuse people and make the next one self-titled but with the exact same cover.
R: That would be hilarious.
S: But then we’re getting into postmodern territory.
Well, I think you guys are already there.
R: Are we? Are we postmodernists?
Well, no not really. Just the way [the album] sounds. In terms of the packaging and all that, it’s very artful, there’s nothing postmodern about it.
R: So you think the sound is postmodern. Oh no.
Umm, well I guess everyone has their own ideas of what postmodernity is and means... but yeah I’d say so. I mean with the interlude.
S: Yeah, but I don’t think so. I think it’s more about looking for meaning in a postmodern age. If you listen to what all the words are about...
"I wanna see the thing in itself, I don’t wanna think no more... "
S: There’s like all these different influences and you don’t know how to put them together.
S: Yeah it’s post-postmodern. It’s post-irony. Well, you’re trapped in this world where there are all these different influences – none of which are really yours. There are all these things that you kind of feel a connection to, but you don’t own any of them, and yet there is something that you own. And you are stuck having to recombine all the things that you don’t to try to say the one thing that you do. It’s kind of in there, I think... post-postmodern.
[The coffee shop closes at this point. We gather our things, and continue this little talk on an adjacent stoop]
You guys listen to any contemporary stuff? Any bands around that you enjoy?
R: Neutral Milk Hotel.
S: We were just listening to the Neutral Milk Hotel.
I never listened to them.
S: Really? It’s really good. We were listening to In an Airplane Over the Sea.
R: It’s worth buying.
I don’t burn, I buy.
S: I wouldn’t say that about many albums over the last ten years.
R: I wouldn’t either.
Really? I enjoy the risk of...
S: It’s weird that you ask me that question because when I moved to New York City in the years leading up to it and when I got here I was so consumed with finding the newest thing and the thing that had not even happened yet. And then at a certain point I was just like, "Okay, there’s nothing going on." And so I’ve been more into what’s happened in the past. The stuff that’s known is great. And it’s kinda cheesy, but there’s so much stuff in the past that’s been great and so much today is just...
S: Yeah, well no, it’s just hard to tell sometimes because when you get into what’s happening then there’s fashion and there’s just so many things to consider - and those things play a role, too. I mean, Bob Dylan was fashionable at the time. But after ten years I think it’s easier to look back and see stuff a little more objectively. There’s new stuff that I like. I like listening to Bonnie "Prince" Billy at work in the coffee shop.
R: You listen to Sufjan Stevens in the coffee shop a lot.
S: He’s good.
R: He’s a Paul freak, dude. He’s gotta be a Paul freak. I was listening to him the other day and I realized, "This dude loves Paul."
Do you have any qualms with what the journalists have been writing?
R: We were just discussing that.
S: It’s interesting. A lot of what is written just comes from the press release.
The press release paints you guys as this totally isolated –
S: The press release is a lot more extreme than what we actually are... as people.
R: We’re pretty normal dudes. Maybe we’re not so normal about the way we approach making music as we’re really intense individuals, in that we seek to make the best music that we can. Maybe that’s not normal. I don’t know. Maybe it is.
I don’t think anyone goes out to make bad music.
S: No, but we’re all just really intensely driven on making – we’re intensely driven in that one way. So I guess isolationists and all those things are an out current of that.
R: Like we usually – if we have a free night we’ll usually end up at the rehearsal space, not at the bar. We’re more interested in making music.
S: ... than hanging out or partying.
R: The thing about the media is that they really can’t fully portray who we are as people. They can only portray an image of what we are as a whole.
S: And it’s not at fault of journalists or anything.
R: It’s just the nature of the medium.
S: And I mean, we’ve just met you for an hour. And not to say that your idea of who we are as individuals is going to be false, it’s just that – it’s only an hour. I don’t know that much about you. So, inevitably there’s going to be some differences.
R: That’s why so far we’ve been categorized with freak folk music and we were discussing before we came to talk to you that we’ve never met any of those people. We’ve never hung out with them. We’ve never played music with them. It’s kind of idealized as this group of people that all make music together and hang out and stuff, but it’s not.