Photo of Seth Olinksy by Victoria Smith
The musical process is unique for every band. As a journalist, often we’re asked to explain, or conceptualize a band’s sound within a context (genre, comparison, etc). In truth, there is nothing worse, because no artist strives to make music like someone else. When speaking with Seth Olinsky of Akron/Family, this couldn’t be more true. Seth told me when people ask about his style of music, “we say psychedelic rock. I don’t know.” Akron/Family are very experimental. There song structures aren’t always mainstream friendly (intro, verse, chorus etc.). The samples, and noises they use can be very free, and reference so many different styles. As I spoke with Seth, it became clear that music was an ever changing process for him and a name, is just a name.
SFCritic (SFC): What was the first album you’ve ever owned?
Seth Olinksy (SO): I had some cassette tapes. I remember I had Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet on vinyl. It was back when I had to ask my dad to put it on a record player for me. I know the first CD I ever bought was Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I had Milli Vanilli on cassette and New Kids on The Block—that was way back in the day.
SFC: What was the first instrument you played?
SO: I took piano lessons as a little kid, but I never took to it that much. When I was twelve I played the guitar, which was something that the whole time I’d wanted to do.
SFC: There is some vagueness since each member of the band plays several instruments, what instruments do you typically play?
SO: I play guitar. Live we kind of stick to the same set. I play guitar, Miles plays bass, and Dana plays drum. We all do a little bit of keyboard and samplers. When we record, Dana for example one of the more technically proficient on instruments so he can pick up a bass, guitar, piano, or whatever and do some pretty amazing things with them. Miles might be a little less technically proficient, but he comes up with unique ideas too. When we’re recording it’s kind of a free for all, with everyone doing a little bit of everything. When Miles or Dana writes a song they tend to do it on guitar, so that is included in the approach to recording too.
SFC: How was the Brooklyn scene in regards to developing music for you?
SO: It was great. When I moved there I wouldn’t characterize it as particularly the Brooklyn scene [now]. When I went to New York I really wanted to partake in the downtown jazz scene. Not so much John Zorn and those guys, but William Parker and all the guys playing around the Mission Festival. When I lived there, there were usual four bands that would play every Sunday night in the basement of CBGB, bands like Pip, Joe Morris, we had a teacher from the conservatory that was playing down there, Daniel Carter.
When I first moved here, I was kind of more into that. You could go out every night and absorb some type of music, whether free jazz, which was what I was interested in or more experimental, improvisation stuff or go to galleries or museums. It was definitely pretty influential by being inspired by so many different things. When I first moved to Williamsburg, Kip from TV on The Radio worked at the coffee shop and Yeah Yeah Yeahs and The Liars were happening. They were cool, but it wasn’t what I was totally into, but it was a cool time.
SFC: How did your interest in free jazz translate into Akron/Family?
I was simultaneously interested in that, but I also was interested in song writing. I’ve always been a part of a rock band. Dana and I were in a rock bands throughout high school. I studied jazz, and wanted to be involved in jazz, but was always slightly drawn to having a band, more than being alone, which is more a part of the jazz structure. You’re kind of individual entity that has this or that ability to be mixed and matched with these peoples.
It’s cool, I like the idea of playing with less people, but I always kind of more drawn to be in a band. I got more into four track recording. When I first moved there I didn’t know anyone, so I would just record songs. When I met Miles we developed off of that, working off this four track in my apartment. It took us a few years as we worked though all the different ideas we were inspired.
When we were recording we were recording all these quieter sounds, interludes, and songs. When Ryan and Dana moved to town we started playing loud rock music. We would improvise all the time. We’d go out and do shows and combine a lot of influences. We were simultaneously developing this own recording personality with Akron that was more subtle, sonic, and subdued and not so much rock. Then there was this more improvisation thing that we would when we played live. I think over the years we melded those things together. The first record was a little more oriented around the recording stuff. Then when we went out touring we got to develop the live improvised, loud part of ourselves too and bridged the two.
SFC: When we spoke at Outside Lands, you spoke how you started slowly, and then wanted to build on your set. When you prepare for live shows, what factors do you consider? What influences your improvisation?
SO: Sometimes I think we take too many things into account. I see other bands, and I feel like they have more success just trying to do their thing. So I think we’ve partially tried to do that in recent times. I think consciously we take into account how much time we have, where were slotted, who were performing to and where. I think just as musicians we’re just affected by who were playing to and for, whether it’s outside or inside, or the day time or the night time. We can play the same exact songs one day and the next day, and one day is outside at Big Sur, and the next day is inside at The Great American Music Hall and it would be totally different even though we played the same set because there are so many nuances, and faces in our music that are open to interpretation that all those factors affect the set.
For us what we ended up doing rather than one long three month tour, we did these three weeks out, two weeks out, organized around festivals. Each time we add a new song into the mix, or flip around the structure of set. It doesn’t work the first two shows, we discuss it, problem solve, and by the end of the two weeks we come up with something that really works in regards to the whole performance. Usually, by the next time things are working quite right again, so we fix it. We are always changing from night to night slowly, even though it seems similar, someone sends you a recording and when you sit back and listen to it, it’s changing.
SFC: It seems like you guys prefer not to label your music, or categorize your sound. If you were forced to describe or label your music, how would you?
SO: I haven’t met a musician who is really excited with labeling their music. I don’t think musicians prefer to do that. I don’t think anyone sets out to make music because they want to make, say, indie rock with a reggae twist or whatever. I don’t know what people are looking for when they ask me that question anyway.
I was talking to William Parker, we were fortunate blessing to play with him a few times. He is a pretty influential jazz bassist. He probably has over 500 recordings. He is kind of a New York City staple. He was saying Peter Brötzmann’s, who is a pretty famous German pre-improvisation saxophonist, is known for playing this in your face, non-stop, kind of brutal saxophone kind of squealing thing. It’s very full forced all the time. William was saying that Peter loves to listen to Lester Young who is famous for playing with Billy Holliday. He is a very smooth, sweet, lyrical tenor saxophone tone. You never would put the two anywhere in the same category. Peter Brötzmann’s two main influences were Lester Young and bird watching. Really, nothing to do with his intense music that he’d make, but that what was he’s inspired by.
I was talking with William, and we were just laughing about how most of the time musicians or even artists what they think they’re doing, or what they are influenced by, or try and emulate or make a reaction to, is so totally off what they actually do. It just happens to be what they’re inspired by.
In this sense I think myself and my band, that generally we are inspired by so many things at any given time that we try and incorporate with what we do either directly or indirectly. I feel ultimately, no matter what we are trying to do draw from, inescapably we make what we make for better or for worst. I think with each album, and as time grows I think we get even more non-specific, if that makes any sense. This newest record, I haven’t listen to a lot, but when I have listened I feel like we are getting closer to the point of making something that is us, but it doesn’t seem to fit anywhere. I don’t feel it fits into art rock, or indie rock necessarily and it’s not improvisation or world jazz.
SFC: I’m very curious about the band name.
SO: Unfortunately there isn’t much exciting about the band name. Like I said when we first started recording this four track stuff, Miles and us, we had recorded enough stuff so and Miles was like what if we call it Akron. I was like yeah that’s cool and it didn’t think much about it. Then Ryan moved into the town, and then other people would sit with us sometimes, so we added Family to the name. It was more just kind of open ended, extended thing.