When it was time for Akron/Family to send out copies of its new album, the experimental-folk rock band abandoned the usual channels of distribution—giving promo copies to the press, streaming the record online a week before its official release—and cut out the middleman. Instead of mailing S/T II: The Cosmic Birth and Journey of Shinju TNT to Pitchfork, the band sent it out to kids on its mailing list and told them to host listening parties.
"Someone had it in their garage behind a Kinko's in Washington, D.C., for 12 people, and some other kid hosted it at a yoga studio in Connecticut," says singer and guitarist Seth Olinksy. "We didn't want it to leak online, so we included instructions to send a picture of a burning CD after it had been played. I think it was a very personal event for everyone involved."
Akron/Family has always been built on destruction. Since forming in 2002, the band—Olinsky, bassist Miles Seaton and drummer Dana Janssen—has set a flame to the boundaries of folk and experimental-rock music, creating loud, ecstatic and communal music that riffs off free jazz just as much as your dad's Grateful Dead records. S/T II is the band's second record as a trio (founding member Ryan Vanderhoof left in 2007 to live in a Buddhist dharma center) and the first recorded since Olinsky and Janssen relocated to Portland from Brooklyn. Unlike the band's past two records, which saw it condensing its sound into an accessible classic-rock mix of rambunctious energy and positive hippie vibrations, S/T II embraces abrasiveness and a commitment to open space.
"On the last record we were really interested in a lot of rhythmic stuff, and on this one we were more focused on texture and sonic space. We wanted it to feel like an environment or an imaginary place someone could go to," Olinsky says. "We brainstormed about how we wanted to make a record and what we wanted people to be feeling when they hear it."
In doing so, Akron/Family returns to a sparse, naked sound it had mostly abandoned in the past five years. The band used to cram hundreds of ideas into every song, but here it sounds relaxed and confident in separating the light from the dark. Opener "Silly Bears" sputters with a distorted loop and a raging, compressed guitar solo, like if Sleigh Bells celebrated 4/20 by covering a Jerry Garcia B-side. But it's the following song that sets the template for things to come: "Island" relaxes the fury with a gorgeous, slow-burning guitar drifting over chirping insects, bashed percussion and synthesized strings that are neither schmaltzy nor overwrought. Akron/Family finally sounds comfortable in its own skin, free to indulge in all its weird obsessions without coming off as another trite psychedelic band.
It wasn't easy to get to that level. Olinsky mentions that S/T II is the first record created without a lot of advanced planning, and the first where he had no songs finished before entering the studio. Though S/T II was mostly recorded in Detroit, it was started from scratch with the trio trying to "dream from the same point of view" and created in part from the band's 2009 Japanese tour, where it witnessed legendary experimental-noise outfit Boredoms for the first time.
"Seeing the Boredoms play was amazing," Olinsky says. "They are just really pure and soulful in a way I find inspiring. Sometimes I struggle with the idea of band culture: I love being in a band and making records, but it can feel a little shallow. It's like, did we peak out when we were 26? Seeing people in their 50s still opening boundaries and moving forward is truly inspirational."
SEE IT: Akron/Family plays Saturday, March 26, at Wonder Ballroom with Delicate Steve, Au, Brainstorm and Why I Must Be Careful. 9 pm. $15. All ages.