Seth Olinsky talks monsoons, Buddhism and learning to surf.
It's five o'clock in the evening where Seth Olinsky is in the world. For me, it's a chilly Thursday morning in Sydney but for the Akron/Family musician, it's a chilled out Wednesday night at home in the desert. Or, more specifically, in Tuscon, Arizona, where it's currently monsoon season. I can almost picture the "magical" clouds Olinsky describes and feel the electricity of the lightning storms "rolling in" as we discuss life on the road, the beauty of the three-legged chair and philosophies of making music.
Akron/Family are the folk-psych-tribal three-piece with members scattered across the USA. Their loosely defined roles within the band are emblematic of their relaxed approach to making music. At the end of the day, Seth Olinsky, Miles Seaton and Dana Janssen are just three great friends who like to swap instruments and challenge themselves wherever possible. With a thoroughly organic approach to making music, the band have been known to throw field recordings of creaking chairs, thunder claps and television white noise into the mix, alongside psychedelic and electronic elements, guitars and a glockenspiel. Last time they visited down under (in 2009) the band blew audiences away with their psychedelic energy and they are set to make their return next month. Their latest album, S/T II: The Cosmic Birth and Journey of Shinju TNT was devised in a cabin built into the side of a Japanese volcano and then recorded in an abandoned train station in Detroit. We gave Seth a call to delve inside the many minds of Akron/Family ahead of their much-anticipated second Australian tour.
Rosie Dalton: You've just moved to Tuscon, Arizona, with your girlfriend. What's that like?
Seth Olinsky: Tuscon is incredible. We've only been here since June so it's still very new but it's got such a great energy. Right now we're having monsoons so the clouds are really magical and there are these amazing lightning storms rolling in. It's pretty far South, near the Mexican border, so there's a huge Mexican population and a great culture about it. The Mexican food here is awesome too. It's a really lively place.
Do you live close to Miles and Dana or do you do the whole long distance thing?
Dana's living in Portland right now – which is where we were living before – and Miles is living in New York, so he's pretty far away. But he might be moving to LA soon so we will be quite close then (it's only like an eight hour drive away). And maybe if Dana moves down here as well, we will all be a bit closer and can get together more. It works well, though, because sometimes we spend heaps of time together, like when we're touring or recording and other times, we get together when we can, it just depends.
How did the band first come together?
We had multiple beginnings. Dana and I grew up together in Pennsylvania so we've been playing together on and off since we were eleven. Eventually, though, he ended up moving to Florida to live with his father and I moved to New York City. Right around the same time, Miles also moved to New York from Seattle with his girlfriend at the time and he and I actually ended up getting the same job at this coffee shop – it was the worst job ever! So we met there and we were both looking for new collaborators to make music with and so we started making music together at my apartment. It was this little place in Brooklyn and we would get off work at one or two in the morning and then go and record. But, you know, my roommate would be asleep and everyone would be asleep in the building so we would make really quiet music [laughs]. That was where Akron/Family really started, with those quiet recordings. About six months afterwards, Dana ended up moving to New York as well and just naturally folded into the group and then a little after that, our friend Ryan moved too so he became part of the group as well. And that was the group that toured and recorded for the first few years.
Is it really true that Ryan left the band to join a Buddhist commune?
[Laughs] No. Well, part of the reason that he left the band was because he wanted to practise Buddhism more but I think it had kind of been happening for a long time, he was feeling a bit burnt out on the road. It's a pretty complicated life, there's a lot of travelling and a lot of energy involved. It's also really fun, creative and fulfilling, but it can be hard to lead a normal life outside of the band place. I can understand [where he's coming from]. I mean I love performing and I love going places to play shows, but I sometimes find that touring can be pretty disorienting for me too. So yeah, he was just at that point where I think he felt like it was diminishing returns for him or he wasn't feeling like it was a good match for his life anymore and he wanted to get a bit more settled. Plus, he'd also been getting into practising Buddhism, so he wanted to be a little more focused on that. But I think it was hard for him as well because he was really invested in the band creatively; it wasn't like we weren't getting along or anything, so I think it was a really hard decision for him. But it's been good for him, I think. He seems really happy. He's teaching guitar lessons and making his own music and living a bit of a simpler life, which I think he's really happy about. And we're all still good friends. Recently in Detroit, he came out and we played together and it was the first time that we had got together and played a bunch of old music. It was really fun.
How do you find the three-piece dynamic compared to four?
Three is actually a way more stable molecule than four. I always think about a chair with three legs versus a chair with four legs... way more stable [laughs]. With four in the band it's like, on any given moment, whether it's working on a song or concept, or just deciding where to get coffee in the morning, two people might go that way, two people might go the other way, it's that kind of dynamic. But three is an uneven number so it's always one and two. It was definitely hard for us to figure out at first, it was a big transition sonically, working out how to go from four to three and make it work. It took a little bit of time for us to adjust and feel solid in that dynamic. But the flipside is, while it can feel kind of unstable sometimes, it can also be way more fucked up and wild. I think the more we've learned to utilise the explosive quality of the three, the more dynamic and sonic our shows and sound have become.
So, S/T II: The Cosmic Birth and Journey of Shinju TNT, can you tell us a bit about that name?!
Well the name has a couple of layers to it. Part of it was just us trying to be goofy, but I guess it has multiple of different meanings. S/T II is a reference to our first record, our self-titled record, which we always just refer to as S/T. We were looking back on that record and wanted to reflect on how different our sound has become by trying to fold back in some of those original spaces we were exploring. So that's the first part of the title and then 'the birth of Shinju TNT' came about when we were all in a van touring Europe, drinking too many cheap espressos from the gas station. Shinju TNT was this character that we made up, who represented a certain energy for us and this feeling of wanting to break free of certain boundaries. I think we were feeling a bit stuck in a box sonically at the time and wanted to get to a new place by revisiting this gentler side of things like in the beginning, but also trying to explore this more extreme side of ourselves.
Is it true that the album was written in a cabin built into the side of a Japanese Volcano?
Yeah, well we went to Japan for the writing, developing and inspiration processes and then we recorded in Detroit.
How did you find Japan?
So inspiring. We had been there the year before for our first tour and started working with these promoters who were just the most amazing people. They introduced us to this cool, underground noise culture in Japan and set us up to work with some incredible artists over there. Honestly, we were blown away by their level of creative commitment. Sometimes with American music, it can feel like musicians are a little self-conscious; like they're aware of their mediated status and are trying to be cool in some way, so we were just so inspired by these Japanese musicians and the way they would throw themselves into their performances. They had a really deep energetic commitment to what they were doing and we wanted to be close to that energy in the creation of our record.
You guys use a lot of random field recordings in your music, how does this process of selecting sounds happen?
Well, It's never so much been a conscious effort, it just happens very naturally. If we're listening to something and realise that it just doesn't sound right, then it's about feeling it out in the darkness. One way we do that is with rhythm, another is with words but another way that we do it is with sound. Sometimes we'll add an additional guitar part or some extra drums, but then sometimes the solution is putting the sound of water in there, or the sound of a fire, or children playing next door and all of a sudden it creates this sort of environment. It's about creating a space. If you look at a photograph, it's two dimensional but you can imagine three dimensions; you can see the foreground and the background. When you're listening to something on a stereo, this space is created by the sounds and is less bound by up, down, left, right gravity. Instead, it's a more imaginary, abstract space. A lot of times, it's almost like we're trying to create a three dimensional space in our sounds. So I guess we add in those sounds because the textures mix with the instruments to create more of a sonic experience.
You guys have been to Australia before and you're coming back again in September. What were your first impressions like?
Our first experience in Australia was so positive so I'm really excited to come back! Last time, we met some amazing people, the shows were awesome and the crowds were great so it was really cool. I'm even more excited this time, though, because I've just started learning how to surf so I'm hoping to get really into it. And I think we're going to travel up to Ayres Rock as well, which will be awesome. So, yeah, I'm really pumped to go back there. Plus we made friends with some really cool people in Australia so I'm excited to catch up with them again as well. It should be a great tour.
What do you have planned for the rest of your evening?
Not a whole lot. I'll probably work on some music a bit later and then cook dinner and have a slow evening in. I've been working a lot over the last few days, helping another band produce their record so I'm trying to take it easy today... getting ready for Australia!
Akron/Family will be playing Brisbane's Gallery of Modern Art on September 30, Sydney's Annandale Hotel on October 1, Melbourne's Corner Hotel on October 2 and Fremantle's Mojos Bar on October 4. See you there!