Akron/Family set ’em free of cynicism (interview)

“To turn your back on something that’s sincere — I mean, it might not be for you, and that’s fine — but to turn on it because it is sincere is a real shame,” says Akron/Family drummer Dana Janssen. “What the hell are you doing if you’re not being honest with yourself, or if you’re not trying to bring some sort of positivity to what’s going on in a certain scene, or just in life in general? I don’t want to be tied into somebody trying to bring me down.”

Few modern bands are as fully devoted to positivity as Akron/Family. Originally lumped into the freak-folk scene that included artists like Devandra Banhardt, it didn’t take the band long to break free from the musical shackles of any particular genre. Having transformed from a four-piece to a trio when founding member Ryan Vanderhoof left to live in a Buddhist Dharma centre, the band reached a whole new level of eclecticism on this year’s Set ’Em Wild, Set ’Em Free by incorporating everything from Afrobeat to skittering electronics into their already sprawling sound. The hippie tag, on the other hand, has been harder to shake.

It doesn’t help that Akron’s live shows are something of a communal experience. The band’s lineup often swells to include any other musicians that happen to be in the area, not to mention the audience members who catch the assortment of tambourines, shakers and other noisemakers that the band doles out. It’s a strategy that seems custom-tailored to cut through the cynicism that sometimes plagued audiences at the band’s early Brooklyn gigs, but it actually evolved quite naturally.

“We used to be a little more introverted, I suppose, and detail-oriented,” Janssen explains. “We used to sit down when we played and it was a little quieter and more focused. There was a certain point where we [just said] ‘Man, I really like it when I’m at a show and people start dancing.’ Like, we had a few tunes that people would start to dance to, and we wanted to work some ways to allow people to enjoy themselves. At one point, we just started jamming and Seth and Miles and myself and Ryan would throw percussion toys at people in the crowd and see how they reacted — and most of them picked it up and jumped up onstage.”

From there, the band’s live prowess only grew, and these days they inspire a loyalty in their audience that hearkens back to the days of The Grateful Dead. Rumours of the lengths the band will take to connect with their audience may be exaggerated — Janssen bursts into laughter when asked about a mythical Toronto performance where band and audience alike took mushrooms at the show — but the fact that those rumours are spreading at all speaks loudly of the band’s connection with its fans.

“To use the word mythology, that’s an interesting way to look at it,” Janssen says before pondering the implications. “I feel like, with that, you get more of a story. It’s not just, ‘Oh this band has put a record out, blah blah blah.’ There’s something that people can really find some magic in. Whether it’s a rumour that everybody gets mushrooms before a show or whatever, there’s some sort of sense of it growing on its own in a way that could be really beneficial and starts its own cultural movement in a way that the Dead did or that Fugazi did. I’m really much more inspired by something growing in that fashion.”

The larger audience that comes with that growth is a bit of a mixed blessing for the band. When they opened for Wilco in Spain recently, the band had to deal with bouncers who were justifiably concerned about fans running willy-nilly onto the stage, forcing the band to find new ways to connect with the audience and keep the performance vibrant. The larger profile also leads to slots like their folk fest set on Saturday, July 25 — a large, outdoor venue with a crowd that’s unfamiliar with the band’s music, let alone their live persona. Janssen isn’t worried, though.

“They’re all Canadian, man, and Canadians are so much more open to things like this,” he says. “Canadians are much more accepting of things and willing to listen to it. Maybe it’s not your cup of tea at the end of the day, but whatever. I feel like there’s more of a willingness to participate in what’s going on. It might not seem like a good fit at first, but it ends up being so out of place that it becomes interesting

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