A year after their debut as a trio, Akron/Family a little wilder, a little freer

by Ryan Snyder

A year after their debut as a trio, Akron/Family a little wilder, a little freer

Few bands can withstand the departure of their frontmen, but count Akron/Family among the survivors.

Yet, there was still a rather sober fleshing-out period from the time that singer and guitarist Ryan Vanderhoof departed to join a midwestern Buddhist Monastery in 2007 to the release of their first album as a trio, 2009’s Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free. The band was already noted for their genrebending, free-wheeling compositional style, an approach especially amenable to change, but the remaining members were left to assume and share roles that went outside of their already expansive musical comfort zones.

Still, if the last line of Set ‘Em Wild was any indication, the band embraced the new era of Akron/Family with cool assurance. “Last year was a hard year/ For such a long time/ This year’s gonna be ours,” they sang on “Last Year.” I say “They,” because the group has taken to sharing the vocal duties far more than it ever had, a practice that guitarist Seth Olinsky said was taken upon with great apprehension, particularly since no one in the band was as seasoned a lead vocalist as Vanderhoof, nor did they possess the range.

As promised, this past year has been theirs. They’ve stepped up their vocal practice, which involves paying more attention to their individual ranges and looking for the places where their voices overlap, which bassist Miles Seaton says has already paid dividends in the band’s vocal confidence. They’ve also toured almost incessantly, only taking the past two months to recharge before embarking on another monthlong jaunt. The first of those comes at Greensboro’s Club Artistika, a show which Seaton says will be the first step in the band’s most methodical approach to recording an album yet.

This tour will be an opportunity for the band to continue to hone their already praiseworthy improvisational skills, as well as to hash out material for an album to be released later this year. Seaton says that the band’s previous two efforts have felt rushed and the material not developed with the careful attention on stage that it deserved before recording.

“There’s a different kind of physicality in the way I feel like we’ve been playing lately,” the animated Seaton said. “I’m super excited to hear how it sounds when it’s thrown on a tape machine.”

But did someone say “improvisation skills?” Indeed. If the highfalutin indie-rock universe eventually collapses on itself, it will be because of a supermassive paradox at its center known as Akron/Family imploded upon it. “Improvisation” has almost become a dirty word in many music circles, as a surfeit of mediocre jam bands riding the resurrection of the American music festival in the early part of the decade saw their vehicle become as detestable as disco… well, used to be. Akron/Family has succeeded where many only wallowed in excess, however; they’ve struck a careful balance between fealty to their already idiosyncratic compositions and an adventurous mindset that demands they break whatever few rules they’ve imposed upon themselves.

“We have underestimated our ability to communicate musically in improvisational situations in the past, but it’s becoming more important for us when we’re writing,” Seaton said. “On this next tour we’re gonna be working on playing as many new things as we can, so that may mean we’re improvising a lot more. That might mean this new song has a lot of space for interpretation, or less because it’s becoming clearer.”

Either way, the task coming up is to serve the piece and not the jam. This will be their first opportunity as a trio to battle test new output in their eclectic, often freakish style of folk rock. For the jam fans, there will be space reserved for the improvisational passages, while the jam-weary have been guaranteed their respite. No one claiming to be a fan of Akron/ Family expects anything conventional, however.

“The people that become our audience tend to be the kind of people who enjoy being surprised and excited seeing what happens next,” Seaton said. “When we first started, I think people weren’t paying attention because of the hype, but people who saw us really stuck around and wanted to get deeper into something. The more we played for those people the more it feels like us and it feels special.”

wanna go? Akron/Family performs at Club Artistika on Wednesday, Feb. 17.

Akron/Family has found its voice.

(Photo by DL Anderson)