Late last holiday season, one of the more quietly astonishing music collections of 2011 began to leak onto the Internet. First, it came under the nom de plume Death Cab for Cutie. But it wasn't them. Another part came burbling into the ether-at-large credited to the Fleet Foxes. But when users grabbed it from file-sharing sites such as Megaupload and Mediafire, it wasn't them either, despite the beards.
Instead, all the tracks were mutations of the Akron/Family's own yet-to-be-released album, S/T II: The Cosmic Birth and Journey of Shinju TNT. Each was an exact second-for-second reiteration of S/T II, and each gorgeous in its own way. Experimental musician Greg Davis chopped the music into psycho-acoustic musique concrete. Megafaun's Phil Cook rendered it as a skeletal piano improvisation. When the album itself leaked, it was pretty good, too, but switching between the so-dubbed bmbz was more fun, the proper songs all visible beneath the zapped abstractions, as if through dense lake water. As the year went by, three-dimensional versions of the songs' melodies rippled in the memory, less an album and more a static-ridden transmission from beyond modernity's crap-locked dystopian numbness.
Sometimes more a rolling chaos field than a rock group, Akron/Family lately have sought to even further blur the lines of bandom itself. In these thin winter months before the Akron live trio—Seth Olinsky, Miles Seaton and Dana Janssen—hits the road for its first tour of 2012, the three primary Family members find themselves spread across the continent. Once making music in Brooklyn bedrooms, Akron/Family now find themselves stretched from the Gulf of Mexico through the deep Arizona desert to glitterbox Los Angeles.
"I do miss the days of being able to actually play on Tuesdays and Thursdays in the basement of the Roebling Tea Room and hash out new ideas with each other," admits drummer Janssen, currently stationed south of Cancun with his girlfriend and his Mazda. His drums are in Portland, Ore., and the band's Brooklyn days are somewhere even further behind in the seemingly irretrievable past. Akron/Family formed a decade ago in Williamsburg; an intense whirlwind of co-habitation, home-recording and van touring swept the band into their current diaspora, the latest version of an outfit that has sought to push at the boundaries around them with an almost psychedelic compulsion.
Olinsky, who sports the band's most iconic and old-growth beard, has been outside of Tucson, Ariz., dreaming of surf. He and his girlfriend staged a Freeriders exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art, evoking beatniks and Beach Boys and early motorcycle gangs and sun-drenched coasts, collecting contributions from friends afield. He traveled to Detroit recently to hang with another extended member of the band's tribe, producer Chris Koltay, and to help manifest Sunkissed, the second album by Colorado band Bad Weather California. The album will make its way to the world via Family Tree, long a half-imaginary imprint for the band's myriad CD-Rs and lately pushing at the boundaries of real.
"There is a desire we have to contextualize and frame and legitimize the more 'fringe' [Akron/Family] expression," notes Seaton, who's living out his own Los Angeles dream. "We also wanted a way to support work we made with other artists in a production capacity. Hence Bad Weather California and later [in 2012] Praything, from Florida." Organized primarily by Seaton and Olinsky (who tried out the L.A. dream before settling for the desert), Family Tree will take a step up from the merch table and receive proper distribution from California company Revolver.
Also out on Family Tree is Live Sound Fields, the latest edition in the band's long-running small-batch tour discs (numbering well over a dozen at this point) featuring an hour of improv from recent shows. Between the band's state of seemingly permanent revolution, they have marched on thoroughly as a live act. There are usually a few days of pre-tour rendezvous and then shows, shows, shows—ever-evolving Dead-like song-suites, and the hopes that they might find a situation where the fourth wall might be breached, the audience surging among the band, vice-versa, or something else entirely. In Tokyo recently, Japanese noise legend Keiji Haino joined them for 40 minutes. That was sweet.
Over the past year, especially, music blog Hipster Runoff's usage of quotation marks for ironic "emphasis" has added invisible punctuation to once common notions in music, from "albums" to "bands" to "labels." While perhaps in a similar spirit, Akron/Family keep seeking ways to do it "authentically"—or at least honestly and seemingly without cynicism. But that doesn't mean they're not, well, lonely.
"As far as feeling like a band still, it's tough," says Janssen. "Really tough when your comrades are so far away. I know that the idea of the digital world making it easier to keep up with everything is supposed to make this work, but it still takes a lot of effort on all of our parts to continually invest in the process."
"It's kind of nice to just be bro-heavy and then send goofy pics and songs and Internet ephemera the rest of the time," adds Seaton, "and when we need to get down to business, we get down." Akron/Family are figuring out ways to continue keeping things blurred, a band on tour, a Family in the ether. And beyond.