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Sonic Environments 

Akron/Family creates multiple stories through multiple versions of its newest album

Music bred in the parallel isolations of a Japanese volcano and an abandoned train station in Detroit deserves the name Cosmic Birth.

Like everything else about Akron/Family—whose members are spread from Portland, Ore., to New York—that new record sprawls all over the place. Akron/Family II: The Cosmic Birth and Journey of Shinju TNT, released in February on Dead Oceans, was nurtured by a sense of unhinged expression learned from a series of Japanese bands, says Akron/Family singer/guitarist Seth Olinsky.

"We performed with a lot of artists there, and there was this energetic commitment to performance, a little less self-conscious," he explains. "When we went to decide what we wanted to do to make the record, one of the inspiration points was this energy that was more extremely expressive. We wanted to push the boundaries of our own expression, and there was something that triggered that from the way the artists were working in Japan."

So, naturally, Olinsky, drummer Dana Janssen and bassist Miles Seaton holed up in a cabin built into the side of Mount Meakan, an active volcano in Akan National Park on the Japanese island of Hokkaido, to dream up a new album that broke free from any boundaries they thought they'd hit in five previous albums.

Like any hybrid, Akron/Family is difficult to categorize. Imaginative and plenty experimental, the band's music is folk at its roots, but any of number of things at its sprawling edges. It's music that pauses to deconstruct itself. Across the whole of Cosmic Birth, you get the sense of musical collage, accented by all manner of distortion and myriad incorporated sounds.

At times, the band can sound like overloaded electrical circuits; at others, the sound is calm and delicate. Throughout Cosmic Birth is the sound of pure motion. Like a mind-bender movie, the first time through, you're just trying to follow along. But once the outline is established, more passes reveal all of those little things that were done well.

"This record, I think, is the most genuinely collaborative," Olinsky says. "It was a beautiful experience for us all, before any of the music was written, dreaming up this imaginary world of these different qualities and emotions and things that we wanted the album to do, and the way we wanted it to sound and feel. And through that process, we identified some emotional and sonic components that we'd left behind."

Early in the process, the band returned to a hard drive from their early days, digging out old samples and cutting them into new pieces. Akron/Family's extensive use of samples and various sounds helps to create a "sonic environment" for the music, Olinsky says. In a sense, the album comes from a place, and all those samples and sounds re-create that place for the listener.

"If you hear the sound of frogs, when someone's listening, they automatically visualize this pond at night. It sets the imagination to see a space," he says. "If you imagine any film, whether Old West or science fiction, the viewer is taken to that place for a few hours. It was more about using those sounds to create an environment. It's an intuitive sense of feeling a space around the music."

To record, they hooked up with engineer and producer Chris Koltay ("He's able to capture sound how we hear it, so we can relax and just perform," Olinsky says), who set the band up in the abandoned Michigan Central Station.

"Detroit is this place that was once the future city of America, and now (it's) this place that's abandoned. The city is in a state of trying to figure out how to re-create itself, and it's forcing more of a community-oriented perspective on how to do that," Olinsky says. "Being in a place that's more raw and forced to re-identify itself, there's something in our artistic process that's inspired by that energy."

That notion of re-creation and an ever-shifting identity is at the core of Cosmic Birth. The rough tracks and raw mixes can become so many different things, Olinsky says, and in an artistic sense, the band values process over product.

"The record itself, just because it's the one released, doesn't mean it's the whole story, the whole expression. The artistic base of this stuff is a little bit broader than just one finished product. It almost feels like this is one take on something that could've had 30 or 40 different lives," Olinsky says.

To let the potential energy of the project flourish, the band made a number of different mixes of the entire album, leaking several onto the Internet in advance of the formal release of Cosmic Birth. Wild and noisy, the more experimental mixes are a fascinating look at the road not taken. But those improvisational and experimental mixes were more than just an exercise; the explorative and introverted part of the process also points to ways the songs can change in live performances.

"When we get on the road, we've filled the well with new ideas, and it's an explosion of this whole new palette we've created. Not only are we playing the songs as they are on the record, but we're taking it to the next step," Olinsky says. "On this tour, we're definitely incorporating a little bit more electronics. Having the ability to extend the palette just kind of opens up the space of our performance. Using these electronics allows us to explore further territory.

"We're really feeling a lot more dynamic and creative in how we're approaching the live show, and the shows have been very different night to night."

More by Eric Swedlund

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