The last couple of years have been full of change for Brooklyn’s Akron/Family. Just as the experimental folk-rock quartet’s profile was rising, original member Ryan Vanderhoof quit—a significant blow to a band known for having four lead singers—and, shortly thereafter, de facto Akron/Family patriarch, Seth Olinsky, moved back to his hometown of Williamsport, Pa. Back in New York, where the band formed in 2002, drummer (and singer-songwriter) Dana Janssen openly considered relocating to Durham, N.C., while bassist (and singer-songwriter) Miles Seaton was content staying put in Brooklyn's Williamsburg. For a band whose music and lyrics resonate with collective purpose, such rumblings would appear to spell out Akron/Family’s end. As it turns out, the band has followed 2007’s celebrated Love Is Simple with what could be its best work. In advance of the band's show Tuesday at the Oriental Theater, Janssen tells Decider how the aptly titled Set ’Em Wild, Set ’Em Free, due out May 5 on Dead Oceans, paradoxically finds Akron/Family more untied than ever.
Decider: So you stayed in New York, but Seth’s in Pennsylvania. Does the distance hurt the band?
Dana Janssen: Actually, no. We all write on our own, and we make time to get together to rehearse and be creative. It’s better that we have our space when we’re not working. We have the time to pursue other things, like I just put together an improvisatory octet for [John Zorn's club] The Stone.
D: The band's Current TV feature implied that Akron/Family's future was a bit in question. Did that have anything to do with Ryan’s exit?
DJ: Of course. Ryan was there from the beginning. So the foundation we’d built was dependent upon four legs. Whenever a structure loses one of its main supports, you have to create new ground to stand on. Ultimately, it was good for us though. We had fallen into the Beatles formula with four separate individuals bringing their own songs to the table. We needed the freedom to really dive down a hole after an idea, to dig a good set of roots for our next album, which we were finally able to do. I love Ryan, but it’s better for everyone that he went his own way.
D: Specifically, to a Buddhist Dharma center in Michigan. Isn’t that sort of an occupational hazard of being in a band like Akron/Family?
DJ: [Laughs.] Not really. It’s funny though. I mean, we’ve sung about a few different aspects of life’s religious qualities, but it’s not a flag or a patch that we wear on our sleeves. We’re not a religious band by any means. I suppose we’re just us exploring the ways of the universe.
D: Regardless of the end result, there is a Beatles-like quality to your setup in that you each write, play and sing. What does each member bring to the Family?
DJ: Well, we’re all very open to a broad palette of musical tastes now, but we have very different backgrounds. Miles comes from the hardcore scene, so he brings a real visceral quality that you can hear in songs like “M.B.F.” The first music I bought growing up was Digital Underground’s Sex Packets, so hip-hop and R&B were a big influence on me, along with punk rock. And Seth, since he was 10, he’s been into the [Grateful] Dead and blues—music I’d always heard, but that I didn’t really get until later.
D: Set ’Em Wild, Set ’Em Free feels more percussive, more rhythmic. Is this the result of one member taking the lead, a concerted group effort, or sheer randomness?
DJ: Well, we didn’t necessarily strive to achieve this, but I think what’s come out is our affinity for African music. We’ve been deeply impacted by the work of King Sunny Adé, Ali Farka Touré, Toumani Diabaté, Fela Kuti, a lot of the Afrobeat stuff, music we’ve heard [like] Malian guitar players and desert nomads like Tinariwen. On tours recently, we’ve been having these big percussion jams where we hand out toys to audience members so they can participate. It’s all coming out in the music.
D: Seth recently characterized Love Is Simple as a summary of Akron/Family to date. How would you characterize Set ’Em Wild, Set ’Em Free?
DJ: It’s a new launching point for us. It’s the first time we’ve self-produced. It’s the most time we’ve ever spent on a record. It also stretches across more musical ideas than any other record. Set ’Em Wild has a lot of the loud, live element to it, but we’ve also maintained the intimate, sing-songy stuff with songs like “The Alps And Their Orange Evergreen.” It’s the launching of the three of us as a hands-on unit. The Beatles are the Beatles, and they’re fucking great, but you can always tell a Paul song from a John song.
D: Akron/Family seems to be a bit of an open canvas for ideas. What were some of the non-musical influences on this album?
DJ: Actually, some Native American poetry made it in, from a book called Black Elk Speaks, at the end of “They Will Appear.” I also feel like there’s a cinematic aspect—something more visual than aural—to some of the soundscapes, like on the end of “Sun Will Shine.” Moreover, the spaces that we recorded in really colored the songs. They were pretty unique: in Detroit, we had this desolate, broken-down-train-station, every-other-building-is-on-fire kind of vibe. Up in Farnham, Quebec, there was nothing going on—it’s this tiny town, very peaceful. And then you’re in Brooklyn, the city, and it’s just thriving like it always does, this consistent pulse of energy.
D: Your touring lineup has varied ranged from three to 15. What’s your configuration this time?
DJ: We have friends in a bunch of different towns who will join us, but we’ll mostly be the trio, which I’m really enjoying. Some friends of ours from Copenhagen, Slaraffenland, are going join us at SXSW. They have a nice horn section. We played a little with them at Emo’s last year and it ended up being a great time.