"Walt Whitman was the original beard-rocker, sensitive and somewhat effeminate," says Akron/Family multi-instrumentalist Miles Seaton. "Beard rock, therefore, is sensitive and vaguely homosexual because of him."
For those out there not familiar with "beard rock," it's that current sort-of genre that lumps all the folk-fringe acts like Devandre Banhardt, Iron & Wine, Akron/Family, Will Oldham, and that bearded lady that plays the ukulele down in Gibbstown, FLA together simply by the fact that they've all got big beards. It's not a category that's been adopted by record store clerks yet, but trust me, when a few more mattresses-worth of facial hair make their appearance on the tour circuit, they'll have to get out the ol' label-maker and make it official.
The bearding of alternative America--you can't but help noticing it in the audiences that go see these bands perform as well. "I definitely have noticed quite a few handsome bearded men in our audiences lately," agrees Seaton, adding, "I don't have a beard anymore. I have a moustache. But I think there's this post-feminist masculinity that's reflected in the beard. So maybe that's what's happening, that there's just been an increase in sensitive guys, and they wear beards. The only reason we grew our own beards was because we really just forgot to shave; which happens when you work too much, and you don't sleep enough."
Over the past two years, since their first album came out on Michael Gira's Young God Records, Akron/Family has toured practically non-stop, playing literally hundreds and hundreds of shows. Much of their new material is conceived on the road between gigs, rehearsed on stage and in hotel rooms, and finally recorded during their off-times at home. "Being in a tour van with your band is a lot more intense than being in Aleister Crowley's castle," says Seaton of the experience. "I wouldn't say it's like being in a cult, exactly, but it can be pretty myopic at times. Like, when we go on tour, for instance, we meet all these college people who know all this music that we've never heard of, and they know all these bands that are new, and they have a whole scene that we supposedly fit into for them. I look at everybody at our shows, and they're all these hipster-looking people, and we're just these frumpy older dudes that drive around listening to New Age synth music and old Led Zeppelin. I feel like we don't really relate to the world in the same way that most of the people around us do, because we are touring all the time, and it's just so easy to just forget that the outside world exists."
Perhaps it's the isolation from the outside world that makes Akron/Family the sort of band they are. The collective of Seth Olinsky, Dana Janssen, Ryan Vanderhoof, and Seaton create a mix of acoustic and electronic music that sounds futuristic and atavistic at the same time, like something that you might hear sung at sunset by H.G. Wells' Eloi, bright and innocent yet full of misdirected dread at the same time. The mix of acoustic, archaic stringed instruments, including mandolins and banjos, with things that pop and sizzle and buzz is both beautiful and chilling.
In their newest release, Meek Warrior, Akron/Family breaks into new territory for the band. Where their debut and following split LP with Michael Gira bordered on aggressively wild and cacophonic, Meek Warrior is full of sweet, nonsensical campfire chants, lightly accompanied guitar and bongo drums, broken by the occasional pure rock-out with really catchy-sounding guitar riffs. While these songs couldn't belong to anyone but the Akron/Family, they don't sound like any of the material they've recorded before. It's not hard to see how these songs will translate to a live set -- and really, listening to the record almost feels like a teaser of what sort of wild rumpus is in store for those lucky enough to get to see them perform live. Directly after this tour, they will be heading back into the studio with Gira to start the process of sifting through all the new material the band's written over the past six months and making it work as a single album.
"I think the biggest influence Michael Gira has had on us as our producer has been that he's really encouraged us to sing in our songs," says Seaton. "I think that was really amazing, because all of us were afraid to sing a little bit, as a group, because it's really hard to sing with four people. He kind of represents the voice of restriction in our band, too, being the watchdog for time, using coercion and manipulation to get good things out of us, just like a good producer would." He laughs. "Michael Gira, to us, is kind of like the Dad with the kids in the backseat running wild, having to say, 'Shut up! Shut up! I'll pull this car over! Shut up!' That's kind of what our relationship with him is like. We're all, 'Oh! I've got an idea! I've got an idea!' and he's like, 'You can only do one thing at once! Calm down, children!'"