Q&A with Dana Janssen of Akron/Family

Last year, Akron/Family went from a quartet to a three piece when former cohort Ryan Vanderhoof decided to move on -- and according to singer-songwriter/drummer Dana Janssen, the departure shook he and his remaining partners, Seth Olinsky and Miles Seaton. However, they've not only survived the ordeal, but they're moving ahead with a new sense of purpose, as the last lines from Set 'Em Wild, Set 'Em Free, their latest album, make clear. They sing, "Last year was a hard year/For such a long time/This year's gonna be ours."

Janssen, speaking in advance of the group's Friday, July 31, headlining gig at the Bluebird Theater, takes on plenty of other topics as well in the wide-ranging Q&A on view below.

After providing some background about his Pennsylvania boyhood and early musical loves, Janssen details his early relationship with Olinsky, which was rocky at times; the subsequent connection with Seaton and Vanderhoof; the creative dynamic they established by way of encouraging the eclecticism that's at the heart of the outfit's sound; his frustration at A/F being dubbed a "hippie" band; the various configurations the combo tried out after Vanderhoof split; the reasons for the sometimes abrupt shifts in tone on Set 'Em Wild, and the truly collaborative manner in which the material came together; and Janssen's continuing devotion to mates.

Call them Akron/Family values.

Westword (Michael Roberts): Where are you from originally?

Dana Janssen: I grew up in Pennsylvania with Seth. He and I grew up in a town called Williamsport. It's about three hours west of New York City.

WW: How big is Williamsport.

DJ: Oh, about 40,000 people.

WW: What's the first music you remember really connecting with when you were a kid?

DJ: It was R&B. I loved R&B. I would listen to things like Boys II Me. And also, I was into hip-hop like Digital Underground. Actually, I think Digital Underground was the first artist I really took a strong liking to. I'm not sure if it was because I was familiar with the Band of Gypsys samples they used to use on a lot of their records. You know, the Jimi Hendrix stuff? I'm not sure if that's what attracted me to them or what it was. But I remember loving the Sex Packets album with "The Humpty Dance" on it and what-not.

WW: How old were you at the time?

DJ: I was probably around ten.

WW: And had you started playing a musical instrument at that point? Or did that come later?

DJ: Oh, yeah. My first instrument was the saxophone, probably when I was around eight. My brother was an upright bass player and he started to teach me that around the same time as well. So, yeah, those were my first two instruments.

WW: Did you start gravitating toward jazz back then?

DJ: Yeah, I was playing it in school. I joined the jazz band in elementary school, and I really liked it. But at that point in my life, I associated it with school. I had an interest in music, so it was interesting. But as far as discovering something on my own, that rap record was much more exciting to me.

WW: What other instruments did you move toward after the saxophone and the bass?

DJ: I got a guitar, and the drums were probably the last thing I picked up, to be honest with you.

WW: How old were you when you first started drumming?

DJ: I think I got my first drum set when I was about fifteen. However, I do remember specifically asking, for no apparent reason, for my mom to bring me home a set of drumsticks from the music store when she brought my brother home from his bass lesson one night, and she did. So I just started playing on pillows. I was probably ten or eleven. That was fun. And what's funny about that is, in our living room, there was a picture of this guy with dark hair, a beard and sunglasses holding a bottle of vodka or something along those lines, and it said, "A Starr is Born," with "Starr" spelled S-T-A-R-R. And I always wondered what that meant. Like, "Why did they spell that wrong? What the hell's going on?" And it turned out that it was Ringo Starr who'd been on the wall the whole time. I had no idea about the Beatles or who he was or anything, and yet I had this desire to play the drums.

WW: When did you start venturing into songwriting as opposed to song-playing?

DJ: When I was twelve, I started playing the guitar, and at that point, as soon as I grabbed the guitar, I started writing riffs and what-not, and started writing songs a year or so later. When I got some friends of mine to come down and play some music for me, we just started to write some songs. It was more like rock, or post-rock. It was the '90s, and I was really into that Chicago scene with Shellac and June of 44 and all those Touch and Go bands. I was heavy into them. So my first songwriting experiences were pretty much in that realm.

WW: Your germinal stages of learning about music are just as eclectic as anyone who's ever heard an Akron/Family album might expect. Do you look back on this period and feel blessed that you were exposed to so much different music, as opposed to being limited to one or two different kinds?

DJ: Oh, yeah. Totally. And what's even more fortunate is that I was open enough to receive these musics. You know what I mean? I took influences and what-not from them. But I feel really fortunate to have that opportunity at such a young age. My mom was really into music, and she'd introduce me to different things. When I was, like, growing up, I would often hear from the living room Madonna and reggae and house music and a lot of different stuff coming from the stereo. On Saturday morning, she'd crank the stereo and wake us up like that. So there were definitely a lot of different musics that I was exposed to.

WW: When did you meet Seth?

DJ: I met Seth when I was thirteen. We were on an Odyssey of the Mind team together. It's kind of like a smart, nerdy kids after-school program. It's problem-solving, essentially, and you go compete with... well, eventually, it's a word competition.

WW: At what point did you find out he also had an interest in music?

DJ: He played guitar when I met him, so at least as long as I've been playing music, he's been playing music. When we first met, there was a friction. We didn't get along too well. But then, in high school, we started a band together, and it worked. From there, we tried to become better friends, and it worked. And now, it's a great friendship.

WW: When you didn't get along, was it in part because you were competitive with each other due to the Odyssey of the Mind setting?

DJ: I don't know. We were on the same team when we first met, and yet, I hate to say it, there was a clique-y element to it. My friend Kevin and I were the punk skaters and he was into the blues and the Grateful Dead. And it's funny at that time, because I was like, "This stuff sucks and blah-blah-blah." Teen angst, rebellious kind of whatever. But we got over it pretty quickly and started to work together.

WW: I understand that you were in a number of different groups before Akron/Family. Were they all with Seth? Or were there times when you were in separate groups, and then you'd come together again?

DJ: My first couple of bands weren't with Seth. I had one with my friends. It was my very first group, which was pretty exciting. And then I did a few bands with my brother and some other friends, and then eventually got into a group with Seth. So we both did bands without each other.

WW: Did those early bands tend to stick with one style?

DJ: Mine certainly did. Seth's early bands, yeah, he was in a blues band, and they played covers and stuff. It was cool.

WW: When did Miles and Ryan come into the story?

DJ: Seth had met Miles working in a coffee shop when he first moved to New York, which was in '02, and I went there that year. And I had met Ryan previously. I was living in Ithaca for a time, and I met him there. The way it happened that he joined the group is, the three of us, Seth, Miles and myself, went to do a little mini-tour, and we played a show in Ithaca. And Ryan played solo guitar and sang just before us, and then we played. And I remember afterward, Seth told him he had a vision sitting under the moon that night. He was supposed to go to Oberlin to finish up school and Ryan was supposed to teach guitar at a summer camp or something. But Seth had a vision that he would convince Ryan and himself not to go to college and not take a job and everyone would move to New York City. And Ryan did.

WW: When the four of you sat down together for the first time, did you have a conversation about what kind of band you'd like to be? Or was the idea from the beginning that you didn't want to set boundaries?

DJ: We just sat down and allowed what happened to happen, to be honest with you. The only plan was to be creative.

WW: Was it a true democracy from the beginning? Was no one subordinate to anyone else?

DJ: Well, people could share their opinions and what-not. I don't know. Sometimes ideas worked and sometimes ideas didn't. It would never be about politics, by any means. It was, whatever works.

WW: But people were comfortable enough with each other that they could say to someone else, "That doesn't work. Let's try it this way"?

DJ: Of course. Whether or not they suggested how it should work was always different, but if it wasn't working, someone would speak up. We would all feel it, too, and then we'd search for whatever did work.

WW: Did you guys always feel a comfort level with each other, so you knew you could speak up and it would be okay?

DJ: No, I didn't really. You know, we tried to encourage a very safe place to create with each other. But obviously, in any relationship, there's some friction, or people have a bad day or whatever. There can be some attitude involved. Drama happens in any relationship. But ultimately, I feel like we really tried to encourage a safe environment for everybody to speak their minds and contribute ideas, as opposed to, "This is my band, and this is the way it's going to be." That didn't come from anyone.

WW: Listening to your music, it really feels that you were successful at that. Do you feel listeners can sense the way the band members get along by listening to the albums?

DJ: I have no idea, to be honest with you, because I'm inside of it. From an outsider's perspective, I can only guess what people would think. And reading reviews, I think most people think we're hippies (laughs).

WW: And how accurate is that perception?

DJ: First of all, I'm very anti-stereotype, because when you label something with a name like "hippie" or whatever, you're immediately cutting yourself off from truly identifying what it is. I think it's just a shame that people do that.

WW: The CD copy of the new album doesn't include all the lyrics, but it includes the lines, "Last year was a hard year/For such a long time/This year's gonna be ours." Most people have interpreted that as being about Ryan's departure and your decision to continue as a three piece. Is that correct? Or is there a lot more to those lines than people tend to think?

DJ: Oh, sure. There's a lot more to it. I could go on for hours about this and that. But we essentially had to restructure our entire band. We went through a lot of changes over the last year, and those lines are kind of a nice summation of what happened. A determination to keep doing what you do regardless of the bumps in the road.

WW: Was there ever the thought among anyone that maybe you shouldn't continue as a band after Ryan left?

DJ: Never crossed my mind.

WW: So it was always, "What's the best way to move forward?" as opposed to, "Maybe we should split up"?

DJ: Totally. It was like, "We're not done. And those guys aren't done. So what do we do now?" Nobody wanted to split, and what we have going for us was to a point where we thought, we need to go with it.

WW: What were the various permutations you went through before you came to the realization that it could work with the three of you?

DJ: At first, we had a few tours already booked and lined up and what-not, so the immediate reaction was, we tried to work as a three piece. But we became frustrated because we didn't have very much time to prepare. So we thought of the idea of incorporating some of our friends from North Carolina in the group Megafaun. And that ended up being a really great thing for us, because we got to bond with them, and they're some really amazing people, some of my favorite people on the planet. Great musicians, too. So that was really interesting in the way we could collaborate with other musicians on our songs. It really piqued our interests about exploring things with different musicians in different areas, and having almost a regional sound at points, depending on where we were.

That was the first step. That was September of '07, and I think in December of that year, we went to Europe to do a tour, and we couldn't afford to bring everybody over for that. So we did it as a three piece again, and it was a learning experience, definitely, but we figured out that we could do it. At that point, it was like, well, let's keep this as the core and not really worry about finding another a member to be the Band-Aid to the wound that happens when a member leaves. Yet we wanted to keep it collaborative at the same time. So the core remains the three of us, but whenever we go anywhere, or we have friends there, we like to collaborate with them and have them join us on-stage for at least the jam of a song, or sending them some tunes to learn and then playing it together.

WW: So that middle period where you played with other people ended up paying off, even though you didn't stick with that configuration, because now you realize that the format will work just as well as the three piece does....

DJ: Totally. It was a really great experience to learn that about yourself.

WW: How much of the material for the new album, if any of it, was completed before Ryan's departure? Or did you do everything after he left?

DJ: We did all of it after he left.

WW: On the album, there are some abrupt mood changes, as opposed to having everything be smooth from one track to the next. Is that one of the exciting things about this band? That you can change things up entirely from one song to the next?

DJ: Yeah. I feel the goal is to create an experience that's unique to both us and the listener, and there's different ways to go about it. On a record, there are moments that flow into each other very organically and very naturally, and there's also moments that snap and switch gears on a dime. And I think it's much more dynamic and sonically interesting to experience music in that way. A lot of records I listen to that have a similar thread throughout can become... well, not monotonous or whatever, but maybe sometimes they'll overstay their welcome with a little too much of the same thing. We wanted to make things exciting for people, and exciting for us, too, to create.

WW: You anticipated my next question: Do you experience a sense of surprise just as much as the audience does when those kinds of things happen?

DJ: It can, yeah. Of course. There's always the magic that happens whether it be in the studio or leave or what-have-you.

WW: All three of you write songs. Are there songs that one of you bring in that stay pretty much the same from demo to finished version? Or is almost everything so collaborative that it becomes a group songwriting project, as opposed to members playing on other people's songs?

DJ: I think it's a little bit of both. For the most part, it's a collaborative effort, to be honest with you. Sometimes you hear a tune and it works well the way it is. But on this record, in particular, we really had a good opportunity to be more collaborative and crack some of these songs open. Something I noticed when Ryan was in the band, he would bring songs into the band that had such a strong voice of their own that it was really hard to get in there and work with them. It just felt a lot of times like we were sprinkling things on top of what he was doing. They felt a little singular in a way. Whereas on this record, we'd crack open the songs and find a new voice that was more unified between the three of us.

WW: Are there examples on the new album where the song is completely different in the finished version than the way it started out?

DJ: Sure. Both "Creatures" and "Many Ghosts" were two examples of some of the tunes that weren't quite working out perfectly when we first started to arrange them. So when we got to the studio in Montreal, we cracked them open and tried to do new things on them. And it turned out to be really beneficial. I think those are two of the most creative tunes on the record in terms of new directions for us.

WW: Because all three of you are capable of coming up with your own material, there's always talk about you maybe going your separate ways. Do those experiences you just describe, where you're able to come up with something together that you never would have thought of individually, keep you coming back to Akron/Family?

DJ: I love these guys, and I love making music with these guys. As it stands, I don't know what keeps me coming back, but it just feels like where I belong. I don't really see anything else right now, to be honest with you. I've got my other musical outlets. I record on my own and I'm sure I'll continue to do that. But I love making music with these guys. It's a really fun thing.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts