Q & A: Akron/Family talks Twitter, African tribes, Grateful Dead at All Points West

17 08 2009

By Jillian Mapes (@jumonsmapes)

Akron/Family at All Points West 2009; photo by Jillian Mapes

Akron/Family at All Points West 2009; photo by Jillian Mapes

Psychedelic folk rockers Akron/Family are known more for their extended on-stage jams than their viral marketing. But that might soon change. UWIRE caught up with drummer Dana Janssen after the Brooklyn-via-Pennsylvania trio’s Sunday set at All Points West. He explains his recent obsession with Twitter, as well as his tribe-like approach to captivating Akron/Family’s fan base and his new musical BFFs.

Dana Janssen: I just joined Twitter a week ago.

UWIRE: It’s a good thing at first, isn’t it?

DJ: Oh my God, I fucking fell in love with it! I can tell people stupid all the time and they’ll listen and they can’t talk back! Well they can … they can tweet back. I like the “@ replies.”

UWIRE: Do you have a lot of followers?

DJ: Yeah, I think so. But I don’t like to talk numbers … (laughs)

UWIRE: That’s why you’re an artist, right? Because you don’t like to talk numbers?

DJ: My art is not to ensue the masses. I mean it’s welcome to the masses if the masses incurred, but it’s to be good art. If you’re not offending anybody, you’re not doing it right, so they say.

UWIRE: Some artists have said on the subject of Twitter that it’s a great way to bridge the gap with fans and artists without having to use the medium of the press. Have you felt that way?

DJ: Yeah, I definitely like the direct connection. You’re almost accessible in an interesting kind of a way, and people can talk to you kind of similarly to the way they talk to you after a show. Like they’ll come up to you after a show and say, “Great set, blah blah blah.” But they can tweet about you and the next day you’ll see it and this and that, say something back to them if you want. It’s an interesting little way to chat with fans that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. I definitely like it, and I think it’s pretty unique the way that you can chronicle things in the moment. Like, we were in Denver and you have your phone and you tweet, ‘I’m going to the bar at Medcalf’s’ and people show up, or you’re playing a secret show and you tweet it as the only way to let people know.

UWIRE: Would you guys play a secret show and only tweet it?

DJ: Oh yeah, definitely.

UWIRE: I feel like that’s going to be a real thing that bands do as Twitter becomes more popular, you know?

DJ: Oh totally!

(Imitating conversation)
“Did you hear about it? The show that happened last night? Dude, it was sick!”
“What are you talking about?”
“They tweeted that action – it was a secret show only for people in the know!”

It’s definitely a little weird because it creates exclusivity among fans, which can be off-putting at times, but honestly, if a fan wants to be a part of our tribe, then they’re going to search us out and find it whatever way they can, whether it’s Twitter or MySpace.

UWIRE: Do you think Twitter will become as standard as say, MySpace, to connect with fans? Like an expectation for bands …

DJ: Sure. I think Twitter’s just getting started, and I think it’s better than MySpace to connect with fans because it’s you directly talking to them. It’s not like, a personal message to each and every one of them, but …

UWIRE: Well it feels personal to an extent to get an “@ reply” from someone you follow…

DJ: Totally! That’s what I’m saying. It’s just so much different than through the words of a writer or a magazine that wants to maintain their aesthetic and maybe colors a story with that. I don’t know, is that how it goes?

UWIRE: Yeah, there’s always framing when you’re writing a story.

DJ: Exactly. The context that a story has on the page, like where it’s placed, what it’s next to, if there’s an advertisement on your page and how big it is – whatever. It’s definitely very framed by a publication’s view. But Twitter is awesome because the idea is like, “Fuck that. They’re not me. I’m not going to let them tell you what I am – I’m going to tell you what I am directly.”

UWIRE: Do you think that it will ever get to the point where artists are communicating with fans directly so much that the bands won’t need to do press?

DJ: Well, we’ve seen what happened with downloading … people don’t really buy CDs anymore. It would make sense if this went the same way. That’s actually a good idea. I hate to tell you this, but I like the idea of doing a press campaign for the next album via tweets.

UWIRE: I’ve seen some publications do Twitterviews, which is kind of weird to me.

DJ: What is a Twitterview?

UWIRE: The journalist will tweet questions “@” an artist and then they’ll “@ reply.”

DJ: Real-time interviews? I love that!

UWIRE: Real-time so the fans can watch it live.

DJ: That’s great because it’s current. The funny thing about records is when you write a song, by the time you record and the record company does what they do and it comes out and you go to tour it, it’s old to you.

UWIRE: Yet it’s so new to everyone else.

DJ: You can think about it in two different ways: 1.) A great song is a great song is timeless, whether it’s now or then. 2.) Being able to see a song performed live – I’m very much a live person – at a very early state and then witness the progression of a song, I think it’s incredible, actually. It’s like the Dead.

My friend Jesse was telling me that his most recent geek-out is listening to the Dead shows in ’69 on the day that they happened. He was telling me about the progression of the songs, like the set changes from night to night and the production of the songs changing and [the Dead song] “Casey Jones” becoming what it is. It’s a little abstract in the way that you see the constant evolution of an art like that. A painting, for example, you just have the painting. You can watch the artist paint it, but when it’s finished, it sits there as it is. The Mona Lisa hasn’t changed since he made his last stroke. Whereas a song, it will always evolve.

UWIRE: But I think Akron/Family is admittedly very much a live band and you guys improvise all the time. We’ve all seen bands that their sets sound identical to the record and that’s their aesthetic. On the topic of live shows, you guys always seem to be touring and playing live, especially at festivals. Do you enjoy that more than being the studio or just being at home writing songs?

DJ: I like the live experience more, yes. I love recording, don’t get me wrong. It’s a really creative place to try out new ideas, but the live experience … that’s what originally where music was meant to be experience. I love it in the sense that it goes back to the roots. Everything’s kind of going that direction.

I’ve been reading this book by Seth Godin called “Tribes,” and he’s a marketer. Brilliant dude – I’m so inspired by him right now. Anyway, his book talks about his new ideas on marketing. It’s less about permission advertising, where people are telling you what you want to buy and they are constantly interrupting you when you’re at the grocery store and you have so many different options.

Now it’s leadership as advertising. It’s essentially just assembling your tribe and leading them to what they already want in the first place. Like a band like Grateful Dead, for example. They gave their fans live sets, bootlegs, T-shirts, whatever merchandise they wanted, shows. You’re giving them what they already want so there’s no struggle. It’s amazing way to look at it and it really brings to attention that the music industry wasn’t built on any foundation that was based on the fans. It was built on the foundation of selling more units and reaching more people, but not keeping the first people you collect along the way.

With us, our whole idea is to get a core base of fans that are believers. They want to be intimate with our music, just like we want to be with them. It’s like a tribe back in the day, whether it’s an African tribe or a Native American tribe. It was very community-oriented. Things were passed between each other with no middle man, no interviewer when you’re talking about something, no recorded music between you and the bands.

UWIRE: Do you think Akron/Family has succeeded at that? Creating a tribe?

DJ: Yeah, of course! It’s evident when we go play a show in a town like Chicago, London or Boston. They’re quiet through your set, but they just go for it. Like if you want them to clap, they’re clapping already, they’re really dancing and letting loose and allowing themselves to be free. To do that in a town like Chicago or London or even New York, which is traditionally a real (crosses arms) arms-crossed sort of town, it speaks volumes about what we’ve achieved with our fans.

UWIRE: Well you guys dance and let loose on stage – I think that’s part of it. Your fans are spirited because you guys are so spirited. Anyway, back to when you were talking about tribes. There’s a tribal sound to your music. Are you consciously influenced by African tribal music?

DJ: I love that stuff. There’s a lot of hand drumming and I’m definitely way into it, but that wasn’t what were trying to exploit by any means.

UWIRE: So it just sort of happened?

DJ: Yeah, it was just organic. One of the first shows we ever played, we sort of went in that direction – that tribal thing.

UWIRE: I’ve seen you guys play at a bunch of festivals and you’ve always collaborated with other bands on stage. Like back a couple years ago at the Nelsonville Music Festival in Ohio, you guys did some jamming with O’Death, and at SXSW this year with that Atlanta rapper B.O.B.

DJ: B.O.B. was going nuts! (Laughs) They were fun!

UWIRE: So you guys like collaborating a lot?

DJ: Fuck yeah! It’s in the moment. You don’t know what’s going to happen. You don’t know if this guy’s going to fuck it up, or if you’re going to create something cool with you. Sometimes it’s great and sometimes it misses, but whatever.

UWIRE: Are the on-stage collaborations premeditated at all?

DJ: Sometimes we see who we’re playing with and we’re like, “Oh, we met these guys, we want to play with them, blah blah blah.” But a lot of times we show up, we see their set and we’ll just say, “Hey! Join us on-stage!” It’s the spirit of it – it’s a very community-oriented thing. We just recently started to open ourselves up and reach out to other musicians we respect to develop friendships and relationships with other artists, so maybe that’s a part of it.

UWIRE: So what bands have you become BFFs with lately?

DJ: Who have we become BFFs with? The guys in Megafaun. In Colorado this past week, we met a couple great bands, one of them was called Bad Weather California. Those guys are cool – we got to know them. Laura Goldhammer … I’m forgetting her name …. no, that’s it.

UWIRE: What musician would you most like to collaborate with?

DJ: We just played some shows with Wilco in Spain and those guys are so nice – sweet dudes. Glenn Cochran and I … I think he and I need to do something together at some point in time. Maybe like dueling drums with somebody else … we need one other drummer.

UWIRE: Yeah, you need a trio to get the full effect.

DJ: Yeah, definitely! It would be super fun, though, so he and I need to do something. Also, Afri Rampo. They’re a Japanese duo. This is one of their T-shirts (points). They are fuckin’ incredible. It’s just a girl playing guitar and girl playing drums. And they both sing. They wear these great outfits and they’re super beautiful and super talented – and they’re wild.

UWIRE: Were you guys just in Japan?

DJ: Yeah, like a month and a half ago. It was incredible … that place was crazy. I love Japan.

UWIRE: I’ve never been …

DJ: Go! Go! Go! You have to go. Anyway …

UWIRE: So you guys are touring more coming up?

DJ: We’re going to do the Southeast, drive to the West Coast, come back and do the Northeast. Have a month off, November go back to Europe, December go to Australia, maybe track-back to Japan or China. So yeah, I’m booked until Christmas, with a month off in the middle so I can move to L.A.

UWIRE: And you’re in Brooklyn now, right? Why are you moving to L.A.?

DJ: Yep, Brooklyn. But I need sunshine in my life. Every winter I think, “Why am I in the Northeast?” It’s so brutal. This is the year that I’m going to go try something new for a little while. New York’s not going anywhere.

UWIRE: And most people who leave come back at some point.

DJ: Exactly. People get so attached to the idea of the greatest apartment they’ve ever had in New York and can’t let that go. But I need the sunshine!




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