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"Walt Whitman was the original beard-rocker, sensitive and somewhat effeminate," muses Miles Seaton, one of the multi-instrumentalists from the New York-based band Akron/Family. "Beard rock, therefore, is sensitive and vaguely homosexual because of him."
"Beard rock" is a sort-of genre, less a reference to a self-identified movement than a shorthand way to refer to hirsute folk-fringe acts like Devendra Barnhart, Iron & Wine, Will Oldham (a.k.a. Bonnie "Prince" Billy), and that bearded lady who plays the ukulele down in Gibbstown, Florida. It's not a category that's been adopted by iTunes yet, but just wait till a few more mattresses' worth of facial hair make their appearance on the tour circuit.
Creating a mix of acoustic and electronic music that sounds futuristic and atavistic at the same time, the Akron/Family collective of Seaton, Seth Olinsky, Dana Janssen, and Ryan Vanderhoof writes songs that are bright and innocent yet full of misdirected dread. Their blend of archaic stringed instruments and circuits that pop, sizzle, and buzz is both beautiful and chilling.
Akron/Family's self-titled debut (and the subsequent split LP, with Angels of Light) was aggressively wild and cacophonic, but their latest release, Meek Warrior, travels new territory. Full of sweet, nonsensical campfire chants, lightly accompanied by guitar and bongo drums, Meek Warrior occasionally breaks into a pure rock-out. Unlike many semi-electronic acts, it's not hard to see how these songs will translate into a live set—listening to the record feels like the teaser for a wild rumpus of a performance.
Over the past two years, since their first album came out on Michael Gira's Young God Records, Akron/Family have toured practically nonstop, playing literally hundreds and hundreds of shows. Much of their new material is conceived on the road between gigs, rehearsed onstage and in hotel rooms, and finally recorded during their off times at home. Directly after their current tour, they will be heading back into the studio with Gira to start the process of sifting through the new material written over the past six months, and crafting it into their next 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. "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—he's 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!'"
And traveling the folk-fringe circuit is a more disconnected experience than one might expect. "Being in a tour van with your band is a lot more intense than being in Aleister Crowley's castle," says Seaton, and even over the phone, I can hear his touring companions suddenly grow quiet at this. "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 forget that the outside world exists."
A good part of this isolation may have to do with the fact that the beard-rock scene is, with a few exceptions, an exclusive club for men. Without major hormone therapy, most female rockers just can't grow a Whitman. And without a little mixing of the sexes on the tour circuit, most bands just can't find a good reason to hang out on the road together. "I think fake beards on chicks is a cool idea," agrees Seaton when I suggest it. "That would be pretty amazing. No underwear—just beards."