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A Transformative Energy

May 30, 2011 Web Exclusive Photography by Sebastian Mlynarski Bookmark and Share

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Having a conversation with Akron/Family‘s Seth Olinsky is a lot like listening to one of their albums unfold in its entirety. It swells and builds from one vaguely connected thought to another, all the while working on a seemingly higher level of consciousness that Olinsky swears is just an effect from an absurd amount of coffee consumption. At least, that’s how he describes the genesis of S/T II: The Cosmic Birth and Journey of Shinju TNT, the band’s latest full-length that originated while touring Europe in a van where coffee and ideas were aplenty. The ideas continued flowing in a reclusive cabin on the base of an active volcano on the island of Hokkaido, Japan, erupting in a fuzzy explosion of energetic freak-folk arrangements intricately entwined with samples from the band’s previous recordings. Calling from a “grayish/sandy-colored Toyota Sienna” rolling through Indianapolis on the way to Chicago, Olinsky leads us through a cyclical conversation about not only the Birth and Journey of Shinju TNT but the resilient journey of being an artist in the present-day corporate landscape.

Lauren Barbato: I was looking into the word “shinju” and it’s made up of two Japanese characters, “mind” and “center.” So I wanted to know how mind and center and the concept of shinju is represented on your album.

Seth Olinsky: We were going into this process of making a new record and dreamed up together what we wanted this record to be and embody and express and sound and feel like. As we were going through this process and communicating the ideas, we were drinking a lot of coffee and that caffeinated, group-think experience occurred and that abstract, ridiculous part of the brain—like when you have too much sugar—kicked in. We all imagined this character—this Shinju TNT character—that was more mythopoetic than narrative, in the sense that there’s no backstory or forward story or even story. It was just this idea of this entity that represented an energy we wanted to reflect creatively, which was this punk, fucked up, bold, expressive, transformational energy. The kind of thing that would smash through a wall not in an angry kind of way but in an extreme, energetic willingness to get outside the box, for lack of a better metaphor. We were inspired by this transformative, energetic commitment. Sometimes as an artist, things end up feeling like they box you in. When we’re performing songs, the structure of the song is boxing in—and not necessarily us as individuals, but the root of the song. The emotion, the expression, that communicative feeling of music. For us, that’s beyond the structure of the song or the record or, even on a larger scale, being in a band and touring and getting the review. It’s very natural, as a human, to think that the end result is “the thing.” You start thinking about the form of the song or the album and you lose the spirit.

So it’s the process versus the end result conundrum.

I feel like a lot of people would roll their eyes if you were like, “Man, it’s about the process, not the product.” But I think it is really about that, and the reason it’s about that is because that’s where the spirit of creativity lies. Whether you talk about the spirit of rock and roll or the spirit of painting, the thing that moves people is not really whether something’s “cool” but that spirit. That’s why when I hear Bob Dylan or Fugazi, that’s the quality of the thing that’s moving me to feel inspired, to feel emotion, and to feel communicated to.

I think it’s like that now not only in the music industry, but really, every industry. The film industry especially. Anything that can be bought and sold and commercialized.

Exactly. What’s hard about it is, it’s easy to blame so-and-so or this person or that person, but I realized as I’ve gotten older, it’s almost more of a compassionate sensitivity to the fact that we’re all human. Everyone really wants that thing, they’re trying to do that thing, but in order to participate in either being on the side of the artist or the production team, or being on the side of the audience—which is ultimately a really noble act, to be open to the experience and to hear it—our culture puts that person on the side of being a consumer, which really isn’t a noble act at all. So, nowadays being an artist, if you want people to hear it you have to interact in this consumer-artist-buyer relationship. I found that you really have to push through that to try and have that noble experience happening for both sides.

Speaking of not seeing your audience as a consumer, I know you were afraid to send the label your album because of fear of it being leaked on the Internet.

[Laughs] Yeah.

The Internet, without a doubt, has done some very good things for independent artists, but it has turned into constant interaction-and constant selling.

I remember reading Arthur magazine, and they had a writer working for them—a professor—named Douglas Rushkoff. In one of his articles, he talked about how when the Internet first popped up, all the radical, populist thinkers were like, “Oh my god! This is the tool, the thing that’s gonna allow the people to have the power instead of the corporations.” But then Internet 2.0 obviously became driven by commerce. And you know, I’m not an overly political person in any real way, even though this probably sounds political. For me, it’s more artistically driven-wanting to have that authentic relationship with an audience. But of course, in order to have that authentic relationship with an audience, you need an audience; you need to get out there and communicate with people. That part in the press release was less about losing revenue—it’s not about money in any sense for us. It’s more about the experience of the music interacting with people. But what the Internet has done is create this blur of content. There’s such a plethora of information. Everyone I know, myself included, is constantly busy—but constantly busy doing nothing. That’s where our culture has come to: distracting busyness that never really goes anywhere. I think the thing with music being leaked on the Internet is that it’s become this flavor of the day, flavor of the week kind of thing. For us, when we’re making an artistic expression, it’s not about how we want people to consume it; it’s about how we want people to experience it. We want them to have an experience that doesn’t lead them to buying a T-shirt, but one that hopefully inspires them to make a record or do something that has an artistic outcome. What we were trying to do by holding back the record a little bit was trying to create a space for the story of the record to create an imaginative environment in people’s minds. So if they did get to hear just one song or the album later down the line, it was less in the context of ripping this stuff off the Internet and putting it on a hard drive and never really experiencing it.

That’s very admirable to do now, since the act of listening to a full album is lost. A lot of that probably has to do with the blog hype. You announce the album months in advanced, then you release the tracklist, then the album art. It takes the mystery out of it.

Exactly. I’m from an era where the Guns N’ Roses record Use Your Illusion came out at midnight and people lined up around the street for it. Those days are gone. But the way recorded music is changing is, on many levels, exciting. There’s a lot of things that can be done with it. But the ability to experience art has become so frantic and insane. [Laughs] I think it’s hard for the artist, too. They end up expressing themselves more on a mediated imaginary level of their minor celebrity than they do on a purely artistic level. There’s so much energy put into the image.

And the branding.

Yeah, the brand of the band means less energy gets paid to that root thing we were talking about. That totally was Shinju TNT for us: How do we get back to that place? It was a touchstone for us. I look to David Lynch a lot as someone who really seems to delve into his creative unconscious and pull these ideas out that aren’t, by any means, fashionable—most of the time, they don’t even make sense, but he does it. He talks about how he’ll write or envision a scene and then get a piece of music that reminds him of that scene. Then when he’s shooting the scene, he’ll bring that piece of music back in to bring himself but to that creative space, just to check in and see if it’s still doing the same thing. Once you start working on an idea, there’s so much that goes into making the idea a reality that you can lose the creative spark.

I know a lot of writers also keep images around to check in and remind themselves of their inspiration. Did you have any images that you kept around when making this new record?

We did use a lot of images on this record, especially since we all live in separate places. I even did a series of story boards for the songs and stream-of-conscious writings—different ways to get into the imaginative space of each song and the record. Creative projects are kinda funny, too, because for us being three individual artists with a lot of ideas coming together to collaborate, there’s this explosion of creativity around our record. When you make a record, you bring all these things—images, impressions, feelings, things you want to communicate—to the table, and a lot goes into it. And when you start making the record, there’s this feeling of infinite potential. Especially when things are a rough mix. If you bring up the bass, it’s one thing, and if you bring it down and pull up the drums and the vocals, it’s like another piece of music. There’s this kind of rawness, and it can go in 12 or 15 or 100 different directions. Then when you get to a finished product—the CD—there’s a sadness there where all the potential of all the different things that could’ve been said and all the directions we wanted to go have been limited to this one thing. This vinyl or plastic is frozen in time. That’s something we’ve always struggled with when making records: We want to express on a more expansive level but then always, inevitably, have to shrink that expansion. No matter what, it always ends up frozen in time.

So do you leave a lot of room when you record? How fluid are your recording sessions?

It’s not so much us improvising then recording that, although we actually did do some of that on this record. At the studio, the process for us is more like preparing and then, at a certain point, the record takes over the collaborative process. We end up improvising to finish it, to work out ideas and fix problems. One way I look at working on records is you’re working on a batch of music and you have a breakthrough on one song and it kinda rises above the rest. Then you look at all the other things and you’re like, ‘Now I have to take it to that level’ and it jumps ahead above the other one. It’s like this rising sea level. All this stuff is rising, rising, rising and you’re trying to get it happen in a successful way. It also feels like in the recording process, we’re putting ourselves under a microscope and really diving deep into the details of our songwriting. When we get onstage after the recording process, we always find that the parameters of what we can do has grown, our intimacy with each other has grown, our communication has grown, and we’re able to express ourselves in broader ways.

In what “broader way” did you grow on Shinju TNT?

I feel like we’ve really grown and focused a lot on our singing. We’re really starting to hit a new stride as singers, whether it’s singing together in harmonies or individually. Because all of us sing lead and write different songs, we’ve learned how to really commit behind each other so our singing can be the upmost expression of whoever is singing at the time. We really have to investigate that in a more introverted way when we’re recording, and then when we go on tour we flip it out in a more of an extroverted kind of expression.

Since you’re so much about the process, do you find it difficult to create an end result on a deadline?

The good thing about the deadline is that you finish. [Laughs] It’s like those old paintings you see in museums where there’s like, three inches of oil on there. Obviously the painter painted a painting, then painted a different painting on top of it and it changed over time. Part of the creative process is that it doesn’t know completion—it just knows creativity. It keeps creating, it keeps reinventing itself. It’s more cyclical and just process-oriented. Look at all living things: nothing’s static. There is no stasis in life. But in our culture, you create something and you finish it and that’s the product that can be understood and sold. I like the idea of a deadline because it’s very easy to lose your perspective when you’re creating something, so [deadlines give you] the ability to finish something and let go and step away from it and get criticism, which can be intense and harsh but also really productive. Part of the growth of being an artist is letting go of something and saying, “This is what it is and this is who I am and I’m going to do something else and it’s going to be cool, too.” As we’re getting older, we’re realizing that every record doesn’t have to be the record that says everything that we ever wanted to say, ever. If we let records be whatever they are in the moment, it gives them a little more space to be unique and more themselves.

The hardest part about being an artist is coming to that point of making decisions.

Definitely. Ultimately, you’re just trying to do something that can be a doorway into a broader context or expression. I use the metaphor of a door all the time because it’s a gateway that one can go through and on the other side, you see a lot more stuff.

So if Shinju TNT was a doorway into another world, what would listeners see on the other side?

I think the world we’re asking people to step into isn’t a definitive…. For me, it’s a very humanist space. Very emotional and trusting and honest. It’s a space that I try to honor in my own life; a space I try to live from. When it works—particularly in a live setting—we trust ourselves on a creative and personal level and build that trust and sincerity and honesty between the three of us and it radiates into the audience. We want people to walk away from that sensory experience feeling open to themselves or being inspired or feeling good or happy. It’s beyond us. I don’t take credit for it. The benefits of creativity, I can’t take credit for; it’s more like being a participant in it, and I can benefit from that in my life. From my own experience of being in the audience, being on the other side of that can be a positive experience of personal growth. I think that’s the space we would like to invite others into.



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