Cy Dune is the most recent incarnation of guitarist/songwriter Seth Olinsky of Akron/Family. I use the word “incarnation” because Cy Dune is more than just a project, it’s an identity, a platform through which Olinsky can not only explore new sounds and styles but also put his ideas about the transcendent power of rock ’n’ roll into practice. For Olinsky, rock ’n’ roll can be more than danceable, sexy fun. It can danceable, sexy and fun to the point of spiritual awakening. His recent album, Shake, embodies this ethos, reaching back past punk, past the oldies classics, to its earliest wild man roots where blues were first electrified, distortion was discovered, and the Holy Ghost was never more than shuffled backbeat away.
The birth of Cy Dune and the creation of Shake are closely intertwined with the founding of Lightning, a record label and quarterly magazine that Olinksy and artist/musician Ali Beletic dreamed up after leaving what started to feel like the cloistered confines of Brooklyn for the open space of the Sonoran Desert outside of Tucson, AZ. Lightning consciously celebrates all things cool, from dirt bikes and primitive art to hot rods and, of course, rock ’n’ roll. I met up with Olinsky near Joshua Tree, CA, where he and Beletic are currently based, and where Shake was recorded over an intense 3-day burst.
Where did the new record, Shake, come from?
When Ali and I moved to Tucson, I had all these ideas and all these songs. Some things were working, some weren’t. Eventually it tumbled into this Cy Dune project; this vocal identity and musical identity. I was toying with the idea of just being Seth Olinsky but I ultimately wanted to create something that was a little more… not just a pseudonym. Those old blues guys had these identities and it seemed like it allowed them to have a mythological identity. Not just a different self, but something bigger than themselves.
Then, as I started performing that music in more minimal ways, I got into the idea of doing it with just guitar and drums.
And also around this same time, I found that film Rock My Religion. This guy Dan Graham, a New York artist, made this film that was sort of tracing the similarities between punk rock and the early New York City proto-punk stuff, and the transcendent elements of rock ’n’ roll, with Jerry Lee Lewis and Patti Smith. Tracing them to the Shaker religion, where movement figures largely in the transcendent experience. The ecstatic traditions.
I had all these different projects at the time. I was really trying to make this folk record for whatever reason and it wasn’t working. I went home for Christmas and my mom gave me [Patti Smith’s memoir] Just Kids. I read Just Kids and I was like, “Fuck this folk record.” I plugged in and started playing the same songs and [Cy Dune] just sort of happened.
The thing that I took away from Just Kids was this inspiration of the transcendent in rock ’n’ roll. That really drew a through-line for me back to my initial inspiration of being a kid and playing rock ‘n’ roll and the blues and then jazz. The transcendent vision in music. And that’s what I connected to in music.
In 2009 Akron/Family played the Flaming Lips ATP in NY and we saw the Boredoms. They were doing their nine drum thing and it really hit me. In rock ’n’ roll there’s this, “I hope I die when I’m young,” kind of thing. When you’re young you have the energy and then when you get older it gets worse and burns out. But when I saw the Boredoms, instead of whiskey-powered, it’s like green tea-powered. It was the most pure, transcendent thing, and it was totally rock ’n’ roll. It really moved me.
I returned to seeing that transcendent thing in the simplicity and the earthiness of rock ’n’ roll, not some high falutin’ spirituality, the real transformative, transcendent power that rock ’n’ roll music has and possesses and how that fits into our culture.
What does the music help you transcend, both in terms of what you’re overcoming and what you’re striving toward?
I hadn’t really thought of it that way. My parents do TM; transcendental meditation. I grew up doing that. I guess maybe it’s one of those ideas that you don’t question because you grow up with it?
When I was a younger person and interested in spirituality I thought of it as, “There’s these things here that I see and am aware of and then there’s something else beyond. Something separate from these things.”
“These things” being the material world?
The material world, or whatever. So I was fascinated in reading about different spiritual traditions. Music was definitely tied up in that, and ultimately became my approach to that pursuit. But as I’ve gotten older I’ve steered away from that kind of thinking and I feel like it’s not separate or different. It seems like the spiritual is much more intimately tied and a part of life and the everyday and the material. So it’s not transcendent in a sense leaving here for there, but I guess it’s a word that I would use to represent the feeling.
When I was younger, I looked at it intellectually, and as I’ve gotten older I attribute a lot more value and weight to the feeling, the experience. So to me, the height of music is sort of an ecstatic state.
Joy has been a big through-line throughout all of my relationship to music since I was a kid. It’s why I became obsessed with music and wanted to do it. And it’s also a social, communal thing. You’re experiencing it while someone else is experiencing it. It’s your version, their version, everybody’s version at the same time. That’s always been the root of my passion for music.
Giving it a space for myself in rock ’n’ roll has allowed me to connect to an energy in myself that I’ve found to be expressive or to be powerful.
It also came in a time of change, and I think I associate it with rock ’n’ roll, as some sort of power. So this idea of what is being transcended also relates to the self, and self change, and the potential to transcend where one is; to implement change in oneself and change in one’s environment.
Transcending the old self to arrive at the new?
And empowering the possibility for that to exist for you or for others too.
That’s a hard thing to talk about too because as soon as you start talking about hippie woo woo stuff, it deflates punk rock. There’s an edge to rock ’n’ roll and there’s a sexiness and a coolness too. And you could deflate it if you wanted to, but that takes away the whole purpose.
When you talk about badass and sexy and cool, those are, in some sense, superficial qualities. They’re fun and they feel great, but they’re exterior projections or interpretations. Whereas, you’re talking about transcendence as an interior experience.
It’s a line.
How do you balance those things?
I was coming from a culture of Hipsterism, for a lack of better word, and Hipsterism is sort of self-deprecating. In the way that a Hip-Hop artist is going to talk about themselves in the best light, the average Hipster is going to talk about themselves in the worst light. This guy is going to eat at the fanciest restaurant, and this guy is going to eat the crappiest Mexican restaurant. Neither is good necessarily. But the reason I like John Lennon, the reason I like Bob Dylan is because they were cool. It wasn’t superficial. They were cool because they embodied the part of themselves that was cool and they weren’t afraid to let themselves be cool. I think a part of this empowerment too is giving yourself the permission to be cool.
I wonder if there is some kind of necessary relationship? When I think of cool, I think about Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Davis would be the epitome. Wearing a Brooks Brothers suit, back to the audience, spacious music. And yet in some ways that was this necessary protective shell surrounding this deeply spiritual music. Maybe there’s some kind of integral relationship because if you go too far in either extreme, it feels out of balance?
My background was coming from a place where it was dividing the two. It was spiritual to not be cool. But style is expressive and is powerful. I don’t know exactly 100% how they’re related, but I do think that style can be a vehicle. Whether it’s Coltrane’s stylized playing or the style of his clothing, style is a part of artistry, and I think there was a power to giving myself the permission to not try to be cool or to be someone else’s cool, but to embrace that part of myself that is cool and to go with that, and support that. There’s energy there.
The range of Akron/Family’s music is super broad, but in a general sense, you can say it’s psychedelic music. It covers a huge amount of ground and includes really visceral, energetic music, but it seems like you’re honing in now more specifically on the visceral, driving, ecstatic elements. Is there a way in which the psychedelic somehow represents the more intellectual path and the rock is more the physical, emotional thing, and that’s what you’re embracing?
Yeah. I think to a certain extent.
The head/body split?
I haven’t thought of it that way, but I do think psychedelic was an aspect of [Akron/Family’s] music. That’s definitely not something I’m going for with this.
I came up listening to the Dead, so that was a really huge influence.
The psychedelic aspect?
It wasn’t necessarily the psychedelic aspect in a genre way, the way that Dead Meadow is a psych rock band and you have these loud delay guitars. I related to the Dead on a cultural level; what they were as a cultural institution and their approach to being a band. The wholeness of the Grateful Dead was really what influenced me as a fan, on a musical and intellectual level. I brought that to Akron/Family, and also in the way that we organized ourselves as a unit. The way that we approached touring. It wasn’t a stylistic reference at any one point. More a model, a philosophy. There are all of these good and bad things that come from approaching something like that. I think we made connections with a lot of people, audiences and musicians.
Cy Dune is definitely a shift from that open-ended social model, to a much more personal artistic expression.
In terms of the difference between psychedelic rock and rock ’n’ roll, I feel like rock ’n’ roll, at least at this point, it’s a more direct connection to an expression of me and my physicality and my self and my feelings. It’s a little more owned and a little less heady, a little less soupy.
It sounds like you have more of your personal stake on the line. How does it feel being much more exposed?
It feels great.
You don’t have your army to hide behind. Your band.
That’s definitely true. When first recording Cy Dune I went through that transition artistically and it was a little hard. I was so used to operating in a group mentality that I had to make a shift artistically on all these subtle levels that you’re not aware of; songwriting, arranging, producing, recording.
Is there is a way in which Cy Dune is your first project that you’re really writing as a songwriter for yourself?
In Akron/Family I definitely wrote from both perspectives, but a lot of the songs I wrote were from the perspective of “we” as opposed to “I”. But definitely yes in the sense that I feel like I’m writing for myself in a much more fleshed out, personal artistic perspective of performance and singing, of voice.
Right when Akron/Family started, I also did this Best of Seth thing, and I got obsessed with songwriting. I did three-CDs with forty-five songs. I released that with a label in Brooklyn, but I never performed live because I was touring all the time with Akron/Family.
Then I was working on another one for years and I had like 150 songs demo’d. I got really obsessed with songwriting on a technical level. Also, on a poetic, level I got inspired by how, if you turn on that side of your brain, you can find a spark in any moment. You look out the car and you see the person in the car next to you and their facial expression…it’s like a writerly perspective on the world.
Yeah. It’s all some sort of poetic flow. But I got really obsessed with that as an exercise; turning anything into a song. Whether it was serious or funny or emotional. It wasn’t genre specific. And I got obsessed with Woody Guthrie and Dylan, the folk lineage, Beatles, all these different songwriting lineages and how they applied these different ideas.
All the while, I was writing for Akron/Family. I think Dylan said somewhere that writing a song wasn’t as interesting as writing a thing to be performed. All the more successful stuff I wrote for Akron/Family was intended to be performed by Akron/Family and there was space for the energy and charisma and the different things that we all brought, with an audience. And I think that was evidenced by Akron/Family ultimately being a more successful live band. Our recordings were good, but the thing that most people had an experience with was the live thing. It was composed for that ultimately.
So now in a lot of ways, you’ve gone totally opposite. You’re focusing more on recording and less on live. And you’re working solo.
Well, yes and no. I’m focused on recording and writing, but live is a big part of Cy Dune, it is just more dynamic and fluid in its shape; solo, duo, quartet, large 40 drum ensembles. And the touring is at a slower pace, which I find more conducive to life and to a more creative live approach too.
Who is Cy Dune and how is he different from you? Or what part of you is he accentuating?
I think it’s not really any different than me, it’s just a space. Maybe it’s some sort of personal space that I allow myself to be free. Free not like “I’m going to play what I want to,” but free in a not scared kind of way.
Does it feel different when you perform as Cy Dune? Does it feel like you’re stepping into that costume?
Not really a costume. It’s more personal and intimately related to me than that. I did one tour with a quartet on the East Coast and we had moments where it really reached that unhinged, anything might happen at this moment kind of feeling, which is definitely what I want it to be.
It’s a really nice form for my guitar playing, too. The visceral energy of the music allows my playing to go a lot of different places and have a lot of energy. So, being able to be really free on guitar–post-Sonny Sharrock noise guitar meets blues guitar or whatever style I’ve developed–and then being able to pull that back and forth to song, for me, that really works performance-wise, because I feel like song connects to people. It brings them in, in a way that sometimes noise and visceral playing–at its best it can be transcendent for everybody–but sometimes it can become abstract. I’ve always loved that back and forth.
And that relates back to the Grateful Dead model. Alternating between composition and improvisation.
Do you have a sense of what you’d like to see Cy Dune grow into or become? Or is it already what you want it to be?
No, no. For me, it’s tapped into a source. There’s so much room to be personal and experimental and creative within what that means to me. Not necessarily experimental like [makes abstract noises], but having an unbridled sense of creativity. And also making a type of music that a lot people could enjoy.
I would like to make music for lots of people–sell a bunch of records or sell a bunch of tickets or whatever. There’s not a cap on the project for me in a way that, so much of my life, I’ve been involved in music and projects that feel like they have a built-in kind of cap.
Even for Akron/Family, we really tried to get our music out there in certain ways and looking back I’m like, “Oh, there’s so many musical rules that we had on ourselves that made it really hard.” Whenever things started to congeal into something, we forced ourselves to blow them up.
It was a combination of inspiration and self-sabotage. Any time we centered on an idea that was congealing in a way that people could relate to it, we would immediately go over here. It was just part of the unstable molecule that gave energy to what we did, but I think also in the long run…there’s certain people that just doesn’t make sense to, like, “Why does it have to change all the time?”
For whatever reason, with this project, I feel like there’s a potential to reach lots of people and I’m totally into that. I would love to produce larger shows or produce music that a lot of people relate to.
What, for you, is the value in that? No judgment. I have that desire too, but can you articulate what’s the value in reaching more people? Or what’s behind the motivation?
At the root of it, I can’t say that I understand it fully. There’s so much social programming toward success or toward celebrity and all these things. I don’t know. I’ve spent so much of my life saying, “Oh because it’s a service toward these people.”
Like, if you can bring joy and you have these abilities; you can play guitar, you can sing, you can write songs–
If you can bring joy to more people, then why not? But I don’t know if I understand any of that. I think it roots back to the beginning, and that sense of empowerment and giving oneself permission, like, “It’s okay, I do want to be successful. I do want to be respected and I want to be acknowledged. And I also want to make music that people enjoy.”
Music, for me, is authentically rooted in a joyous, transcendent, powerful experience. And I guess I operate on the idea that that is positive for the world.
Is there a number or audience size that would be satisfying? I’m not trying to pin you down specifically, it’s more the idea of that.
That gets into a bigger conversation. It’s not really about me. In our culture we’re affected by the way money is organized. If you start a business, what does it mean to be successful? Well, you break even, then you start to make money, and then you’re living off of it, but maybe you don’t want to run it so you want to have employees. And once you get into that cycle… Starting a band is a business, starting a label is a business, starting a Chinese food restaurant. What it takes to be successful in a business just ends up at Wal-Mart, because there’s not a gauge for happiness.
In capitalism you have to be constantly expanding.
Growth is success. So in that sense, is there a certain number of fans that I want to reach? No. I remember I saw a picture of Lenny Kravitz on a bus and I wondered, Does he wish he was Prince? I definitely think there’s an aspect of the music business that is participating in that thing, where you could be Trent Reznor but you’re not Billy Corgan. Or maybe you’re Billy Corgan but you want to be Trent Reznor. There is no end to that. Whoever you are, wherever you are, there’s always something more that you want. And I’m sure that applies to life.
One of the things I’ve noticed in meeting both you and Ali [Beletic, cofounder of Lightning] is you guys are super positive and super optimistic, in a way that feels like you have made a conscious decision to embrace optimism as a world view.
Lightning, Cy Dune, the work that Ali is doing now, all share a common root in a story where we left New York and were looking for something. Things weren’t the way we wanted them to be. We made a conscious decision to take responsibility for the artistic life that we wanted to live. We were caught up in that trap of these ideas and projects that we had and not having the space or money or time, or all these outside things weren’t allowing us to do what we wanted to do. We finally came to terms with, “We’re going to do the things we want to do,” and we moved to Tucson. We took that risk in our lives to give ourselves the space, and lo and behold what sprang forth was the things that we wanted to do.
I’m naturally a somewhat optimistic person, but there’s an intention behind what you’re talking about in terms of artistic optimism. I could see reading it as optimism, but I think it’s actually more conscious. Optimism is, “This glass is half full,” where this is more like, “If the glass is half empty, we’ll go and fill it up.”
The energy, the momentum comes less from optimism and more from being proactive or the intention and permission.
In New York, we were feeling like we were participating in this spectrum of ideas and energy. It was really cool and fun and exciting to participate in, but we weren’t feeling super connected to ourselves within that. There was this swirl of information and ideas, and participating in that can be its own kind of artistic practice, but we were just looking for something deeper within ourselves or not finding the space to get to that.
I think that’s why we left New York, and what we were looking for.
The flow of creativity for me in my twenties was more…I don’t think it was superficial… It was meant and felt. I just think I’ve gotten to a more rooted place within my own creativity where the power comes from me as opposed to an inspiration or response from someone else’s idea. Now I’m in touch with a more personal seat of power.