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Snapshot: On Tour With Institute

The same day Milk fam, Arak Avakian, completed his degree in advertising at Texas State University, he left for the first tour with his punk rock band, “Institute.” 

Avakian’s predestination as a lead guitarist stems from his music-aficionado parents and the thriving music scene of Austin, Texas. While artists such as Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Roky Erikson drove the environment of his early childhood, Avakian began playing his first instrument at three years old. Shortly after taking up piano, trombone, and telling his school marching band to “f*ck off,” he fell under the wing of local jazz musician, Joe Morales, and entered the arena of live gigs. 

Around the same time, Avakian established a friendship and musical partnership with his future lead singer Moses Brown. He remembers proclaiming, “It’s you! From the skateboard camp!” when planted beside Brown at a middle school math placement test. After this unlikely reunion, the two skated, made music, and conclusively convinced one another to resist ‘real jobs’ for the rest of eternity– in the name of touring. 

After unexpectedly landing on the coveted roster of Sacred Bones, Institute has released multiple records, toured across continents, and earned the title of “America’s best active punk band.” Their latest project, “Readjusting the Locks,” produced by Ben Greenberg of Uniform, is a brutally honest examination of human nature’s current existence and ultimate imminence. More specifically, lead vocalist Brown discusses the dangers of, “a world that doesn’t take calculated actions or react to the needs of its people… [and continues to sweep] the well being of humanity under the rug in the name of advancing ourselves.” Read his full statement about the album here.

The record’s universal messaging warranted a headlining tour that began with a brawling full house in Brooklyn and ended with an 8 a.m. techno DJ set in London. Upon returning to New York, Avakian sipped tea and talked tour and Institute’s beginning with us. Check out his behind the scenes photo evidence, what he has to say about spending six hours in Paris, and listen to their newest record here.

What was your introduction to punk music? Do you remember the first show you attended?

When I was 16, I started going to punk shows inside of tunnels. They’d either be in a tunnel, hidden in the woods somewhere running off of a generator, or even in our high school courtyard running off of a car battery. It was a great way to forge a terrible relationship with authority. I didn’t go to a real venue for a punk show until I was about 18. It was really easy to get away with shows like this 10 years ago in Austin.

Can you talk about the origin of the name?

It’s kind of like, what came first? The chicken or the egg? Initially, we had all these really bad names, and our bass player, Adam Cahoon, came up with, “Institute.” It looked good in the anarcho-punk font.

Since your band is rooted in the belief that institutions have a monopoly on the masses, was the name intentionally ironic?

After a day of practice, it’s hard to know, “Oh this band. I’m going to care about this band for the rest of my life.” Through touring and developing relationships with your bandmates and the songs themselves, eventually, you realize this is my baby. This is the reason why I feel all these ways about the world. This band made me feel this way. And I mean yes, we are the only institute we mean to adhere to.

Who are your influences and how did the sound of Institute come to be?

It started very simply. We wanted a band that could still live within the punk scene, but we wanted to do more than what falls inside the walls of punk. At first, we were like, “This is easy! Here’s a Flux of Pink Indians record that sounds cool and this is what Crisis sounds like. Let’s rip it off completely.” We were 20 and genuine rip-offs…I felt like, man I can do way better than this. Under the guise of an attack on the State, it was our own musical walls that needed to fall down.

Adam had more experience with writing music. Our bands before he came along either sucked or were just for fun. But, Adam was more inspiring for us. He had this other sick hard rock, punk band called Wiccans— Mose and I saw them about 50 times— whose music was complex, cohesive and totally abrasive. He heard we were into that and asked us to start a band.

Each album exists to extend a wavelength of truth. Your band is unapologetically aware of the manipulative agenda perpetuated by the system– banks, corporations, government, etc. The latest album calls out human nature’s careless, self-serving pursuits over, “the well being of humanity.” Can you talk about how this theme for the album came to be and why you felt it was necessary to communicate?

It arose naturally. The lyrical content of every other record so far was very personal, but we wanted to get closer to something universal. Something more punk: A universal uprising. Mose and I moved to New York three years ago and our world became much bigger. Each one of us became more invested in our livelihood and thus more invested in writing and caring about what the band meant. As that happened, the world in which the band existed became bigger. Why not address the whole world? Everything became bigger and we became older and more lost every day! At some point, you have to start reacting.

How did the two of you relocating to New York change your creative process in writing and recording?

Even when living together in Austin, we were all pretty busy and met up just once a week if that. With phones, it’s faster and easier to send recordings regardless of distance. Mose had moved here and I didn’t have a plan, but I didn’t have a job and I needed to leave home. I lived in Houston for a year and blossomed there. Then I  moved when I started dating someone in New York– even though we broke up a day later. Regardless, Mose, Adam, Barry and I wrote this whole record on voice memos and sent them between New York and Texas. Once the songs were there, we flew to Texas. In one day, we demoed all the songs on a 4 track cassette recorder. After, we sent it to Ben Greenberg, our producer, and finished the record on the last day of the year in Brooklyn.

What was your first tour? And how many have you been on up until this point?

I flew to New York to see this band Recide, it was one of the first punk bands from Texas of our age to go on tour. After missing a flight, I rode the whole way home with them– like 14 of us in a car, kid style. Then, I had to go back to college for a year…I felt like, this blows! So I finished school, and touring was all I ever wanted to do. The day I finished college we left on our first Institute tour.

What are some of the unexpected, unglamorous obstacles of touring?

You can make money touring, but what? Are you going to tour every month of the year? It’s hard to have enough money and juggle a job that will let you take off 6 months of the year. It also changes your concept of what it means to be at home. You become a lot looser concerning what it means to take care of yourself. I’m also single, so there’s almost no consistency for me to return to in New York. I’m really a terrible grocery shopper! Also time zones, I have a terrible concept of time. I never know what day it is.

What’s your sleep schedule and where does everyone sleep?

Personally, I’ve never kept a sleeping schedule. If we all go home at the same time, we’re either sleeping in someone’s living room or at an extra apartment. We sleep on the floor, but if you get lucky, a bed. For a few years, I slept on camping gear, but now I don’t bring that with me. I’m more likely to stay up all night than blow up a bed and I know I’m not going to be able to do that forever.

What has been one of the strangest experiences on tour? And the best?

A lot of touring is strange. Once I was in a Hammond (northwest Indiana) suburb walking around trying to get some alone time. This guy asked me to go inside the store and buy him a 40– I thought, sure whatever. But then, he asked me to come with him…so I did. He brought me to this abandoned house. I thought he was going to rob me or something, but he was just talking and showing me his tattoos (Latin Kings). He apparently was just out of prison. I thought, “I’m just going to do what this guy says and laugh a bunch of times until he thinks I’m cool enough to let me go.” Eventually, he let me go and everyone asked where I had been. I told them, “shopping.”

As for my best experience, it was very recent. I missed out on a place to sleep in Paris, so I walked straight towards the Eiffel Tower with my friend Sam Pennington (I had never seen it before despite traveling through Paris 4 times). We arrived 2 hours before it opened and drank about 4 cappuccinos each at a very expensive cafe across the street that wouldn’t serve us beer. It was so beautiful that we decided to walk to every famous attraction in Paris afterward. In about 10 hours, between 4 a.m. and 2 p.m., we walked 22 miles and saw the carcass of Notre Dame, the Arc de Triomphe, some famous cemetery on a hill, and of course the tower. All in lieu of sleep. Absolute delirious happiness.

Earlier albums have been categorized as more experimental– Catharsis was deemed influenced by Krautrock. It seems a lot of ‘rock’ artists are leaning towards more experimental sounds…Why did Institute take a dirtier, late 70s rock approach to the latest record, Readjusting the Locks?

We wanted to make a more streamlined album. If you listen to Wire’s Pink Flag record, it sounds like one song and you want to listen to the whole thing, every time. I don’t think we’d ever made a record before that didn’t have departures or breaks in it. That’s part of the reason Readjusting the Locks is written this way. 13 songs written by 4 different people that sounds like one record, not 13 songs.

The more streamlined the sound is, the more effectively a bigger, universal message can be delivered. It sounds like a record that anyone can listen to. It’s not like you see a brand new Krautrock record on the wall at a record store — so we made a rock record so as to say, ‘you’re all invited now’. It can all seem quite pointless and derivative anyway, but it was more fun to make a universal and complete record. If that’s what we had to do to get that this time, maybe we can make an experimental record again that sounds like a complete record. Just no more just dipping and diving around through a bunch of stuff on the same record. That’s not our idea anymore.

This is our 4th album and our 3rd we also made with Ben Greenberg. The more we do this, the more focused, intentional, and effective we can be with our execution. Some of the results on old records just happened and we are not necessarily happy with it. If we are, it wasn’t necessarily on purpose. In the past, we weren’t as good at playing, recording, communicating– any of that. As we evolve, we can execute more of what we need to do, which is this record. This is the good one.

Yes! This one sounds so good, but they all sound good!

This is the only one we like though (laughs).

Why did you decide to sign to Sacred Bones over other labels or staying independent?

They were really loose with their offer and cool to hang out with. After we played a show in Greenpoint, there were these two people talking to us. I was ambushed, I had no idea who we were even talking to. I was about 22, so I hadn’t met many strangers at bars. Caleb was wearing a three-piece black suit (like always) and had a very long beard. We didn’t have any friends or fans that looked like him! I didn’t really know who this guy was…Eventually, they asked us to come to their office and I still couldn’t put it together. My best idea was that he was propositioning us and it would be really uncool of me to be the only one who wasn’t down… But, we showed up and I got it pretty quick– it was a record warehouse with the Sacred Bones Logo. I thought, oh this is why they have been buying us drinks for an hour! They told us we didn’t have to sign anything and just to make as many records as we can– if it’s one that’s fine. Institute has a lot more opportunities with their backing– they just help us be as loose and on the minute as we can be. And they’re cool. I like hanging out with them and some of them play in bands with us.

What is it like recording with Ben Greenberg of Uniform? How has his production evolved the band’s sound?

Ben is hired by Sacred Bones to produce a lot of their records, like the Pharmakon record. Ben will direct us and he can tell when we are not executing perfectly or how we want to. He can also play piano well and will do that on a song if that’s what we need. He’s advisory to us.

The first couple of records, especially Catharsis, have all these bells and whistles on them that I look back on and think, damn why did we do that? I wouldn’t take any of it back, but I would never do a bunch of that sh*t ever again either.

Lastly, what are you working on now and when is the next tour?

While we were just now in Europe, we talked about spending more time in Spain next summer. We have a great time in Europe and touring there affords the opportunity to play in many other places where we can’t really make any money. We want to go on tour at least once a year.

After going on a tour that was as successful and energetic as this one, we come home wanting to go again. But, we can’t go again without making another record. I’m sure I’ll get a memo in the next month of a riff or something and it will all start there.

Images courtesy of Arak Avakian and Institute

Stay tuned to Milk for more Tour Diaries

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