A Place to Bury Strangers

Minimum-Maximum:
Going Deaf by Audio with A Place to Bury Strangers

To this day, the loudest concert I’ve ever experienced was My Bloody Valentine and Dinosaur Jr at the Masquerade in February 1992. It was the sort of overwhelming, unrelenting volume that felt like it was rearranging my inner organs into a new configuration. You could almost stand motionless and still be pushed backwards by the gale force of the vibrations. Remember those old Maxell ads where the guy’s slouched in the chair in front of the speaker, his hair and tie flailing behind him and the cocktail shaking its way toward the edge of the table? Yeah, it was like that. And it was exhilarating.

Several years ago, as they came through Atlanta touring on their first or second album, can’t remember which, I felt a hint of that manner of earsplitting yet stimulating intensity during a performance by New York-based A Place to Bury Strangers at, coincidentally, the Masquerade. It was merely a hint, mind you, but it was a strong enough one to remind me that I really should start wearing earplugs one of these days. Beyond that, it cemented my early assertion, which still holds true, that A Place to Bury Strangers are the only band that’s emerged in the past dozen years or so that could rightfully earn a place alongside those late ‘80s/early ‘90s loud ‘n’ louder “shoegaze” juggernauts, not only in terms of aesthetic sensibilities but also in their amount of worthwhile, legitimately exciting material.

It’s a sure bet Oliver Ackermann, who helms APTBS on guitar and vocals, would’ve caught that MBV/Dino Jr tour had he been old enough and not stuck in Fredericksburg, Virginia. He tells me that Dinosaur Jr. was one of the earliest concerts he saw that blew him away. And today, not only has APTBS shared stages with MBV, but Ackermann has designed guitar effects pedals for Kevin Shields, among many other musicians, via his musical equipment company, Death by Audio.

“It’s crazy,” he says. “I mean, I’m from a small town in Virginia. I didn’t expect any of this stuff to happen. I didn’t even expect people to like the music I was playing!”

Transfixiation, the group’s fourth full-length album (Dead Oceans), is, like the rest of them, a doozy of dark, delirious, electric squall, juxtaposing dense and dizzying guitar spasms against hard, precise drumbeats (courtesy Robi Gonzalez) and aggressive basslines (Dion Lunadon) that recall Peter Hook’s work with Joy Division. Ackermann’s murky vocals, often shielded in a trenchcoat of echo, nonetheless seem a bit clearer on many of these new songs, and he admits to feeling more confident about his voice and lyrics these days. But as he says, “I think that with our band, it’s so much about the way things sound.”

Ackermann’s had a long interest in the way things sound. As a young teenager, after his brother introduced him to the snotty pleasures of punk rock, he drifted toward the more psychedelic, distorted, effects-powered guitar acts of the post-punk alternative scene of that time – groups like Ride, Lush, The Jesus & Mary Chain, Sonic Youth, The Cure, Dinosaur Jr and certainly My Bloody Valentine.

“I had one friend who was into the same kind of music at that time, so we were sort of on a quest, buying the 99-cent tapes and all sorts of junk, trying to find music we liked,” he says.

He formed his first band, Skywave, while still in Fredericksburg in the mid ’90s. He considers it a stylistic precursor to A Place to Bury Strangers, even though they never made much of an impact.

“We would go on tours, miserable tours. I mean, we had fun, but it’s not like people would come to the shows, and we’d get in fights with the sound guys and stuff. It wasn’t like we were appreciated to come to some venue and go crazy and blast super-loud music. Nobody was that excited to have that happen.”

After studying industrial design at the Rhode Island School of Design, while still fronting Skywave in Fredericksburg Ackermann became interested in designing his own musical instruments.

“You hit a limit, and you have questions, you wonder why something works in certain ways,” he explains. “I just read tons of books, and started modifying gear and building gear.”

In 2001, he founded Death by Audio, and “started using it as a way I could share ideas that I had, or…build any custom thing anybody wanted – whether I knew how to build it or not. Someone would have an idea, and it would take me a while, but usually I could make it happen. I just thought building your own equipment is kind of an invaluable service – to make your crazy ideas realized.”

Today, Death by Audio is an internationally respected manufacturer of guitar-effects pedals, with a client list that continues to blow Ackermann away: Lady Gaga. Trent Reznor. Wilco. The Flaming Lips. The aforementioned Mr. Shields.

“It’s pretty insane,” the 38-year-old underscores. “For years and years I failed, trying to tinker with things. But then you start to get over on the other side of the fence, you start to realize what’s going on, and how these things work… We started just recently getting some more people working with me on designing some things.”

While he often gets to meet the musicians who order and use his equipment, “a lot of those bigger clients, like The Edge or something, it’ll be through someone, like a guitar tech or something. I guess at some point it’s so big that they’re not even dealing with those things,” he relates. “The thing with The Edge was kinda crazy. His guitar tech sent me an email, he says, ‘Hey, do you have all these pedals in stock?’ I wrote him back and said yeah. And then didn’t get an answer, but it was like an hour later my doorbell rang, and there was a courier with a check to come pick up the pedals! We were like, ’What the…?’”

Certainly, many of Ackermann’s innovations get put to use with A Place to Bury Strangers, which formed in 2003 with a different rhythm section. Given Ackermann’s natural engineering tendencies, and the work he and APTBS put into their recordings, searching for and refining the perfect wall of sound, one might assume that he’s one of those gearheads more comfortable in a studio/recording setting, where he can do and re-do whatever he deems necessary to achieve his goal. On the contrary, says Ackermann.

“I think it’s actually more fun and exciting playing some place where there’s some sort of challenge,” he counters. “When I record something, I don’t know how someone’s going to listen to it – whether it’ll be at their office, at their work, or with headphones, or driving… But when you’re there at a club you can set up where the amp’s coming from, what sort of things are going on, and also there’s all these exciting sort of challenges and things that happen as the show goes on. That kind of makes it thrilling, and adds a bit of excitement to it… I still like getting surprised by things. Maybe that’s my whole love of the live show. It’s always the ideas that you don’t expect to sound so cool that sound the best, I think.”

It’s an attitude that directly informed the recording of Transfixiation. “Some records are more well crafted,” he expounds. “This record, it was more capturing a performance. We did this record sorta live in the studio, over very minimal kind of tracks. Sometimes we slave over the way we do it, but this time I realized that that wasn’t important to me.”

For such a basic setup, A Place to Bury Strangers, true to their influences, create a massively powerful sound. Clearly, Ackermann appreciates that dichotomy, and doesn’t aspire to “expand” the lineup as certain other bands occasionally attempt, usually with a diminishing level of excitement.

“I think for this band, I’ve always wanted to keep it minimal,” he states. “I thought that this band should be about playing with a kind of punk aesthetic – just whatever you can do with those basic instruments: bass, guitar and drums. Once you kind of get too much in the world of all these other instruments, and all these other things, then… it can take it away from the early idea of just what a band is. There’s something very exciting about a few people playing these instruments and making all these different sounds.

“I always remember being a kid going to concerts that I loved, and getting blown away by seeing bands,” he says. “Those feelings are always going to be a motivation for being able to go do that for people.”

Photo by Dusdin Condren.