by Interviews

Brooklyn’s A Place to Bury Strangers are the world’s loudest band. They just defeated Spinal Tap to take the title. Ok, I really have no idea if this is true on a decibel meter versus say, Metallica or something, but surely they are in contention. The noise rock band harnesses fuzz pedals, feedback and reverb in ways you’ve never heard before, thanks to guitarist/singer Oliver Ackermann’s own custom pedals. Combine that with Joy Division-style creepy melodic vocals and hammering, unrelenting drum beats and you’ve got APTBS.

Ackermann leads the trio on their fourth full-length Transifixiation, which came out earlier this spring. Staff reviewer, Punknews Podcast producer and Best Midwestern Podcast co-host Greg Simpson (aka greg0rb) sat down with Ackermann to discuss how they got to be “The World’s Loudest Band,” the new album, his custom pedal company Death By Audio and how dumb Pitchfork reviewers can be. Hit Read More for the interview.

Hey Oliver! So I know you’re on the road. I’ve never seen you guys live and I need to as soon as possible! Where are you right now?

We’re out in California right now, We’re near San Francisco.

Let’s start at the beginning since a lot of Punknews readers might not know you guys. I guess I was kinda late to the game with you as well. You formed in 2003?

Yeah. We didn’t start getting out and stuff though until 2010. We were just having fun until then, making music with friends.

Though you guys aren’t quote-unquote punk I think a lot of our readership would like your stuff but would not know much about you. So let’s back up. You were in a less noisy and more dreamy band called Skywave before A Place to Bury Strangers?

It was more dreamy but some of those shows were still pretty crazy. We would play shows at all costs. Sometimes our drummer wouldn’t be able to make it, or we’d bring as many amps as we could to a show….we’d play with drums on a tape deck and halfway through we rip the drums out of the tape deck. We just didn’t know where the heck the show was going to go. So that group was pretty chaotic too. I love that sorta stuff and at some point just fell in love with the noise. That feeling that it could fall apart at any point. That’s rock and roll.

I’m making a guess that Psychocandy was one of the big albums of your youth. Would I be correct in guessing that?

Yeah, totally. Lots of those records from around that time. Pavement, My Bloody Valentine, Sonic Youth… tons of stuff really. Dead Kennedys, The Ramones, Ministry… it all kinda shaped my guitar playing when I first started. It was a big influence with any band that was crazy in some way but still but simple… it was their energy.

Yeah! I’m a huge Jesus and Mary Chain fan, big fan UK music from the late '80s and early '90s. You talked about how Skywave would play without a real drummer at times. JAMC went through drummers like underwear and sometimes the albums would just have drum machine. To tie that into you guys, the first album of yours I heard was Exploding Head, your sophomore record. I went in blind without reading anything about you and I thought it was a drum machine because the drummer was so powerfully consistent. But I later found out it was an actual person!How many drummers have you had??

Umm, let me think. This is our fourth drummer.

Four albums and four drummers?

Actually… five.

So is it because at shows you keep swinging your guitar around and you’d hit the drummer and then they’d quit? [laughs]

Yeah they’d come in and they’d lose some hearing, or get hit too many times…

I’ve yet to see you live, but it’s obvious you play incredibly loud. I hope you wear earplugs.

I don’t wear earplugs. And I’ve been playing really loud music for years and years…

No wonder you turn the treble up so much. You’ve lost your high frequency hearing and have to keeping turning it up higher.

Totally! It’s so good! Turn it up! Louder and louder.

Exactly! Yeah, so, I love the new album Transifixiation. Of all the stuff I’ve written about in 2015 it’s gotten my highest score so far. It’s my favorite thing that’s come yet this year.

Thanks, man. That’s so rad.

And it’s also my favorite album from APTBS so far. I like 'em all, but this one seems the most balls-to-the-wall. The song “Straight”… In my review I talked about pure audacity of the guitars. They keep coming in and try to envelop the rest of the instruments, and you don’t even play proper notes, it’s just explosions of noise. There are lots of freakouts on your past albums, but that song, maybe it’s the production and the mix, or maybe it’s new stuff you’ve built with your handmade pedals… it’s the most bombastic song you’ve done and you’d already set the bar pretty high. Do you feel like you’ve cracked some code with the schematics of your pedals, or the way you mix the records?

There are new effects on this record, but I don’t think that’s as important as what we discovered while we were recording. We were working so much on trying to capture this live sound, so we were using all these different techniques like recording with 100 tracks at a time and all these ridiculous things, all these experiments. We found out that none of that stuff mattered at all. All that mattered is that we were doing something awesome in a particular moment. It was just those takes where everybody was feeling it and feeding off of each other. Like the last song on the record “I Will Die” was written at that moment we tracked it. There was no preconceived idea for that song, it just came out at this practice that we had. We were recording the practices just for the fuck of it. I’d set up some microphones, with none of them pointed at anything in particular. There were four microphones set up in the room, and a feed from the PA, and that was that song. We tried to re-record that song 20 other times or something and I wrote different lyrics but we could never capture that moment that had been so great as that crackly-recorded practice. So we kept that take.

It’s a cool way to end the album, because even with all of the stuff that’s happened prior to it, and you get to that last track where vocally you really get vicious. Usually, no matter how dark or mean the lyrics are, you keep the delivery chill and in your low range. That Ian Curtis [Joy Division vocalist] kind of thing, or the dude from the National in that low baritone range. But then on “I Will Die” you let ‘er rip, and I was like, is that Oliver singing on that one?

[laughs] Yeah, at that moment I was genuinely pissed off. That recording captured that feeling exactly, because it was true. I feel like with this record we made a breakthrough with that.

What about the song “Deeper?" It’s another one of my favorites and seems like the centerpiece of the album. Those explosions that happen so often in the song… Are those all made by the guitar, or is there something else making that sound?

It’s guitar and also some drums recorded out in our front hallway. The landlord had put all this tile in the hall and with the hard walls it just had the craziest reverb sound. Ravi recorded one drum kit track out in the hallway too. It just sounds insane. Even if he drops the stick on the ground it sounds cool.

Who produced the album? You recorded lots of it yourself, I know.

We produced the record. We always record ourselves, building home studios wherever we are living at the time. There were two songs on this record though that we recorded in Norway. “Deeper” and “We’ve Come So Far.” We did almost all the tracking there with our buddy Emil Nickoliason who’s in that band Serena and the News. He plays guitar as well on those tracks. And his girlfriend sang on those tracks as well.

Time to talk about pedals and the Death By Audio venue. The venue closed just last year, and while that was probably tough to have to do that, does that allow you extra time to focus on the pedal-making aspect of the company and the band?

The venue was more inspiration than anything. My friend really ran the venue so I didn’t have to do much except go see shows and help out when needed. It wasn’t a conflict of time or anything like that. Having the band and the pedals, both of those things are pretty big endeavors, but we had a bit of downtime before this album was released. So I had a lot of time to build new pedals and we did some crazy stuff. I just kinda go back and forth between those things depending on what’s going on at the time. I’m lucky to have two jobs that I love doing.

Are you breaking your shit at every show?

Nah, it all depends on how you’re feeling, sometimes it breaks, sometimes it doesn’t. But if it does break, we know how to glue that shit back together. I don’t need any sort of precision guitar or something, I just need a stick with a string on it and a pickup.

In the press release for Transfixiation, your bassist was talking about how he’s always afraid that he might get hit by a guitar but that it makes it more exciting. How is this always happening? You just realize no one is that close to you…?

I mean, I’m never trying to hurt anyone, but sometime you can’t tell what’s going on. I hit him even yesterday! It wasn’t insanely hard, but you’re still like “oh crap!” You could get tuning peg in the teeth or something like that. But you’re going crazy and losing control and that’s the place we want to be. Where you can’t quite be responsible for your actions.

Are you guys on any sort of substances while you’re up there? Or just drinking? Or is just the music that’s fueling this?

As much as possible it’s just the music. Sometimes substances can inhibit things and make you go crazy in the wrong ways, or do the opposite and bring you down. Some of the wildest shows were when we were stone-cold sober.

I hate to hear when artists say they can’t make art without being drunk or whatever else…

Yeah I think that’s total bullshit. Usually it makes shit crappy, all drunk on stage, acting like an idiot. Maybe it’s because I’m older but I can see through that and it’s not cool anymore.

I read some other reviews of Transfixiation on other sites after I wrote mine, and Pitchfork is giving you more and more shit with each release, saying the records are like a commercial of Death By Audio pedals. I think they’re getting backwards. It’s more that you’ve got a song and you need a certain sound so you make a pedal for it.

The dude that wrote the review for that… we don’t do guest lists very often for Death By Audio (the venue) shows and he was insisting he was on the guest list and our girl didn’t let him in. And him and his entourage, they were saying, “Do you know who I am?” and he didn’t even come in and watch the show, he just stood outside smoking cigarettes or something. He could have genuinely not liked our record and that’s fine.

Your last album, Worship, almost seemed scaled back which accentuates the volume and energy of the new one. Was that a conscious effort?

No, but the drummer we were playing with at the time couldn’t play the parts that Dion and I wrote for that record. We were trying to record drums for like a year for the record and it just wasn't working out. We ended up just getting some of our other friends to record the drums. I think it just took too long and maybe lost little thunder along the way. I still think it’s a great record.

Yeah. It’s got good songs; it was mostly the production I was referring to. Have you ever considered the Jesus and Mary Chain route where the pulled it back when people were saying they couldn’t make an album without feedback? Like with Darklands they pulled back the tempos and with Stoned & Dethroned they went acoustic. Would you ever record an album with no guitar pedals on it?

[laughs] No, we’ll never do that. We’re gonna stick to always making crazy records, and if we didn’t do that we’d probably put it out under another name. I hate when bands I loved growing up would get weaker as time went on and I never liked that. We’re just constantly trying to come up with more crazy stuff. That’s the stuff I like. Why try to appease people, it really doesn’t matter.

But I do feel like your records have changed along the way, making new noises on the new one, and like I said I think this is your best record.

Thanks, man!