A Place to Bury Strangers is one of the most creatively noisy post-punk bands out there. Goth-influenced baritone vocals recall the ghost of Ian Curtis, carried in on a wave of pummeling, eardrum-scraping fuzz guitars recalling the best of the best shoegaze bands Jesus and Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine. Podcast producer, Best Midwestern co-host and occasional reviewer and interviewer Greg Simpson sat down with the band’s guitarist and lead vocalist Oliver Ackermann digitally via Skype once again (he spoke with him about their last album, Transfixiation, in 2015) to talk about the band’s brand-new aural assault, Pinned. Read the interview below or listen via iTunes.
Photo Credit: Ebru Yildiz
< e> I'm here with Oliver Ackermann from the band A Place to Bury Strangers. Oliver, how’s it going?
Good, man. How you doing?
I am great. Your last album, Transfixiation came out in 2015. It was an amazing album, and not to just blow smoke but I am a huge fan of you guys. I became a fan partially through guitar-nerd stuff, hearing about your pedal company Death By Audio. Death By Audio used to be the name of a venue as well, and we talked about that last time, and the venue has closed down but the pedal company is still going strong. So can you tell us a little bit about that? How much of your time is spent between doing stuff for the band and running a business? You're essentially the owner of the business, yeah?
Yeah. I mean it's a tough sort of juggling act. But I love to work and love all the people I work with. It's not just me at the pedal company it's me and a partner. We have about nine people who work here as well. Constantly assembling and bouncing ideas back and forth and working on all the stuff because as the years go on we keep on selling more and more pedals and it's always kind of spiraling sort of out of control. We're always just trying to do things better and make cooler products and work with more musicians as much as possible to get them to get the sounds that they want to get. And so the past couple of years I’ve spent a lot more time with the pedal company just because we moved into this new space that we had to totally build up. We built a studio and stuff and that kind of came together sort of quickly to record this record. But then the pedal company has been having to go through a lot of changes and stuff but I'm really good now.
So it's still based in Brooklyn.
We actually just moved to Ridgewood Queens.
The new King of Queens right here, Oliver Ackermann.
So is the studio then also called Death By Audio?
I don't know. I think…
That branding man, got to keep the branding!
I kind of feel like the last studio was called Death By Audio. There was so much kind of involved in that. We moved into this place that was covered in mold that we called the Mold House.
That's not good.
That was why we weren't there for very long.
For health reasons!
The sound was impeccable though. So I don't know maybe [the new place] is called The Rat Hole or something like that. There were like lots of rats here when we moved in. Holes in the walls and stuff.
I've been to the New York New York City area a couple of times, but isn't Queens more suburban? You still got rats around there? I mean there's rats everywhere I suppose if you let it go long enough.
Yeah they pushed the rats out of the city and into the suburbs pretty much. So yes it's kind of suburban and it's a little bit more suburban than I would like. But like we have this industrial building so it's pretty cool.
The rent is probably cheaper right?
It's cheaper but there's definitely reasons why we're where we're at. It is a total shithole you know so it's a building that nobody in their right mind would ever rent out.
Except for rock n’ rollers.
Yeah exactly. We can live on the streets in a cardboard box or something.
When I transitioned from being more of a drummer into a guitarist I very quickly learned that with my subpar playing I could put some effects on my guitar to cover up the mistakes. Now, that is not the case for your guitar playing, but you do use a lot of crazy effects and this is what drew me to the band in the first place. I know last time I talked to you I brought up The Jesus and Mary Chain being one of my favorite bands of all time. And you guys are carrying the torch, as far as loud bands go, by rather than just putting layers of thick low-end heavy guitars, you guys really bring the treble a lot of the time. On this album I want to know if there are any new pedals you designed specifically for this album. Is there brand new stuff you've designed that we're hearing on this album?
There is. There's this pedal that was kind of essential to some of the bass sounds on this record, this pedal that we even came out with at Death By Audio. It's called Deep Animation. It just makes the bass guitar move in a really interesting overdriven sort of way. So the harder you hit it the more it changes the sound. It adds another dimension to it, and with this record in particular there's a lot of very simple sort of repetitive kinds of parts where you're building intensity and when you dig in your sound really digs in and it expands it explodes. There was some of this on this record. There were some other things that I've developed which are on the record. But I don't know if it was that it was a necessity that I invent these things.
I am inspired by sounds I can get out of my pedals. I mean it sometimes probably seems backwards to a lot of songwriters where you'll see some rock band and they're like "oh I write my songs on the acoustic guitar." I do not write my songs on acoustic guitar. I will be inspired by weird sounds I'm getting. So one song in particular I want to bring up is "Look Me in the Eye" which is a little later in the record. It almost sounds like a gritty version of chiptune music. Are you familiar with what chiptune is?
Yeah yeah. You have tell me if it's a drum machine on this one or your new drummer, who we'll have to talk about soon, but it sounds almost like it's got that bitcrusher effect on it. Then the guitars come in in this very thin digital kind of fuzz. An intentionally thin kind of fuzzy thing. What's the trick there? I'm sure we've got some guitarists listening that would like to know.
You ever heard that band The Coneheads?
They recorded all their stuff and sped it up… this kind of just has some of that sound. It's an example of one of those songs where I really love some of the energy and the power of the demo then we re-recorded the song at a slower speed but then took both of them and sort of combined them together. And so it evolved with speeding up some of like the tape track to match in with what that demo was recorded on.
Very nice! You know the Beatles and stuff like that…haha.
There you go.
Famously that little harpsichord or organ or whatever that is on "In My Life." George Martin is maybe the one that played it, and did it at like half speed, and then sped it up.
Yeah totally. That sound like it's almost like superhuman playing. But you also get these weird artifacts, what you were talking about with chiptune stuff where it's got this weird synthetic, messed-up kind of sound. Unplayed by a human or whatever.
Yeah that's super cool. So is that a drum machine on that one?
It's a combination of a real drummer and a drum machine.
Tell us tell us about your new drummer. I wouldn't say it's a turning point, but something very unique about this record is your new drummer, both her playing style as well as her vocals. So can you tell us about her?
Her name is Lia Simone Braswell and she joined the band maybe two years ago or something. When Robbie had left we were looking for some more drummers and we had a couple other people and then Dion had seen [Lia] at this show and she was just a killer drummer. So we saw if she wanted to try out for the band and she did. Her drumming is just so great. It was just instantly like "wow this is really really cool." As it went on then we started being like "hey you want sing this part or try out these backing vocals?" And her voice is so unique and so kind of crazy. It just seemed to work so great and be so interesting in what we were doing. Kind of a way where you've got your preconceived ideas of maybe what kind of songs you would want, andthe styles of way things should be… She kind of came from this place that was completely unlike anything I'd ever imagine. So it was pretty awesome.
I started listening to the album before I opened up the PDF of the press release. And so I heard a woman's voice like, oh that's cool so maybe it's a guest vocal or whatever but then she kept reappearing. I opened up the press sheet and sure enough you’ve got a new drummer, a woman, and she's singing now. And I thought that was awesome especially because you have a very defined baritone. You typically sing in a very low range. So having a female singer, and she's maybe more like an alto or something not singing super high or aggressive, so it's a good balance between you two. Having her as your new drummer and having her vocal abilities there as well, those two things probably helped inspire a lot of new songs on the record. Is there anything in particular on the record where maybe you started writing it by yourself or you wrote it as a group and her new contributions played a part in the writing process?
Definitely. I think we kind of only touched the surface of a lot of that stuff because she was finding her way in this band and how she fit in with the project. But there's actually even a bonus record that if you get the deluxe edition of the record it has all of these different jams and performances that we played at places whether it be like our practice space or on tour throughout the world. And it's got some of these songs that we wrote on the spot which is really a whole other step or a direction which the band would maybe be going with more into the future. You could see her full range and stuff like that. But she definitely crafted a lot of the songs, you know to take them to the next level of what we're doing, like going back and forth [singing] on "There's Only One of Us." You know we're writing lyrics and coming up with those things and I think it takes the song to some place completely different. In some of those other songs as well too there's demos that I had recorded where it's this whole other different monotone crooning kind of thing that turns into a party song or something like that. It is really cool. I mean she's also just like really into everything that we're doing and just loves like playing music so it's even just the energy and the excitement of this band has stepped up… not that we weren't excited before. It's always thrilling to be working with people who are extremely thrilled to be doing what they're doing. So it's been good.
One of my bands just added a couple of new members to flesh out our live stuff and it even juices up the old songs as well.
So you mentioned the song "There's Only One of Us." I had made a note about that one as well. Last time I talked to you I even mentioned how I was sometimes confused about certain songs being real drums or drum machine because typically the style has been so just pounding with a steady dynamic feel to where where I was uncertain. And I'm a drummer and I’m like, man, it's either the most consistent heavy hitting drummer ever or it's a drum machine! Whereas your new drummer Lia, it's like a more human kind of natural feel with the dynamics. And not that that I didn't like the old pounding-in-the-face drums and she can do that too. But on "There's Only One of Us" there's this very distinct pattern but you can tell it's not a programmed pattern on a drum machine because of the dynamics and the accents. So I think that is a really cool element to mix it up on this, being your fifth album.
Yeah I think so for sure. She's just really incredible at drumming and has been drumming for years and years and played in a lot of bands and is so intensely talented. It's really cool because on a lot of these songs we did multiple takes and she just never messed up and would always come up with really cool energy and is an incredible drummer. I don't know if I've ever played with anyone who was so on point. And with such a cool style and expression and everything.
Expressiveness is definitely a good word for it, where you know she can get really intense and in your face but can also pull back it's expressive. That's that's exactly the word. I'd say as far as the production and the recording style-- now you mentioned you're in the new studio-- as far some stylistic choices, it seems like maybe you made some different choices on this record than on Transfixation or some of the other albums. Maybe not everyone knows about compression or what compression does on records, but were you maybe easing off of that kind of thing on her drums whereas in the past you were squashing them down to make it more powerful? Was there any change in the recording process for the drums with her tracks?
Definitely. I mean sometimes you just have to do that in ways to get that sort of sound. There's something to do with even the finesse of the way things are played. Some people can make those things work out where it's like even soft hits and things can sound much more intentional and even. You get to have this powerful sound without actually having to put an effect on it. It's what you were talking about before about using guitar effects to mask the sound of your guitar to make it sound better. I do that stuff too. But I feel like we didn't really have to do that so much on this record because initially the sounds and everything was already worked carefully and placed carefully where it had the intensity and the feel of what we were going for without having use fancy recording techniques. A lot of this record was done with more things stripped back in a more minimal of a sense. We recorded part of it at a friend's studio. We basically just went there and sat up and played live for two days and then a lot of the rest of it was done as we're building our studio, in a construction site. So we didn’t even have much of the equipment set up or anything. And so it was just sort of doing what we could possibly do while we're stretching the rest of our lives kind of thin and trying to make this stuff work. And also work on these things to get Lia acclimated with what the band is and everything, and planning tours and everything. And so it kind of just came about in a way that was really natural. As we do these other things, we’re working on this record over time, but it’s also nothing that we spent forever crafting but I think kind of captures like a cool transition and moment in this band.
For sure. It definitely seems the least worked-over. Actually since last time we talked I opened my own studio. I also work at Sonic Iguana, a pretty famous punk studio that's been going since the 90s. And since I've opened my own studio now I'm recording my own bands' stuff, my two bands, and you know you go over and over it because it's not costing you any studio money. But the way you guys did it this time, having some kind of restrictions, lots of times restricting yourself, keeping yourself from thinking too much about it, is sometimes better.
I think so some of the time. It's good to do a little bit of both maybe. There's something to be said about something that's well-crafted really awesomely polished but sometimes you just kill the vibe. And I'll often go back and listen to old things that I've done and every once in a while we've done that in the past, where a demo or what had been recorded originally was so interesting. And then you spend so much time trying to almost like re-craft something that and you lose some of that excitement and energy. You know when you're writing the demo you kind of know exactly what the song is about, in ways. Then sometimes when you're laboring you're kind of just sort of playing it as a cover band of what that original moment was.
That's interesting. Yeah you kind of lose the plot of it a little bit.
Sometimes you discover something new and fantastic and whatnot and you know you’ve got to figure out what you can do and what actually sounds the best and not be afraid to just go with your gut .
Another song that stuck out to me as a different kind of turn for you guys was the song "Was It Electric." If I put on one of your records most people would not say "oh this band makes pretty music." It's not the kind of thing you're going for really. But this song "Was It Electric" is probably your prettiest song! The guitars are more twinkly, the drums while they're propulsive they're not really overwhelming, and you and Lia sing an octave apart for the majority of the song… What sparked this song? Was this something that that Lia brought to the table as an idea? What brought this turn? I'm going to call it your prettiest song.
Sure haha that's alright. It really came about with this guitar part the song is based around which is sort of a rolling guitar part. And it's one of those parts that I was like "oh this is really cool." We turned it into a song and we'll always write a lot of songs that never ever see the light of day, and maybe it's because we kind of can't make that sort of thing happen. And I think Lia's style and playing, it took to the song and really turned it into a song that works and is successful, because otherwise I feel like maybe everyone just might have lost interest or something. Or you know you get a bunch of dudes with a bunch of testosterone pumping all together that just want to slam their guitar on the ground or something. I think that there's a little bit of more of an outlet for some of these pretty sort of melodies, potentially at least. And I think it's just like you know Lia comes from such a different background so we just embraced some of that stuff. You always want to do different things and we all recognize that this is a really pretty sound. You just go for it.
It was cool to hear. A lot of songs on the record are are standing out amongst your catalog which--I've loved all of it-- but it's cool to hear these new things being tried because a lot of bands, when they get past their third or fourth record, they're kind of struggling to come up with something new. Either bands kind of settle into their little formula and people still like it or they don't. Or they try something really bizarre like all these bands that go "oh we're a synth band now" which, I like that stuff, but it's such a crazy turn that it like splits their fanbase. You guys I think did the right thing and by keeping the old stuff that really worked with what has defined your sound, while also sprinkling in enough of these new elements to keep a longtime fan like me on my toes. And I guess the other big thing, the last big question I have for you is that this is the first album that has come out from you guys in the Trump presidency. I remember when he got elected, most of my friends on social media and stuff are pretty liberal and a lot of them are rock and rollers, and everyone's like "well on the bright side we're going to have a lot of cool punk albums come out" and it's like yeah you know… maybe. And there have been some really good ones. Superchunk just put out a record that is their most political in years and it's really good. I'm sure there's got to be some the more angry parts of this album that were inspired by that. Would that be correct?
Yeah sure definitely. You can't help but feel those things. We actually had band practice when the results for the election were coming back in in November . Everyone's super excited and we're having such a good practice. It was like a four hour practice and then it just got so depressing by the end of it, it was so sad. And leaving, we took a car from space and shared the car, it was like an Uber that will pick up other people. It picked up first one girl who was in there crying then we picked up some other girl who was crying and then another girl who was crying… it was such an intense moment of sadness. And of course it's just this terrible thing. So yeah there's definitely those moments on this record. "There's Only One of Us" I know Lia's lyrical parts are a reflection on that kind of stuff. Even some of these songs that we'll write about you know, like "Situation Changes" or even "Never Coming Back" like it might not be about Trump in particular but you have these fantasies in your head about what it's like with people that are kind of doing terrible things and people in power are idiots or someone you know or someone was abusing you, or taking advantage of you when you’re remembering times from school. You know it all kind of makes complete sense and becomes a reality in some ways. So there's definitely those moments of this album. We kind of go to some of those places anyways when you're feeling those things and you can exactly feel those things for real, which makes sense when you're creating this kind of music.
I think one of my favorite things about this album is it's very eclectic in that you've got the really noisy stuff you guys are known for and you've got these angrier songs that could be partially inspired by the political landscape today. But then you've got some of the prettiest moments that you guys have ever created. I think that's really the strongest point about this album Pinned. Pinned comes out on Dead Oceans, which is based in my old hometown of Bloomington, Indiana and it comes out on April 13th, which as we're recording this is in just a couple of days. Excited for the masses to hear it?
Anything else you want to tell our listeners before we sign off?