Oliver Ackermann of A Place to Bury Strangers on the joys of creating Total Sonic Annihilation
A Place to Bury Strangers makes the kind of guitar rock that doesn't just carry melody but is rather a palpable, elemental presence in the room. From early on, the act drew immediate comparisons to My Bloody Valentine, Jesus and Mary Chain, the Cure and Big Black, as critics searched for adequate and accurate touchstones to describe the band's sound. Grounded not just in shoegaze, though, this New York band has clearly learned a thing or two from the noisier underground rock bands that put the Providence, Rhode Island DIY venue Fort Thunder on the map. We recently spoke with A Place to Bury Strangers's affable and insightful guitarist and singer, Oliver Ackermann, about his creation of pedals, his extensive experience with the art of sculpting feedback and the group's latest record, Worship.
Westword: On your new album Worship there's a song called "Fear," and it's reminiscent of the late Lee Hazelwood. Are there any vocalists you especially liked as a singer and that maybe informed what you've tried to do?
Oliver Ackermann: I like Lee Hazlewood. Lots of people. I grew up on a lot of music from the '50s, '60s and '70s. I just hear music, and you fall in love with people with different, unique voices, whether that be Robert Smith, John Lennon or Jimi Hendrix. You must take those things into consideration, I guess, when you're trying to come up with the singing patterns that we all do, but not necessarily anything in particular.
Obviously you run Death By Audio. Why did you want to start your own space, and what do you think DIY spaces contribute to a musical community?
I started this space almost out of necessity. I don't like living in a normal sort of place. I like to kind of work and do things all the time. A normal house is maybe more conducive to things like having dinner parties or something, which is fun, as well, but constantly building projects and taking things apart and constructing artwork and working on different things, you have to have a space where all of that is possible. That is kind of the beginning of this kind of space.
The reason for the venue is that you realize there is an opportunity for other people to kind of have a spot to be able to play and do whatever they want to do, so you make that a reality for people, so they realize there's something that's kind of cool out there. To make music and bands come to places, it takes promoters and people who care about all of these things to make this stuff happen. I think that when you realize that you can make this outlet for all this amazing music, any kind of way you can help out, you try to do.
That's why we try to release some band's records and build effects pedals, so that people can hear what different things sort of sound like to push them in directions of maybe making more crazy music. Even being in a band and touring around and showing people that you can just have fun and destroy your stuff and get crazy and not be afraid to piss off the club or whatever and have a good time is kind of an important thing for people to see, I think.
I think it's important to make shows at DIY spaces an all-ages event. When I was younger, growing up in Virginia, there was nothing for you to do, so we would hang around by the river or drive around or break into battlefield grounds at night. The only other thing you could do is go to a diner, drink coffee and smoke cigarettes. Or you could go to a bar if you could somehow. I guess there's a social aspect to a bar, but a lot of it is based around not necessarily doing anything, to some degree, especially if there aren't too many people to hang around with in your town.
If you're in a place like New York, it's good to go to a bar and you get to see your friends. But it would also be good if there was a way you could go out and get something done and do something productive. Being able to see music or going to a crafts event or something or a theater show is kind of important.
You're well-known for making pedals. How did you get into that?
I just got into making them by trying to create things that weren't available for me to use and just out of curiosity of every aspect of creating music from recording and everything. I used to be into collecting a lot of effects pedals and rack effects units. You kind of hit a wall at some point, where there's not that much more that you can do with these units that you can get, so you try to create something new.
That's what I was doing for a while, and then at some point, I needed to make some money pretty quickly to go on a vacation to Europe. So I came out with the first Death By Audio pedal, Total Sonic Annihilation. People just seemed to really like it and want more, so I used to do this thing where I would accept any sort of custom work that anyone was giving me.
So I could build effects pedals that anyone else was dreaming of, and I would research how to design these effects. That was a great way to learn and give something to those people who weren't doing what I was doing and the opportunity where they could afford some custom work. That was good for a while, and then as time went on, we built more effects pedals and came up with more stuff, and then the range of the line broadened to a lot more effects.
What was the most complicated or unusual pedal someone asked you to make?
I did a couple. There was one that required a lot of woodworking. This guy had built this really shoddy sort of multi-wah controller thing. I pretty much had to pull the whole thing apart and rebuild it all out of wood. So it was almost like a physically mechanical kind of thing out of which the whole thing would operate. That was pretty fun to do.
There was another one where I built this really intense multi-effects pedal for this guy. It took me so long to build. I don't know how many months. It had six or seven different effects in it. I mailed it to the dude, and he never got it in the mail, so I had refund him his money. So I didn't get paid for six months of work because I had to give the guy back the thousand dollars that he gave me because the pedal got lost in the mail. That was pretty funny. You learn to always add insurance to packages.
One thing you've mastered as a guitarist is sculpted feedback. What has helped you to control that to the extent you'd like to keep it under control, or what kinds of things do you do have you learned?
I don't know. I guess you just kind of listen for when these things are going on and work with it. One thing I like about playing with feedback is it kind of changes all the time as to what it's going to sound like, what it's going to sound like in different rooms. It's very fickle, and it very much depends on even the power in certain places. Maybe your amplifier is getting just a few more volts, or there's bad grounding problems where you have to change things. I really like that where you have to be there in that moment and kind of figure it out right on the fly.
You kind of have to just be ready for anything. Who knows what's about to happen. I guess over time you realize that you can move your guitar around and get different sounds. Different strings that are open or closed will generate different kinds of tones. You can make noises by half holding down strings or maybe aim your guitar. Just a lot of different things, and it always changes. But, you know, that's more the thing where you need to change the flow of what's going on or try something different or turn around what you're doing.
You just need to do those things sometimes when things kind of go wrong. Otherwise, when it's going good, you ride it out and see what's going to happen. We also even switch around our effects. Some things sound better turned all the way up sometimes and not other times. There's a lot of variables.
Do you use more than one delay to get a different kind of effect going? Is there something you do with your delays to get a more interesting sound for you?
Yeah, we do that stuff sometimes. I use a lot of spring reverb and stuff, as well, and delay. All of those different things have different sounds and sound really cool. It depends on how you have the unit set up and what's running into what. In the studio, we'll experiment with anything. Sometimes you'll link a ton of stuff together; sometimes you won't. Multiple delay pedals? That stuff sounds great. Using delay before and after other effects and using reverb [is interesting]. Even doing things where you can split the sound up into different amps. You get kind of stereo spread sounds where there's a change with what different amplifiers sound like.
Even for doing stereo stuff, some people are into very matched, precise stereo -- the same stuff with the same sound -- but I always figured your ears sound different, both your left and your right ear. Not everything is perfectly mirror imaged anyway. When there's sort of a difference, I think it makes things a little bit more interesting. So we always have different things on stereo sides. That gives it more of a spread and more richness to the texture. It's like The Beatles or something, where there's one guitar on one side, and then on the other side, there's no guitar. When you get things from a lot of different directions, it's a lot more interesting.
I think your mind kind of pushes it together into one singular thing anyway. You're in a spot, and it kind of brings it together and you don't need to replicate a beautiful stereo with your amplifier set-up. Or even if you're miking drums overhead, I think it sounds good that the left and right sound a little bit different.
Oh yeah. When you mentioned using multiple amps, that's what My Bloody Valentine did and a lot of people assumed they used all this delay but it was more creative use of amps.
Totally. And you even get those weird guitar sounds and stuff a lot with just different amps being in and out of phase from each other in different ways and you can simulate a lot of stuff with that.
Clearly your band gets compared to Jesus and Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine. On your song "Slide," some of your guitar work is reminiscent of the Cure. Would you say that band had an influence on what you do?
Definitely. I think those are all things. Jesus and Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine and the Cure are bands I was listening to a lot more when I was growing up and learning to play guitar. We're not all trying to do anything like that stuff anymore. It has sort of stylized the kind of band we are in that we like to use effects and play pop music.
Did you customize the electronics in your guitars? Is there a type of guitar you prefer to play with this band?
All the guitars I use I pretty much rip out all the electronics and just go straight into the pickups for the most pure sound. But it's not crucial. I just feel like it sounds a little bit better, and it's easier than if I throw it around and stuff smashes off. I don't have to worry about it not working. The one pickup will be wired up to one jack on the guitar and the other one is straight up. I use Jaguars because they're small and I can fit them into double guitar cases, and they have the whammy bar, so I can create all those pitch-bending effects when I want to and do chorus-y sound on the fly and everything.
Also I use those Fender guitars because they're kind of mass-produced enough to where I can get the parts for them easily and they don't break as easy as acoustic guitars and other guitars as well. They're pretty heavy duty for rolling around and if something breaks on them, it's easy to find the parts. I have some other weird guitars at home and if I were to break them it would be, "Well, that guitar is broken for good."
What kind of weird guitars do you have?
Nothing too insane. Like a Magnatone Typhoon. That's a really dope guitar. Like a Hagstrom III, a Hagstrom eight-string bass, a Fender Bass VI. Those things have very particular tuning pegs or the bridge is very particular. You could probably build something out of something else but it's just easier to not worry about it, I guess.
You still do this live, but you hold the guitar by a string and swing it around. How do you do that? Do have to set up your guitar a certain way?
No, you just have to kind of go for it. There's a moment where you're not afraid of everything, and you let loose, and you're one with the music and what's going on. You kind of aspire to reach those moments in performances as much as you can. Sometimes that works out. Sometimes it doesn't. We try to with crazy volume and lights to sort of lose track of reality and get in that headspace and really go for it and not be worried about anything. Sometimes the strings will slice your hand up. You just have to be like, "Fuck it." You might break the guitar. You never know. I'm crazy! I don't know. Who knows?
Do you use a crossover in your amp set-up to split up frequencies?
I have in the past. But I just don't even worry about it anymore. If you wanted to have something in which something didn't seem like it could handle the frequencies you were delivering to it using multiple amplifiers, you just change the tone of the amplifier and make it work out. So I guess we kind of are using crossovers without actually using crossovers. It won't be set at some specific point to be some sort of hi-fi system. You adjust to what sounds the best in whatever situation you are in.
To some degree we will split different frequencies between different things. But it's not meant to be exactly only the lows going to one thing and only the highs going to something else. I feel like that would even separate some of the sweetness of some of the sound. We do some things with really low frequencies and it maybe it sounds like the speakers are going to blow up and sometimes we do blow up speakers because the frequencies are too low but it's just kind of one of things you go for and try to do.
You obviously have a live drummer, but sometimes it sounds like you have a drum machine going. Were there bands that you've heard that you felt used drum machines in creative ways?
We've definitely used drum machines on some recordings a little bit. Maybe bands like Ministry or Cocteau Twins got me really excited about drum machines. You hear those things, and it sounds really badass. I like how it almost sounds like a machine, and there's something almost menacing and evil about something with that much precision.
Sometimes we use drum machines, but not for that kind of sound. Also maybe the Magnetic Fields for a sound that's not that kind of sound. I like old Magnetic Fields because it's almost fake sounding in a humble way. In the early stuff he would take the most wacky instruments you would never use on a recording and turn it into really great, awesome pop songs. It would be comprised of a synth saxophone or a harpsichord.
Get Lost has a lot of that sort of thing.
Totally! Ministry uses that kind of evil sound, where you're just like, "What is this giant machine coming toward me?"
What live bands did you get to see, either growing up or more recently, that made a huge impact on you?
The Ramones were absolutely wicked, I thought. Dinosaur Jr, they were crazy loud. Lightning Bolt has really amazing energy. I used to live in Providence around the time that Fort Thunder and stuff was going on. Those were some crazy shows. Six Finger Satellite were amazing. The Black Lips can be super fun and rad.
Peelander-Z do some crazy things. Arab On Radar would do some crazy things. White Mice were amazing, too -- I think they might have just broken up not too long ago. They played here last year as well. My buddy said that he heard they were just about to break up. But who knows? Maybe it's a hoax.
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