Lia Braswell of A Place to Bury Strangers on the Purpose of Life

Ebru Yildiz
A Place to Bury Strangers.
A Place to Bury Strangers is a noise-rock band from New York known for playing at a breakneck pace, layering sounds and beats, and offering an exhilarating variation of rhythms. 

Ahead of the group's show at Globe Hall, drummer Lia Braswell spoke to Westword about the group's new record, Pinned; a remix of the album, Re-Pinned; personal and musical growth; her mother playing covers in clubs in Portugal; and learning when to care and not care what other people think.

Westword: How much does your enjoyment level while playing a song matter when you're writing an album?

Lia Braswell: I think it’s all different. What I like with our live shows is it feels new every time, because we’re micro-perfecting along the way. There are songs where I feel like I’m doing something different from what I did from when we first recorded it.

I think it’s all relative to the day, in terms of what’s more fulfilling or pleasant to play. I think it’s all really fun and entertaining, because you get to play around with what you have and make a template for that show and for the crowd that’s there.

Has that always been the case? Have live shows ever not been fun for you?

With this band, it always is [fun], because it’s got that energy and there’s this template, but we play with a different type of intention or role or dynamic. It’s all pretty much the same, but I actually really enjoy playing these new songs over and over, and it’s been pretty consistent since I’ve been in the band.

They’ve been playing some of these songs for ten years or so now and still have new approaches to how they play them. Even just the context of playing with a new drummer and giving it a different kind of energy gives it a new hype and keeps it exciting for everyone.

When you’re the new person in the band, how do you navigate contributing to the recording process?

I think I tried to figure that out the entire time. With this band in particular, I was a little nervous because I knew how long they’ve been playing together. But we got to know each other throughout a few months and went from playing a couple of one-off shows to playing endlessly and honing something that we now feel is ours.

I got a little more comfortable with it, and by the time we recorded [Pinned], I felt like it was my band and was giving it my all, and together we put whatever we had out there at the moment into this recording session. I think that’s still something that we’re working toward forming, but also feeling a lot more comfortable with it now.

Do you have a favorite song off the record?

One of the songs that we play pretty regularly is "Never Coming Back," and I really love that one because there are a lot of dynamics, and I can really relate with it and connect with it. "Too Tough to Kill’ is like a pretty steady, consistent beat overall with repetitive words and melodies, but it feels really empowering every time we sing it, and that’s what I’m grabbing onto when we play these songs: the empowerment or the emotion that is underneath all of it. But at the same time, it's universal, so it feels like we’re singing or playing to something new each day.

Why do you think this band has been such a good fit for you?

I think I've always just had this really high energy toward music, and creating and letting out all this stuff. I’m not capable of doing it in a typical, "average Lia" way, where I’m trying to be a little too kind and gentle and overcompensating for anything.

The release I get through music is so intense. I love to give it my all, and as soon as I started playing with these guys, I started to feel that really deeply and connect with it in a way, because they’re opening me up to different creative approaches and experiences through music and live performances and recordings.

It’s kind of this multi-faceted platform that they’ve built, and I really admire that. That’s something that I look for in any musical project that I agree to: people who are actually doing it for the music and for the purpose of evolving into this form, both with the visuals and the music itself coming together and creating an atmosphere for people.

And to hopefully have these reciprocated responses for people who are feeling this energy — this very human anger or emotion or whatever it is that you want to release but can’t always do.

It sounds like a good fit!

Totally! It really is. It’s probably the most creative thing I’ve been a part of.

The Re-Pinned remixes just came out. How involved is a band in that process?

I think for us, we started by letting people that we thought might actually be interested in remixing, or people that we admire, and then just threw it out there to see who would be interested in playing around with it. The guys from No Age and Slowdive — some of them are friends, and some of them are just guys that we admire and happen to have a different kind of ear for what we already created and sort of made it their own thing, which is awesome.

It goes a lot of different directions. I’m always a little dubious that a remix release will be good all the way through.

It’s a new approach to the music, and I feel kind of outside of it. So just listening to it as a listener, I’m very appreciative of all the hard work people put into it.

Is it quite similar to artists covering other artists' songs?

Sure, in a way. I think it's different, though, because you’re playing with different kinds of tools and learning another person’s song quite well and putting it into a new context and form.

I’m terrible at playing guitar, but I love to learn covers. But, yeah, I guess it takes time and listening to a song on repeat to try to figure out a way to make it your own. I can kind of see that.

Do you have any covers you’re fond of playing? Are you no good at any of them because you think you're bad at guitar?

[Laughs.] Probably no good. I mess around with Johnny Cash a lot; I think that’s my go-to. I’m sort of ashamed to admit to some Neutral Milk Hotel, too. I try to stick to nice and slow that I can just pick up on quickly. Otherwise I’m just doodling on my own in my own world. It’s entertaining, at least.

My mom spends her life doing covers now. She’s a musician and plays a lot of piano and sings and has a really good voice. She has so many songs! Like a lot of modern songs. Like, she’ll call me and say, "I just learned the new Ariana Grande song!" I’m like, okay, I’ll let her do that and enjoy doing the songs for me [laughs].

Does she perform these anywhere?

Just in small cafes and bars. She lives in Portugal, so it’s in like a small village, and she just has a community of friends that she gets together with and they host different open-mic nights or jam sessions or whatever. She’s picking up her gigs, though. It’s cool. I've got a wacky mom.

That sounds like a lifestyle we should all aspire to.

Totally. It’s hard to break free from all the crap we deal with in any given situation, so I admire my mom for living a little bit outside of that and doing her own thing, not giving a shit about what anyone thinks of it.

That sounds like an incredible feeling!

I know. I mean I’m not even close to that, but...[laughs] aspirations.

As a touring musician, do you have to adopt that attitude a little bit?

In terms of feeling free?

Not giving a shit about what other people think.

Yeah. Yeah. You definitely give a shit, because what we’re really paying attention to, subconsciously, is when we’re in a venue and there could be, like, ten people there, but those ten people are really psyched to see the show. Whereas there’s a sold-out show, and there’s a crowd that’s just kind of stiff or doesn’t seem to want to move or doesn’t have the atmosphere, where we don’t know what they’re going through.

Whatever they’re feeling is a little bit of a reflection of how we perform. So in a sense, we do give a fuck about what people think. Because we want everyone to enjoy their time and appreciate what we’re doing and how we’re doing it a certain way.

Other than that, in terms of real world or meeting someone on the train and talking about what our careers are, I think I’m sort of grounded in knowing that this is what I want to do. So in a way, that’s not giving a fuck about what people are saying.

This is what I love to do and enjoy doing, and a lot of people are...for the most part, people really do appreciate the music and live shows and whatever we bring to the table, which is awesome. We hope to continue that as best as we can.

Did it take some time to figure out that this is what you want to do’?

I don't know. I think it's something that the moment you believe it and start to create it and build it in the framework of your life, it just makes sense with whatever you’re doing. It doesn't have to be a touring musician, but once you've decided — and this is something that I decided when I was seventeen: just being in bands that I really admired that were doing low-budget, low-stakes things, and me saying that’s what I want to do.

In my own personal way, I kind of found my route to doing that.

In between everything, I’ve been scared and still am scared in a way that I’m not a doctor, I’m not saving lives, and I don’t even have my degree, which is, to me, like a weight over my head. I could be doing this or that, but overall, and especially now, it’s taken a lot of time and work and vigilance and concentration on that small belief that, yes, this is what I wanted to do.

It’s rewarding in the end, for sure. It’s nice to feel now that it all makes sense. I wanted to do this for a reason, and it’s still hard work and intense and difficult in certain ways, but so, so rewarding at the end of the day.

I will not regret this when I’m forty or fifty. Hopefully I'll still doing it, if I’m lucky enough!

It’s one of the rare industries where someone can be a lifer and never do anything else.

And that’s the goal. I want to do other things in between in the moment of it, but it’s definitely one of those things that I really enjoy about my life.

How do you think you’ve grown as a musician since you began touring?

If I can intertwine the personal and musicianship, I think we all sort of had this...I didn’t know that guys before this, we’ve only just become closer and connected through music and performances.

I think what I do as a drummer is usually listen and learn and figure something out and create whatever I can with whatever I can, and so in this it was interesting, because it was a take on it where I'm singing in the band and using these effects, which I had never done on my kit before.

In terms of musicianship, it’s this openness and willingness to adapt to each other’s styles and strengths and weaknesses. It was such an intense time.

I think it’s helped us grow into the place we are now, which is we’re very comfortable with each other and honest and communicative and constantly trying to evolve the songs and our approach to the music.

It was a sink-or-swim moment, and you found a way to swim.

Yep. That’s spot-on.

I’m 26, and it’s like, "Oh, cool, this is exactly what I’ve always wanted to do. This is what I envisioned my life to be, where I’m constantly around people that want to create and have different ways of thinking than I ever have."

It keeps you humble. It’s a good reminder that music is infinite and a place that you can constantly grow and evolve from.

That sounds like a great place to be. Also, I think I could have guessed your age from that Neutral Milk Hotel comment earlier.

[Laughs.] Fair enough.

A Place to Bury Strangers, with Kraus and Cindygod, October 16, Globe Hall, 4483 Logan Street.