Interview: The Inner Workings of the Pioneering Band A Place to Bury Strangers

A Place to Bury Strangers has long been recognized as one of the pioneering bands of the shoegaze genre — a style of music that now pervades subgenres as diverse as indie pop and black metal. Born out of New York City and evolving into a complex and layered sound experiment, APTBS has made a big mark on psych-rock and shoegaze since its formation in 2002, helping to start the revival of grungy and noisy yet spaced-out rock, pioneered by earlier bands like My Bloody Valentine. APTBS has also gained a reputation as a band that's hard to pin down or see live, because of its habit of taking a few years between releases and tours — which made its recent appearance in Denver even more special.

“We kind of plan a year ahead when we make a record or something like that,” says bassist Dion Lunadon. “We will make a record one year, then tour for a couple years, then make a new record. We’ve been recording over the last couple days; we don’t really have any songs yet. It’s important to have time to step away from any one project to just enjoy life, do different things.”

In terms of the recent resurgence in popularity for shoegaze, Lunadon feels that APTBS defies classification with its unique sound, but also enjoys watching the transitions in the genre as a whole. “I guess it’s always moving and changing, and I think around the mid-2000s, there was kind of a revival, and the kids got into it,” he says. “At least for us, we don’t really consider ourselves to be any kind of thing or scene; we just do what we like, and we are always trying to push ourselves. We don’t make huge changes in what we do, but we always try to push ourselves to be more experimental. I feel like with psych, and the championing of outsider music that’s been growing in the past years, which is really cool to see, there has been a new interest in us and what we do. That scene has always been very supportive of us.”

He also enjoys the new transfusion of shoegaze-like aesthetics into black metal and other underground genres, rather than taking a purist approach.

“I think a lot of the metal fans respect us,” says Lunadon. “I went to go see High on Fire, and one of the guys told me A Place to Bury Strangers is his favorite non-metal band. We come from a similar place as metal because we are noisy and loud, and I think they can relate to that. We have a pretty side to our band, but live, I think we're a lot more aggressive. When I was a kid first getting into music, in my early teens at least, metal was the type of music I got into. The people who usually play heavy-metal music can usually play guitar pretty well. I don’t know much about black metal, but I like the approach with Burzum, where they record stuff on the shittiest equipment possible. Some people will go on about recording on the nicest equipment, so that’s a really interesting angle for me, because if you want your music to sound kind of fucked up, that’s an interesting way to get it. I like the way that people who are into that music are really passionate about it.”

The group just released its fourth studio album, Transfixiation, which expands on its already-well-established blend of poppy melodies and heavy riffs, but takes it in a new direction.

“Every record is a different approach,” says Lunadon. “With Transfixiation, I think, as a band, we were at our strongest point so far, and we kind of all worked on the songs and tried to record as much live as we could. It’s just another example of how we didn’t try to repeat ourselves; every album has its own different approach. We don’t want to find a formula and just kind of repeat it all the time, but we also aren’t trying to reinvent ourselves or make a drastic change; we are happy with the angle we are going with. We just want to keep things about the music, about the craft.”

This method of creating music that's similar to past works yet always progressing and improving is likely a result, at least in part, of the group's unique songwriting process.

“As always, Oliver [Ackermann, guitar and vocals] wrote a couple different songs by himself,” Lunadon says. “He and I wrote a couple songs together, as we always do, but the biggest way we record is that we get in a room and jam for seven hours straight, and then we would record it. We didn’t try to just aimlessly jam, but we tried to get at a certain sound. We recorded it and listened to it, and went back and took parts we liked and turned that into songs, or cut parts out to use in songs. I really like the idea as a songwriter to be able to sit down with your instrument, have an idea of what you are going to do, or no idea, and be so in touch with it that you can just come out with it on the spot, almost like a resurrecting. Writing a song on the spot and just going with the flow and being so in touch with our surroundings, what you want to say, where the music is going – I think as a songwriter you can get to that point, and it might sound impossible, but I don’t believe it is impossible. I think it is possible to define your craft so much that you can come out with something good and on the spot. I like the organic-ness of that, and I like the lack of planning. It makes things go into interesting directions you wouldn’t usually take them because you are not on the spot. It's more like flowing water.”

Seeing the band live really leaves nothing to be desired. From the start of their set to the very end, when members of the band come out into the audience to do solos and interact with the crowd, their live performance really is that: a performance. The entire time they are on stage, they have flashing white strobe lights projecting behind them, turning them into vibrating silhouettes on stage instead of solidified, recognizable people. The audience was illuminated in the same light and was completely immersed in the performance. Although the band only played for about an hour, it left a lasting impression.

“I love Denver,” says Lunadon. “We always have good shows in Denver. It’s a long way to go, but there’s always a good crowd and a good vibe."

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Addison is a Denver-based writer specializing in metal, dubstep, cannabis and LGBTQ issues. She also contributes to OUT FRONT, CULTURE and New Noise magazines. Addison is author of Wicked Woman: Women in Metal from the1960s to Now.