Ear-splitting shoegaze band A Place to Bury Strangers went from unknown to unavoidable in a matter of months. The Brooklyn trio’s self-titled debut received Pitchfork’s “Best New Music” tag in September, after which the band landed a handful of opening gigs for heavy-hitters Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. The following month included four CMJ Festival shows in three days, one of which got the attention of New York’s finest. Along the line, the band landed a deal with Chicago’s Highwheel Records only to be dropped weeks later over a contract dispute.
Oliver Ackerman, the band’s singer and guitarist, started his sonic crusade in Fredericksburg, Virginia. There he spent ten years with his former band ,Skywave, while designing stomp-boxes for his own effects-pedal business, Death by Audio (deathbyaudio.net). Today, Wilco and Spoon are happy costumers.
Can you describe your move from Fredericksburg to Williamsburg, Brooklyn? How did the breakup of Skywave affect the band that you wanted to put together in New York?
Basically, Skywave split up when I moved to Brooklyn. It think at the time, nobody in Skywave really wanted to tour and play shows so much. They were more interested in playing music for themselves. I mean, we had a lot of love, too — it was really hard to leave those guys who were [my] best friends and fit so well musically. They were really good people to play with. It was so great all the time. But, you know, when you’re in Fredericksburg, Virginia, and there’s only about four or five people that you really want to hang out with all the time. Since I really wasn’t able to do things that I really wanted to do — like play a bunch of shows and constantly be doing stuff — it was really a natural move to move to New York.
So the scene in Fredericksburg wasn’t really very big?
No. More stuff is starting to go on with bands like the Offering and stuff like that. They’ve joined Ceremony — which was Paul Baker and John Fedowitz, the other members of Skywave. There’s some really cool music going on down there that’s come after the fact, but it’s sorta like a dead-end situation. It was hard to do the stuff that I wanted to do — collaborate with more musicians and work on other things.
So you decided to move before the band actually broke up, and the band broke up because you moved to Brooklyn?
Yeah. That was kind of a bummer. It was at the last Skywave tour. Paul didn’t even want to come on the tour– which I can kinda understand — so we had Jake Reid from Alcian Blue play guitar. Being from Fredericksburg and sometimes driving twelve hours or something like that to play some show for seven people, it seems more depressing. But part of the fun, I thought, is traveling around and meeting people.
What was your thinking when you got to Brooklyn?
Yeah, moving to New York with me was a friend who I didn’t know that well who was in this really cool band from Virginia Beach named Cobra Spa. And we were gonna do that when I moved to New York, but we didn’t really do it — he wasn’t in the mood to play music. At the time, when we first moved to New York, it was really cool to be in Brooklyn and doing stuff and there was so much stuff going on and it was kinda hard to have a band with the living situation we were in.
A Place to Bury Strangers started when these two kids that I met at a friend’s show — an Ariel Love Feed show. They were looking to start this band and needed a drummer. They were doing this Slowdive-sounding thing, and I thought that sounded awesome, so I was like, “Yeah, man that sounds rad. I would love to come play drums for you guys even though I’m not really a drummer.” After one practice they were like, “We don’t what you to play drums. We want you to play guitar.” So then that started — just playing with these two guys, my friends Tim and Dave.
Eentually things just changed from there. Dave didn’t seem as in to it as we [were]. And then there was Justin who was gonna be in that band, Cobra Spa — he was playing drums for us at the time and that was really good. So eventually, Dave and the band mutually came to an agreement, and he left the band and so it was just me, Tim, and Justin. And then eventually Justin left the band because he moved away with his girlfriend, and Tim moved with his girlfriend to L.A. And then we got Jay [Space] and Jono [Mofo] playing bass and drums.
The songs on the new record were recorded over a four-year span, 2003 to 2007. How did these tracks first come out, if at all?
It was all really CD-Rs that we had been selling for a while, and they’d be coming out time after time. And we weren’t even really gonna release the album. It was just a bunch of CD-Rs, and there was this guy [John Whitney] in Boston who had this label that [eventually] put it out, Killer Pimp. The guy came to one of our shows and he wrote on a napkin, and he was like, “I really wanna release your album and you guys can have all the rights and the money. I just wanna put it out.” At the time, I sort of wanted to wait. And it was Jay and Jono who were like, “Think of all the time you’ll save burning CD-Rs.”
Whitney was just gonna do a limited run of five hundred CDs. All those factors convinced me. It was like, “Okay, at least we’ll have the CDs that we can sell at our shows, and I won’t have to worry about setting up the computer.” And then I guess somehow people ended up liking the CD, so it’s just blown up from there.
There was an EP that you were recording with John Mahoney, right? Is that part of this current album or is that something different?
No, no. We actually were recording with John Mahoney and what ended up happening is someone from NME was talking to Jay, our drummer, and he mentioned that John Mahoney was working on the recordings and then mentioned also that John Mahoney was working on the new Guns ’n’ Roses record. Then somehow I guess Guns ’n’ Roses found out and put their foot down and didn’t want that to be leaked out to the NME, and they forced John Mahoney to not be able to work on [our] record.
So John Mahoney was working on Chinese Democracy essentially?
I don’t really know. You know, after that event I’ve just sort of lost track of what it was. Is that the new Guns ’n’ Roses record?
Yeah, it’s the one that’s been in production for years and years and years.
I would imagine so, but [Mahoney] probably wouldn’t appreciate me mentioning it, since he got in trouble with it before. But, whatever, it doesn’t matter. I mean, I understand. It’s kind of like people mentioning other people’s work — it isn’t always nice to have it leak out of the bag. You know, Jay didn’t even realize. We weren’t trying to get any props from Guns ’n’ Roses fans or anything like that. Although it was funny: After it was published in NME, there were a couple [Guns ’n’ Roses fans] who were like, ‘Badass!’”
Soon after Pitchfork reviewed the record you guys were signed to Highwheel, but then that fell by the end of the month. What went wrong?
The whole thing was just weird with Highwheel. You know, we had been in agreement with [label head Julius Moriarty]. We met him in Chicago when we played there — the guy was really cool, he was doing this really cool thing with his label, helping out bands and stuff like that. It was a lot of really good talk [with Moriarty], but when he gave us the contract, it didn’t really match up with what he was saying. It wasn’t really a good deal, actually. Although his word made it seem like he wouldn’t necessarily value the contract, he still did give us a contract that wasn’t very good.
So we were telling him that we didn’t really want to deal with the contract. And then it became weird. He felt offended that we had talked to lawyers, which I don’t really understand because anyone would want legal representation before going into a contract — that’s the whole point. He sent us the contract from his lawyer, so it wasn’t like we were out-of-line in having someone look over the contract. We were just dealing with it in a professional way.
It was fine with us because we don’t want to get involved in a deal that could possibly be bad for us. But it was kinda weird at the time — left a bad taste in our mouth. We didn’t know what was going on with band. We’d been constantly [having] more and more good things happen. We didn’t really want to jump into something that we weren’t ready for.
What was that a major issue?
Well, I mean the guy who runs Highwheel is so cool. He was like, “Don’t worry about it — we can delay the recording anytime you want. Anytime you want, we’ll fly you out there. You can take as much time as you want.” I mean, the guy is so cool. It was just the contract — it stated otherwise. I’m not even exactly sure. I think he would have let us do whatever we want, and I think he would have done a really good job. He’s just the kinda guy, I think, who’s trying to give back to the music community and help bands out and stuff like that. But maybe he doesn’t exactly have everything together to where it’s official and [so he] needs someone who [would be willing to] get stuck in a bad situation. You don’t want to be doing that.
Who knows? Maybe we’ll go back with them. They’ve even expressed interest in our band still and said it was really hard when we wanted to leave. So, no hard feelings.
Walk me through the CMJ gig at New York’s Loisaida. You guys were two songs into your set when the neighbors started complaining and called the cops.
Yeah, the cops came to shut it down, and one of the cops said something like, “This band is sick! Let’s let ’em play another song.” I didn’t even realize what was going on. Louise — who was running the event — was like, “The cops are here. Play one more song.” I didn’t realize that the cops were into it, so that was pretty cool.
Did you feel like you were being particularly loud?
Well, the thing was [the show] was in an unconventional space. It was like a haunted house. It was like this really big wooden room set up with a bunch of bands that are doing stuff with Louise’s label — Vacancy Records — bands like Spendrift and the Young Lords. It was a really cool show that she had set up. And I guess we were just way too loud. Our friends who were actually downstairs across the street in a liquor store said it was really loud in the liquor store, so I would imagine it was too much for the neighbors. But, you know, that’s understandable.
Have you ever gotten in trouble before with shows that were too loud?
Definitely. I mean, now I’m kinda surprised. More recently people are more willing to cope with it. But back in the old days with Skywave, we’d have sound guys threaten to kill me and stuff like that.
Do you think your new band is louder than Skywave? You get a lot of attention nowadays for being “the loudest band in New York”? Or was Skywave just as loud, but because it was in Virginia, it mattered less?
I don’t know, maybe it’s a different thing. I think we’re really loud. I know we definitely have bigger amplifiers than I ever used to own. But we used to do some crazy stuff before and bring like tons of amplifiers to shows sometimes. There was a [Skywave] show I remember that my friend Joe was at and he said it was so loud it was depressing — you couldn’t even think; he felt like he wanted to puke. And he was trying to talk to his friend and there was no way he could talk to anyone. He couldn’t even scream.
Do you view it as a badge of honor?
I don’t really care. We’re not intentionally trying to play really loud — that’s just the volume were you get the right feed from your amplifiers. It’s the volume we like to listen to music at. It’s more [about] personally getting in the mood of what’s going on when we’re playing the show. I guess it must be really loud. Everyone always says that it’s ear-piercingly loud.
Do you think that the press unfairly focuses on the guitar effects and your volume and not enough on the songwriting? Do you ever feel like people are treating the band as a gimmick?
Well, I [definitely see] how people could get that impression. Sure, maybe people will think there’s some sort of gimmick or something like that. But we’re not really trying to be the loudest band for the sake of being loud or anything like that. All the songs are crafted from the heart of what would be a song that we want listen to. It’s not really [our] intention to write some song in a particular way. When you start to hear song forms, you really can’t control it.
Do the songs come out of a particular sound that you’re getting from your guitar or do the effects come after the fact?
The songs are all written in completely different ways. Sometimes you’ll be walking down the street and you’ll come up with this idea for a song, and sometimes that works or brings itself to something else. I think most importantly we’re never afraid to change things for the greater good. If someone came up with a better idea for anything, that’s always the one that’ll go. But also songs can be developed from the sound of feedback. It’s wherever we can find the inspiration in wherever the song form is going.
Generally the blogosphere loves you guys, but one negative comment described the record as a “marketing tool for the effects processors that the band’s frontman supposedly builds. You have a pretty popular effects-pedal business [Death by Audio]. Does that comment ring true to you at all?
There’s been some more interest in the effects-pedal company, but that’s been going strong for a really long time and it’s all word-of-mouth. I don’t really try to push it, but it is definitely a part of my life and a part of our sound. I don’t think they can’t go hand-in-hand to some degree. I don’t try to advertise in any way that we’re using these pedals or anything. Lots of people do definitely ask about it, and it definitely comes up. So what do you do? It’s naturally a part of a lot of the articles — the effects that we use.
I think that’s also just something that’s interesting about our band. I’m able to craft the sounds we want to hear. Some people don’t necessarily have the ability to do that. And I think that even has a play in the songwriting process; All the electronics are all very experimental, and so sounds that we come up with aren’t necessarily predictable or the sounds that I’ll be experimenting with in a workshop aren’t predictable, so that can spawn songwriting ideas. That’s just part of the whole band.
Death by Audio has grown to be bigger. My good friend that I live with in Brooklyn, they’ve opened up part of the warehouse space that we have as a venue, and they’ve been running that as this venue called Death by Audio. And so it’s all turned into this artist community over there, where there’s all this stuff going on. It all feeds off itself.
Have you noticed that people are asking about your pedals more since the record has gotten so big?
Definitely there’s been a little increase in sales and inquiries. It’s kind of hard to tell because everything has been a really slow climb for a long time — with the music and the effects — where it starts off small and then it gets bigger and bigger. With all blogs, there’s definitely been a lot more interest in the band. And so I think it has in turn helped out with the effects-pedal company. But who’s to say exactly if it has.
How did Death by Audio get started?
I was trying to find new guitar sounds. It started out with circuit bending, and I really had no idea what I was doing. It took a year or two to even get anything to work. I really messed up a lot of stuff. I didn’t even really want to start an effects-pedal company at the time. I really wanted to go to Europe, and it was like a month away and I had this idea for an effects pedal that nobody else had come out with at the time.
What was the pedal?
Total Sonic Annihilation, which is a pedal that loops back onto itself to create feedback oscillation like alien-spaceship landing sounds. I wrote to Harmony Central and sent out a press release to maybe ten places. I contacted a few stores about the pedal and actually sold enough within a month to be able to go to Europe, so it was pretty much a blessing.
Where did you start building this stuff?
In Virginia we used to have this really big warehouse where I used to live for free because it was only $400 a month and there were four other bands that practiced there and we charged them all just $100 a month to play there. It was this really big space. We built all these practice rooms and stuff. It was awesome — you could play all day, all night. That was even the inspiration for finding the place that we have now in Brooklyn. We used to live in this place when I moved [to Brooklyn] that was this warehouse in the middle of nowhere. We thought everything would be cool but our neighbors were all really bitchy and so we had to move to another industrial space where we had no neighbors.
Where is this new space?
Now it’s in Williamsburg. We used to live in Bushwick and I used to have a van and I’d get the windows all smashed out. People would come and slash all four tires and people [would steal] batteries out of the car. It was just ridiculous stuff. There was a bullet hole in my van. Now it’s stolen. It was stolen twice, actually. The first time I got it back, and there was a whole car chopped up in the back of the van. We just really wanted to move out of that neighborhood.
One of my next-door neighbors in the place we lived in Bushwick actually got beat up at gunpoint. One of my roommates found him in a pool of blood outside on the steps. So at that point we told the landlord that we had an open-ended lease and he was cool with that. We were like, “We want to move out whenever we want.” And he was like, “That’s okay.” So I guess we really couldn’t complain. Then there was basically a nine-month search to finally find this place that we have now. I was the first person to see it and we were like, “We want it.” And we took it.
What pedals were you were using before you started building your own?
I was a bit of pedal junkie. I was always a big fan of changing what effects you’re using all the time. I liked effects like the Big Muff and the Super Tone Bender and good distortion pedals — and lots of different chorus pedals. We used to go through a phase for a long time where we were using five or six chorus pedals at a time. And lots of different reverbs — like rack-mounted reverbs that delay — and tons of EQ pedals. There was a time where I had to get every single EQ pedal I possibly could. We were doing lots of stuff where we’d switch up the EQ in between parts of the songs. Tons of effects. Anything you could think of. Also at that time — in the ’90s — effects weren’t coveted like they are now. I wish I had the collection that I had back in the day. You’d get pedals on eBay for $20 that sell for $400 or $500 now.
I know kids who just collect and don’t really use them. Companies like yours made them beautiful objects just as objects. You can just keep them and not even use them and they’re still satisfying.
That’s something I even found a long time ago, and that’s part of the idea with Death by Audio. It’s the whole package. Of course, it matters how it sounds, but when you have a pedal that looks cool — when you have some really big crazy phaser — you’re actually excited to stomp on it.
Most people mention the Jesus and Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine. What other bands are major influences on you guys?
I lived in Providence, Rhode Island, for a while. I loved a lot of those art-rock bands like Lightning Bolt and Six Finger Satellite. And then noise-rock bands — that stuff is really good. And also ’60s girl groups. I like lots of that stuff, like the Shangri-Las.
What is it about that older Phil Spector sound that is so attractive? Clearly there’s this connection between noise-rock bands and those early wall of sound pop groups.
I love the songwriting in so much of that stuff. The wall of sound makes the song just perfect, and that’s all about these layers of all these different sounds going on. It’s like bands like My Bloody Valentine, where you hear all these different guitar parts going on at the same time and then [those] big drums come in. You get lost in the song. There’s all these different sounds going on and it leaves so much up to your imagination to come up with your own parts. That’s even important if you’re reading a good book or a movie, where there are things left up to your imagination. It could almost be better or scarier than what you would actually see.
Since you guys are only a three-piece, do you struggle sometimes to make it as layered and complex as you’d like?
I don’t think it’s really a problem. I think we almost have an advantage because there’s less conflict in the band between all these different instruments. We’re in complete control of the dynamics, which I think is part of the key to making it really good. With the effects that I’ve built, it’s easy for us to make too much sound if we want too. It’s really great that we can control it and bring it down and make it be really sparse and then have these crashing walls of waves of feedback and noise come in. For a little bit, we were contemplating having someone else play guitar with us and we had some really amazing guitar players that we’d play with from time to time. It’s the problem that you have with coordinating everything to be the best and most complete package that you can come up with. You struggle with vision.
So it’s just easier to communicate vision when there’s just three of you?
Yeah, definitely. It’s just perfect. We do stuff like use multiple amps with one person, one instrument. I don’t think there’s any lack of frequency of sound. In the past, we’ve done things with drum triggers, so there are sounds that are going on at the same time as the snare hit while there’s also another synthesized sound that hits at the exact same time.
Where there any shows that you saw as a kid that were touchstones for the live sound that you want to create now?
Sure, tons of shows were big influences — the Ramones and Jesus and Mary Chain and Dinosaur Jr. Tons and tons of shows, really. [They] have to become an influence of yours whenever you see shows and get blown away.
So you guys have no label at the moment, right?
Yeah, there’s no label. I mean, it’s still Killer Pimp that’s re-pressing the CD that we have out. And there’s Important Records that’s releasing it on vinyl.
So Killer Pimp is just your distributor, essentially?
John Whitney is just one of these guys who loves music so much. I wouldn’t say that he’s a real label in the sense of one with a huge team of people working. He’s just helping us out how he can. He’s been doing a fantastic job. To some degree, I guess he is our label, but not necessarily in the traditional sense. Which is really good — he’s a really good guy, I love working with him. It’s really perfect. It’s kind of our label, too, to some degree, in how we get to do what we want.
You guys have any plans in the near future to sign with anybody?
It’s always about the right offer. We would definitely be interested. Everyone would — it’s the dream to not deal with the baloney that you have to deal with in a band. [I’ve] definitely done that for years — you know, you answer bazillions of e-mails and try to contact people to get people excited, and mailing out hundreds of CDs yourself. It’s just not fun to deal with that aspect. You really just want to focus on the music. That’s why you created songs to begin with.
Do you have any labels in mind?
There’s been a bunch of labels that have contacted us — some of them seem really good. We’re still trying to wait it out and see what other labels will contact us or what kind of deals they want to put on the table. We’re trying to just give ourselves some breathing room to see what happens so we don’t jump into something that we don’t really want to do.
Are you gonna wait to get signed before you do another album, or are you thinking about recording soon?
I think we’re gonna want to at least record the next album ourselves, maybe with some joint help from different engineers during some of the stages. We really want to do that because the ultimate goal is [to be] recording music for ourselves. I don’t really want to let someone else ruin that. We’ve worked with lots of people and lots of people are pretty good to work with, but it’s hard to get people to do exactly what I want people to do in the studio. Lots of people think you’re crazy for wanting to do certain things, so I definitely want to be in control of what’s going on.
Do you guys still have day jobs?
I mean, I just build electronics. That’s all I do. And then Jay bartends in New York at Pianos and Jono deejays around the city.
Those aren’t bad jobs.
Yeah, definitely. They’re not bad at all. They’re perfect for the band life. That’s why I do the job that I do. For a while I would feel like I was letting my parents down by not doing something a little more substantial, but they’ve always given me so much support. I think it’s okay.