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“Biting into something heavy”: An Interview with Oliver Ackermann of A Place To Bury Strangers

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Earlier this year, the Brooklyn-based psychedelic noise rock trio A Place To Bury Strangers released their fourth album, Transfixiation. 

While remaining addicted to noise, lead guitarist and vocalist Oliver Ackermann has taken his bandmates – bassist Dion Lunadon and drummer Robi Gonzalez (who makes his first appearance on a APTBS record) – on a journey to a new sonic place, one filled with dark lyrical themes and complex song structures. He’s led them to a place called Transfixiation.

On Transfixiation, APTBS have balanced their attack more than ever before, with the rhythm section coming to the fore on many songs – for example, “What We Don’t See,” “Straight,” and “Now It’s Over.” These rhythmic tracks lend the record an equilibrium with guitar scorchers like “Deeper,” “Fill the Void,” and “I Will Die.”

But, no matter what you say about the rhythm section and balance, Ackermann’s guitar and effects pedals still lead the way, making APTBS one of the most creative bands on the planet. He’s a one-man Sonic Youth in his ability to will never-before-thought-of ideas and textures out of his guitars and pedals. And Transfixiation – perhaps APTBS’ finest album to date – hints at the best work of NYC’s favorite noise band, as well as Joy Division, Suicide, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Boris, and My Bloody Valentine, while somehow remaining completely original.

Ackermann was kind enough to admit SEM into his sound world.

SEM: Thanks for talking to us today, Oliver. What inspired you to begin designing and/or augmenting effects pedals?

OA: I was big into super effects and transforming instruments into other things through perverting sound waves. I had a lot of equipment but wanted to take it all further. I wanted to understand the mystery behind the science of sound and create sounds that I wasn’t hearing anywhere else. When I finally was able to make some things work, I really got completely enveloped in thinking about everything in terms of being waves and went deep.

SEM: How old were you when you started messing around with effects pedals?

OA: I started playing through effect pedals pretty much as soon as I started playing guitar. The sound of fuzzed-out, barely distinguishable melodies was part of what dragged me in. When the notes were transcribed, it all seemed so dumb and easy. Punk. It was a vibe, and the effects just made it feel like I was biting into something heavy.

SEM: Please tell us about Death By Audio. What is it? When and how you did you start it?

OA: Death By Audio is a pedal company that grew into a record label, venue, a building in Brooklyn, recording studio, and other things. I started it as a name for my brand of effectors because they were so fucked up it seemed to fit. Then I think other people felt inspired by my “anyone can do anything they want to if they put their mind to it” attitude, and it organically grew into so many other things. Anything we want it to be really.


SEM: What was Death By Audio’s first pedal?

OA: Total Sonic Annihilation. It’s a forced feedback loop, which forces your pedals back into themselves to create the sound effects make when they die.

SEM: Which came first, A Place To Bury Strangers or Death By Audio?

OA: Death By Audio in 2001. But I have been playing and writing music since before then, and A Place To Bury Strangers is just a continuation of that.

SEM: In 2012, A Place To Bury Strangers solidified its current rhythm section, with Robi Gonzalez on drums and Dion Lunadon (who joined in 2010) on bass. What can you tell us about Robi as a drummer?

OA: Robi is a wicked drummer. He is the only drummer who has had to make me get louder amps because he hits the drums so hard.

SEM: How did you hook up with Dion? He’s from New Zealand right?

OA: The old drummer, Jay Weilminster, and I were looking for a bass player when Jono Mofo left, so we had a bunch of friends try out. Dion was killer. He smashed his head open at the second show we played. He is an animal.


SEM: It seems like on some of the songs on your current release – Transfixiation – the rhythm section is more prominent. Was this a conscious decision you made while writing?

OA: No, not really. The songs were written and recorded to capture intense moments. These would only come at points at which we would kind of lose control, and I think that sort of is that point at which the music takes over and sort of forces you to thrash. This zombie-like state we would push ourselves to, I think, has more to do with rhythm and less to do with precise notes or compositions.

SEM: Please tell us about the writing process for “Straight.” Dion and Robi provide the structure of the song, and you add terrific effects and occasional riffs. What was the composition process?

OA: It was actually a song I wrote by myself, and Dion and Robi really liked it, so it was very easy to capture a great take. I had for many years always dreamed of a bassline like “Straight,” and it finally made sense.


SEM: Would you consider the arrangement of “Straight” a departure for your band? 

OA: I would. I probably wouldn’t have put it on the record years ago. It would have gone in the file of songs that sound cool but don’t quite fit with the aesthetic of this band. But now I’m sort of at this point where I don’t really care about all of that. I want to change what we do. I always do, but I think more drastically than ever. I can’t help but get bored sometimes, and I think that is why most bands just end up sucking after a while.

SEM: Let’s talk about “What We Don’t See.” It sounds like your using an alternate guitar tuning and some effects…

OA: It’s funny because that’s one of those songs where I’m actually playing normal major chords. I guess it’s so uncommon for me, it sounds like an alternate tuning from our normal sound. It is using a very special effect that I discovered while we were recording the record and has turned into the Ghost Delay Death By Audio pedal. These three delays fight for each others’ power and warp and twist in crazy ways. That’s the effect.

SEM: The video for the song has a very cool concept that fits in well with the band’s aesthetic. Are all the vibrating objects the actual result of “What We Don’t See” being played loudly? Or did you have to “artificially enhance” the effect in some way?

OA: It’s all from the sound of the song. Pretty crazy.


SEM: Some critics have claimed that your lyrical themes – which tend to deal with despair, death, and despondency – are repetitive. But, in my opinion, the sonic exhilaration and the noise provide a cathartic twist to these themes. In other words, the music is a purgation of negative emotion. What do you think?

OA: For me, they are songs are therapeutic. But that might just be for me. Guitar feedback cures my headaches. Working on such intense music brings out emotional themes for me that I reflect upon. I think they go hand-in-hand. And I do feel comfort and uplifted listening to our music. I don’t know what it is. Some of the lyrical content is meant to anger people, but it ends up being a comfortable blanket for me. Maybe I am not making my goals work through music. I will try harder.

SEM: Does performing live and at such a high volume lend a cathartic value to you personally and (from what you know) to your fans?

OA: It does for me. It overtakes the body and transforms physical reality into something different. I heard a show goer tell me one time that she loved the volume of our band because she could finally scream as loud as she wanted and let out all of her aggression and no one would stop her because they wouldn’t hear her.


SEM: How do you, Dion, and Robi physically withstand the volume night after night?

OA: I don’t know. It must be like exercise my ears. I have been playing crazy loud music for years without earplugs. Maybe one day my eardrums are going to explode.

SEM: Did you set out to be one of the world’s loudest bands – or did that just happen?

OA: I just like it super loud, and once you’ve heard that, you’ve got to take it louder, so you still have dynamics in songs.

SEM: Do any types of venues work better for A Place To Bury Strangers than others?

OA: I wouldnt say venues have anything to do with it. I would say the more difficult to pull off the show the better.

SEM: Thank you very much, Oliver.

OA: Thank you!

Featured image by Igor Vidyashev/Atlas Icons