A Place to Bury Strangers: “In Your Heart” (Exploding Head, Mute, 10/6/09)
Originally from Virginia (and formerly a bassist for Fredericksburg shoegazers Skywave), A Place To Bury Strangers’ vocalist/guitarist, Oliver Ackermann, now 32, taught himself how to dissect musical equipment almost as quickly as he learned to play it.
By his early 20s, he’d already invented and patented a new type of guitar pedal that he dubbed “Total Sonic Annihilation,” and within a few years, some of the very bands he’d grown up admiring started singing the praises of his volume-friendly contraptions. With the subsequent founding of Death by Audio, Ackermann had himself a growing business that would also conveniently serve his other passion: making his own music.
“They’re directly linked,” Ackermann says, referring to his geek side and rock-star side. “A lot of times, things I’m working on for our live show give me the reasons to develop new effects or change things with my recording equipment. I always approach projects by focusing on what I love to do, and that combines both of those things. You know, you’ll be creating something with a piece of equipment, and it’ll spark an idea for a song. Or you’ll have a song and you’ll really want to add an effect that creates a particular feel for that music. It’s a pretty cool dynamic.”
Since relocating Death By Audio to Brooklyn and starting A Place to Bury Strangers (www.aplacetoburystrangers.com) in 2005, Ackermann has taken on an almost guru-like aura amongst noise aficionados. My Bloody Valentine’s renowned effects master Kevin Shields turned to Death by Audio for assistance during his band’s recent reunion tour.
“We want to give the audience a senses-altering experience. That’s what the best shows usually were like for me — just mind-blowing, where you could basically lose your shit.”
Since the band began playing in 2006, A Place To Bury Strangers’ unsettling but invigorating live sets rapidly elevated the trio to the forefront of the New York underground rock scene. They came to be known as the “loudest band in New York” — an amusing moniker that makes for a nice headline but, from Ackermann’s perspective, hardly does his band justice.
“That happened even before the first record came out, the ‘loudest band’ thing,” he says. “But I don’t consider it too much of an honor. When you think about it, it doesn’t really mean anything. [laughs] Being the loudest band isn’t that much of a compliment, you know? But it’s fine. If that gets people excited about the music, then that’s great. But for me personally, hearing that some band is ‘the loudest band’ wouldn’t necessarily intrigue me.”
On the band’s 2009 sophomore LP, Exploding Head, drummer Jay Space’s thundering toms and Jono MOFO’s burrowing bass lines never go so far as to eclipse whatever three-chord Duane Eddy riff Ackermann has cooked up for a melodic centerpiece.
Like a good boxer, he can bob and weave as well as he can punch, and the music’s danceable threads don’t get lost beneath the march of effects pedals. The result is a set of songs that can entice and intimidate at the same time — just the sort of dynamic Ackermann is going for.
His songwriting is noted for its blasting distortion and dark, lyrical themes on top of melodic patterns plucked from the happy-go-lucky pop music of the early ’60s — be it surf rock or the boom-chic-boom of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound. It’s not an innovative mash-up by any means, but Ackermann’s skills as a craftsman of sound have allowed the band to venture into heavier, almost primal territory with its music.
Ackermann agrees that the use of distortion in indie circles has become more prominent lately. “Especially with recent technology, it’s just made it a lot easier for people to experiment with sound in different ways,” he says. For Ackermann, though, knowing the mathematics of every amplified swoosh and clang can have its downsides too.
“I mean, it’s exciting in a lot of ways,” he says, “but sometimes, learning about some of these technical aspects of the sound can actually ruin some of the mystery of listening to the music. I mean, even learning how to play guitar or the drums can take away some of those things that were exciting about music when you were more naïve. It’s a give and take.”
Meanwhile, fans lucky enough to listen to the band in a state of ignorant bliss are rarely disappointed, and although Exploding Head was a noble effort to capture the “loudest band in New York” on tape, it’s still the live shows that define the group.
“We want to give the audience a senses-altering experience,” Ackermann says. “That’s what the best shows usually were like for me — just mind-blowing, where you could basically lose your shit. So we’re just trying to make the craziest show possible, with lights and sound and anything else to help sort of envelope the whole body and help you lose control a little bit. There was a time, when I was younger, when people would go a lot crazier at shows. I don’t feel they do that as much these days. We’re trying to help.”