A Place to Bury Strangers See Through You on sixth album
"If people are misinterpreting your art, then maybe you're not very aware of what you've made"
Striking a balance between overblown, distorted, wall-of-sound and songwriting can be a difficult equilibrium to achieve, with one usually sacrificed in favour of the other - cool sounds, boring song or vice versa.
Someone who (at least from the outside) has had no trouble attaining both with his compositions for over 15 years is Oliver Acerkmann, the creative force behind renowned experimental noisey post-punks, A Place to Bury Strangers.
Showing absolutely zero signs of slowing down, APtBS dropped the Hologram EP last year, and have now returned with their sixth-full length - the modern classic that is See Through You, an album I’m expecting to see on a lot of lists come end of year time.
A true creative free spirit through and through, when he’s not busy with the band, Ackermann can be found running Death by Audio, making all sorts of wonderful guitar pedals he and his peers would actually want to use, as well as his Dedstrange record label.
With so much to talk about, I was beyond thrilled to jump on a zoom call with Ackermann to hear all about the new record, his many artistic endeavours, and arts & creativity in general. Give the album a sping and checkout Oliver's in-depth interview.
As a band known for their intense, engaging, visceral live shows that are such a part of the band's identity, I kicked off by asking how Oliver got through the weirndess of no gigs of the last few years.
“I’m real adaptable. For me I just go with the flow or whatever the heck is happening, so in some ways it was kind of like a cool, weird vacation from reality - especially in New York, it’s so intense, so as much as it’s bad, it’s almost like a break from it all.
It was definitely tough. I wish I was out playing shows and hanging out with friends, but I made a lot of stuff, did a lot of things, built a lot of things with masks on… we did what we could. We went to shows, we got coronavirus, whatever.
There were some really cool shows in New York that were happening outdoors, where people would play on a bridge or underneath a bridge or at some crazy amphitheatre. You could tell people were ready to go for it, they were just nuts, like fireworks and craziness. Some good things happened I guess.”
While picturing these foreign, exotic New York locales and being relieved to hear Ackermann was able to make the most of it, I asked if he encountered any of the guilt I know other creatives did - having all this free time, but feeling completely uninspired, or worse….
“No, for me I always feel like I don’t have enough time to be doing this stuff I wanna be doing, so any opportunity I’m like ‘oh, crap, I wanna be recording music’, so to get the opportunity to do that. Also I’m lucky that I’m involved in all these different artistic endeavours, so once I get tired of making music I can go to tinker around with circuits or drawings and stuff.”
Moving on to releases, before digging into the album, I was curious about a few other recent APtBS releases, the first of which is a split with a band that was new to me, Buck Gooter, so was curious about them and how they all linked up to release the Thirsty Knights tape.
“They were just one of those bands that used to play at this warehouse we used to have, Death by Audio, and they were just one of those bands who came through, and first time I saw them I was like ‘holy shit this band’s fucking incredible!’”
So then I’d see them any chance that I could. Then there was this one time where we had a tour planned in Europe, I was at South by Southwest, and the band we were supposed to go on tour with had just cancelled. So I was like “ah fuck” and I was hanging out with my friend who was actually their label manager, and he was like ‘what happened?’, ‘oh the guys just dropped off the tour’, ‘I betcha Buck Gooter would do it!’ so then we called Billy and made it happen. That was just awesome.
On that tour, we do this thing where we bring the sound out to the crowd, maybe like a four-track, use it as a mixer, maybe like a drum machine or a drum and make-up some songs on the spot, you just get to do it with friends, they start playing with you at those moments.
We had recorded a lot of those shows, so there were a lot of those moments. The story ends in some ways kind of tragically, where one guy in Buck Gooter, Terry Turtle, dies. If you don’t know the band Buck Gooter, you should really check it out cos there’s this really weird contrast between this old kinda hippie biker dude and this young sorta punk kid, that’s just a crazy dynamic of a band.
When that happened, I think we were even talking about it while Terry was still in the hospital, of making this tape, raising some money… then when Terry passed, Billy was like ‘we should give all the money to these charities that Terry was always fighting for’. It was a cool thing that we could do, it was an awesome tour, I love those guys in Buck Gooter, wicked band. Billy’s still doing his stuff on his own.
I love those collaborations with someone where you love the music they’ve been making. It’s so awesome, so it’s cool when you get that opportunity"
After Thirsty Knights, the conversation moved to the Hologram EP, with me being curious as to the thought process that goes into releasing an EP over an album… how does one know when to release one or the other? Is this even a conscious decision or am I in English Lit teacher mode, looking for meaning that isn’t there?
“You definitely think about those kinds of things. At the time when I was putting together the Hologram EP, the album was almost done, and so these were these things that I was working on and because these things take such a long process, releasing something after it's finished, it's such a weird convoluted thing. Since that was all wrapping up, there was all this other material that I'd written and things that I was working on, I just almost made the EP for fun in a way.
You can look at things in a different way - making an EP is a lot easier in a sense, it's like a shorter journey for the listener and everything. We did this cool thing where there was a couple of contenders for the album on the EP, but because you're almost done with this done project, you're all excited to get involved in it again.
A few of those songs were written right before all the stuff was sent in for the EP so that was a really fast turnaround. It didn't have to have the same amount of things all thought about and concisely planned out and stuff, so there's something just fun and exciting about making an EP.
I think you bring up an important point when you were saying like being an English teacher and intention, it made me think of this thing I remember from school, when people were talking about Art History or something and people were talking about these artists.
I would argue "how do you even know they intended to do this? maybe the guy was thinking that he hates horses?" or whatever, and I remember a teacher one time saying that a good artist will have thought about all the different intentions of something. If people are misinterpreting your art, then maybe you're not very aware of what you've made.”
Deciding to keep the Lit vibes flowing, I asked about the new record’s title - See Through You - and what the meaning was.
I don't know if I should say, it's one of those things that's better left to the imagination. If I give meaning to it, then you won't have your own meaning for it - that's why a book is better than a movie.”
I offered my musings and Oliver was keen to hear - my crackpot theory involved single Let’s See Each Other, coupled with the album's artwork, those geometric shaped eyes… is it something about DMT?!
“That sounds cool! That's incredible, yeah to each their own.”
So…. it’s not about DMT, got it. Digging deeper into the record, I was curious how six albums in a band can both innovate while retaining a “signature sound”, so asked about the evolution of APtBS sound.
“I think things are always changing, it's happening at such a slow, organic pace for me cos I'm working on this stuff every day so it's kinda hard to look back on that stuff. Definitely this stuff happens - I know so much more than I did back in the day, I think that's for better or for worse.
I think there's one element which always is the key element to recording a good record, something that has nothing to do with sound design, and that's if you're excited. If you're thrilled, if you can put yourself into that other dimension or that space where you really feel the pain, or the anger, the happiness - whatever it is.”
How exactly does one get to that space? Is it something you can work on or does it “just happen”?
“When bad or good things happen to yourself, they become really motivating moments to do these sorts of things. Otherwise, you're just working on different kinds of ideas that all sort of relate to each other. If you know you're going to have this moment of inspiration, then you have all these other things built up, these other things that you've been working that have to deal with sound design.
At those moments when you're trying to write songs, there's certain times when that's really easy. Those moments don't all have to be like the worst thing in the world happened to you, it can also be a moment of joy with friends, or a moment when you're just like fucked up on drugs and you imagine something. All of those things can be really cool moments, and it's almost just at your discretion as an artist to pick which ones of those moments you use for things, and can actually relate to and have meaning.
Some of those things make it easy, other times you're just imagining something or trying to reminisce on some time when things were one way or another, or just some really unique outlook on something that can play into writing a song cos otherwise I think at some point I was writing songs like 'oh this sounds vaguely like something cool' and then you're like 'what's the point' in a way - you have this opportunity to do something kinda crafty or be interestingly... that's just more fun to do that kinda stuff sometimes. Sometimes singing about nonsense is fine, and sometimes the most simple thing is just bliss to hear over and over again. You've just gotta go with the flow.”
As a failed bedroom producer with hundreds of abandoned projects and 8 bar loops, "'oh this sounds vaguely like something cool' and then you're like 'what's the point'" resonated all too well with me, so I had to know how Oliver knows when an ideas is worth fleshing out?
“Sometimes I'll spend a long time on something and it never amounts to anything OR it takes a foul turn south and it's not good - something you thought was good and you can never make it back. Sometimes you work on something and you can turn it into something incredible, and it just took a little more time - it could be one of your least favourite songs and all of a sudden it becomes something great.
I think what really holds and makes a song actually good is if you can replicate this song somehow. If this idea actually is good, it's not just like 'oh it's so cool that this drum machine is so lofi and blown out' like that is cool, and I love those moments and they are important, but if you're talking about an actual song, you should be able to replicate it and bring yourself into that feeling.
It doesn't have to be that you play it exactly the same, but the arrangement and ideas are ones that can be done again in different formats and ways and still be cool and interesting. Then you've written a song that's successful on many levels.”
While pondering these musings, I gave in to the urge that arose earlier when Oliver referred to the Death by Audio warehouse. Having read about this place over the years, a legendary DIY institution in Brooklyn that hosted shows from the likes of Ty Segall, Dirty Projcetors, Thurston Moore, The Oh Sees, Zach Hill, Dan Deacon, Future Islands, Pissed Jeans and waaayyyy too many more to list, the warehouse was closed when Vice Media took up residence in 2014… and I wanted to know about ALL of it.
Ty Segall at Death By Audio - Image by Andrew St. Clair (Brooklyn Vegan)
“I used to live in other warehouses and you just kinda fall in love with that lifestyle where if you want you can saw your kitchen table in half with a table saw - there's just something really refreshing and freeing about that. So this was the next in this line of places that I was looking for in New York where you could make as much noise as you wanted, and it had at least 20 foot ceilings so we could build a second floor for a lot of it, cos you pay for the square footage in New York and so it needed to be a place that did that. So you find a place, I think it was like three thousand dollars, so you find a bunch of people who want to live with you who are your friends, convince them to move in and that becomes a thing!
Then, as that expands and gets bigger, rent goes up, people are like 'oh shoot what are we gonna do', ya know let's throw some shows to make this happen, then next thing you know we just started having more and more shows there. We took over the whole floor of this building, it was just so crazy. There was always bands spending the night at the place, it became that there was shows every single night of the week.
Then there's a bunch of people who work there, bartenders, people at the door, and it just becomes this community of all of this stuff happening. There were definitely times where it becomes a little bit too much, when someone's been staying at your house for three weeks... for some people, I love that kinda thing. When you randomly get some random people who are wasted and they're jamming on instruments at four in the morning, so it's maybe not for everybody, it's a certain kinda thing, but it was really cool.
Then at the end we found out that VICE media was going to be taking over the building, they got some multi-million dollar tax break from the city or something, however that kinda stuff goes. There was definitely a lot of animosity from a lot of the people who were there, who were pretty pissed off - even pissed off at the people who worked at VICE, ya know like "how could you do this? You guys have even done walk-throughs of the space, celebrated on VICE TV and stuff". But that's the way these things are - that neighbourhood was changing so much too.
When we moved in there, across the street was this bombed out vacant lot that cats would hang out in - there was nothing around there but like tumbleweed and stuff. When we left it was like this really fancy Japanese restaurant, this bar, movie theatre, high rise apartments - the whole neighbourhood had changed, we were one of the last things to finally get moved out, it was kinda the natural progression of things. We would have paid any amount of money to keep on making it happen, cos it's such a cool thing to have a space where people can do these kinds of things, have an environment where you feel free to do this, run by a bunch of people who don't give a crap what happens, as long as it's safe, you know what I mean?
It was really such a cool space, like checkerboard floors, cinderblocks and stuff, we were always having people paint these murals all over the place, it was like a real art community. With all the bands who loved to play there it just became such a thing - it's a real shame any time any of that stuff ends.”
Image from Matt Conboy's Documentary Goodnight Brooklyn: The Story of Death By Audio
Despite the impossible nature of my question, after bearing witness to countless unimaginable nights, I had to ask if one particular memory sprung to mind.
“You're making me think of so many different things. I don't know - there was the girl from Tinsel Teeth all like bloody, dancing around and stuff - that was awesome, someone brought in torches and was swinging them around. I don't know - so many crazy, awesome shoes. Even just so many of these bands who came and played, like Thee Oh Sees, and all these bands kinda routed their tours to make sure they played there during the last month, so that was really cool and really special.
Just all of that, the love and appreciation you could tell for the space. Pretty insane, it's like you don't even know what you're involved in at those times, like when you're going to these shows and helping out and whatever it's like man... you kinda never think those things will end. Whatever good things you got going on in your life, enjoy them. *laughs*
While the original warehouse and the shows are no more, Death By Audio is more than still a presence, shifting into the world of bespoke guitar pedals.
“I'm sitting here right now in this warehouse, that's this other space in Queens. We don't throw shows, but it's a recording studio and a pedal factory. There's like twelve or thirteen people who work at the pedal factory, so that's been a good thing, a place for jobs for people - we're just a bunch of people who are stuck at home and want some inspiration of some crazy noise makers, and so that's what we've been doing is building that stuff and coming up with a lot of new stuff that will be coming out in the future.
We designed so much stuff during the pandemic, but again these things take a long time to roll out, but I'm excited. I think there's a lot of neat, unique stuff that people will get into. Definitely with the stuff that we make, having been someone who lived at a venue, has seen thousands of shows, played tonnes of shows, used the equipment myself - I think we kinda come from a different, unique perspective in the pedal game, and are really geared towards to making things for people who want to do something wild with performance, whether it be on a record or at a live show. It's exciting, and bizarre to be involved in that world, really.”
Realising I’m in a bit over my head when it comes to pedals, I still ask about any prototypes Oliver can shed light on - luckily I understood his answer.
“The next thing that's coming out is this Chorus taken to the 'beyond level of anything' - it's really intense and really wild. I've always been such a fan of chorus, when I used to play bass I used to use sometimes like 4 chorus pedals and crazy things like that, trying to get some sorta sound that was really outta this world, and so it's cool to have the know-how to be able to do that.
We kinda even just stumbled upon some of this stuff accidentally to really make some of this outta this world sounds - some of those sounds are on both the album and the EP, the prototypes of this. There's some of that crazy guitar in songs like In My Hive, so you get a little taste.”
The final creative endeavour I’m curious about is his DedStrange label, who released the new record as well as working with up-and-coming acts from all around the world, and I couldn’t help but notice two German bands currently on the roster.
“One of the guys who is our label partner, this guy Mitch O'Sullivan, who's actually a New Zealander, so he recommended one of the bands, and this other guy we're really good friends with, this German guy who works for our distributors, he turned us on to one of the other bands.
You just kinda hear what bands are awesome, I know some bands that are awesome that maybe not everybody knows about and if all of these people come together and if the bands are down to do it then it's like yeah for sure.
There's really great bands coming out of Australia, like all over the place - everyone probably knows some really incredible bands that aren't getting the light of day that you feel like they deserve - many are, but any of those we can always help out and work with and collaborate with, it's just kinda fun.”
So DedSstrange is accepting demos then?
“Yeah, please, send em our way, for sure, always looking for good music to listen to.”
Having come to the end of an amazing conversation, I ask Ackermann what will be keeping him busy for the rest of the year, and I couldn’t have been happier with his final answer.
“Who knows - hopefully these tours go ahead, you know everything's kinda taken with a grain of salt and we'll see what happens. Otherwise, we're gonna work towards booking more tours and playing more shows, recording more music, inventing more gadgets, and trying to be good to one another.”