Monday, November 02, 2009
Noise merchants A PLACE TO BURY STRANGERS know all about the power of sound, frontman OLIVER ACKERMANN gives ANDY HAZEL the Exploding Head lowdown.
With the release of their second album, Exploding Head, New York’s A Place To Bury Strangers are building on a cult fandom that ignited blogs the world over with the release of their eponymous debut at the end of 2007. Guitarist and songwriter Oliver Ackermann is still surprised how the trio gradually evolved from friends jamming for the fun of it, to one of America’s most respected underground bands: “I was in another band called Skywave who were making similar music and there weren’t that many people into it. Initially I was reluctant for the album to come out because it was never meant to be an album; it was recorded and written over a long period. Exploding Head was recorded quickly. We had maybe 20 songs and it sort of formed of its own. Even though it feels like our first proper LP it doesn’t feel like we had the time to do everything we wanted. We’d been touring so much and I’d been involved with a lot of different things back in New York. I like to work a lot. I eat and sleep barely at all so we spent a solid two months on it,” he says with a softly insistent cadence. “We’re going to start recording the next album soon.”
One thing keeping Ackermann busy is his effects pedal manufacturing company Death By Audio, a venture that has perhaps made him better known than his role in APTBS. With pedals like Total Sonic Annihilation, Fuzz War, Crash Modulator, and Supersonic Fuzz Gun, it’s not hard to see where Ackermann is going when he wants to mess with sound. “The pedals are made because I love music so much and I love recording and writing songs; it’s a by-product of doing that,” he explains. “Making pedals, being an engineer and running a label…all that is just based around my love for music. Starting a company was not something I planed to do, the band wasn’t something I set out to either. I still see it as a fluke that other people love it.”
Love it they do, sometimes a little too much. “There are definitely a lot of geeks at our shows,” he says with a laugh. “I have far too many conversations about gear far too often. I mean, it’s OK but it’s also kind of funny. I’m into all of this stuff but I’m not insanely that much of a gear head. You get interested in gear because you use some sort of tools to make music, I’m more interested in creating something for myself from scratch, but it is a kick to see what other people do with the gear.”
Death By Audio certainly has some big name clients; U2, Wilco, Nine Inch Nails, Lightning Bolt and Jet have all had pedals custom built by Ackermann. The success of Death By Audio is, perhaps unsurprisingly, another source of amazement. “All that stuff is insane,” he says laughing. “Some of the emails we get just blow me away. The guitarist with Lady Gaga wants to order a bunch of pedals and I got told last week that Lou Reed said that he thought the pedals were good. It’s amazing. I just don’t know what to think about that stuff. I don’t have an electrical engineering degree or anything, they’re just based on what I think sounds good.”
Every album or gig review APTBS receive focuses on the distortion, volume and intensity of his guitar sounds, and it is an inescapably powerful force, but the band’s approach to sound and songwriting aren’t as close as they seem. On the surface, APTBS could be considered a testing ground for pedals, but the birth of the band and Death By Audio goes a lot deeper than that.
“I have a completely different idea to most people as to what I think is important in production,” Ackermann explains with a louder, faster voice. “How sounds make me feel is probably very different to how the same sounds will make you feel. To me, different sounds sound genuinely different. I’m not interested in trying to get something across to a massive amount of people, it has to be interesting and really, my own sound as much as possible,” [cue derisive laughter from My Bloody Valentine and Jesus and Mary Chain fans] “Having things be ambiguous keeps things exciting; it leaves it up to the imagination. You can imagine your own scenarios; it’s not painted out for you. I especially like the feelings of danger and excitement. I think that’s an important part of any music, especially when they’re contrasted with melodies and harmonies.”
As important as force and fear is to Ackermann and the band, his love isn’t all about controlling the sound and manipulating emotions. “I think unpredictability is a hugely important part of what we’re doing,” he says, warming to the theme. “We have a lot of parts in songs left open-ended as well being open to playing songs differently each night. It keeps things fresh and exciting, you gotta ask: ‘How does this club sound with the amps cranked up?’ ‘What sounds can we work with to make the bass and guitar sound like one instrument here?’ The interplay between the guitar and the amp is a big part of our show, especially when things are breaking up.”
Since their inception APTBS have been saddled with the shoegaze label and been called derivative more than once. While Ackermann confesses to loving early Slowdive demos, My Bloody Valentine and Jesus and Mary Chain’s Psychocandy, his idea of what is ‘pretty’ has changed a lot since fist hearing them. “Nowadays I think noise bands like Lightning Bolt and Coin Under Tongue make pretty music. I don’t think we’re shoegaze or anything. I don’t pay any attention to what people say about the music, if I cared, I might start writing music for other people. It’s important to stay pure to what you think sounds good and stay with that.”
No matter what is being discussed, Ackermann always comes back to the primal appeal of sound, something he admits to barely understanding yet a subject he expounds on with little prompting. “I think that sound is amazing, it’s something that you can’t touch. We communicate in so many visual ways nowadays, and sound touches places you can never really touch. It’s so powerful, it’s so omnipresent but it’s still a completely mysterious thing. No matter how technical you make it all comes down to feeling. I think it’s amazing and totally intriguing.” An ideal summation of Exploding Head.