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A Place To Bury Strangers: Climbing the sound barrier

Interview by Alain Brunet
Genres and styles : Experimental / Noise Rock / Psychedelia / Shoegaze / Space Rock

Additional Information

As for so many others, 2020-2021 was a pretty tough time for A Place To Bury Strangers and its frontman Oliver Ackermann. Covid, quarantine, the band disintegrating… Many thought it was the end of the road for APTBS. Yet the noise/shoegaze band, not new to upheaval, has used this crisis to better rebound, returning with the Hologram EP and two new members on board, bassist John Fedowitz and his wife, drummer Sandra Fedowitz. 

Formed in 2002, New York’s loudest band seems intent on continuing their sonic experimentation beyond 2021, with this new incarnation intended as a return to APTBS’ rawest and most chaotic efforts.

Reached at his Queens studio, cluttered with ramshackle guitars, all sorts of machines and cables of various colours, the friendly mad scientist Oliver Ackermann talked to PAN M 360 about this new release, his Death By Audio effects-pedal lab, and his new label Dedstrange. 

PAN M 360: There have been some changes in APTBS in the last year. Dion Lunadon, bassist with the band since 2011, and drummer Lia Simone Braswell have jumped ship, and John and Sandra Fedowitz have taken over. Would you say it’s a new beginning for APTBS?

Oliver Ackermann: Yes, I would say so. I grew up playing music with John, so these two are among my best friends. Every time I hang out with John and Sandra, we just have the best time. They have this very cool band called Ceremony East Coast which is sort of a similar band to APTBS. The know what APTBS is all about. It’s like we’re going back in time with the band. It’s like a pure form of APTBS. It’s really fun and natural with them, and I’m so excited with what is coming up with this new band. You know, you always have these kind of doubts like is this really gonna work out, what will happen? I’m super pleasantly surprised with what’s going on.

PAN M 360: When did they joined the band? 

Oliver Ackermann: It happened sometime in early quarantine. It’s been I guess for a year or so. We’ve recorded a lot of new material and we’ve worked on some stuff for future tours.

PAN M 360: Who are these two? Aside from being in the band Ceremony East Coast, they’re also cooks ?

Oliver Ackermann: Yeah, yeah. I grew up in Virginia with John. We were in a band called Skywave a long time ago. He was the drummer of that band and also an incredible songwriter, and stuck around Virginia after I left for NYC. He ended being the head of some catering place, working in restaurant kitchens, and also they started their own little sandwich business. So they still play music because they’re having fun doing it, and they can afford it in a way. Having built APTBS over the years, it’s sort of a company that can support itself and that’s some sort of a luxury in a way. I do this because I love it. It’s all about passion, the music that I want to hear, and do fun things with this music. So to have that opportunity to work with that kind of people, I think you don’t get into the sorts of conflicts you can get into with musicians who are making music to be popular or to make money… So it’s cool to work with people who don’t have these weird goals. You know, you sometimes play in bands where some musicians wants to be paid more, have more money for what they do. I get it, of course we all hope to make more money on some tours, but you can’t really garantee those kinds of things. I’d rather concentrate on creating something really awesome, so it’s good when you find people that share these same kind of goals. 

PAN M 360: Is it why Dion and Lia left?

Oliver Ackermann: It’s all sorts of reasons, stuff that built up over time, some unspoken things. I had a few conflicts with Dion and things kind of turned a little bit weird, I felt kind of let down by the whole scenario. Those things happen when you’ve been hanging out with people for a long time. You become good friends with them but sometimes, mixing friendship and work is not a good idea. You always hope to have the best of times with your friends in a band forever, but sometimes the relationship turns sour…  

PAN M 360: Well, you might be getting yourself into that kind of situation with your old friend John!

Oliver Ackermann: (laughs) Yeah… You’re right… Maybe the difference is that John and I knew each other before making music, whereas Dion and I met as musicians who wanted to collaborate on a project together. So with John it is more of a natural occurrence because we’re friends, first and foremost. I don’t think Dion and I would have been friends if we hadn’t done any music together. 

PAN M 360: Tell me about Hologram. It’s your 13th EP. How was it created? 

Oliver Ackermann: Well, we got hit by the quarantine, everything was shut down here in NYC, I got the corona virus, so all of this messed up my time cycle. I was up at 3 or 4 a.m., so I dived into writing music, recording… And at Death By Audio, we would do a few days at the workspace, then it would be someone else’s turn, so I had a lot of time to build circuits, playing and recording drums every single day, and recording all sorts of different things, just experimenting with stuff. The band had just broke up, I didn’t really know what the future held. So I recorded around 80 or 90 songs that I thought were really good, and then I assembled an album with that, and then I assembled an EP with some of the leftover songs. But with the new band forming, we were playing a lot and I thought it would be best to write a couple of more songs together. It was more exciting, it was fresh and new. So it all came about as a result of what happened, everything being messed totally up, New York being messed up, me being messed up, not knowing what my life was gonna be with the band breaking up… So you can hear that on some songs of the EP, these kind of pissed-off, contentious kind of songs, mixed with some more hopeful stuff. I guess its just music to put up to such a weird freaky time.

PAN M 360: The second song of the EP, “I Might Have”, sounds strangely like “Song 2” by Blur. Was this intentional, a kind of wink?

Oliver Ackermann: No, it wasn’t at all. That kind of things happened to me before. I did stuff that sounded like something else, but you can’t help it, you know? Someone told this story when they went on a long bike ride and forgot their iPod, so they had no music for a month. But he said that it was kind of cool, because eventually your mind just plays all sorts of music anyways when you’re doing stuff. I heard that comment years ago and since then I noticed that so much. It happens all the time! I’m walking around, going to the subway and I’m hearing all sorts of crazy songs. So I’m sure we all get influenced without knowing or noticing by all sorts of stuff. So yes, it’s difficult to avoid some sorts of similarities between a song and another. We’re at that point in music where almost every song or melody have been written. So similarities are kind of hard to avoid.

PAN M 360: The album came out on Dedstrange, which is a label you recently started with a few people. Was it something you’ve been aiming to do for a while?

Oliver Ackermann: Yes, this is something I always thought about. You know, when you’re working with record labels, there are all sorts of advantages, but also all sorts of disadvantages. We just wanted total freedom, to do whatever we wanted to do no matter how stupid it could be. I grew really tired of all these norms with the record labels, many times I think they make you focus on the wrong things. Often all this stuff is about promoting yourself and all this junk or releasing your record at some particular time because its more advantageous, or having someone tell you, “Oh, I don’t know if I really like that album cover”, I didn’t want to hear that anymore… I just wanted to get rid of all that influence. It thought it would be a more pure form of expression if we sort of doing things with our own label. And then, as we were starting this, we also realized we could help out a lot of bands that we really love who are in this sort of similar situation, or aren’t really getting some of the help they should get. We got a distribution deal with Red Eye, so that has been a real big help. So I started this with these two friends of mine, Mitchell O’Sullivan who’s from Berlin and Steven Matrick who is from New York. 

PAN M 360: So far, which bands have been signed on the label?

Oliver Ackermann: So far we’ve signed Jealous and Plattenbau from Berlin, Data Animal from Auckland, Wah Together (with an ex-LCD Soundsystem and a Rapture on board), and a few others we’re about to sign.

PAN M 360: You do remixes here and there, the latest being “Death Racer” by Data Animal, retitled “Death Raver” for the occasion, but you also did the mastering of Paul Jacobs’ latest album, Pink Dogs on the Green Grass. How did that happen?

Oliver Ackermann: We played some sort of a festival or something outside of Montreal, I don’t remember exactly but that’s where I saw Paul Jacobs, and I thought, “Oh man, that band is so wicked!” So we became slight acquaintances with them. And then we played another show with them, and that was incredible too. And then Steven, who’s part of the label, started helping out Paul Jacobs, trying to put up a tour with us and them, and he told me that Paul wanted someone to do the mastering of the album, and asked me if I wanted to do it. Paul even recorded some drum tracks for me that’re gonna come up in the future, I guess as a gesture for me mastering his album. It was a cool, fun record to master. I think he is an awesomely talented musician.

PAN M 360: You also have been very busy with Death By Audio. You create pedals but also synthesizers, it seems. 

Oliver Ackermann: We haven’t really focused on that but we have built a bunch of them that we use sometimes with APTBS live, they’re synthesizers inside cases or inside guitars, they’re basic synths, you can basically do what you want with it.

PAN M 360: What is the latest pedal to come out of the Death By Audio lab?  

Oliver Ackermann: We’re designing pedals for the Levitation festival, which is pretty cool. They have a super-crazy psychedelic sound! We did that with them a few years ago too. It started out as a joke or a challenge from one of the employees. I said, “It would be so easy to make this crazy sound by putting in this filter and a delay feedback loop,” and he said, “this is going to suck.” So I just wired it up and it sounded like a sick thing! I thought, “Oh, they’re gonna love this at Levitation!” It sounds like a psychedelic dream… People need new sounds all the time, so I think it makes sense to bring that. We’ve designed a lot of effects over the course of the quarantine.

PAN M 360: I was wondering if you were familiar with Mile-End Effects and Soratone from Montreal. Two small local businesses, one owned by a musician and the other by a soudman. They create handmade pedals like you do at Death By Audio. 

Oliver Ackermann: No, never heard of them. That looks cool, I’m gonna write those two names down and look them up for sure. I always like new crazy stuff. You know, when you build effects, you realize you can build nearly everything you dream of, and have it work any way you want, so I think there is enough room for thousands of effects makers. What is useful to us particular artists is different than what’s useful for another particular artist. I love how those two worlds come together – the music makers and the instrument makers always pushing each other to try to make something new and crazy. If you like making effects, hopefully you like making music as well. 

PAN M 360: Any short- or medium-term plans for APTBS?

Oliver Ackermann: Yeah, we have a few dates in the US, a small festival, a show in Berlin and I’m also going to be playing by myself with Yonatan Gat, who is putting together a thing with Brian Chase from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Things are falling into place little by little, but right now I’m really looking forward to playing all the crazy stuff we’ve done with the band. 

(photo : Heather Bickford)

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