A Place to Bury Strangers
Just Like Heaven
by Stephen Slaybaugh

The formation of A Place to Bury Strangers dates back more than a decade to the beginnings of the millennium, when Oliver Ackermann signed on to play drums with a couple guys after moving to Brooklyn from Virginia. But just as he quickly moved over to guitar and vocals, he also soon took hold of the band’s reins. Under his direction, the band gathered its strength and honed its sound for several years, so that when the world finally took notice at the release of their self-titled record in 2007, they were ready. They quickly gained recognition for being one of loudest bands in New York, as well as for the effects-glazed walls of sound they erected.

A Place to Bury Strangers, a trio rounded out by bassist Jono Mofo and drummer Jay Space by 2009, subsequently released Exploding Head, a record while still drenched in reverb also revealed the band’s pop instincts to be sharp. But while that album earned high praise and had critics heralding the band as the second coming of The Jesus and Mary Chain, it has now been eclipsed by Worship, A Place to Bury Strangers’ new album out this week. Meanwhile, the line-up has shifted again; Mofo was replaced by The D4’s Dion Lunadon a couple years ago, while Robi Gonzalez, who didn’t play on the album, has filled the hole left by Jay Space.

Worship is a record dense with sound and texture. Using tools of Ackerman’s own device (he also runs an effects pedal company, Death By Audio), the band has made a record that runs hot with wiry guitars and fuzzily saturated low end. Song-by-song, the record is a contrasting crisscross that veers between the brooding of “You Are the One,” the clamorous beauty of “Fear,” and the white-knuckled fury of “Revenge.” In short, this is a record for the ages.

I caught up with Ackermann via email a couple weeks ago to gain some insight on this masterstroke’s creation.

In the press release, you said that Worship was made using tools you created. Can you describe some of these tools? Were these things previously created for Death By Audio or new things?

Oliver Ackermann: There are always tons of things we use that were DBA prototypes or pedals for production, but since we had some time off and weren’t playing as many shows, I had some time to come up with a lot of unique designs that we used in the studio. I further developed some spring reverb designs that I had been working on to incorporate a lot more reverb by driving the spring drivers to the extreme. Utilizing new technology, I designed and built some preamps that we used. New technologies can usually far surpass the old ones, yet not many people really use them. A lot of the new technologies go into cheap products and then a lot of the high end stuff is done just by redesigning old designs, so I try to jump in and focus on utilizing what the top engineers are doing now and see what I can come up with based on their revolutionary work.

It also says that you didn’t go to school to learn this stuff, so was this all self-taught? Was that the case when you started making pedals?

OA: It was. I have learned most of the things that I do by myself, but if I didn’t go to school, I wouldn’t have developed the design principles or even the drive to create something so grand. It gave me the confidence that I could solve any problem that I wanted to. I think also my parents helped a lot when it came to my work ethic. I used to think I could run forever if I wanted or needed to. I wasn’t in to running, but I always knew that I could, and I think that that was because of the confidence my parents gave to me from being so loving.

You also mentioned that you mastered the album yourself, which is unusual for an artist to do. What was that process like?

OA: I don’t know, I would think it should be normal for artists to do. I think if we weren’t so particular with our sound, we would just be giving people ideas or a platform for their ideas to grow. I’m all for group efforts, but our particular music is all about the sound and the sounds that make it up. I don’t know if other people even get what we are doing, so it is better left up to us.

My first impressions of the album is that it is dealing with extremes in terms of its sounds, and not just volume. Was that your intention with using these tools?

OA: Definitely, we are experimenting and seeing what can be done with the medium.

Are most of the effects added live while you are recording or do you process some of the sounds after the fact?

OA: Most are probably live, but not always. We are not afraid of adding anything afterwards or doing something completely different afterwards. I do try to record all effects beforehand because we are playing with the effects and that really influences what you do while you are playing. If you don’t hear the reverb or distortion or whatever while you are recording, you aren’t really playing to that sound and I think that is strange.

Another thing that is really noticeable about the new album is that few songs are straightforward, and most start in one place and end up going someplace kind of different. Is this indicative of purposefully wanting to mix things up more than on Exploding Head?

OA: There was no purpose of mixing things up more than Exploding Head. This was just the direction the songs told us to go in. Maybe it is a reflection of our lives really changing a lot since the last album.

I read that you had 40 songs going into making Worship. I assume some of those also ended up on Onwards to the Wall, but are there plans to release additional EPs or will you save them for the next full-length?

OA: Some of those songs did end up Onwards to the Wall, but we have no plans to release any more of those songs out into the public. We are constantly excited about moving forward and creating music, so those songs will probably just get lost and only heard by us and our friends when hanging out.

What is your songwriting process like? I suspect you're not sitting around with acoustic guitars, right?

OA: I don’t own an acoustic, but otherwise perhaps we would. We just like to create music as much as we can all of the time. Sometimes you write a song while you are at the supermarket or something like that. You really just have to be aware of when a good idea comes along and then work with it. I think another important part of our songwriting is destroying songs and throwing others away. You can’t hold onto something if it isn’t good, and that is a good lesson in life as well. If it is bad, get rid of it.

Was there ever any doubt that the band would continue on without Jono?

OA: I think I will continue making music for as long as I am alive, so if A Place to Bury Strangers fell apart when Jono left, then I would have started something else and it would have been very similar.

And Jay Space left the band too. What's with the high turnover rate?

OA: Yes, well as the band continues on, it reaches a point where the other people in the band have to be able to do what is demanded of them for creating what we are doing. I think sometimes people can’t handle it or don’t have the endurance for what we do. It is very taxing on the mind and the body, and it’s kind of fucked up to be in a band these days.

When you were starting out, was there a specific moment when you felt like you had come into your own, a sort of epiphany of what the band should sound like? Has that idea changed over the years?

OA: I think a long time ago I fell in love with sound and texture being the basis of pop songs. Perhaps that’s because I could barely play guitar. I have always been going after the same goals to create more music that I like. The styles and such have perhaps changed over the years, but it isn’t necessarily conscious. I’m not trying to change things for the sake of changing things. I’m just trying to create songs and sounds that I want to hear. I think the moment when I felt justified for what I have been doing was when Pitchfork gave us a good review for our first record. Nobody had really cared about the music that I had recorded and my recording techniques, and then an acclaimed national site thought that the record that I had recorded myself had merit. That made me trust myself again.

Iggy Pop always talks about how the Stooges were kind of imitating the sound of the auto factories that were pervasive in Detroit. Is there an element of what you do that is about capturing the noise and chaos of New York?

OA: I’m sure there is. On the EP, there is a song where the drums are all samples of sounds we recorded around us, like trains, doors, washing machines and such, and I have used samples in songs to conjure up personal relations to sounds. They are usually captured in New York, so there is a direct relation there as well. I’m sure we just can’t help but reflect all of that. Our lives are fast and chaotic, and it must have an influence on our music.

You’ve gotten to play with some of your heroes, but is there still a dream gig that would fulfill a life-long wish?

OA: To play with Alcian Blue, that would be rad.