"We're just continuously exploring" - DiS meets A Place To Bury Strangers
As the self-confessed architects of sonic annihilation, A Place To Bury Strangers have cemented their status as every shoegaze-tinged noise fetishist's favourite band. Despite forming almost a decade ago from the ashes of prototype reverb nihilists Skywave, it wasn't until the back end of 2007 that their debut long player saw the light of day. Since then, a succession of blistering releases including 2009's near flawless follow-up Exploding Head and a live show that mixes kaleidoscopic visuals with a deafening aural density has only served to enhance the band's reputation somewhat.
Having spent the past couple of years touring, writing and experimentally honing their sound, A Place To Bury Strangers are back with a new album and line-up. While founder member, songwriter and Death By Audio mainstay Oliver Ackermann remains, former D4 bassist Dion Lunadon and drummer Robi Gonzalez, formerly of Californian rockers Jubilee have joined the fold in time for the release of long player number three, Worship.
Out in June, Worship represents arguably the most diverse collection of songs Ackermann and cohorts have penned to date, while adding a more electronic element to their visceral noise barrage than either of its predecessors. Currently in the middle of their European tour, DiS caught up with the affable frontman prior to their recent show at Hamburg's Hafenklang, and found him in a resiliently triumphant mood.
DiS: How's the tour been so far?
Oliver Ackermann: The tour's been fantastic. We've had a couple of ups and downs but nothing too much. The audience for the first show in France were kind of lame, so we were like, "Fuck this, we're gonna make it off the scale and awesome!" From that point on, we've just gone out of our way to make the shows wicked no matter what. France was great, everywhere's been really great. Lots of people going wild. Robi (Gonzalez), our new drummer has been really rocking it so, yeah, it's all good.
DiS: What are the most memorable places you've ever played to a live audience?
Oliver: I'd probably say Poland, Greece and Colombia.
DiS: Colombia? Really? How did the audience respond to you over there?
Oliver: They just went seriously mental. We played inside this art museum where they could only let 500 people in so there were folks outside banging on the windows while we were playing. It was amazing, and then we played this festival there and it rained like fucking crazy. We were standing ankle deep in mud while we were playing and there were hundreds of kids going nuts.
DiS: What about back home in the US?
Oliver: It can be really mixed in the US. You've got some cities that are really pretentious and others where people really don't give a fuck. Nebraska is really cool but then New York can sometimes be pretentious. There's kind of like two scenes going on, and so there's this whole thing where you're playing these official clubs and... I can never get excited about those shows, even though we've had some really good ones in the past. You sometimes feel like a douchebag. Your friends show up and they have to pay nearly ten bucks for a beer. I don't usually invite my friends to those shows. We don't normally go to shows like that. We're more accustomed to playing venues and parties where it's free, and then a week later we're playing with The Kills or someone and it's fifty bucks for a ticket. I mean, who seriously wants to pay that much for a show?!?
DiS: There have been a couple of line-up changes since the last time I saw the band at the My Bloody Valentine ATP in December 2009. Have the new guys bedded in and do you see the current group as the most definitive A Place To Bury Strangers line-up to date?
Oliver: I don't know to be honest. Not necessarily. I mean, it's definitely changed the dynamic of the band, but that's a good thing. When people have left in the past the band was almost scrambled together to try and make something happen. I was really conscious that everyone who's joined the band recently would be the right people. We were trying drummers out for two months and it was just before the US tour that we met Robi and at the time we were trying to decide between three different people. Of all the guys we tried out, there was one song on the last EP that nobody could ever play properly on the drums, so I had to program it on a drum machine. It was too fucking crazy! So we went from having this bunch of people auditioning to play drums to meeting Robi, and we were like "Play this if you can!" thinking it would never work out, and he came over and played everything right first time.
DiS: Dion Lunadon is also a fairly recent addition on bass. How did he become involved with A Place To Bury Strangers?
Oliver: We were trying out new bass players and he really seemed like a perfect fit for what we were doing. I think it was either the first or second show that Dion played with us and he just smashed himself in the face with his bass and bled all over the place. I knew immediately that he was exactly perfect for this band.
DiS: Your new album, Worship, is out in June. How long did it take to record and did you approach it differently to how you had with your previous two records?
Oliver: We wrote the record in about a month and a half maybe? It took us eighteen months to record the album because we spent a year on the drums where we had to record them over and over again because they weren't any good. We re-recorded the drums a bunch of times and it still didn't sound right, so we got other people in to record all the drums. It was a way too long process. Dion and I would write a song every single day from 1st October until 15th November 2010 or something like that. We pretty much had all the songs for Worship at that point but then we had to go through this ridiculously long process of trying to get the drums learned and recorded. We wrote a few more songs in that midst of time while all this was going on. We're not going to take that long again. It was meant to be a really quick process. At the same time the actual recording part was also quite fun. We did a lot of crazy, wild things that created a whole new range of sounds so from that aspect maybe the time out was worth it.
DiS: Dion has been involved with writing parts of Worship.
Oliver: Well that's the other great thing about having Dion in the band. Now I have someone else to write with. That's such a cool feeling, and I think it could potentially change the band in so many new directions. Dion comes from this awesome rock and roll background which has just made everything dirtier and scummier. More over the top, fucked up, rock and roll, so it's good.
DiS: Some of the songs on Worship seem to be led by the bass in a kind of motorik way, 'You Are The One' being one that immediately springs to mind. Was Dion quite influential in that aspect, and were any of the songs on the record written before he joined the band?
Oliver: I think there may have only been one song on the new record that was written before Dion joined the band. Well, it was written and then we scrapped the whole idea and changed it. It was actually 'You Are The One', but the original version was a whole different song completely. It ended up being one of the last songs we finished for the record. There was something that really irked me about the song that we had to review it, and so we did and totally changed the structure and lyrics and I think we've made it much more interesting.
DiS: I read a previous quote from you that said "this is the album you've always wanted to make." Would you say that Worship has taken the band's sound that one step further than its predecessors?
Oliver: I don't know. I guess I always thought this was the record I wanted to make every time apart from with the first album, which was basically a collection of recordings made over a five-year period. I always aspire to do that. If we didn't think like that at the time then we probably wouldn't be happy to release it. I was very excited during the making of this record and I still am. I love listening to the songs and it's definitely a step further from what I'd imagined with Exploding Head but I think I'll probably say the same thing about the next record too.
DiS: Listening to some of the songs on the album such as 'Alone' or 'Why Can't I Cry Anymore' there does seem to be a very dark theme running through the record. Picking out lyrics like "When trouble comes be prepared to run" and "I wish to die" accentuates that. Was the record inspired by a particular event or period in your life?
Oliver: Lots of things influenced the record. Every time I sit down and write a song I tend to reflect upon times from within my life. Not just times that have sucked in the past, but sometimes things kind of sucked while we were making the record. Horrible things happen and these are the moments when I feel more passionate to write something. Some of the stuff is not that depressing. It just sounds as if it is. That song about someone wanting to die is more about individual people's problems with their lives. In a way I wrote that to show that my life was maybe better than a lot of other people's. In that sense it isn't really deep and personal, it's more an imaginary trajectory of what other people may think.
DiS: At the same time, 'Dissolved' is possibly the nearest you've ever come to a ballad, certainly in terms of style and pace, albeit one bathed in a feedback driven soundscape. Is that another direction you see the band heading in the future?
Oliver: 'Dissolved' kind of wrote itself. I think that's what is so cool about recording quickly. There's something really exciting about just letting something happen, and that's how a lot of this record developed. It was almost a case of pure subconscious coming through and creating these sounds and whole song structures. From an abstract arts sense, I think that's way more beautiful than trying to plan out some baloney concept or something like that.
DiS: I was quite surprised to see none of the songs from the 'Onwards To The Wall' EP appear on the album.
Oliver: Nah, we wouldn't do that. We're not fricking shysters! I hate it when bands put out singles then fill the album with the same songs and nine remixes. We're like, "Fuck you!" That's just total fucking bullshit.
DiS: The EP has a very different sound to the album. How far apart were the two recorded?
Oliver: The EP was finished a good eight months before we started the album. Our lives just changed in that time. I don't think we've ever tried to do anything in a particular way. We're just continuously exploring, although we actually used the same recording techniques on this record as we did with the first one. Yet even then it was all about exploring and figuring things out. We gained knowledge and learned more things. I'm not going to pretend I don't know this. The science of sound is so awesome, unknowing even.
DiS: What's the difference between writing a song like 'Drill It Up' off 'Onwards To The Wall' with say 'To Fix The Gash In Your Head' on your first record as they're from completely different ends of the sonic spectrum. Is it mood or influence? What causes that?
Oliver: I guess you're just touched with the way you feel at that moment in time. With 'To Fix The Gash In Your Head' I was just pissed off. It was almost like having this feeling of wanting to stab someone in the eye, you know?!? Whereas 'Onwards To The Wall' is more about being sad and depressed. Maybe I was a little angry too. But in a different way. Emotions are complex
DiS: Did you design any new tools or pedals specifically for this record?
Oliver: Yeah we did. We developed some Preamps and some recording equipment, compressors and stuff, delay units and reverb units. But you know, it's not necessarily that we had to. I just love building stuff. We could just have easily gone to the local music store and bought a bunch of Digitechs stuff and messed around with it and see what we came up with.
DiS: Has Death By Audio become a separate business concern in its own right now, with you designing more pedals and software for specific artists, or do people still align that with A Place To Bury Strangers?
Oliver: You can't combine the two just in the sense that I'm creating things that just I think may sound awesome. In both senses. So I'm trying to create effects pedals and tools to use, and if I discover something that sounds really cool then maybe I would want to use it in the band but I also realise that it could be great for the world or whatever but not necessarily for us. I try to focus as much as possible on both things and doing stuff I genuinely believe to be cool, because sometimes it's easy to think to yourself "I can make a lot of money from this!" when at the same time it sounds really naff. It's not something you should really aspire to. Some people might be paying attention to this shit. Some people will be using this pedal. Do you want people to use something that is going to be bad for the world, or do you want to create music that sucks? If people look up to you and you're responsible for creating some fricking bullshit and releasing it there'll always be people that will copy your bullshit in an uninteresting yet reverb heavy way.
DiS: Do you feel there are any bands who've tried to borrow or steal your sound in any way?
Oliver: I've seen people do those kind of things. I remember we once played with Jay Retard, and I always do this thing where I take the microphones and stuff them in front of the amps. I remember seeing some footage of him after that show where he'd started doing the same thing. People are always going to do that kinda thing where they've seen other people do something first, but to me it's like an honour. It's like when you go on YouTube and some dude is playing the bass to one of your songs or something like that. It's crazy that somebody out there thought what we were doing was so good they wanted to do it too. It's mindblowing, awesome even.
DiS: Looking through your setlists from the tour so far, it's been an evenly mixed bunch of songs you've played from all three records and the 'Onwards To The Wall' EP. Are there any songs which you haven't rehearsed for this tour, or even with the new band members even, and don't see yourselves playing in the foreseeable future?
Oliver: I don't think there's anything from our back catalogue that I wouldn't play again. The thing is, Robi only joined the band two weeks before we went on tour, so he had to learn thirty songs in that time. We've basically been choosing the set each night from those thirty songs, but also added maybe five or six to the list since then as well. We pretty much do a different set every night, although there's some of those thirty songs he can barely play at the moment. We were trying to play a lot of similar structured songs but at the same time make sure they were the ones that sounded the best. It keeps everything fresh by changing the set to do something different every night, but there are some songs where we go through phases which we're really psyched about. We always write the set directly before we go on stage so it can change even in those last few minutes. If we get pissed off before the show you never know what might happen.
DiS: Is there any one era or period of the band which stands out for you as your proudest moment? Maybe a song even?
Oliver: Well, we've been doing this thing for a long time where we play 'I Lived My Life To Stand In The Shadow Of Your Heart' into 'Ocean'. It's fun to play. Anyway, we've just done this tour of the US where we had really short sets so we switched it around a lot and rarely played those two songs in that order. We'd sometimes play 'I Lived My Life...' first which was good but not the same. Now we've been on the road for a while we're kind of aware that those two songs at the tail end of the set are possibly the most extreme parts of the entire show, so we've gone back to using that as the climax again. But who knows? We'll see, we may end up changing things around again.
DiS: Where do you see A Place To Bury Strangers going next?
Oliver: Who knows?!? There are no bands out there that are really doing what we do, so I feel I owe it to those people who are excited by our records and shows. You can't go and see any fucked up rock and roll bands any more. There might be a couple who are kind of fucked up in a different sense, but some of these bands who people think are awesome so aren't. You meet them or play with them and they're just so full of pretentious crap. They'll have a hidden hard drive somewhere that they're playing from. There are some really cool bands coming through as well. I think it's reached breaking point for new music.
DiS: Are there any new bands you'd recommend us to check out?
Oliver: The Growlers from California. There's Natural Child from Nashville, Tennessee. Then there's this band I've been working with called Fuck Ton who are awesome.
DiS: Will there be any festival dates this summer?
Oliver: I don't know. We don't get invited back to festivals for some reason. Maybe we blew up someone's PA once or something?!?
A Place To Bury Strangers tour the UK in May and play the following dates:
8 London Cargo
9 Birmingham Hare & Hounds
10 Manchester Sound Control
11 Glasgow King Tuts
12 Newcastle Cluny
13 Leeds Cockpit
The album Worship is out on 26th June. For more information visit their official website.