Music February 17, 2015

Interview: Oliver Ackermann of A Place to Bury Strangers

by Clark Lamson

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This month, the BandWagon had the distinct pleasure of having a conversation with lead singer of A Place to Bury Strangers, Oliver Ackermann (pictured above, left). The noise-rock trio is based out of Brooklyn, and have just released their 4th studio album, Transfixation. In our conversation, we talked about the the song-writing process, performing live, and the band’s brief hiatus. Transfixation comes out February 17th. Check out the March issue of the BandWagon Magazine for our full review.

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BW: How would you describe the style of music that A Place To Bury Strangers creates?

OA: I would say that it’s sort of a kind of flash-back on the imagination of some teenage kids. Kind of what was really exciting kind of what was really exciting about kind of different music in a time where… I dunno, it’s just kinda what you grew up with. It’s a combination of punk and really crazy industrial and I don’t even know what some of those genres are. I guess I wouldn’t really classify it too much, ya know? We play, I guess, like punk, but I don’t know if that really even makes sense, if other people would even call it that genre or something.

BW: I think we live in such a great time for music right now because it’s really easy to make music outside of a genre box.

OA: Yeah, totally.

BW: You guys really personify that. What would you say drives someone to make this kind of music?

OA: I think maybe hopes for something better, or hopes for people to kind of do something. Kind of wanting there to be some sort of thing which is a driving force in your life. Whether it be a kind of awakening or psychedelic experience. Just the will to want those things where you can kind of live in an imaginary world for a little while and kind of escape from what’s being put there in front of you. So inspiration, and all of that kind of stuff.

BW: How does a song typically get written in the band? Is it a group experience? Is it music then lyrics? Or vise versa? Or is it typical ever?

OA: Yeah, there’s really nothing that’s typical. Once something kind of becomes typical then you want to sort of change your method. So this record, it was written a lot with the band writing a lot of the songs, but then we were kind of working together for so long that it just became too difficult, and it was just getting too intense and too crazy because we were spending too much time recording. And so we kinda had to take a break. And that break sort of brought about all these other ideas for recording. Different things, and little solo bits from the different members of our team. I dunno, you just kinda take inspiration in any sort of way you can find it. But as soon as you start going back and using common methods or repeating patterns it just becomes too uninteresting as a music creator or artist, so you kind of have to change things up. We definitely have an aesthetic which is “this kind” of music, and have rules that we go by, like “no keyboards.” (Laughs) But there’s still kind of the processes. Just the way that we come about these things are always pretty different.

BW: Something I’ve wondered is during the process of recording an album, or starting to write an album, are you guys ever conscious of what it’s going to be? When you start out, are there any goals or milestones you want to hit?

a_place_to_bury_strangers___oliver_ackermann_by_basseca-d5zbxgrOA: I mean, there are always goals, and there are always milestones that you want to hit, but that just never makes the best record. I think whatever you planned on doing, there’s always something you would never have planned, or never could even possibly do that’s always better than what you could have done. I think that it’s just kind of the way. You just look up at the sky, and its so insanely amazing and beautiful, and much more beyond what anyone would ever imagine. If you open yourself up to those kind of ideas that’s beyond what some person could do physically, then I think you’ll create something that’s better than that. That’s kind of what I think is captured in really good records and moments in Rock n’ Roll. It’s capturing something that was actually going on. Maybe the people in the band didn’t like each other, or some of them were in love with each other, or something else, or there was some really sort of fucked up situation. So that’s what takes those songs and turns them into something beyond. That’s sort of just what happens. We had goals with this record, where we were gonna try and capture what we sounded like live as much as possible. It’s a different thing. We don’t ever try to do the same thing with a recording than we do live. So we were trying to kind of capture that power, and we did some of that, and figured out some different ways to do that on this record. That was really cool and exciting to do, and we learned a lot about what it would be to capture a live moment. But in the end, it was all about something we could never really plan.

BW: A lot of these sentiments you’re talking about are really deep, beautiful, personal things, and I think if you played a couple of track off Transfixation for any random schmoe on the street, they might not immediately go to “I got this from looking up at the sky.”

OA: (Laughs)

BW: And that’s no joke, that’s so great, that the sentiments and the result seem to be sort of apart from each other. How do you make peace with that juxtaposition?

OA: Well, we’re not really trying to be popular or something like that. It’s not really a focus, so if things don’t get translated, its not the most important thing. It’s kind of just different translations. If people have disagreements about different pieces and stuff, then that’s all okay, ya know? And that kind of even makes something — I dunno, it’s fine with me if those sorts of things don’t really communicate. I probably don’t relate the same way to other people’s music, the same as the stuff I find really amazing in music other people probably don’t think are that cool. That’s just kind of a reality. So if people can’t see those things, or relate to those things, or never find them, that’s alright. If it happens to some people, than that’s even more than I could ever even ask for.  We kind of write this stuff, and I know that there’s one person that’s gonna like it, and that’s me. I couldn’t even tell you 100% for sure in the band really likes it. I think they do. (Laughs). I feel like if I could be honest to that one person, at least to myself, and make something that I would really wanna hear and listen to then that’s at least something I can live with, and feel sort of proud about. If other people get into or understand those things, that’s fine too, if they don’t, but if they do, then I think there’s something kind of cool going on.

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BW: So it sounds like once you guys release this music, it’s almost like it doesn’t belong to your guys anymore. You put every fiber of your being into each track, and then you let it go, and then whatever happens, happens.

OA: Yeah, I mean, that’s just kinda what happens. If I were to be focusing on something like — like I’m here doing this interview with you, so I at least care enough to understand that there is kind of a “machine,” ya know, as far as promotion and all this stuff, and I’m happy to talk about these things if there are people who have interest in these things. But I’m still going to protect the ideas that I think are true about the music and not be too specific, so everyone can use their imagination with the music and I think that that’s kind of important. But I still know that it’s not only just me that matters in this equation, ya know? There are other band members, and people wanna eat, and if thing go well we get to travel more and all of these things, ya know. But I just try not to focus on those kinds of things. Because you just get discouraged sometimes, ya know? I mean, even if you read good reviews of the record you feel like “Oh, this person didn’t get it, and they don’t really understand what’s going on.” But you can’t really blame any of that stuff or think too much about that stuff, or really it’ll just kind of tear you apart. So I try to stay away from that as much as I can.

BW: What other creative material did you guys have around you during the writing and recording of this record? Were there other bands or albums you guys went to, or possibly movies or books you guys had on hand?

OA: Well Death by Audio recently closed down in November, but that was the venue, and our house, but there were a lot of really cool bands that were starting around in New York  and coming all the time. And then… I’m trying to think. I don’t know if I was actually reading any books during this record. It was kind of a weird emotional time. There was just a lot of focus on the music and things that were going on. Working a lot. So there was some inspiration from creating some circuits. There were some effects pedals that I kind of built for a company that became sounds that inspired a couple of songs on the record. A couple of the songs on the record we had gone to Norway, and got to work with a friend who was really cool and kind of kicked up some energy from listening to their music. That was this band Serena-Maneesh. So we recorded “Deeper” and “We’ve Come So Far” with Emil from Serena-Maneesh. It was a really exciting experience and really fun to do that. She played guitar on a song as well, and his girlfriend sang on that song. You kind of get that young feeling of extreme excitement in the studio. We had 3 days that we could record in Norway at ABC Studios, and it was all paid for by this collective in Norway. We just recorded as much as we possibly could in those 3 days. You get kind of…. I dunno, it’s a different kind of feeling. Like we recorded 8 songs in 3 days. It was good to kind of write some songs right there, and scramble around, and try to kind of make something happen start to finish in a short time. We have our own studio at our house, and always kind of slave over records for a long period of time. It makes me feel like we want to do that more in the future.

BW: What do you think you guys were able to achieve in this showing that you didn’t in past showings?

OA: One of the things that we came upon when we were coming about this record was like, in the past we had demos that I thought were better than the actual song. We tried to record and capture ourselves in a live scenario, just sort of capture the power of what was live. So we were recording every single one of our practices at the time, and kind of writing songs at practices, and then go back and record these songs. We tried to record them so many different ways. Like some things would have microphones split all over the place, some things had microphones in the room, just a few microphones, sometimes hundreds of microphones. I kind of found out that it didn’t matter how we recorded it, but that it was all about capturing some really special moment in time. Whether it was like everybody was kind of feeling something, whether it be hatred for each other, or love for each other, some kind of thing was going on. Something happened in some kind of way, and those were all the takes that were really the best. It didn’t matter if we meticulously set everything up, or just sloppily threw things up there. It was all about having some really awesome performance captured. So I think this record, as much as possible, some of the songs were only demos. Some of them were things we spent a lot of time on, but they all kind of captured those purest moments of those songs and I think that kinda brings it back in some ways to our first record a little bit because that was all sorta demos that I recorded so that everyone would kind of learn how to play the songs. There’s something kind of, I dunno, pure about that. When you feel exactly what’s going on in the emotion of the lyrics, when the parts all kind of come together. A lot of times, it’s right when you write the song. And that’s what is captured on this record. We sort of captured those right times, I feel.

BW: Obviously there’s a certain amount of consideration when arranging an album, but how much of that is kept in mind when writing? Did you have an idea beforehand, or did it all come together when you recorded?

OA: Yeah, it all kind of came together after it was recorded. We really had no idea what we wanted when we were recording it. The whole time when we were recording, we were just kind of searching, and figuring out what would be songs we were really into. We wrote lots and lots of songs, and played lots of stuff for hours, and sort of went on all these different ideas, and when this record came together, it was just kind of what made sense. It took a long time to sequence it, but we had a lot of material to get through and move around, but it just sort of made sense right when it did, and that was kinda it. There’s this moment where you realize when the record is actually done, I dunno what it is, but its like you’re turning some kind of combination lock, and then you open it and it’s like “Oh, this makes complete sense” and that really seemed to happen on this record.

BW: I know this might be a bit like asking you to choose your favorite child, but what is your favorite track, and why?

OA: Oh, man. Uh, I don’t know. (Laughs). Uh, I will choose… the last track “I Will Die”. It’s just really cool because, the recording that’s on the record is us writing the song out of thin air. Nobody had ever played any of those chords before, or that drum part, and none of those words had been thought of before or anything, except for right at that moment when that song happened on the recording. That’s an example from what I was saying about recording our practices. It wasn’t recorded well or anything. We even tried to redo that song  many times, but its what was happening just at that very moment was just so special. And it kinda made me realize a lot of things about recording. It’s just kind of about the feeling and the vibe that’s going on. So yeah, but I think the song sounds vicious and crazy, and you kinda feeling the exact kinda torture, kinda pain, that we’re going through at that moment. It’s really an awesome song, really perfectly captured, and I couldn’t write any better lyrics if I thought about it. (Laughs).

BW: I’m so glad you chose that song, I was gonna ask you about it later because that’s probably my favorite song. It just feels like a jet plane coming apart in mid air.

OA: (Laughs) Sure, yeah.

BW: It sounds like it was recorded on a cellphone. It’s just so primal, it’s disgusting, I’m obsessed with that song.

BW: What does Transfixation mean to you?

OA: It was something that took over our lives for a moment, it kind of even changed all of us. For me, in some ways, it was an awakening, and it really sort of feels like a proper advancement in what I was aware of, and how music was put together. So um…. yeah, I don’t know, it was just getting a little bit of education, ya know? I think that was what the record needed.