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A Quietus Interview

A Place To Bury Strangers: Oliver Ackermann And Death By Audio
The Quietus , October 19th, 2009 11:09

Derrick Koo interviews Oliver Ackermann to find out how a part time hobby made him one of the most in demand guitar pedal makers going. And how this affected his group A Place To Bury Strangers

It's taken Oliver Ackermann a long time to arrive at the point where music is everything — fifteen years of constant touring and tinkering and flying just under the radar, to be exact. But now he's getting somewhere. Fresh off a European summer tour, he and his band, A Place to Bury Strangers, have just embarked on another transatlantic tour in support of a new album, Exploding Head — the band's first full-fledged studio album and their first recording for Mute Records.

When not destroying instruments onstage with his band, Ackermann spends daylight hours maintaining his primary business: Death by Audio, a boutique guitar effects-pedal manufacturer whose recent clients include Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor, U2's The Edge, Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, and My Bloody Valentine's Kevin Shields. With the help of his handcrafted noisemakers, Ackermann is stamping his signature on the sound of rock.

Death by Audio has gained a reputation for its wildly unique sound — often achieved by breaking every established rule of audio technology. "Some of my pedals will actually destroy your equipment if you don't use them correctly," Ackermann warns.

That's a selling point. Clif Taylor, a guitarist, filmmaker and self-avowed effects pedal geek who featured Ackermann in Fuzz: The Sound That Revolutionized the World, a documentary on the history of guitar effects, explains that Death by Audio's products go far beyond just reviving the art of vintage effects.

"Their whole M.O. is just about hilarity, discovery — and just craziness," he says of Death by Audio. "They're in it for all the right reasons."

Ackermann lives his work. Here, in his industrial loft on the outskirts of Williamsburg, his office and workshop are steps from his practice space and recording studio, his living room and bedroom. Shelves are lined with metal casings and circuit boards and stacks of empty cups. Black boxes full of audio equipment lie stacked amongst the furniture, various loftmates weaving their way around them through narrow corridors of empty space. The dominant mode of this makeshift working-playing-living space is of constant coming and going.

"Welcome to my home!" Ackermann greets visitors with arms outstretched, as if to encompass as much of the chaos as possible.

Chaos is a good word to describe his aesthetic. Tall and reedy, with fuzzy caterpillar-like eyebrows and an unwavering smile that runs almost the whole width of his stubbled face, he wanders from room to room, pointing out various bits of equipment he's been designing for A Place to Bury Strangers' upcoming tour: a series of black rubber pads mounted with electrical tape on a metal box that allows the band's drummer to trigger various samples with his acoustic kit. A modified Fender Twin amp stack customized with a spring reverb effect that lets Ackermann wring endless layers of distortion from his guitar by physically moving the gear (he demonstrates by shaking the tower back and forth). Cabinet speakers wired to various triggers and delay effects that can alter the colour and character of the whole band's output at a moment's notice.

That output tends to be dense, complex and extremely loud, a product of the perfect noise Ackermann is constantly pursuing as an effects designer. Unpredictability is a big part of that noise. "There's this whole science behind how to design sound," he explains. "But sometimes you try it out, and it's just not that exciting." The noise brings an improvisational spirit to his music, he says, only with textures and timbres instead of melodies and hooks.

You can sense that improvisational edge in Ackermann's live performances: he wraps the crowd in a cocoon of distortion, his hushed vocals and obscure melodies pulling them into a sort of noise-fueled hypnotic trance. He stomps pedals and tweaks knobs and pulls the strings on his guitar as he brings that atmosphere up to the critical point where you feel the sound just can't get any deeper or more complex. He'll often end gigs with all six strings frayed and broken from the abuse.

Since A Place to Bury Strangers formed in 2004, they've gained some notoriety for their live intensity. The best praise Ackermann has heard after a gig? "This guy who worked at one of the venues told me, 'I've only had to wear earplugs twice in my entire life, and both times were tonight.'"

That his band is often called "the loudest band in New York" doesn't impress Ackermann, however. "Loudness doesn't measure anything," he complains. As an effects designer, he's not after sheer volume, which depends less on the band itself than a given venue's sound system, but something much more elusive. He describes seeing his favorite bands when he was first learning to play the guitar: shoegaze bands like My Bloody Valentine and the Jesus and Mary Chain, punk bands like Dead Kennedys and Minor Threat. "There was this feeling you got when you saw these bands play live" — he struggles for the words — transcendent? Mysterious? "Different," he settles on. "You get hooked on this feeling...that's what I want to recreate for the audience."

After graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1994 [other alumni include John Baizley of Baroness, Lightning Bolt, Les Savy Fav, Black Dice and Talking Heads, Ed] with a degree in industrial design, Ackermann returned to his hometown of Fredericksburg, Virginia to help form Skywave, a power trio heavily influenced by the thick, dreamy sound of early '90s shoegaze bands like Slowdive, Spiritualized and Ride. While playing bass for Skywave, Ackermann spent his own time pursuing the sounds in his head.

"Some of the sounds I wanted couldn't be created with any of the equipment I had," he says. So he began tinkering with his gear.

He had no idea where to start. "I spent two years just changing and modifying all the stuff I had," he says, "mostly just breaking everything I came into contact with." He consumed books on audio technology and electrical engineering. He cobbled together gear from household items, most of which didn't make a sound. He bought and broke more guitar equipment than he can remember. He took on a day job designing toys to fund his self-education.

It took those two years for Ackermann to feel confident that he could build the effects he wanted from scratch. In 2002 he started customizing gear for fellow musicians, and the requests flooded in. Like with many breakthrough inventions, the idea behind his first for-sale pedal, the Total Sonic Annihilation, was deviously simple yet unprecedented: add the box to your effects chain and it will loop the chain back on itself, interacting with and multiplying each effect with wildly unpredictable and noisy results.

Almost a decade later, it's still Ackermann's favorite invention. "It was the start of it all," he says wistfully. "It definitely has a soft spot in my heart." It touched the hearts of fellow guitarists, too; he immediately sold more than three thousand dollars' worth of the product almost as soon as he had built them.

"For a time I would just build anything people would ask me to make," says Ackermann of Death by Audio's beginnings. "People would send these four-page emails describing this sound or effect, this sick delay they wanted. And I'd be like, OK, I can build it for you. But it's going to cost five hundred bucks!" To his surprise, customers were eager to pay. A career was born.

By the time Skywave imploded in 2003, Ackermann was ready to leave Virginia for more exciting pastures. One night, a friend and fellow musician named Joe Kelly (currently of the band Coin Under Tongue) joked about moving to New York. Ackermann replied without hesitation: "Let's do it."

If Ackermann prizes unpredictability, his arrival in Brooklyn ("they told me it was East Williamsburg, but it was really Bushwick") must have felt like a philosophical test. The essence of his first two years in New York, during which he founded A Place to Bury Strangers and turned Death by Audio into a full-fledged business, can be captured by the indignities suffered by a big white Dodge Ram he'd brought with him from Fredericksburg.

"All sorts of fucked up shit would happen to it," Ackermann remembers of his van. One morning, he found its side punctured with bullet holes. On several occasions, he awoke to find all four tires slashed or the windshield smashed in. Another morning, he found the hood wide open, the battery ripped from its housing. He was on his way to file a police report when he spotted a car battery lying in the middle of the street.

"I was like, 'Sweet! My battery!'" he laughs now. "But it turned out to be the wrong fucking battery." It belonged to a completely different car.

The first time the Ram was stolen, A Place to Bury Strangers was scheduled to a play a gig that night. To his relief, Ackermann discovered that the police had it and that it was still operable. He picked it up from the impound lot and drove it home, only to find that an entire other car had been chopped into pieces and stuffed into the cargo space. He left the car parts on the sidewalk; two hours later they were gone.

The second time the Ram was stolen, Ackermann never saw it again.

The theft turned out to be a blessing. Freed from the chains of insurance, repairs and parking tickets, Ackermann managed to save money, which was increasingly hard to come by as he tried to grow his band and business.

Later, in 2005, another near-tragedy also turned out to be fortuitous — for Ackermann, at least. A neighbor was found in his apartment, lying in a pool of his own blood; he had been bound, pistol whipped and robbed at gunpoint in his own home. After the incident, Ackermann went seeking a new home and found the warehouse he lives in today.

The hard work paid off, eventually. With a new practice space and DIY recording studio, A Place to Bury Strangers ramped up its activity. They started sharing venues with bigger and bigger acts: the Brian Jonestown Massacre in 2006, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and the Jesus and Mary Chain in 2007, the Dandy Warhols and Nine Inch Nails in 2008. A self-titled demo album released in 2007 on a tiny independent label called Killer Pimp gained unexpected attention from outlets like Pitchfork and the Village Voice, despite the fact that it consisted mostly of Ackermann riffing over drum machines.

At the same time, Ackermann stopped having to take odd jobs to supplement his Death by Audio sales. He has become so swamped with requests that last year he stopped taking custom orders, instead sustaining the business by building as many units as he can of a handful of top sellers. Word of mouth has been Death by Audio's greatest ally. The company doesn't advertise; its steady uptick in sales has been borne on the whispers shared between musicians and gearheads. In a market that is largely the domain of huge manufacturers like Roland, Boss or Electro-Harmonix, Ackermann has established a niche for himself selling sounds that can't be found in mass-produced products.

But when did Ackermann really feel he'd hit a new level? In August of 2008, after perfoming with A Place to Bury Strangers at the Oya Festival in Oslo, Norway, he felt a tap on his shoulder from a fellow audience member. "Hey, you're Oliver Ackermann from A Place to Bury Strangers, right?" asked the guy. "Kevin Shields really wants to meet you." Later that night, Ackermann found himself shaking the hand of one of his musical idols, the founding guitarist of My Bloody Valentine. Now, he supplies the band with Death by Audio equipment.

Then, in a November 2008 interview with Mojo, U2's The Edge name-checked Death by Audio as an inspiration on his group's newest album, No Line on the Horizon. He ended up showcasing Ackermann's effects on several of the album's tracks, including extensive use of his Supersonic Fuzz Gun in the lead single, 'Get on Your Boots'.

Ackermann seems more surprised than anyone by his newfound semi-fame. "It's crazy, totally bizarre," he repeatedly describes it. "I hope it doesn't go to my head. Maybe it already has!" For all the success, Ackermann is far from settled. In a sense, he's more anxious than ever before.

"Having built all this stuff literally from the ground up, there are still those thoughts in your head that maybe you don't know what the hell you're doing," he says in a moment of vulnerable candor. "There's a guy at Roland whose job it is to design pedals scientifically. I didn't study electrical engineering. I'm completely self-taught. How am I supposed to compete with that?"

The self-doubt soon melts away as he falls back into the now-familiar rhythms of publicity and interviewing. His mantra? "You know, it's really important to have the excitement to do anything you do. If you want to do something — just do it."

It's a well-rehearsed line, but one that rings true. This is the life Ackermann wants to be leading, and it's easy to tell: when he's on stage, awash in noise, eyes closed, his disarming smile nowhere to be seen, he seems oblivious to the audience, yanking and destroying the strings on his guitar with the precision of a demolitions engineer — and there's no place you can imagine he'd rather be.