Oliver Ackermann is a Renaissance man.
He is the singer and guitarist in shoegaze stalwarts, A Place to Bury Strangers. He is also the founder of Death by Audio, a boutique guitar effects company. Along with manufacturing pedals, Death by Audio was a musical collective. Oliver and his friends transformed the Brooklyn warehouse where Death by Audio built its pedals into the heart of a surging DIY scene. From 2007-2014, Death by Audio hosted hundreds of shows, and was the incubator for dozens of indie bands.
A Place to Bury Strangers is currently on tour in support of their latest album, Pinned. I got a chance to talk to Oliver as the band prepares to make its way to Phoenix for a June 6 show at Valley Bar.
Jacob Unterreiner: You’re a guy who wears a lot of hats. You are a musician, you make pedals, and you created the Death by Audio Venue. When you’re at a party, and someone asks you what you do, what’s your response?
Oliver Ackermann: Oh, man. I usually don’t go into it. Sometimes I say I’m in a band, or I say I build custom electronics. I usually don’t even like to go there. Hopefully that makes it so they’re not interested enough to ask me anything else after that point.
So you kind of diffuse with boredom?
Yes, diffuse with boredom. And you know, I’m interested in what other people are doing. So I’ll steer towards questions about them. I like checking out what other people are doing.
Of those three things I mentioned, which one are you most proud of?
Huh. I guess maybe the pedal company. I don’t know, though. That’s a really tough question, actually. But even though, as a band, we get these opportunities to play with really crazy bands or musicians, it makes me feel really proud when musicians I look up to, and love, enjoy using the effects we build to create music themselves. Being a part of helping them achieve new sounds is something I never dreamed I would be involved in. It is pretty magical.
What was the first moment with your pedals where you thought, “Whoa, it’s crazy this person is using my pedals?!”
Geez, the first one…I don’t know exactly. I guess probably Trent Reznor. He asked me to build a custom effect and he really liked what I built him, so he had me build something else. That was pretty insane, to think about someone… I don’t know. I used to drive around in high school blasting Nine Inch Nails in the car, smoking weed. And then having this guy be excited to play some effects pedals that you built. It is pretty crazy.
The Death by Audio workspace/venue closed in 2014 when Vice Media bought out your building. How upset were you when that happened?
It was upsetting that all of these great things were coming to an end, but it sort of seemed like it was a long time coming. We knew we were doing something completely illegal. And at any moment someone could have closed the door for legal reasons and shut the whole thing down. The neighborhood was also starting to get too fancy for us [to be allowed to stay]. It kind of made sense.
I was sort of disappointed that it was Vice, because they claim to be big supporters of indie arts. I knew a lot of people who worked at Vice who would come to Death by Audio shows, so that was a bit crazy. But at the time it was closing we had an incredible celebration where everyone came together and had a big party for a whole month. We had a great opportunity to have a magical ending, which made it an easier blow and something really beautiful.
A Place to Bury Strangers is known to put on some wild and improvisational shows where the audience can have a different experience every night. You’ve mentioned in a couple interviews you try hard to blow your audience’s mind and give them the the transformative experiences you had when you saw bands growing up. I’m curious, why do you think it is important for people to get their mind blown?
I think when someone has their mind blown it helps them be free. You kind of start to look at things from other perspectives. It takes you out of everything you sort of built up about what you believe the world is about.
I think it is human nature to get stuck in rhythms and preconceived ideas. So when you can see someone produce something beautiful and otherworldly it helps you see that there’s more to the world. You can see you’re just a small speck in the universe, you can see how incredible science is, and I think that is pretty awesome.
As a follow up, in an ideal world, after someone gets their mind blown at one of your shows, what would they go home and do?
I guess what they would go home and do is they would call their family or friends or go meet them and hang out with them. I think it is really important to share your experiences with other people and work with other people doing things. When your hanging out with friends, those are kind of the key moments which glue and diversify the world.
A lot of musicians strive to create strong scenes and musical communities. As someone who has done that in a concrete way with Death by Audio, what advice would you give to musicians who are trying to build something similar?
I guess just be open. Work on being a big support system for other people. I think that’s really important. I think that people kind of need help and want to have good shows. When people are helping people be the best they can be, than it really makes the best outcomes possible.
Everybody has their own little things they’re good at, whether it be drawing, or booking shows, or calling people or whatever. If they can kind of work with people and come together and make a bigger collective and that I think is important and cool and fun.
Last question. A Place to Bury Strangers is known for being a loud band and you’ve mentioned volume is an important part of your mind-blowing recipe. But I was wondering, what is the softest band or artist that has blown your mind?
Hmmm. The softest band? Maybe I would say this band Zomes. I’m not sure exactly where they’re from, maybe South Carolina*. They’re incredible. It is this guy who will play guitar and maybe a drum machine. He recently joined up with this girl singing, and they’re pretty mind blowing.
*Zomes is based out of Baltimore.
For more info on A Place to Bury Strangers, check their website. You can also catch them at Valley Bar on Wednesday June 6 along with openers Sextile from LA and the Valley’s own Strange Lot. Show starts at 8:00 PM and tickets can be purchased through Ticketfly.