An Interview with A Place to Bury Strangers at the Granada Theater in Dallas, TX – May 19, 2017
A Place to Bury Strangers really needs no introduction. A long time mainstay of noise rock and the shoegaze scene, this Brooklyn based band, headed by original member Oliver Ackerman, have blazed a trail of musical mayhem since the mid-2000’s. I sat down with the band backstage at the Granada Theater in Dallas, TX on their current tour with The Black Angels. The band was kind enough to answer my questions about their musical legacy, making sounds and their live show, gear, and what comes next for the band.
I’m here at the Granda Theater in Dallas, TX with A Place to Bury Strangers. Oliver Ackerman, Dion Lunadon, and Lia Simone Braswell are getting ready to play an opening set here before The Black Angels and have been kind enough to chat with me about their history and future plans.
Thanks so much for your time. I want to try and skip all those founding band questions. You are clearly beyond that and, quite frankly, I would be remiss if I started asking such old and tired questions. So I thought we might approach your musical legacy by asking about one track each of off your full-lengths and how you sort of connect with those songs now and what you might say about your experience with them at the time you wrote and recorded them. So I thought I would ask about the opener to your self-titled “Missing You”
Oliver: Well that song, I think, is actually the first ever A Place to Bury Stranger song. It was a song that I imagined would be in this band that I just kind of left called Skywave from Virginia. So I had recorded it one time when I came down from Virginia and it was one of those moments in the days before cell phones. I was looking for everyone in town to be there but I couldn’t find anybody. I just went to the studio that we had had that I had just moved out of and recorded a couple songs on a four track and that was one of the songs I wrote at the moment. I don’t want to go into what the song meant because I don’t think people should tell what their songs are written about, but that was basically the start of the band.
Oliver: The birth of A Place to Bury Strangers! The demo, which is the recording from that moment in Virginia, was pretty good too. [Looks at Dion] I don’t know, was it ever released?
Dion: I don’t think it was.
Oliver: Well, we should put that out on something.
Alright, so the next track I want to ask about is “Exploding Head” off of Exploding Head.
Oliver: That song was which was probably one of our first political songs. It was kind of a comment on the shitty things going on in the world, as you do from time to time. You know, things that are going on that kind of enrage you. I think maybe that happens most of the time, especially nowadays. It was a song where I think I had thought of the melody before I ever started writing the song.
How about “Fear” off of Worship?
Oliver: Right on! Perhaps Dion can shed some light on this one.
Dion: It was the only song on the record where he [Oliver] was playing bass and I was playing guitar. We do that live as well. I really liked that song when we were recording it because I thought the melody was so strong.
Oliver: At the time when I and Dion were writing songs a lot, we were getting really crazy and a lot of the songs had joke titles at first. That song was called “California Rain”. It was sort of ridiculous and I’m not sure what the hell we were thinking of at the time.
And lastly I would like to ask about “Lower Zone” off of Transfixiation. I really love that track.
Oliver: Awesome, thanks so much! This was a song that utilized this riff that I had been playing and toying around with for years. The way it kind of repeats and goes around I always thought was kind of mesmerizing. It sort of formed out of that. Maybe a jam we were doing at some point?
Dion: I don’t think so. I think you came up with that one on your own.
Oliver: Yeah, never mind, I was jamming with myself.
Dion: While writing the album, we took a break and then when we got back, I hadn’t heard it yet, and the song really excited me when we returned.
Oliver: I like those songs where there’s a loop and then it repeats but it doesn’t repeat exactly. It’s like it’s chopped in the wrong spot. Also on that record [Transfixiation] on “We’ve Come So Far” there that moment where that happens and there’s like a machine falling on itself.
So, looking back over your four records, how has the process changed for you in how you go about writing and recording albums? Is there anything you miss about how you used to do things and what about how you do things now gets you excited about the music you make?
Oliver: We actually go in a different direction every single time. So, it will just be something different again in the future. So, I don’t know if that means we don’t miss what we used to do or something but I think it’s because there are so many options and so many different things you can do you always want to go into uncharted territory. You always trying to write different sort of songs that excite you in different ways. That’s been the way every single record has been.
Do you think some of that has to do with being a trio? You don’t have a lot of members in terms of having multiple guitars, etc.
Oliver: We do that on purpose, trying to make sound live with real instruments and stuff and not having too many pre-programmed pieces or none if possible. I mean, sometimes we use some drum machines. It’s really fun when you have the human element interacting and fucking the whole process up. I just like that a lot. I guess it [having three members] does kind of limit things but then you want to go in some crazy different directions. We’ve done some wacky things to keep on making that happen. We are always trying to make it exciting for us at the time and, if nobody else likes it, then we will have something recorded that we like.
Can you talk a bit about how you go about encountering, choosing, finding textures and tones for your music? I know you build pedals, so what is the process like for you in determining the sorts of sounds and textures you want to produce?
Oliver: A lot of time, we spend a lot of time recording and writing music and I spend a lot of time designing circuits, building circuits, and coming up with different ideas. I’m rewiring things all the time. Also, going to see all sort of live bands, you try to immerse yourself in all different aspects of music. As long as you are engaging yourself in all these sorts of things and seeing stuff that is inspirational, then you aren’t turning your brain off to stay on Instagram or something. I mean, it can be exciting to do too but I mean you have to keep on pushing and exploring with sounds and everything like that. You have to be trying to explore and find new avenues to create sounds while, as time goes on, you build up this language of things that do and don’t work and what you do and don’t like. In some ways, you are constantly trying to narrow things down to get a more refined angle on something while you’re constantly getting tired of whatever you’ve refined.
Same with you Dion?
Dion: Yeah, I use more pedals than he [Oliver] does and he’s always yanking my chain about adding another pedal. Most of my pedals are distortion because I love fuzz. I’ve always, when I play bass in a band, added distortion. It sounds a bit gnarlier. Oliver is always talking about getting rid of pedals and he’s always joking around and telling me to get more. I mean, I use them all and I try to use as many functions on them as I can.
Oliver: I mean, really, I think he [Dion] is the basis for the whole sound of the band. He kind of determining the whole vibe in terms of what’s happening effect and sound-wise. You know, Lia is playing the drums and they are driving the rhythm together but he [Dion] sort of sets the tone and there are all these different directions that I add on top. That makes all these pedals really change and shift the songs’ sounds to something completely, wildly different.
Dion: I can get quite a few frequencies from the bass.
So, let’s return to Transfixiation. It’s been a few years since it was put out there into the world. Looking back, how do you feel about the album itself and how have the tracks morphed in your live sets?
Oliver: The whole idea for that record was that we wanted to capture what we sounded like live on a record. It didn’t necessary work. We captured the songs through a live recording in the studio. It really has the closest vibe to what we really sound like live on a record with those limitations.
Yeah, like you said in an interview once, you don’t get to control the volume through which someone hears it.
Oliver: Exactly. If you want to listen to one of our records, invite me over and I’ll turn your stereo up. I’ll position the speakers in the room for you. I think that record contains a lot of really cool experiences. We went to Norway and recorded a couple of songs there. So two of the songs we worked on and recorded in Norway. It was a fun record to play. We really tried to push ourselves to record and make happen. It was just really intense. We went on a really long tour and right after the tour we just started recording for months.
Hey, it’s a good sign that you haven’t killed each other.
Oliver: Well, we almost did. It was very close. There were even times when we didn’t know if we were going to go on as a band while recording that record. It was intense.
Sometimes that turns out some of the best stuff.
Dion: At least you are feeling something intensely.
You have talked about improvising in your shows in order to write music. How do you all prepare for a live set and are improvised songs planned (meaning do you plan an improvisation moment in the set) or do these things just happen?
Oliver: There’s a bit of both. There are some songs in which we go, there’s this part of this song and we don’t know what we are going to there and then we continue on to the song afterwards.
Dion: We have loose plans and we are always ready to change them.
Oliver: Very often. I mean, lots of things go wrong. I said this the other day, I said that we had so many technical difficulties the other night and Lia was like, we did? I was running around doing who knows what but it just seemed like it went along as the show should be because it’s always so chaotic. You can’t tell if it’s on purpose or not on purpose. We also do whole songs that are made up out of the blue sometimes.
For the gearheads who read the blog, what sort of equipment do you use both live and in studio?
Oliver: We tend to use whatever there is in the studio. I’ve got a ton of different pedals that I’ve collected since 1994 or something like that. 1000’s of pedals and random recording equipment. Live I try to use only Death by Audio equipment except for we play through those Italian amplifiers Mark Bass just because you can set it to sound like a D.I. We often also D.I. our instruments. On this tour, we didn’t bring our own sound people, so it’s just house people. We haven’t really been doing much D.I. and it’s been working out really great because the venues have been kind of big and the people really care as opposed to house people working a bar that just hate their job. It big venues like this, the house people know the rooms really well and sometimes it’s even better than bringing your own sound person because they know all the ins-n-outs and complexities.
Back to the equipment question: I use this wah-pedal that I built, a prototype for the Apocalypse which is called the Armageddon which has like two of them in one and you can switch between different filters. I use a boss tuner and a boost pedal that has like an octave that I can turn on anytime I want to. It has this octave up which is really crazy and sounds really rich and pretty nuts and I run that into anywhere up to 12 different delays. I have a head unit that I built that has 3 more delays in it and a filter that has a band pass/low pass/high pass and this other crazy fuzz. Some of the delays are then run through two different amps to basically create reverbs. I mean, that’s why I use so many delays, to create reverbs. So you can adjust the width between the two speakers so you can change the perception of the stereo spread. That’s a big thing for me. I really just love live sound coming from different areas. So, a Mark Bass on one side through a Fender 215 cabinet in which I switched out the speakers for these very high tech super light speakers so we don’t hurt ourselves and are insanely loud. On the other side I’m using for the first time a TC Electronics combo bass amp where you have to turn the treble all the way down and the mid almost all the way down so it doesn’t sound like some terrible buzzing bee horribleness.
So, what’s next for A Place to Bury Strangers? Is there an album forthcoming?
Oliver: Yeah. We recorded a new record and we aren’t totally finished with it yet. We are working on it and we will see but possibly this year or next year. It’s the first record Lia is on and she’s singing a lot of tracks and it sound freak’n dope! It’s a whole new crazy direction for the band.
Well thanks so much for your time!
Oliver: For Sure!
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