Oliver Ackermann, the guitarist/vocalist of Brooklyn noise-rock band A Place To Bury Strangers, and I both grew up in Fredericksburg, Virginia. With a population of less than 26,000, and no thriving underground music scene, it's an incredibly suffocating and soporific town where kids mostly spend their time hanging out in McDonald's parking lots, dropping acid in the woods or driving around aimlessly on dirt roads while dreaming of a way out.
Ackermann and I both went to the same middle and high schools, though we weren't friends (he was older). But I saw his first band, Skywave, perform several times at a venue on the downtown Fredericksburg campus of Mary Washington College.
Skywave was unlike any other band in town. On the three albums they released between 1998 and 2004, they took cues from The Velvet Underground's most panicky freakouts and the dreamy, sonic excesses of My Bloody Valentine and The Jesus and Mary Chain. Skywave sounded nothing like the awful classic rock cover bands that dominated the local club scene -- they sounded as if they'd come from another world.
“It was a tough time,” remembers Ackermann. “Nobody was into that kind of music in Fredericksburg, but we always tried to push the envelope by experimenting with volume, film and lights, and by rebuilding our guitars and amplifiers to achieve new sounds. We were just bored and had nothing better to do, so we decided to create the music we wanted to hear. Skywave was like screaming from inside a deep hole or a protest against silence.”
Ackermann eventually moved to Providence, Rhode Island, and upon graduating from R.I.S.D., he paid the bills by designing children's toys. “They were the toys you'd see in art museums that were supposed to stimulate kids to experiment with building things,” he says. But then he stopped making toys and started making guitar effects pedals.
He launched the pedal company Death By Audio in 2001, naming his first pedal Total Sonic Annihilation. “I read a lot of books about how to do it,” he says, “but I couldn't understand them so I started fucking around with stuff, just ripping apart pedals and modifying them. I ruined a lot of gear, but eventually some worked out really well.”
Since setting up the Death By Audio shop (which has now evolved into a concert space, recording studio and record label) in Brooklyn, Ackermann has designed pedals for Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor, Lady Gaga, U2's The Edge and My Bloody Valentine's Kevin Shields. And, in 2003, he started the band A Place To Bury Strangers.
As a result of the trio's notoriously earsplitting live show and the savage volume of their self-titled debut album, writers coined them “the loudest band in New York City.” (Death By Audio pedals such as the Supersonic Fuzz Gun and the Interstellar Overdriver certainly contributed to the overpowering volume.) Ten years and two full-length albums later, the tag is mentioned in every article and blog blurb written about them.
“Being the loudest band is quite a title,” says Ackermann. “But Skywave was probably much louder. The whole thing seems ridiculous to me. The loudest band isn't something I'd want to go see or care about. It's not really a good claim to fame.”
On their new "Onwards To The Wall" EP, and full-length album, "Worship," A Place to Bury Strangers (Dion Lunadon, on bass, and Jay Space, on drums, round out the band) tries to prove they're capable of more than just deafening feedback and brutal sonic assault. But while songs like “Slide” and “Dissolved” show them emphasizing melody and songwriting over sheer volume, there's no denying APTBS remain noisy as hell. Though, whether playing with Skywave or APTBS, for Ackermann it's always been more of a welcoming, spiritual sound rather than one that aims to brutalize and alienate listeners.
“For me, extreme volumes are euphoric,” says Ackermann. “Sometimes when I'm onstage, I lose myself in sound and forget I'm even playing. That's the feeling we want audiences to have -- this overwhelming feeling like you're being transported to another place. You just have to let yourself succumb to the experience and ride the wave.”
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