At first, people didn’t really get what guitarist Oliver Ackermann, now with A Place to Bury Strangers, was trying to do. As a member of the Virginia band Skywave, his signature strafing guitar squall, vibrating at extremely high decibels and damaging unprotected eardrums, often alienated its intended audience.
“Being there and in that time [between 1995 and 2001], there wasn’t as much acceptance,” Ackermann says. “We’d get club owners threatening our lives. Sometimes people would get really pissed off.”
Things have changed since he moved to New York and started A Place to Bury Strangers.
“Ever since experimental music has become more popular, things have been a lot better received,” Ackermann says. “People are getting more into this stuff, which is pretty cool.”
That same lacerating sound finds its way into his new work on the group’s self-titled debut. The name is appropriate, given that Ackermann’s withering noise could believably emanate from a serial killer’s cavernous basement.
A Place to Bury Strangers has been called the “Loudest Band in New York” since they hit the scene in 2003. Ackermann says volume isn’t essential to their sound, but in a live setting, “It ties into the idea of being in complete control over all your senses. That’s what we do: envelop your whole body with really loud sounds and have them vary and build. Then there are lots of different lights, which make you lose your shit, hopefully.”
It may not sound like it, but Ackermann and his cohorts (drummer JSpace and bassist Jono MOFO) exercise an incredible amount of command over their buzzed-out aggression. Ackermann calls it “controlled chaos.”
“We’re working with things like feedback, where you can’t always predict what’s going to happen,” he says. “You just have to kind of go with what noises you hear and develop something out of that. It’s a constant play back and forth between what you hear and what you’re doing.”
Over the years, Ackerman has become a twisted maestro of effects pedals. He started voraciously reading about electronics in the late ’90s, taking his equipment apart and reassembling it in transmogrified fashion. By 2001, he had started his own company, Death By Audio, on the strength of his signature invention, the Total Sonic Annihilation pedal, which allows you to run your own effects through a feedback loop. Ackermann is currently building a custom pedal for Trent Reznor, and has sold some of his other mutations to the likes of Lightning Bolt, Wilco and Godspeed You Black Emperor. He calls such contrivance crucial to the Strangers’ sound.
“Having the knowledge to create effects gives you the knowledge to understand what all different effects are doing, and how you can use them to create different sounds to push and pull and bend the sound spectrum,” Ackermann says. “Even after a show, if perchance I wanted one of my effects pedals to do something different, I could always modify it. A lot of musicians don’t even have the ability to do that. It gives us hands-on abilities with our sound, so that we can constantly change it and create new effects.”