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Interview: A Place to Bury Strangers

Interview and text by Tamim Alnuweiri. Photos by Luis Lucio.


Fifteen years on and A Place To Bury Strangers’ imprint on rock music and New York City culture hangs like a palpable smog above the ashes of the DIY city. There is obviously some sentimentality involved—the closing of Death By Audio’s Williamsburg venue felt like a nail in the coffin of the music scene, a gross and heart wrenching foreboding that we were now officially living in the cultural post apocalypse. Beyond the fact that they’re the perfect projection of all of my angst and animosity toward New York’s ever expanding cultural obliteration, A Place to Bury Strangers have spend a decade and a half doing no wrong.

Every single record is a masterpiece of noise, chaos, and as they kept referring to it “evil sounding music.” This would be enough in and of itself, but if you know the band then you know this is basically nothing compared to their performances. A Place To Bury Strangers show is always equal parts danger (and with it, fear), anarchy, and a sort of blissful glee that comes from (what seems like!) an acceptance of the inevitability of ultimate death and destruction.

They’re only three people but there’s not enough space for anyone else between their personal orbits, the lights, and the noise. There’s the music they’re making but then the sounds of guitars being thrown into the air, of something somewhere breaking. In person the band is also way too fucking chill and modest. You have to think of them as some sort of rock royalty, geniuses that are not being recognized enough during their time. Not to overstate it at all but just for reference the way that the Velvet Underground inspired everyone you like to make music but was woefully overlooked during their time—that is APTBS but if you’re smart enough you can still get in while they’re making music.

Earlier this month the band released Pinned, their 5th studio album. It’s more accessible than anything they’ve done before but that doesn’t mean it’s not the type of music you’re going to inevitably be asked to turn off. It is lighter though, less “evil” sounding and with it’s moments of (relative) peace. The sonic chaos doesn’t permeate the entirety of the record like in their previous releases, instead it feels like it’s been contained into these shorter sprints making them feel especially intense. There’s always been an overlooked buoyancy and a pop sensibility to APTBS and on Pinned we see them going the furthest that they ever had with this and it makes for a terrific album.

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I read an interview with you guys and the guy was like a newscaster, he was like “I’m here with A Place to Bury Strangers on a monday evening…” Like hey it’s fine! You don’t have to put this part in. People will figure it out.

Oliver Ackermann: There was this guy that I did an interview with the other day and he was like let me get geared up to start this thing and you know—he was taking his time and then eventually he was like “hey this is great!” And then he had this whole introduction now.

Lia Simone Braswell: People have standards [laughs]

How was South By South West for you guys? Didn’t you play like 14 or 19 shows?  

Dion Lunadon: 14 shows in 3 or 4 days—it was good

You still feel okay about the decision? [laughs]

Oliver: It was a little more that we could handle but it’s good to take yourself to that—to push yourself beyond the limit.

Lia: It’s like a marathon or something but without any training

Oliver: Yeah there was a day where we played like 5 shows or something—I was like oh my god I cannot go on.

Lia: On show one of 14—it was noon and I was like I don’t know how I am going to be able to do this, this is scary—but it was fun!

What’s the most shows you’ve ever done?

Oliver: 11—I knew we had to break our record and that was like 12. So we couldn’t go and play 11 [laughs]

Really what you should have done is just played like half a set. You guys are really intense live—did all the equipment survive?

Oliver: Well yeah kind of there were some things being held together with tape. I was real glad that this other guy that came with us and just started taping everything up. It was some sort of elastic tape and it healed the cuts on Lia’s hands—she had an open wound and we just covered them with electrical tape and they are probably permanent scars but the tape held the whole four-track together and it held a couple of my guitars together. Is this your zine

Yeah we put this out for SXSW—we had an official showcase down there.

Oliver: Do you always have it in print?

We took a hiatus—we had an issue basically ready to go and then we decided to essentially ditch it and just put whatever content online.

Oliver: Good for you because I feel like that is very important. People don’t know when to throw shit away. A lot of people throw these garbage songs on records and all this terrible stuff. Sometimes you’ve got to—it’s better to just throw it away. We don’t need more trash in this world. 

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Thank you—well we are here to talk about me

Oliver: Okay next question, what made you want to get into journalism?

Well you know—I always wanted to be poor forever. But let’s get back to this, Lia—what did you injure your hands doing? Was it playing?

Lia: Playing—it’s not like we are lolly-gagging or playing easy or something. It’s pretty much everything you’ve got for as long we decide to play. Yeah I guess I’ve always been against using gloves or wrapping my hands in anyway but I like the jagged messed up look, I wouldn’t mind having like a big scar on my face from a show.

Oliver: We all have injuries. We’ve hit our heads a couple of times, sliced our hands up bad. I guess I’ve dropped some guitars on my foot but mostly that’s just toe bleeding and it’s black and blue. I gave myself whiplash one time. That was pretty incredible. The next time I had a show I was like “oh my god I can’t move” I just walked around like a robot it was okay.

On stage, have you ever had a moment where you were like “oh god I’m gonna die?”

Oliver: I think climbing up some stairs, being close to the edge and stuff—or if you’re in the middle of tripping over something you can imagine your face smashing into something that’s hard and metal. Sometimes I’ll throw my guitar up in the air and you don’t really know where it’s gonna go. I always try to throw it at myself so it won’t hurt anybody else but a guitar is pretty heavy—we have hit each other before and its pretty intense.

Dion: I’ve been hit in the head a few times: Once by Oliver but it was in the practice room—we were just practicing. The worst injury I’ve ever had probably was I jumped off a PA and landed on a piece of glass on my foot. It looked like a goat had been slaughtered on stage, there was a pool of blood, it was pretty crazy.

Oliver: The most fun time that I have been injured, there was this guitar string that stabbed through my thumb nail and I went to pull it out but it was at the curl end where it goes around the thing, so it was at the curled up under the finger nail. This was all in the middle of “I live my life” guitar part during a show and I am twisting the guitar string out of my thumb and then it starts pouring blood all over the place and then I finished the song and that was the end, yeah.

Oliver: Dion’s got chipped teeth

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How did you do that?

Oliver: He was actually jumping into a drum kit, cymbals, and microphones.

Oh classic

Oliver: The whole classic jump into a drum set [laughs]

Dion: Those were my teenage years

When you were young and foolish

Oliver: Now he’s in his 20s and doing things differently

As a band whose really exciting to watch, do you guys find anyone interesting to watch?

Oliver: I like watching Surfbort, Strad, I like watching that band Black Puss. I like watching that band New England Patriots dude will always go out in the crowd and push people around. 

Dion: I like Tinsel teeth

Oliver: The girl will go off and either cut herself or pour fake blood all over the place or something  

Do you find yourselves more often bored or entertained?

Dion: I would say more often bored to be honest

Lia: More often not even present

Oliver: It all just depends—there are tons of killer bands and sometimes you see a bunch of them and sometimes you don’t even see a lot of bands for a long time. It’s good to just keep on going to shows and keep getting blown away in certain ways.

How do you guys find the will to do this stuff considering Death By Audio? Just having to continue to see everything in New York become like a shit show—everything getting pushed further and further into the periphery. You used to be able to be in the east village on certain nights, not the weekend, but it if it was like a Tuesday—

Lia: I guess paying no mind to that.

Oliver: I used to go to the East Village on the weekends and that’s where all the cool underground stuff was going on. It’s definitely changing and you know I’ve been working a lot more than I ever used to—but it could even just be as you get older you don’t maybe—you’re not searching for any crazy ridiculous time or to be out all night and wake up on the street. When I was younger I was more kind of searching for those sorts of things.

Dion: I still feel like you have it pretty good in New York. You still have hell of a lot happening compared to where I came from.  

Oliver: I know what you’re saying—things are getting more expensive in a way or maybe its harder to make money or something? I don’t really know. There is certainly something happening in the US, just the prices everywhere are going up and people aren’t really making more money. Maybe it’s like the pedal company and our band is getting more successful as the years go on but it’s also getting harder and harder to live and do things

How aware are you guys of the space you occupy? You’re in this really bizarre place—you’ve been around for a long time, you’ve influenced so many bands, you’re seminal but not a household name. It’s a bizarre thing where anyone that does know you is like “oh shit!”

Dion: It is kind of weird—it feels like it’s not growing but it is. I’ve been in the band for like 8 years and I’ve felt it and seen it grow yet we kind of still play the same size venues.

Oliver: One thing that I was just thinking about the other day is, as soon as someone jumps on the bandwagon of things, I don’t know what it is but psychologically it ruins things for me. It’s like everyone loves the Pixies or something, it makes me never want to go do some of that stuff. It’s not a conscious decision—I just love counter culture. Maybe it’s not a good idea to bring your family to see our band.

Dion: We like underground culture and I think we’ve kept it that way. That’s always going to limit your audience in some respects. But there are those people out there and it does take a long time to get to all those people, because it is so underground. You’ve got to tool around and find those people.

Lia: I was on tour with The Melvins a couple years ago with another band. That was a really pivotal moment for me and playing music in general—knowing who they are, they have this movement, this collective sort of understanding that they are the reason why Nirvana exists. A lot of people don’t know about them—they didn’t reach that peak of total fame or total success but they are successful. They live their lives playing music and selling out small venues. They tour all the time and they produce their own music.

Oliver: I remember this one time we played a show in Montreal and this guy was like “who is this band Shellac opening up for you guys?” Are you kidding that’s insane—we are so blessed to have them play this show.

I feel like when people find out about you guys its like this moment when they realize so much of what they listen to is a derivative or so deeply inspired by you—like how did I miss this whole thing?

Oliver: I think our band name kind of turns people off, so in some ways maybe that’s helped us out—it makes it genuine and as honest as possible. We have a supportive label that always has our back and lets us do what we want to do—lets us be kids and make bad decisions. We are doing it to just make cool music and not ever really try to chase any sort of fame or commercial success.

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What do you think your most accessible album is?

Lia: Outsiders saying Exploding Head.

Oliver: I feel like I hear outsiders saying that but I don’t think so necessarily. I would say our most recent record.

Yeah I was gonna say Pinned to me sounds maybe—I don’t know if the word isn’t exactly “accessible”

Oliver: Not really accessible but I think in some ways it has some sort of kind of more lackadaisical fun feel to it even if it is sort of evil.

I think with some of your records—they are unrelenting. Pinned to me had that sort of chaos, but it’s more contained. Do you guys ever think about that? Of being more accessible, not for the sake of fame, but so that maybe people would find out about interesting music or so that this part of the scene would get more attention?  

Oliver: I think I am more curious what it would sound like if we were to record with some top 40 producer. In some ways, if you notice more top 40 music has been using noise influence and a lot of these people buy “Death by audio” pedals—like what the hell are you doing? But you can hear people taking crazy harsh samples and adding them as noises with real super poppy music. So would it totally destroy the edge of A Place To Bury Strangers to be recorded with a pop producer or would there somehow be this weird birth type of music?  

Dion: I like to just concentrate on trying to make something good and then in the story not try to think about the commercialism, it doesn’t matter to me. It’s hard enough just to make good music. You just gotta focus on that.

In the recording process do you ever just get lost? Like tunnel vision, working on the same stuff so much it’s hard to tell anymore. 

Dion: It can be confusing I can be confused by that, especially by my own music. But lately I have a couple of tricks to get through that confusion—the one trick I use maybe sounds a bit weird but it’s would I buy this? Because that sets it apart—I don’t buy music unless I really fucking like it so a good staple for me is would I actually put this money on the table and buy this song? You know?

Lia: Would I dance to it?

Dion: Not even that, it could be too confusing for me because I can dance to anything with a beat. It might be catchy but it doesn’t mean that I like it. If I would actually put the money down to buy it then I know at least I think it’s something that I like, which at the end of the day is music that I want to be making.

So as a noise-driven band do you guys have any music that is sort of meditative to clear your brain or something?

Dion: I try to listen to stuff that I’m not normally into—I think that listening to things that are similar to what you’re making can contain you and you can start making stuff that sounds like it. So I like to listen to what I hear in the streets or in a cafe—that helps and gives me inspiration.

Oliver: I guess I listen to so much sound and music all the time. I think the most meditative state is when we are playing live and it’s crazy and loud—when you can’t talk to anybody.

Lia: Improvising when we play, when we don’t know what we’re doing but we are going along with it. I don’t think about it so much, just engage with what exactly is fueling that energy that we’re creating.

Oliver: You have to dive into what is happening or else you really can’t react fast enough

 

Do you guys feed off the energy of chaos and destruction on set? With everything you’re burning down you can funnel into something else while you’re performing?

Lia: It’s what were working towards I think—trying to find our voice and our way through all the destruction and chaos—whether it be within our minds or with the the outside world. It’s a matter of embracing that with a genuine sort of perseverance and vigilance.

Dion: You can’t really predict chaos so, if you think about it too much it ends up being kind of boring.

Oliver: We play with so many things that could potentially go wrong at the shows all the time. You find yourself having to play the guitar with only two strings left on it or something and then it kind of makes you come up with interesting things that are really awesome..

What was interesting to me about Pinned is that—the word isn’t peaceful—but this came out at a time when people are going in the opposite direction because of how heavy politics is, music has become darker and more chaotic.

Dion: I think a part of it is the political climate. We have made so much evil heavy sounding music and with what is going on right now, is it good to be spreading this violence around?

Oliver: There is contrast to what you want life to be. Recording music is a little bit like a dream—not that we always want to be depressed. You go to those dark places and you go to those strange places where you’re questioning death. So it’s like now that life is so depressing, please let me go on a cruise [laughs]

Anything else about the record?

Lia: BUY IT

Oliver: Or download it illegally



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