Phoning Oliver Ackerman around lunchtime on a Tuesday brings me into contact with a groggy, no doubt eye-bugger-afflicted man.
“I’m usually up pretty late working on stuff or doing other things, so I’ll sleep ‘til around noon,” the A Place to Bury Strangers frontman says of his circadian rhythm.
Whether it’s the time of day or his general disposition, Ackerman puts forward loose opinions about what music should be, what his new record is about, and how anything he’s doing fits into any kind of bigger picture. Everything is “sorta” this, “kinda” that, and just this side of “who really cares?”
When viewed in contrast to the albums that Ackerman makes as the songwriting force behind his New York City band – as well as his ‘day job’ running Death By Audio, an effects peddle company responsible for a ghastly array of aural specimens – the lack of urgency on the other end of the line might risk hinting at veiled aggression more than good ol’ fashioned apathy. Something deep and fairly frightening is biding its time behind those crusty eyes and lukewarm qualifiers.
To wit: Transfixiation, A Place To Bury Strangers’ newest album, is a swirling mash of attitudes and noises, a soundscape aesthetically fraught with internal struggle befitting a band whose name is a reference to murdering people you’ve never met.
Or is its name, rather more poetically, a reference to a location in our minds that we send people who don’t matter – extraneous acquaintances – to be forgotten?
It doesn’t really matter. Either way, it’s some dark shit.
And as Ackerman attests, with a name like that, there’s definitely a decibel level to live up to.
Would a band by any other name rock just as hard? That’s doubtful. Sometimes, not always, the cover of a book is the best indication of what that tome aims to be about. In this case, it’s about a record that hits hard as hell, and a live show that aims to match it.
What was the driving concept is behind Transfixiation?
We started recording the album at a time when the band was playing the best that it ever had in a live setting, so I set off to try and really capture that feeling of a live show. So, that was sort of an initial concept.
Then it kind of took a turn, where we were working so hard on this thing and it almost became too much to handle, so the album became sort of about dealing with that, and whether we were going to continue as a band.
The record is basically about what happened along that journey.
There was a time whenyou weren’t sure that the band would make it?
Yeah, it was toward the end of making this record. We had these really big ideas about the music and how we were going to record and capture this stuff, and we’d been on a couple of really long tours and were just spending too much time with each other. We were working too hard, non-stop, and I think that we just needed to have like a break to sort of realize that stuff.
Was any part of the reason to keep going that you didn’t want Worship to be your last album?
I never really thought of that. It was never like, “Oh no, that better not be our last album.” I think more that it’s just such a healing force to be able to come together and make music. It’s just such an important part of all of our lives that it made sense to work it out and make our big ideas happen. There were also a lot of really cool things going on with the record, and I think it would have just kind of been a shame to not at least do something with it.
How do you think Transfixiation differs from past records?
We’ve taken a lot more risks I think with our sound, and done things that maybe I wouldn’t have done in the past. I think that with each record, things get a little more real; like, it becomes more real that your life is changing. Monumental things happen in all of our lives that let you see a little bit more how fragile life is. Everything’s changing around you that sort of creates a new kind of sound.
In some ways it’s very similar to our other records though, in that it’s a reflection of history. But maybe it’s even a bit more of an open question about what the direction is than before. We’ve always had a sort of direct approach where we’re self-consciously going to be a “rock band” at all times, but that just doesn’t work all the time.
This is your first record with drummer Robi Gonzalez. What’s he brought to the table?
He brought his range of experience, which definitely extends past the range that Dion and I are used to. There’s was also his life-long experience of playing drums, which was just kind of interesting – throwing a guy into the mix with that set of well-defined skills.
It made it really easy to record the album as well. We didn’t have to slave so much over individual takes; we could focus more on capturing something sort of special between us all. I didn’t have to do as much drum editing on the recording, so it wasn’t as painful as it sometimes is.
There’s also a drum machine employed for some songs. Was that just as a result of what felt right when you were putting the track together?
Those songs were either written separately by me, or with Dion and I, and then we did record some live drums, but there was just something sort of special about the drum machine track.
In the end, we just went with what ended up sounding like it fit the best, and a couple of those tracks with the drum machine just had this demo-like quality that sounded right when we listened back through it.
I could imagine that with your name being what it is, and with the reputation of being the “loudest band in New York,” you guys have a certain volume to live up to. Is that something you think about?
It must affect us in some way. I remember being a kid and being disappointed by some of these artists that I thought “went soft” at the time. I don’t know if they necessarily did – they were just sort of searching for new things and different kinds of direction – but I was always kind of bummed out when that happened, so I told myself with this band, “Don’t fall into that category.” If I want to do something else, maybe it’s about starting a different project.
So, I think we do think about keeping this band one that’s constantly trying to get heavier and crazier, and just in general making the kind of music that connects with us the most.
Weird question: Why do you have a LinkedIn page?
Well, for a long time I didn’t even know what LinkedIn was, but I kept getting these emails that were like ‘This person just asked you to join their LinkedIn page.” And then someone – maybe my cousin or something – asked me and I was like, “All right, I’ll accept this LinkedIn page.” I still didn’t realize exactly what it was, and then they started asking me all these questions and stuff on LinkedIn, and I think at some point I just kind of stopped answering the questions and that’s still where my page currently stands. I’ve never even been to the page.
It seemed like it was maybe two-thirds filled out.
Exactly. If you want to be LinkedIn with me, feel free.
You have your band, as well as Death by Audio, your effects peddle company. What’s your main job at this point?
It certainly depends. Right now, I’m focused mainly on the effects peddle company, but it definitely shifts. With these tours coming up, I’m concentrating on developing some sounds for that. And then when we were making the record, I definitely neglected the peddle company a lot, so it kinda just shifts back and forth as time goes on. And with both the company and the band, I have other people helping out, making sure everything goes the right way, so that sort of frees me up to where I’m able to shift my time around between the two.
I imagine that the band is often a vehicle for the sounds you create.
They’re both vehicles for each other. They’re intertwined in all sorts of ways. It definitely makes it easier that we can build our own equipment, and come up with ideas for sounds and all that stuff, as well as inspiration for effects peddles. When we really want to do something on a song, get a very specific sound, we have to figure out the ways to do it. In general, that’s just an easy way to learn: You really want to do something, and you just don’t know how to do it, so you have to figure it out. [Laughs]
You know what sound you want to make – and it’s never been invented before – so you just make it? How do you conceive of a sound that you’ve never heard before?
Sometimes it’s like that. Other times, I’m the most amazed by sounds that I didn’t even conceive. Sometimes there’s the thought, like, “I really want it to sound this one way; wouldn’t it be cool if we did this?” But I find that rarely is that the best answer. Usually, it’s something you weren’t thinking of, or a slight variation on something you were thinking of.
That’s even what I love most about music in some ways: You can never really exactly nail something down in your head before you hear it. You can mock it up in a waveform or something, I guess, but the way you end up hearing it as a listener is always sort of beyond – or at least different – from that. It’s like all of these songs are collections of weird mistakes, and it’s all something you didn’t really plan. It’s picking and choosing between those things, and fighting with and against this force of “things that happen.”
A lot of the sounds that populate the record have the feeling of almost fighting against the overall melodic structure of the song. Is that sense of internal struggle something you’d say that you’re going for aesthetically?
I feels like it all goes harmoniously together, but that’s also just me and my twisted sense of what music is, and what all of these sounds sort of represent. I do know what you’re talking about, and I think that’s maybe an idea that’s been lost down the road some time ago when first sort of listening to really old, messed up records. Like, maybe when a record’s just been played so many times or it was recorded really badly, there’s this feeling where it sounds like for whatever reason, there’s some pain or something interesting going on.
That’s been sort of our approach to these songs. They’re about tortured life to that extent, rather than producing the bounciest bass line that’s going to get people dancing. They’re about some sort of interesting or tortured emotion.
Are you tortured?
[Laughs] Yeah, I am in some ways of course, and maybe even it’s just being aware of injustice and things that are going on in the world and putting myself in other peoples’ shoes. I wouldn’t say I have it nearly as bad as tons of other people.