A Place to Bury Strangers are a band of contrasts and contradictions: they write pop songs, but sculpt them from – and half submerge them in – the most abrasive of sounds. They care passionately about what they do, but don’t care one bit about how people perceive them. They’re the epitome of slackerdom and anti-fashion, yet are as hardworking – and as hip – as they come.
In conversation, Oliver Ackermann embodies all of these contradictions: his demeanour is warm, friendly and supremely laid back, and he speaks with a slow drawl, his sentences punctuated frequently with ‘like’ , ‘kind of’ and ‘y’know’, but speaks eloquently, and will speak more loudly and faster as his enthusiasm builds. If one thing is apparent, it’s that he’s bursting with enthusiasm and driven by a desire to succeed – but only on his own terms.
I got to speak to him before the band’s show at the Cockpit on the last night of an epic tour of the US and mainland Europe, concluding with a series of UK dates. I went equipped with a handful of questions, expecting a brief 15-minute Q&A exchange, but in the event, got to rap about a whole host of topics during the course of half an hour. And still none of it quite prepared me for the show I would witness an hour or so later...
W&H: The loudest band in NY line comes up in every article and interview – and now this will be no exception, since I’m stating with it. Evidently, as a strapline for promotion it’s pretty memorable and has immediate cred, it’s cool...
OA: Maybe... it doesn’t seem like such a cool thing to me, but go on....
W&H:....do you worry ever that it’s something of an albatross that overshadows the other elements of your music and live shows?
OA: Ah, whatever... I don’t really care what people are saying or what they think. If that misleads them, sometimes that’s a good thing. You know, if you hear that some movie is going to be a comedy, but then in fact it’s a scary movie, that’s kind of a nice surprise, so, y’know, whatever. If it’s misleading, that’s about the best thing that could possibly happen, ‘cause then you can perhaps be surprised and then you can take something for what it is. If you’re expecting to see some kind of crazy loud band, I don’t know who you are anyway...
W&H: So to what extent is volume important to your performance?
OA: It’s crucial. It’s very important to what we’re doing, but only because that’s at the point which some things happen, even in science. Like when your eardrums start to feel something extraordinary when something is really loud, and it shakes your whole body. And there’s this kind of thing that happens where your guitar and your amplifier are almost talking to each other, and this kind of stuff is impossible without that. There’s also the sound of things when they’re right on the verge of exploding. We always push everything to where things break as we play on tour, so there’s a constant battle to make sure we have enough stuff that works.
W&H: That must be quite exciting, in that it keeps things on a constant edge...
OA: Yeah... I guess you could call it exciting. It’s just another job or something...
W&H: Nice work if you can get it!
OA: Yeah, it is exciting, and it’s really fun to be taking things those places and it adds that element of complete unpredictability, and as a speaker’s getting destroyed it changes sound, so you have to adapt your whole sound to what’s going on when these things are happening. As the tour goes on your shows change and I think that’s a really neat, cool and exciting thing. I don’t know if other people do that or are willing to do that. People don’t necessarily know how to fix their own equipment, so they don’t break it – or they try not to – they’re scared. We are not scared to actually play the guitar as opposed to someone who is like ‘I’d better watch out, this guitar cost a thousand dollars’... we don’t care. We are here to get some sound that we’ve never heard before.
W&H: You’re from New York, which has a lengthy history of producing exciting bands, from, say, The Ramones, through No Wave to more recent acts like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and even Interpol? What is it about NY, do you think, and how do you see yourselves within that lineage, if at all?
OA: I’m an outsider who came into New York and I’ve been in New York for ten years now. New York is really exciting, it’s constantly changing and there are so many people doing so much great stuff all the time. And there are so many different areas, too, so no matter where you are or who you’re hanging out with there’s so many good groups of kids, it’s just the best place to be in the US... so us and this lineage of bands, I don’t think it’s even possible. I’m just from a small town, and I just don’t acknowledge any sort of stardom or whatever. This one kid in France was saying that we have replaced Sonic Youth for being the biggest New York noise-rock band in the world right now, as I was like ‘what are you talking about?’ It’s just so ridiculous. These bands, y’know, like The Ramones – that was one of my favourite concerts, going to see The Ramones a couple of times, and some these bands... to even be thought of on the same level just seems ridiculous.
W&H: I suppose with a city of that size, there’s just so much going on, it’s a complete melting pot...
OA: Totally, yeah, definitely, and it’s really exciting to live there, and it’s also really hard to live there, so you have to constantly step up your game or you’ll starve. Unless you’ve got rich parents, you’re actually going to get kicked out of your house and live on the streets or move out of New York if you don’t do something, and so something well.
W&H: Many of the most obvious reference points in your music – The Jesus and Mary Chain, My Bloody valentine, for example – are British. Would you describe yourselves as Anglophiles, or it it simply a case of music that comes from anywhere is interesting?
OA: We draw our inspiration from so many different bands. I think those bands like My Bloody Valentine and The Jesus and Mary Chain are just what I was listening to when I first started playing guitar, so it’s just this weird bastardized translation of loving noise and rock ‘n’ roll music. I think those bands were doing that sort of thing at that time, and it’s just this vision you have of what these bands were like back in the day. You hear stories of riots at The Jesus and Mary Chain concerts and these are the sort of things that seem exciting in music and rock ‘n’ roll and I think that’s how we have this sort of correlation... With The Jesus and Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine, it was kinda like pop music with guitars that sound like whales...
W&H: It interesting you should say that. I think with both The Jesus and Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine, there are some great pop songs there, buried under all that noise, and that the quality of the songwriting’s often overlooked. Do you think the same is true of your stuff?
OA: I don’t know, I try not to pay attention to what people are saying about the music, and I do that as a personal goal. I feel like we don’t want to taint what we would come up with. It all happened when our first record came out, because... I didn’t want the first record to come out. It was all of these demos that I’d done basically to show everyone else in the band how to play these songs that I’d come up with. I’d been in these failed bands before and it just seemed like I’d put so much effort into it, blood, sweat and tears and whatever and it was just to no avail, nobody would give us the time of day. We’d get kicked out of clubs and shit like that, so then I’d moved to new York and was hanging out with some friends who were telling me all about ‘doing it right’ in a band. We were just making music for fun, but I was thinking we would want to do it properly, so when this guy approached us and said ‘I love these demo songs you guys have done, I want to put it on a CD, I’ll put it out and I don’t want anything from it, you guys can keep all of everything’, I was like, ‘I don’t know...’ I was really reluctant to do it. So I got the guy to promise he’d only make 500 copies... and then people loved the record! So then it make me feel almost justified in what I’d been trying to do previously, for the 10 years before that. Then I started to realise there was a cult following for these old bands I’d been in, so I thought maybe it was better to do things that I always believed in, from my heart... and so that’s what I decided I was gonna do, and not try to listen to other people. So if I wrote a song and it sounds reminiscent of something else, who gives a shit? I’m just trying to make music for who I always made music for, and that was for myself, and if there’s people that like it, I think that’s really good. I think a lot of bands – at least what I’ve noticed is that you’ll see the downfall of bands where they’ll write one good record, or two good records, because they were just so in love with what they were doing, and then they’ll get a fucking fancy producer in or whatever, and it seems to almost always destroy bands. it’s not always the case – there’s definitely some bands that have continued to be good and have grown better with age, but so often bands make the first record or two and then....
W&H: ....they’ve got the fire at first, but then they get caught up in the industry machine...
OA: Yeah, absolutely. So I try to keep as far away from that as possible, and hopefully our best stuff is yet to come.
W&H: On the artwork for your releases, your images are blurred and largely unrecognisable. Is that a conscious decision to try to remove the ‘image’ aspect of the band or some other kind of statement?
OA: I just think it looks cool. I mean, I’m not trying to look cool, but I definitely understand when there’s some sort of aesthetic... I think looking cool to some degree is important. I mean, I don’t usually dress particularly cool, but... (he gesticulates down his body, from the frayed top, the torn jeans with no knees, the beaten up trainers. His hair’s truly wild and he’s clearly not had a shave in a few days).
W&H: Cool is not giving a fuck.
OA: Ok, yeah. I like that. I don’t give a fuck so I’m very cool! Also, though, I think it relates to the music. What we do is not make everything so aware as to what’s going on, so I think that when you have to use your own imagination a little bit, it makes something so much better. it’s like reading a book versus watching a movie: with a movie you see what’s happening, when you read the book you imagine all of these things, and I can come up with some really cool, creative, awesome characters in my head, and when you see the movie it kinda fizzles all that out... so there’s a little bit of mystery.
W&H: I suppose also that corresponds with the music in the way there’s that sonic blurring...
OA: Definitely. You’re not sure if it’s a guitar, a chainsaw or what.
W&H: ‘Exploding Head’, to my ears, had a sharper, harder edge than the material from the early EPs that composed the eponymous debut, and the ‘Onwards To the Wall’ EP brought together some more overt pop elements – I’m thinking in particular ‘So Far Away’ - with that harder edge. How do you see the band’s sonic evolution, and how has it progressed in recording the new album?
OA: On this most recent record, we just tried to make it completely stream of consciousness and let the record write itself. On ‘Exploding Head’ the original plan was to make the most badass crazy rock ‘n’ roll record of all time, and then that changed because once we’d got signed to Mute I really just started to fall in love with electro pop, Mute stuff, that early electronic music. It just made me bring out all of my old Fad Gadget records and I just got really excited about those things again, and so that was kind of an inspiration... this one we just let it flow. For the next record... we spent a long time recording this record, and I don’t think we’re going to do that again for a while so we’re going to try and record the next record, I think it will be an evolved sense of what has happened. I don’t know what’s gonna happen, but I’m really excited about not giving it any exact or preconceived direction. It felt really good this most recent record, and I’m just really excited to write songs, I just love doing that and I think we’ll just see what happens.
W&H: What was the idea behind the title of the new album?
OA: It’s just pulled from one of the songs, and it can mean a lot of different things. That particular song, it’s about worshipping someone that you are intimate with... and I don’t know if that’s exactly what we thought of for the record. We just kinda thought that it could mean so many different things, and I think it does, I think it’s interesting. It seems to me a little bit evil, about how the world is worshipping all of these things, it’s almost disgusting, just how fucking crazy people go over all of these things. We thought that was cool.
W&H: I suppose it’s back to the blurring thing again, it’s subject to interpretation, rather than being a definitive statement...
OA: Some people I’m sure will think that it is, and be like ‘who the fuck do they think they are, having us try to worship them?’ or something like that... It’s like, whatever.
W&H: Either that or thinking you’ve got religion or something...
OA: Yeah, exactly! It’s funny how much stuff in this band has to do with religion, but whatever, we’re not religious, so...
W&H: You recently remixed songs by Grinderman and Holy Fuck. How did that come about?
OA: Both those bands asked us to to a remix, so... We did a tour with Holy Fuck a long time ago, like our first US tour, we supported them, so they’ve just been really good friends for a really long time. And Grinderman just asked us out of the blue, I guess because we’re Mute artists or something. What an honour! That was so cool.
W&H: So did you feel a burden of responsibility, or were you able to distance yourself from it and was the music simply material?
OA: I was just really excited. When I do remixes, I re-record all the music, so it’s basically – apart from the Holy Fuck one, actually, because they barely have any vocals, so I used some of their instrumentation – but it was awesome, with the Grinderman one, I basically got to record a song and have Nick Cave sing it, which was so cool.
W&H: So you do it the hard way, then, and really strip it back?
OA: Yeah, because no-one else does this! I always feel like everybody takes some song and frickin’ adds, I dunno, some techno beat or something like that, so it’s for me to rerecord it and make some punk remix or something like that because there’s just not enough of that.
W&H: As a rule I hate remixes, because all they seem to be is taking out the bass and adding some shit drums in and it’s just crap. Remixes nearly always strip the essence of the song, and take out the bits that made it good in the first place.
OA: When I was a kid, and you’d buy some Nine Inch Nails single or something... one song that’s on the album, and like, nine remixes, and it’s all... (plays techno beat on legs, adding blips and pows) .,..and I’m like, ‘fuck this shit, I’ve just wasted my money! I didn’t eat lunch so I could get this piece of crap!’
W&H: I think the Jim Thirlwell remixes are good, because they were just totally crazy.
OA: Yeah, yeah. There are some good remixes out there, don’t get me wrong...
W&H: ...but there’s a lot of shit ones.
W&H: On the subject of Nine Inch Nails, you’ve opened for them. How was that?
OA: Crazy. Sweet. It was awesome. I mean, again, what a frickin’ honour! To be asked but Nine Inch Nails to be part of their tour. It was just really weird, we had never done anything on that kind of scale. I don’t even know if I would want our band to be at that kind of level, it’s sort of... I dunno, not really playing music any more. But it was really cool, it was a really fun time, and awesome experience and it was rad to be in these giant arenas and have all access passes, because we would run around and go fuckin’ crazy. You’d be in the boiler room or something, throwing chair around and shit, you could turn on all the showers, and smoke weed, flush all the toilets at once, you know, whatever. It was just really fun. And Nine Inch Nails were awesome, it was cool to see them every night too.
W&H: Going back to the remixes briefly: is remixing something you’d like to do more of?
OA: It’s fun, if I’m really into the song... yeah, I like doing remixes. I like doing a lot of different things. I just like to change them up, I wouldn’t want to be just a remix artist, and I wouldn’t like to just go on tour every single day for the rest of my life. I wouldn’t just like to sit at home and record records, or whatever, so it’s cool when you do a couple of remixes a year, doing different stuff keeps it exciting.
W&H: How do you like touring?
OA: Love it! But this is the last day of a nine-week tour between the US and Europe and the UK and I’m really excited to be here and to play this show, but you start to lose your sanity at times.
W&H: How do you keep yourselves amused on the road for nine weeks, and how do you keep a grip on reality?
OA: You do, but there are some points where you’re like ‘where the hell am I? What’s going on? Why are we here?’ I guess it’s mostly when the partying starts is when you start to lose your sanity, ‘cause you’re talking to fifty people in one night and you’re wasted, and then you wake up and you feel like shit and you’re driving somewhere, and sometimes it gets into this horrible cycle where.... it’s not that bad of a cycle really, I mean, shit, we’re living a life I could have only dreamed, which is amazing. But sometimes, it’s just crazy. But then there are lots of times where it’s really mellow, it’s just a combination of super boring times and all sorts of things.
W&H: And how have the UK’s audiences treated you?
OA: They’ve been great, it’s been really good in the UK, things have been absolutely fantastic. I love coming to the UK. This whole tour’s been rad. You know, sometimes you get people where you can’t quite tell whether they’re excited about the show or not because they just stand there, and usually you hear later that they were like ‘we were just in awe! We couldn’t move!’ and it’s like ‘oh, ok!’ but it’s a little bit strange. I definitely get more excited when people are going crazy and jumping around, but whatever. If not, we don’t care... we had a couple of bummer shows really early on in this tour, our first show in France and the night after that. We thought, ‘uh-oh, there goes all the good shows’, but then we decided, ‘you know what, fuck that shit. we’re just gonna make sure that tomorrow is good no matter what.’ You sometimes have to rise above it. We have all sorts of things go wrong all the time in every single one of our shows, and so you just have to go with that.
W&H: Would you recommend earplugs, or are earplugs for pussies?
OA: If you’re concerned about your hearing and you want to protect yourself, then wear earplugs, I don’t care. But I don’t wear earplugs. If I don’t wanna hear a band without earplugs, usually I’ll leave. But it’s fine, you know, whatever. Whatever kids wanna do these days. Some people don’t want to experience everything and I completely understand, maybe you’re not feeling it. I don’t know, I’ve never seen my band play live, so I don’t even know what it is exactly. I think it’s good in terms of what we’re trying to do, but maybe it’s the sort of thing you should be wearing earplugs for.
‘Worship’ is out now on Dead Oceans.