A Place To Bury Strangers have been one of the most unique (not to mention exciting) bands to emerge this side of the millennium. Formed in Brooklyn by Oliver Ackermann after the dissolution of his previous band Skywave some fifteen years ago, their brand of incendiary noise rock has revolutionized the shoegaze, psych, and post-punk genres in recent years whilst creating a distinctive sound that's instantly recognisable as their own.
Earlier this year, the trio - Ackermann (guitars and vocals), Dion Lunadon (bass) and Lia Simone Braswell, recently recruited on drums - put out their fifth LP, Pinned. Arguably their most experimental, unconventional collection to date, it focuses on the band's electronic side rather than all-out sonic assault of its predecessors.
Last month, we caught up with the trio after their breathtaking headline set at Fuzz Club Eindhoven and discovered a band back from the brink of calling it a day to the revitalised beast that blew the roof off the Effenaar venue an hour or so beforehand.
DiS: You've just played a blistering set at Fuzz Club Eindhoven, which is predominantly a psych-rock festival. How do A Place To Bury Strangers fit in with that genre considering your music is a lot more brutal and aggressive than most traditional psych-rock bands?
Oliver Ackermann: I think it's important we give people something different wherever we play. I love playing psychedelic festivals and I love all this music, but then it also made me think how much a lot of these bands go together in a way our music necessarily doesn't fit in there. So I guess some people might see us as these weird, freak punks trashing the psychedelic vibe that's going on. I enjoy all of these bands and we've seen some killer shows so far, then we come along with something totally different. I'm really excited by the whole psychedelic movement. I feel it's getting stronger and stronger. I wish I was dosed out on acid or something like that! Maybe next time.
Do your shows get a different response from European audiences to what they do back home in the States?
Dion Lunadon: Everywhere's much the same really. People are people, people like music.
OA: Every show is different. On our last tour of the US, we had this show in Mexico that was absolutely incredible. A show in Los Angeles that was absolutely incredible. All of the other shows were really good, but they were also probably quite similar to one of the shows we had in London some time. The shows that are really incredible to me are sometimes different from the ones that are incredible to Dion and everyone else. So I guess you never know.
DL: The best ones for me are where we all come off stage and go yes, that was really cool! Not just the band but the sound guy as well. It doesn't happen that often but when it does I really like that feeling. Mainly because you know everyone's had a great time.
There was a three year gap between 2015's Transfixiation and your most recent record, Pinned. What were you up to during the interim period?
DL: A lot happened in between times. Death By Audio closed down and Transfixiation was the last record we made there. So there were two moves during that period in between plus we also got a new band member.
OA: It did actually feel like we were reforming the band at that time. So everything came about quite slowly and organically. We weren't really pushing to come out with a record or anything. We didn't even know what the future of the band was or what was going to happen. Robi (Gonzalez, former drummer) had just left, so everything was up in the air. At that time, all of us were writing music then we started to bring Lia into the band.
How did Lia first become involved with the band?
DL: I saw her play a show with another band in New York City and I thought she was a cool drummer. So I told Oliver about her.
OA: At the time we were also playing with John Fedowitz, who I used to play with in Skywave. So he played drums for us on a couple of tours, but he's also really busy with his own band Ceremony and lives in Virginia. So we found Lia at the perfect time. She came from this totally different musical background, and I remember being unsure at the time whether she'd fit in with the band. So we decided to try out a few practices and see what happened, and it came as a really cool surprise how quickly she integrated and found her way into the band.
DL: We didn't know she could sing either, so once we heard how great her voice was that gave us another element to work with.
OA: It was pretty wild to find ourselves in a situation we'd almost certainly have never come up with. We've had friends sing with the band before which I guess is standard for where this kind of music comes from, so it's really cool to have someone coming from a completely different angle with her own ideas.
Was there ever a point where you thought the band might not continue?
OA: Yeah, definitely. That kind of thing happens quite often. I think we push ourselves too hard at times. You think you're invincible and can handle anything, but once you put yourself through some stuff sometimes you soon realise that you're not! We signed up for a lot of dumb stuff, mainly because we didn't want to let anybody down. So once we've signed up for a tour with lots of terrible drives playing 14 shows in 3 days or whatever we feel the need to follow it through. I guess we enjoy the challenge of living with people in close quarters over a prolonged period of time brings.
DL: That's it. It's not really the music so much. Whenever you're thrown together in a vehicle with different personalities it's never going to be a breeze.
OA: We're pretty good at doing this but then once you reach the four or five weeks mark of being away, your mind starts to get a little crazy. I think most people would start to feel that way but we can still handle it. Then when it gets towards the eighth week you start questioning what the hell is going on. It becomes this weird blur where you end up reliving the same day over and over again. We try as much as we can to do as many different, crazy things as possible. We change what we're doing and go to see as much as we possibly can in different places. Hang out with different people. But then the constant change also becomes unnerving.
DL: We try not to do that as much any more. Just chop it up a little bit.
What reinvigorated you in terms of continuing with the band?
OA: I think you have to convince yourself it's still worth doing. At least for me personally. I have to feel there's a real reason for what we do. You have those doubts where maybe we don't play for a while or something then we'll do a show and come off stage thinking maybe we should leave this to the younger generation. I sometimes wonder whether we're beating a dead horse.
But at the same time, do you see any other bands coming through with a similar ethos to yours ready to grab the mantle from yourselves?
DL: I don't know. It's like anything in life. You have your ups and downs. We've worked so hard for this. To give it up would be a shame in some ways but then you also think to yourself well maybe it's just time to move on. We all know - me and Oliver especially - about being in a band. It's about not giving up. You'll have bad times but you just fight your way through and make it work.
OA: Also, I'd never want to be in a band that lost its excitement or momentum. You see a lot of bands like that who've had their time. Maybe it's because I've gotten older where I've seen bands years ago when they were incredible then seen them again years later where they've lost it and don't seem to care. I never want to do that - become tired to the point where we've lost it - so we always try to step things up. Which I think we have.
DL: Like you said, a lot of bands do fall down a hole after a certain amount of time and I often worry about it happening to us, but I'm pretty happy to say at this point it hasn't yet. We're better than that. We work damn hard at it.
When did the songs for Pinned first start to materialise?
OA: The album was written pretty much straight after Death By Audio closed and we were starting to move.
Sonically, it's a very different record to anything you've put out previously.
OA: Totally. It really is. I moved into a new apartment while I was writing the songs so a lot of it was written while trying not to disturb neighbours! Which is kind of anti what we've always done in the past. Before, we've always lived in our own warehouse space so been able to make as much noise as we want. Do whatever the hell we want, go as crazy as we want. So with this record, it was crafted with much more focus on the songs using electronic aspects such as drum machines.
Did any of the songs change after Lia joined the band?
OA: They definitely did. We just wanted to introduce as many songs as possible to all of us while we were practising. We were still trying to figure out where the songs might go, see which ones worked and which didn't, so some were scrapped during that time. Lia wrote some of the lyrics and turned those songs into what they became. That's always been the way we've worked in having far too much material from the outset, then honing in to see what works. Some of the songs we recorded sounded so good but just didn't fit on this record. There's a bonus disc that came with the deluxe edition and those were all songs we improvised. I feel that represents a true showing of what the band was with Lia. A lot of the other songs were pre-crafted and what the band was about before Lia. Whereas this involved everyone coming together and creating something new.
There's been an electronic segment in your live set for a while now. Would you ever consider playing a full set of Pinned material in the future?
OA: We did that for a radio show recently.
DL: The first time we ever played this set we did that so it could be a cool thing to revisit sometime.
Lia Simone Braswell: We're always exploring with different approaches to both the four-track machine or dance set because it helps us figure out where we're all coming from, what our style is collectively. We can play instruments and jam for 20 minutes but not really come up with a song yet still have fun and enjoy our time together. Whereas with a drum machine and everything we have arranged for that it makes things a lot easier to create actual songs, so that's where we're directing ourselves towards a lot of the time.
OA: I also really enjoy doing that where you have to play it live in front of people at that moment because you have to make the song good. It doesn't always work when the pressure's on, but at the same time, you don't want it to be some ridiculous jam that goes all over the place either. You want it to have purpose, whether subconsciously or otherwise.
Lia, was it daunting joining such an established band? Did it feel like you had to prove yourself as a musician?
DL: Tell us the truth Lia!
LSB: Early on, when we first started to practise, I was trying hard to settle myself into the band. I knew it would work. I think we all did. They were really persistent about it. I remember we all went to dinner together and I said so is it OK! And they asked me if I was really intimidated by them! Do you remember that?
OA: No! Was that at Champs?
LSB: Yeah, we were all at Champs having a discussion and I was freaking out. But that's just my insecurity and since joining the band I've really found comfort, acceptance, and encouragement from the guys. We have an understanding of how we are and who we are. I really appreciate that from anyone. I didn't go into this thinking I'm in a big band, playing these big shows with this already established band. I really do value the music, the people I work with, and everything that is included in it. The fans, the improvisation, and the challenging atmosphere of it all. It's something that I feel is not necessarily intuitive for everyone. But if you really believe in it anything can happen. So far it's been really cool, and now I'm not so intimidated!
Are you writing new material? Will there be another album after Pinned?
DL: We've been working on some new stuff.
OA: It's off and on a bit. We're just trying out a bunch of different things. I don't know what's going to happen. I guess we'll find out soon. It's early days, but we've started a whole bunch of different directions.
DL: It would be nice to put out another record sooner rather than later. We always take quite a long time between albums. I'd love to record three records in a year sometime.
Dion, you're working on other projects too. Last year's solo album as well as The D4 getting back together in February for instance. Are A Place To Bury Strangers still your main outlet as far as making music goes?
DL: My main focus? I don't know. I guess my main project is A Place To Bury Strangers, but I like to focus on everything.
OA: They're both falling off a cliff and you have to pick one. Which would you save?!?
DL: Well, the solo stuff I do it all myself. It's me, so I can't disregard it. A Place To Bury Strangers is essentially Oliver's band in many respects. He's opened his arms wide and brought me into the fold for which I'm eternally grateful.
Since you've been in the band the music has taken several different directions.
DL: It has. A Place To Bury Strangers is super important to me. I've probably spent the most time with them I've ever had in one band, but then I do write a lot of my own music when I'm at home too. It's good for me, because I have to do my own thing too.
LSB: We've talked about this before where we discussed how all of us are doing different things all the time. Creatively, whether its Oliver with his pedals or Dion with his solo stuff, its non-stop for everybody in our own individual ways but somehow whatever we do still creates that opening for us to share whatever we've been working on in our own individual time and collaborate with that improved or advanced place. That's how it feels to me.
OA: It's really cool because everyone's always working and therefore advancing in some way, even when we're not together. We're all still moving to the next place, the next level. So when we do get back together everyone's got different ideas that all come together in these cool ways, and that's so important to be able to bring to this band.
LSB: It keeps everything healthy as far as band dynamics go as well, because we're not always together trying to figure things out right away. It allows everyone to have their own space which gives us time to process whatever it is we're doing.
OA: It's tough too. Band dynamics are the same as with people. They can be very rough in some ways, especially when you're in a band where everyone is really creative. That's been one of the downfalls of the band at times. Sometimes you feel your ideas are not being appreciated so it can be very tricky.
With so much material to choose from, is it difficult putting together a live set?
DL: Oliver writes it at the minute. We used to write it together but it became increasingly difficult to do that, because you're coming from three different angles most of the time. I prefer Oliver to write it because it gives me a challenge when I don't know what's coming, but I have to make it work. That's really exciting for me. Trying to come up with ideas for a setlist as a group can be tough at times. We all have different ideas. Tonight we actually collaborated on the setlist, but generally Oliver takes care of it.
OA: Dion wrote most of it tonight!
You're on tour in Europe for the first half of September, then the States throughout October. What can we expect from the shows? Do you find it challenging trying to deliver the same level of intensity every night?
DL: We'll change the set every night for starters.
LSB: We're actually doing something pretty exciting on this tour. We're going to be bringing a recording set up backstage which we're hoping to play every night before the shows. Either to record, work on new songs or just have our inclusive time to get into the mood for that night's show.
DL: It could be really good. We'll see.
You're only playing one show in the UK at Hoxton Bar & Kitchen on Monday 17th September. Is there a reason why your visits to the UK have been less frequent and extensive in recent years?
OA: Unfortunately, the financial implications make it difficult. We love going to the UK but then we love going everywhere. So it's tough to try and make a tour work. This tour could have been based around going anywhere, but was actually based around us going to Portugal. We have to pick one corner of Europe and that's where we're gonna go. As crazy as it is, we can always go to central Europe and make that happen. We can either go to England, or Greece, or Eastern Europe, or go to Portugal. It just happens we haven't been to Portugal for so long. Next time we're over it very well might be the UK we focus on. We really want to come. Again, that's the whole thing about touring. You just can't always go where you'd really like to. We try to cap our tours at thirty days maximum which means we have to miss out some places every now and then. We have to pick and choose which always means some people will end up disappointed.
LSB: We'll come around again.
What advice would you give to new bands just starting out?
OA: Give up!
DL: Do something different. Don't try to just emulate someone. Find out what you are about and magnify that. I've seen so many bands recently that sound like someone else, and I want to see something I haven't seen before.
OA: Push it to the limit. Be willing to do it dangerously.
LSB: Have integrity. It can be soft and really smooth but still done with intention. It doesn't have to be a cliche.
OA: Don't take anyone's advice! Don't listen to what people tell you, because a lot of times when I do it leads me in the wrong direction. Do what you believe in.
DL: When I turned 35, I realised all the things I believed in at 15 were right about what I was doing. Rather than listen to other people, I realised that's what I should have gone for. Also, when I was younger, my favourite bands were the ones willing to die. Literally on stage. They put everything into it. They put it on the line. They wanted to change people's lives.
Do you think a band like A Place To Bury Strangers would make the same impact if you were just starting out now as you have over the past decade?
DL: Possibly. It's hard to say.
OA: We've also just built this slowly over so many years. Not fitting in with bands or any specific scene has always worked against us. People don't know how to categorise us so we don't fit in with their ideals.
DL: Sometimes people really hate us. We played with a band not so long ago and it really wasn't a good fit. We got booed off the stage most nights yet that still made me believe I must be doing something right!
OA: It was exciting.
DL: I knew I'd played a good show. I like that, and a lot of my favourite bands from back in the day had a similar response from some audiences. People hated The Velvet Underground and The Stooges back in the day. If you get a reaction as strong as that you know you're doing something right.
Are there any new bands you'd recommend for Drowned In Sound and its readers to check out?
DL: Prettiest Eyes, a three-piece from Los Angeles. They're about to come on tour in the UK. They remind me of a cross between The Screamers and The Birthday Party.
OA: Another band you should check out is Sextile. They're a new wave punk band from LA that sound a little bit like The Cramps.
LSB: There's a band called Moaning I really like right now. They're friends of mine from Los Angeles. Sailor Poon from Austin are great too. They remind me a little bit of The Slits. Check out Stuyedeyed too.
What's the future for Death By Audio?
OA: The venue is no more but the pedal company's still going strong. We've built tonnes of new stuff. The venue's main driving force Edan (Wilber) moved to Austin. He turned it into the incredible place that it was. Now he manages The Mohawk in Austin.
Pinned is out now via Dead Oceans. For more information on A Place To Bury Strangers, including forthcoming tour dates, please visit their official Tumblr page.
Photo Credit: Anna Yorke