A Place to Bury Strangers: Oliver's Army
Originally published in Guitar World, May 2009
With The Edge and Trent Reznor plugging into his Death by Audio effect pedals, and fans clamoring for his hot new band, A Place to Bury Strangers, guitarist/pedal designer Oliver Ackermann has become a force to be reckoned with.
If you had to guess where the far-out guitar sounds of tomorrow might come from, the South Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, probably wouldn’t be your first choice. But over the past few years this industrial-waterfront-turned-hipster-haven has been home to Oliver Ackermann, a designer and maker of extreme effect pedals, and his underground effect company, Death by Audio. While you may not have heard of Ackermann or his company, you will soon hear his pedals in the rigs of rock’s most sonically ambitious guitarists, including Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor and U2’s The Edge. It’s a fact that Ackermann acknowledges with equal parts nonchalance and astonishment.
“The Edge’s guitar tech, Dallas [Schoo], sent me this email saying, ‘We really want your pedals for a recording project. Do you have all of them in stock?’ ” Ackermann recalls. “I said, ‘Yeah, let me know where I should send them.’ I didn’t hear anything more from him. Then, about an hour later, our buzzer rings and it’s a courier with a check saying that he’s here to pick up the pedals. U2 are apparently pretty quick on the draw,” he says, laughing. “So, supposedly now, The Edge is using [our pedals] all over their new album, which is pretty frickin’ amazing.”
When you consider that nearly all of rock history’s most influential players—from Hendrix to Townshend to Hammett to Slash—have defined their styles while using and popularizing the inventions of one-time “outsider” gear makers—including Leo Fender, Les Paul and Jim Marshall—it’s easy to conceive how the unconventional and extreme sounds of Ackermann’s pedals could become tomorrow’s standards. “With effects, sometimes people are still searching for the ‘Jimi Hendrix sound,’ ” Ackermann says. “But I would like to think if Jimi Hendrix was alive today he’d want to try something a little crazier and more on the edge.”
Ackermann has already found musical success in his own right with his boundary-pushing, experimental noise-pop group, A Place to Bury Strangers. The band—which features Ackermann as guitarist, singer and songwriter, along with bassist Jono Mofo and drummer Jay Space—has just signed with the internationally hip label Mute Records on the strength of its 2007 self-titled debut, as well as high-profile tours opening for bands like the Jesus and Mary Chain and Nine Inch Nails. (“It was crazy,” Ackermann says about warming up a stadium for NIN. “We almost felt like, What the heck are we doing here!”)
A Place to Bury Strangers’ effect-laden sound—a mix of Joy Division’s anxious, reverb-filled gloom, the Jesus & Mary Chain’s blissful fuzz and My Bloody Valentine’s swirling grandeur—is a byproduct of Ackermann’s influences (he cites all of the above) and his relentless desire to reach toward, and often past, the limits of accepted sonic conventions. It’s this pursuit that has led the guitarist down the do-it-yourself path of custom-pedal construction.
“I was always taking stock distortion pedals and turning all the knobs to 10, and that would only be half of what I needed,” Ackermann says. As such, armed only with a collection of Radio Shack electronic reference books, the guitarist began cracking open his stock pedals and tweaking them to his radical specifications.
He’s applied the same DIY resourcefulness to constructing the Death by Audio headquarters, a multilevel, converted industrial space nestled among South Williamsburg’s jumble of old factories and new luxury high-rises. Ackermann has outfitted the place to house not only him and his nine friends but also to serve as Death by Audio’s workshop, an art studio, a performance space, a recording studio and a rehearsal room where the guitarist can showcase his wild sonic inventions. The result is a haphazard hive of musical instruments, electronic parts, artwork and home items that include mattresses, kitchenware and anything else you could imagine.
Though the space is sprawling, most of Ackermann’s time is spent in the headquarters’ workshop, a cramped 6x16-foot windowless galley lined with soldering guns, circuit boards, chassis and all manner of mysterious gadgetry. It’s here that he and DBA employee Matt Conboy design and create the Death by Audio pedals. “When [A Place to Bury Strangers] are not on tour, we spend most of our lives in this one little room,” Ackermann says. “We’re always searching for something new and exciting. Our pedals are built outside of the norm but made to make what we consider to be the most useful, coolest sounds possible. It’s about having the option to take things to the limit. Some of our pedals even have a setting that will blow up your amp. And that’s also the state of new and exciting music. It’s on the edge.”
Ackermann’s restless passion for extreme sounds can be traced back to the early Nineties in Virginia, where the then–16-year-old guitarist played in the psychedelic noise band Skywave and began collecting effects that he hoped would manifest the elusive clamor he heard in his head. Over the next half decade, including his four years studying industrial design at Providence’s Rhode Island School of Design, Ackermann continued his search for the perfect distortion, filters and fuzz. After graduating in 1999, he moved back to Virginia to continue Skywave, which is when he became so frustrated with the limitations of conventional pedals that he took matters into his own hands, quite literally.
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