A Place to Bury Strangers: Oliver's Army
“I started taking apart effect pedals and amps and tried to mod things, but all I ended up doing was breaking everything,” Ackermann says, laughing. “Then I read all these books to figure out why I was breaking everything. It took a few years, but I figured out how effects and electronics work and how to correctly solder and put something together in a good way. But the primary goal was always to make effects for myself, because for me it’s all about the music and experimental sounds and textures.”
Following suit, Ackermann’s company, Death by Audio, came about in an equally matter-of-fact, if not somewhat accidental, manner. “I wanted to go on vacation with my girlfriend in Europe, but I only had, like, $200,” he recounts. “I had this idea for a pedal that no one else had ever come out with before, called Total Sonic Annihilation. It made use of a very simple electronic concept called a forced feedback loop. When you placed it in front of your other pedals, those pedals would create alien-landing, explosion and space-gun sounds.” After only a month of guerrilla marketing, during which Ackermann sent the Total Sonic Annihilation pedal to targeted music magazines and instrument sellers, he had sold enough units to take his vacation. To his surprise, when he returned he found that he had even more orders to fill, and so Death by Audio was born.
It wasn’t long after, in 2003, that Ackermann moved his operation north to New York City, a decision that, while not without its challenges, was vital to the company’s growth. “Moving to New York helped because it’s such a struggle to live and survive here. You have to constantly take on effect projects and step up your game,” he says. Having first set up shop in the dodgy Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick, Ackermann and a few of his fellow Virginian transplants were introduced to the city by way of victimization, through tire slashings, window smashings, muggings and thefts.
Soon after, he moved to his current, and considerably more stable, South Williamsburg location and fell in with a crowd of like-minded individuals. Says Ackermann, “The amazing thing about New York is there’s all these wonderful people here that you can work with and bounce ideas off of, which is really helpful.” One of these persons was Conboy, a guitarist on the local music scene, who was introduced to Ackermann through a mutual friend. Shortly after this meeting, Conboy lost his job and asked if he could come build pedals at Death by Audio while he collected unemployment. “I had always been very interested in building pedals, but I had no experience,” Conboy says. “So I took the opportunity to come down and learn. And I haven’t really had a job since! I’ve just been hanging out here building pedals with Ollie.”
Despite his lack of experience, the addition of Conboy was exactly what the company needed, as he proved to be the perfect Type-A complement to Ackermann’s inspired, but disorganized, operation. “Matt really turned the company around when he came over here,” Ackermann says. “I’m a very disorganized person, and that’s how my whole situation was. Matt definitely made me realize that we should organize and set things up better. And it’s been really awesome.”
Previously, Ackermann would take on whatever custom pedal requests landed at Death by Audio’s door. That ceased under Conboy’s new policy; instead, he placed the company’s focus on developing a specific product line. “I used to build any custom pedal idea that anyone would send me, even if I had no idea how to build it,” Ackermann says. “I’d be like, ‘Yeah, no problem. $300 bucks and one month, don’t worry!’ It would end up costing me $500 and taking five months to build. And the person would be furious. But that was kind of like my electronics school.”
Death by Audio has since refined its line to nine pedals, including Fuzz War, Interstellar Overdrive, Soundwave Breakdown, Octave Clang and Supersonic Fuzz. As the names suggest, the sounds are truly wild: the fuzz pedals are dangerously explosive, the overdrives rage, and the time-based effects reach warped, interstellar levels. Each unit is handmade and housed in an industrial-strength chassis. Prices range from $150 to $320, and the pedals are available online at deathbyaudio.net.
Concurrent with Ackermann’s move to New York and the establishment of Death by Audio, the guitarist began writing songs under the moniker A Place to Bury Strangers. Considering Ackermann’s predilection for far-out effects, it’s fitting that the sound of APTBS is loaded with rich distortion, dissonant noise and all manner of distinct electronic textures. But what really makes APTBS interesting is their penchant for wrapping all that chaos around rock-solid melodies, a formula that is rooted in Ackermann’s childhood influences. “I was into punk and my parents’ Fifties’ rock and roll,” he says. “Then I got into noise rock right around the time I started playing guitar, and that really influenced the way I experiment with the instrument.”
Ackermann’s guitars of choice are Fender Jaguars and Jazzmasters, but the core of APTBS’s sound comes from his exclusive use of Death by Audio pedals, including the Octave Clang, the Armageddon, the Sound-Saw, and a few custom wahs, delays and modulation pedals. He chains all the boxes together in front of two pairs of Fender Twin Reverbs and Bassmans. “I like to be able to get so low that it sounds like your speakers are gurgling and exploding, but I also like to get crazy high frequencies,” Ackermann says. “So I split them with stereo delay and stereo modulation to create different dynamics in different songs.”
These dynamics can be heard on APTBS’s self-titled debut, which contained songs that Ackermann initially recorded as demos to teach bass and drum parts to his revolving cast of drummers and bassists. But he was so pleased with the recordings’ raw quality that he decided to self-release them as EPs, which he sold at shows. One EP caught the attention of Boston-based record label Killer Pimp, which immediately wanted to release the entire batch as a full-length—a proposition that initially didn’t appeal to Ackermann. “They were recorded to an aesthetic that I liked, but I didn’t know if I wanted to release it without properly rerecording them,” he explains. The guitarist eventually relented. “Ultimately, it’s good to call something finished and move on to other projects,” he says. “Sometimes you can work on something until it’s dead.”
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