Born in Pennsylvania and raised mostly in Fredericksburg, Virginia; Oliver Ackermann's interest in the arts began as early as he can remember, eventually leading him to the Rhode Island School of Design and then back to Virginia to pursue music with then band, Skywave. Around this time he begins to create his own effect pedals until ultimately creating Death By Audio in 2001. By 2003 he moves to Brooklyn, NY and forms A Place To Bury Strangers, receiving high acclaim following the release of their first self titled full length in 2007.
Having recently participated as Death By Audio in January's NAMM show in Anaheim (National Association of Music Merhants),where gear heads gather biannually for the newest innovations in music, recording technology, sound, stage and lighting products, Oliver is now preparing for the release of the new A Place to Bury Strangers album entitled, Pinned, scheduled to drop in April of this year, with the band also scheduled to appear in numerous shows and festivals including SXSW 2018 in March, and a tour kicking off on April 12. We had the opportunity to talk to him and discuss pedals, growing up, guitars, work ethics, studio recording and anything in between.
How the hell are you, Oliver?
Ah ha! Things are great! I end up working 80 hours a week revamping up the pedal company and then spend my free time hanging out with my girlfriend Heather, recording music, mastering records, going to shows, building sound sculpture for SXSW, and effects and light machines for the upcoming A Place To Bury Strangers tours.
Damn, before we dive into all that, what was it that first got you into music in the first place?
I used to fight so many of the things to be honest. I wasn't really fond of it. I took piano lessons for maybe a year? I used to record myself on a cassette deck in the basement practicing piano and then play the tape back so that my parents upstairs thought I was practicing downstairs. I guess I was a real brat. Also when I was in band in 8th grade and played the trombone I had no idea how to and would get so nervous to go in to band practice I would pretend I was sick so I could stay home from school and miss it. I would even just copy the arm movements from the person sitting next to me just by looking over and hum into the trombone. I wish I had been into it but I guess that makes it when I really fell in love with guitar it made me fall hard.
Any particular albums or shows that have stuck with you from that time?
For sure. Lightning Bolt at the Safari Lounge in Providence. I think it was the first time I had seen them and they started from the back of the room right when the band before them finished and it was an explosion of energy and excitement. I remember also going to this show at the Boathouse in VA beach and the band was so loud that my friend and I were screaming into each others ears because they were so loud and then after them was Dinosaur Jr. and they were like 10 times as loud and it was incredible.
When I think Dinosaur Jr. Fender Jazzmasters come to mind, speaking of which, you know those Jaguars & Jazzmasters you got are insane.
I kind of have a lot of Jaguars and Jazzmasters and am always looking for a deal on a neck or a body or a whole guitar at an affordable price. I have kind of lucked out over the years and gotten a lot of interesting ones.
Is there one in there that means the most to you?
My favorite would have to be the first ones I ever got. My friend sold me a Dark Green 1965 Jazzmaster maybe in 1999 and I used to beat it up pretty bad but kind of retired it from touring for the most part in fear that I would throw it too high into the air when the moment strikes. The other one I really like is the first Jaguar I bought which is an old Japanese sunburst guitar which I spray painted white right after I bought it. It has been cracked through the middle maybe 40 times and re-glued back together many times. It's funny, I don''t even know why but is always the guitar that I own that sounds the best. It can have one string on it and the neck cocked off to the side but there it is, killer feedback and rich textures all the time.
Seems you've customized the pickups on some of them, you tend to do that a lot?
Yeah all of my guitars are quite 'Frankensteined'. This usually happens when I crack a neck on tour and have to replace it with another or is one of the pickups breaks in half or something and then I put new parts in it. I don't replace things really for the heck of it. I just want a guitar that works and that is good enough for me. I don't really care what amplifier I am using, I don't care what gauge strings I use, and I don't change strings unless they break. For me the aesthetic and mood you are creating is much more important than actually having the perfect tool or whatever makes you feel most comfortable doing it. I like the outcome and will always attempt to achieve my entire past experience realized in a show.
Death by Audio started and remains a DIY effort to realize new ideas, how much has trial and error played in the course of the company?
I am a firm believer that the makeup of things like the brain are so complex that while it is enjoyable to be riding on that wave of understanding what is going on, the best things you will discover you have to be open to but happen in nature. Working with accidents. So really I just try to set myself up to make as many mistakes as possible and then pick and choose between all of the things that were not even really conceived. I think that things that are totally controlled often come out as being thin and contrived because art of the excitement of an idea is the imagination and personal connection in the mind. There is tons of trial and error but you have to have the knowledge to have places where you can push yourself further and experiment with new concepts and technologies.
Is there still such a thing as paying your dues?
I don't know. I don't know if that matters. If you are doing something interesting then share it with the world if you want to. It is nice to hear about how someone struggled to create what they did because we can all relate to that but I just want to be interested and driven in life so I am not going to say there are any real methods to explain what will do that for me.
How many pedals would you estimate you've made since starting Death by Audio?
If it is me personally I would say something like 2,000 but as a company maybe 40,000. It's hard to say exactly as a lot we had done in the past was poorly kept track of.
Which do you usually take with you on tour?
I use something similar to an Apocalypse, a wah filter type thing I built, an Octave Clang, an Echo Master for my voice and aReverberation Machine. But none of them are must haves. I think they just work better than a lot of other things, can all really cut through the mix, are extremely reliable, and create rich sounds and textures that most people when designing effects try to avoid. But if there aren't those pedals I will use anything.
Would you say moving to New York played a role in allowing you to realize your visions?
Definitely. There are a lot of people here who really want to go for it and get things done. You kind of have to be like that if you live in New York because it is so expensive and can be so difficult. But there is so much culture and interesting things going on it's worth it.
Are some, or several of these pedals you design brought on by some personal drive to take your sound even further?
They do easily let us do that and then we can experiment further than that with sound but I always like to change things up. I like to play a wah pedal backwards sometimes because I'm not used to it and that makes me use my ears to create and play with the sounds rather than have a method to what is going to be created. That is also why I often change up the pedal boards I build for tours so that it takes the band in different directions and we are never really used to what we are doing and it avoids anythingbecoming routine.
'Pinned' is your 5th studio album, scheduled for April of this year, can you tell us a little bit about that?
Sure, it is a record I wrote almost entirely on my own during some pretty intense personal transitions in my life. We had moved to a new space and then we moved again to an even rawer space that we were building out so there was a lot of inhaling toxic chemicals while writing and recording the record. I think when your life has really intense pressures it brings out the best in a record. I kind of always wanted to throw my life in total disarray just for really good inspiration but fortunately on this record I didn't have to force anything. I was at my some of my lowest lows and had many of the darkest thoughts I have ever had and this is reflected in 'Pinned'.
How do you generally approach studio recording?
Most of what we record now is done on a computer but some of it was recorded on 4 track cassette. Some we recorded at our friends place Spaceman Studios in Brooklyn, some at my apartment I had briefly in Clinton Hill and the rest at our new space in Queens.
Do you track live?
Most of it was recorded live with a few overdubs but some of it was recorded track by track all by me. There isn't any exact method as it is more of trying out what strikes you at the moment for what you are working to portray in a song. That makes whatever you are trying to do natural as you are constantly setting yourself up to be in a harmonious environment to what you are creating. This can be a dangerous situation, a sickening one, it really just depends.
And how about your approach to playing live?
I like things which are appropriate and as cool as they can be for the situation. That makes live shows change depending on wherever you are. I don't really like writing set lists until like 10 minutes before a show and often like to change them as the show goes on. I think that can make it fit better with what has been happening at the show.
Your first album came out in 2007, although the band's been around since 2003, what's changed in these last 15 years?
I think I just keep getting more and more open to new ideas and music. I think closing yourself off to anything is cutting off an opportunity for something really great to happen.
We tend to ask everybody this, is it the Beatles or the Stones?
As time goes on I don't really find myself playing either of those bands very much. The Beatles has been ruined by terrible musicals that play the songs and the Stones have done it to themselves.