How A Place to Bury Strangers Stays Indie in a Pay-to-Play World

The band's frontman, Oliver Ackermann, on why some experiences can't be monetized.

May 14, 2018 5:00 am
American rock band A Place to Bury Strangers' Oliver Ackermann performs a live concert at Parkteatret in Oslo, Norway, September 12, 2017. (Gonzales Photo/PYMCA/Avalon/UIG via Getty Images)
American rock band A Place to Bury Strangers' Oliver Ackermann performs a live concert at Parkteatret in Oslo, Norway, September 12, 2017. (Gonzales Photo/PYMCA/Avalon/UIG via Getty Images)
UIG via Getty Images

There was a time, no more than a decade ago, when a Brooklyn band had a chance at finding national success and reaching a wider audience, without coming from money.

If that statement sounds cynical, you aren’t listening closely enough. While do-it-yourself (DIY) venues and show spaces come and go as real estate values rise and people of color can no longer afford to live in the neighborhood, Brooklyn’s neverending flux of independent art and culture creates more vulnerable communities still. Artists who rely on access to these creative incubators and independent venues inevitably lose a place where they can present their work directly to an audience, devoid of any ticket fees, seven dollar bottles of water, or cottage industry music marketers waving around vague dreams of Instagram impressions.

This is what makes Brooklyn’s A Place to Bury Strangers so special. While their shoegaze-y, noise-heavy riffs conjure a wall of sound that could shake Phil Spector to his crazy bones, its frontman Oliver Ackermann’s guitar pedal company, Death By Audio, and their legendary basement venue of the same name that served as our boroughs most unpretentious, communal gathering place for sounds both garage and avant-garde. From 2007-2014, Death By Audio earned its cult status, somehow garnering mentions in publications like The New Yorker while never succumbing to self-importance or the monied nepotism of a bougie, patronizing creative class.

Then Vice Media bought the whole building, shutting down Death By Audio along with neighbor venues Glasslands and 285 Kent (both of which closed earlier). It only seemed like the end of an era before the crusty creatives of Brooklyn found more places to congregate. The irony that a culture publication was killing one of the principal cultural arteries in Brooklyn was not lost on us. A documentary, Goodnight Brooklyn, immortalized the venue’s final days.

Last month APTBS released their new album, Pinned. On the day of the album’s release, RealClearLife spoke with Ackermann about how independent music got to this point, and why some experiences can never be monetized.

RealClearLife: Happy album release day, first of all.

Oliver Ackermann: Hey, alright! Yeah, thank you. It feels good. We played a show last night for the album release, and it went great.

RCL: At (new Bushwick, BK venue) Elsewhere, right?

 OA: Yeah. You don’t always know whether the show’s gonna be good or what might happen, but the show was great, so it was really cool.

 RCL: You guys have a tendency to push house PAs to their limit.

 OA: Definitely. The sound guy who’s a good friend of mine runs the place and designed the sound system said, “You guys made the right decision by not having me run sound.” He would’ve been too protective of the PA and the guy we brought in definitely drove it to some crazy places.

RCL: Is this guy an old Glasslands dude who came over when they opened Elsewhere?

 OA: Yeah, David Levin, he used to live at Death by Audio.

RCL: It must be pretty surreal to be playing even deeper into Bushwick at a venue opened by the Glasslands crew.

OA: Oh yeah, it really is. You just have all these associations with people. I know these people as young kids, in some ways, we’d run around, do crazy things, and to have them be the bosses of security staff? You’re just in a weird, alternate universe or something. It’s pretty cool.

RCL: Some scenes stay the same, and some don’t. Having some constancy is what community’s all about.

OA: Yeah, I think so. There’s still a scene at Bowery Presents shows, too. This scene of guys who have worked at Bowery Ballroom forever and stuff are connected with all these things. You sometimes forget it’s real people running these shows.

RCL: I talked to Todd P a few years ago about all the cottage industries that have popped up around live music in the last decade. Streaming culture has created so many identity buckets out of music fans that it seems harder to find places where everyone where everyone can co-mingle and be together. How do you stay so positive and actionable and engaged in an economy where everything is very gimmick oriented, where “a band is a brand?” How do you stay optimistic?

OA: I don’t know, I guess because you’ve seen it work before it kind of makes you motivated [to think] that it’s still even possible. We just have to push even harder and harder than we ever have before, and it’d kind of crazy because it must be so disparaging to people. It must seem impossible to do these things sometimes. We’re really lucky to be in a place where I’ve submerged myself in everything that I love to do, surrounded myself with all of these things—the pedal company, other artists working on other projects that I can help them out with—so I have all of these outlets. But it would’ve been even harder to try and do this now than it was back in the day.

RCL: Kids who don’t come from nepotism have to have that other gig to even keep creating.

OA: Totally, for sure.

RCL: You’re saying that wasn’t necessarily the case when you moved here? More creative avenues for revenue back then?

OA: Yeah, there are still creative avenues for revenue, but you almost have to present yourself differently. Now, these things that are creative endeavors are all done through some established cooperation or something. Rather than a team of dudes who would just paint murals, who you heard from through the grapevine are the guys, now you’ve gotta work for Colossal Murals or something like that.

RCL: Colossal Media?

OA: Yeah, exactly. It’s cool that people create some official thing where they gather people who are artists and want to do this stuff. In some ways, they get to work with more artists, and it’s more efficient. It’s all kind of getting boxed into what the internet has sort of become—organized systems to make these things work—which I think kind of sucks out the fun and the mystery of an artistic endeavor.

RCL: Having that business acumen is a different part of your brain and kills some of the purity of just making stuff?

OA: I think so. Yeah, there [used to be] a lot of that more face-to-face interaction where you’d meet someone who’s just excited to do this thing or some random, one-of-a-kind business wants to engage with an artist to work on something. Just bringing more individual people into the mix with these things, less like a giant organization. There’s definitely strength of numbers—when people get together you create a cool community of things—but it almost needs to be organized with someone who has a business mind these days.

RCL: More and more these days I’m seeing rich kids come out of nowhere with expensive gear and didn’t pay their dues to a bar or a scene, and of course there’s always been a patron class in art, but is that something you’re seeing more of?

OA: That stuff definitely happens, and it’s the kind of stuff you’ll always get pissed off about. Somehow, these rich kids who just look really stylish paid their way to become really popular. That stuff is just the way that things work—if you can pay for all these music journalists then you can make stuff happen, and that’s how people get popular. If you supply the coke to the dude from Vice at a party all night you seem really awesome and cool, he loves your band, and all these things happen.

So that’s kind of what the “rock’n’roll” scene has always been about—who’s the most crazy dude, who does the wildest stuff? Its kind of disparaging and I’ve thought about that when mingling with these people. Why am I involved in this music world at all? All these people want to do is get stupid fucked up, talk about some dude that they know somewhere that is real important, kind of like the L.A. scene.

It just makes you sort of question if you want to be involved in this business at all. That’s not the reason why you do any of this stuff. What’s so awesome about music is not how popular it can make you, just how incredible these sounds are, how they can transform your life and your world. Going to shows can inspire you and take you out of your day.

RCL: That kind of piggybacks on this word “experience,” which has been monetized to include sponsored booths at festivals and digital footprints. What I love about this band is that, between DBA pedals and your shows, I’m washed in this sound that will never exist with the same all-consuming fidelity as your live shows—even on the records. It’s the ultimate “you had to be there” experience. Maybe we need more of those and less digital footprints.

OA: Yeah, I mean I think so, those are the things that changed my life. When you see someone sweating and struggling to make something incredible happen, you just instantly connect with that. Who knows, though, maybe in the future they’ll have figured out a way to synthesize that so well that there will be no use for those kind of things. In the moment, at the time, it’s always incredible just to experience real stuff. You always have things like your telephone push you away, but you have to just break free or you’re missing out.

RCL: How does your pedal company talk to your music these days? How do you prevent yourself from writing songs that are basically showcases for new sounds you’ve come up with? Is that something you want to do? I just wonder where your work and business talk to each other.

OA: I just don’t really care to showcase any of this stuff. We’re not trying to make pedals to appease any kind of people. If these things that we’re creating seem useful, and I think that other people could potentially be inspired by these sounds and these effects, then we’ll come out with them. I don’t care if people actually are into them—it’d be awesome if they were—but if it’s a flop or something like that it’s not really a thought.

Same with the band, recording sounds—if I hear sounds that are interesting, I’ll use them to create music that I think is interesting—but in no sense could you not make way cooler stuff with things that I’ve never even touched. I’m always looking for something different and new, the next thing that’s gonna happen. That’s not anything I’m creating, because you wanna work on the stuff that happened after what I created.

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