A Place to Bury Strangers Find Satisfaction in Destruction
APTBS at Fitzgerald's, February 2015
Photo by Violeta Alvarez
Heard about Led Zeppelin and the mud shark? Rock and roll continues to collect mythological tales that dances on the paper-thin line between logic and bullshit. Considering he did link the recent deaths of Merle Haggard and Prince to chemtrails, controversy-courting talk-show might entertain a theory like the 1966 car crash that supposedly took Sir Paul McCartney’s life and prompted a secret contest to replace him with the winning Macca lookalike. When legends become verified, such as the case with Brooklyn’s A Place to Bury Strangers, some hyperbolic additions make them more intriguing.
First, let’s examine the New Yorkers' credo: “Total Sonic Annhilation.” Legend has it that APTBS once played an exclusive show at a gas station in somewhere around East 2nd Street in Manhattan, and invited 200 of their biggest fans — some of whom flew internationally to see this once-in-a-lifetime event. The place, according to one fan, smelled like gasoline, sun-drenched trash, and clogged toilets. The garage became the city’s biggest fire-code violation, with cars with unfinished repairs still on hydraulic lifts. The only sources of light were the ones the band brought, many of them strobes.
The doors closed, the strobes flashed and the feedback reached agreeable levels to APTBS’ fans, but not the band. According to this legend, the band exploded with “In Your Heart,” from Exploding Head, and fans mauled each other like some sick Darwinian experiment. Several fans experienced seizures; a woman went into premature labor unbeknownst to lead singer/guitarist Oliver Ackermann, who continued to play. Eventually he threw his Fender Jazzmaster straight through the gas station's caved-in roof, into the sky, and out of the earth’s atmosphere, or so the story goes.
Sure, most of the legend is balderdash, except the parts about fans experiencing seizures and the woman's premature labor. The band, consisting of Ackermann, bassist Dion Lunadon and drummer/percussion punisher Robi Gonzalez, prizes itself for its loud performances, but not for their own sake. “It’s not about volume or being loud just because,” says Ackermann, “It’s about us making sounds do things differently each time we play our songs. So volume, although a big part of who and what we are, isn’t all we’re about.”
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Contrary to the endless seedy and debauched stories that fill rock’s annals, APTBS’ story begins with a once-upon-a-time trope. Ackermann played in a shoegaze band called Skywave in Fredericksburg, Virginia for eight years, but the band failed to reach its desired success. “After having to do everything ourselves — making flyers, doing CD artwork, bookings gigs — out of our own pocket, plus not seeing hardly any return for our labors, I needed a change,” Ackermann recalls.
In 2003, Skywave disbanded and Ackermann received a call from David Goffan, a musician based out of New York, to play drums in his band. Ackermann was attending Rhode Island School of Design at the time, so Goffan’s offer gave him another chance to make music and be part of a band again.
After their initial practice, they decided that Ackermann should play guitar. Goffan and Ackermann wrote music, but Ackermann to note of the apparent disorganization of the group. “Because I came from a band that had to work hard to survive, I knew that unless we had structure, the band wouldn’t work,” recounts Ackermann. He started writing the lion’s share of the music, and the sound went in his direction, which differed from Goffan’s vision of Slowdive’s softer timbres.
The initial trio of Goffan and Tim Gregorio parted ways under friendly terms, with Gregorio moving to California to take care of his family and assume the role of being a new father. Ackermann refers to both Goffan and Gregorio as “talented musicians and songwriters,” and speculates that Goffan “had a hard time playing in front of crowds” and “struggled with how much work it took to be in a full-time band.”
“Life happens,” Ackermann muses.
The once-apocryphal story of Tony Wilson signing the contract between him and Joy Division in blood has been depicted in the docudrama 24-Hour Party People and the biopic Control. Knowing now that Wilson did, in fact, sign the contract in blood, the thought of it being nothing more than another urban legend peels away the story’s original charm.
Photo by Jerome Sevrette/Courtesy of Dead Oceans
Here’s the legend behind APTBS' first contract signing: In comes Jon Whitney, another not-for-profit auteur similar to Tony Wilson. Whitney’s Brainwashed recordings has put out works by Meat Beat Manifesto and the Legendary Pink Dots' Edward Ka-Spel. In 2001, he began Killer Pimp Records, which has released much of the post-hardcore act Ceremony’s catalog. After hearing the band perform live one evening, Whitney handed Ackerman a napkin that read, “I want to put out everything by you guys.” Ackermann sat on it for a year, claiming that he was initially afraid to sign it. When he decided to contact Whitney to make sure his offered still stood, and Whitney kept up his end of the bargain, he signed the contract written on a cocktail napkin. “It was one of the best decisions I have ever made," recalls Ackermann. "Without him [Whitney], I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
Beginning in 2007, APTBS' first two albums signaled the return of the cool for shoegaze and noise-rock bands, which these days fill the ranks at many festivals alongside electronic and hip-hop acts. Their success arrived at a time when indie-rock became institutionalized. Bands like the Arcade Fire and The National had planted their flags earlier, representing the '00s indie sound, but curiously missing was a sense of risk and wild abandon. Released in 2009, second album Exploding Head shifted away from the more pristine and slick atmospheres of their self-titled debut and set sail for wilder shores. The album's single, "In Your Heart," best resembles the tracks from APTBS' debut. For example, "Smile When You Smile" contains layers upon layers of filth. The feedback flies in the face of the verses, something that never happens on the debut. The biggest tell of this sonic shift, "I Live My Life to Stand in the Shadow of Your Heart" is elegiac, yet it is the sound of grief with someone bearing a sharpened machete: you feel certain they won't swing it at you, but aren't willing to risk your life to find out.
2012 marked a high point for APTBS with the release of their best album to date, Worship. Where some publications shrugged their shoulders at it, what they failed to notice was its nuanced approach to sound. “I write 80 to 90 percent of the material,” Ackermann says. “But that album and [2015's] Transfixation is us working together. I think Dion [bassist] really tries to fit in what’s going on, so he kind of adapts to my style.”
Worship and Transfixation attempts to capture their live sound. It emanates the filth and grainy textures merged with echoes resonating through an abandoned industrial building. APTBS play feedback with virtuosity, like cellist Zoe Keating or jazz pianist Cecil Taylor. Worship's “You Are the One” sounds like an already-crashed ship where the survivors are too discombobulated to think of survival. “Slide” never finishes. It is Hell to Stars of the Lid’s Heaven.
Both Worship and Transfixation dispose of APTBS's past. Yet to truly capture their live sound might be the band’s white whale; it is a hunt Ackermann will pursue for the rest of his life.
“I know that I will always write music,” he says. “There are still sounds that I have thought about but haven’t been made yet, so I know I will keep looking for a way to create them.”
A Place to Bury Strangers bring the noise to Satellite Bar on Friday, June 17 with special guests The Ex-Optimists, Something Fierce and Cornish Game Hen. Don't worry if you forget earplugs, the band sells them at the show. Doors open at 7:30 p.m.
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