“We kept on blowing the power out and it kept on being sort of strange where we had to do a lot of crowd interaction. We would start playing and then the power would blow, and then we would have to stop and continue playing again (later),” the guitarist/vocalist says. “It was still really fun, but it’s kind of crazy when the power blows constantly.”
Seeing as how APTBS is a devoutly electric band, Ackermann attempted to entertain the crowd by bantering and sharing drinks when he wasn’t trying to get the problems fixed.
The power issues were largely due to the strobe lights and distortion-spewing amps typical of an A Place To Bury Strangers show. Ackermann loves frequently using words like “extreme” and “crazy loud” in conversation. APTBS is, by all means, both those things. This is a band that hawks its own brand of earplugs at concerts, and, with Ackermann’s Death By Audio creation, is linked to a guitar pedal company that manufactures pieces whose names — Soundwave Breakdown, Interstellar Overdriver, Supersonic Fuzz Gun, Total Sonic Annihilation — encourage visions of musical havoc.
Is this loud fetishism? Absolutely, but if any band is going to associate itself with overwhelming sonic aesthetics, it might as well be APTBS. CAC memories aside, the group’s sensory overload has led to rumors and reports of causing audience members to go into seizures and even inducing a pregnant woman into post-show labor a few weeks before she was due.
The Brooklyn group is so smitten with eardrum-threatening, reverb-harnessing tactics that Ackermann’s admiration for My Bloody Valentine comes as no surprise. Ackermann once described the influential ‘80s Shoegaze band’s sounds as “otherworldly” and has voiced his love for MBV’s use of loud volumes.
When Ackermann first began playing music, his father’s acoustic guitar became most instrumental. By the time he made it to the electric guitar in high school, he would wait until his parents weren’t home and push up his amplifier’s volume. The amp wouldn’t always play along — it might overheat or cut out, requiring a good kick to start back up. Ackermann was aware of his lack of legit guitar skills at the time so he relished the idea of creating noise over fiddling with a few chords. Ackermann once said, “I get excited about the kind of sounds you’re not supposed to make.”
His work with APTBS today espouses the same desire for noise and innovation that originated during his youth, though utilizing his obviously much more refined skills. The guitars on the recently released Onwards to the Wall milk their pedals for all they’re worth, crafting angry blurs, mammoth howls and portraits of imposing noise throughout the EP’s 17-minute-long runtime. The drums, too, carry this fantastic sense of heft. (Pay special attention to “Drill It Up.”) You very much get the sense that the band’s material could explode into an over-the-top blitz of sound at any point, but APTBS is always careful to anchor the songs in some kind of melody and pull away from the edge right as things are becoming too unhinged for the music’s good.
A more understated element of APTBS is Ackermann’s vocals. He sings in a morose, relatively quiet manner reminiscent of The Cure’s Robert Smith or Joy Division’s Ian Curtis — a style that indicates he’s perpetually undergoing some existential crisis. The juxtaposition of the intense music and the calm vocals is compelling, allowing Ackermann to offer a stripped-down complement to the music’s complex machinery.
“For some reason, I do it all on feeling and that’s just honest and true for me when singing. A lot of the things I’m singing about are almost even painful and maybe serious to me, so that is just the way that it’s sung, where it’s not over-embellished or something,” he says. “Maybe it was Aerosmith that turned me off to that kind of singing — I’m not sure.”
The band’s second and most recent full-length, 2009’s Exploding Head, features “In Your Heart,” a song that displays the interplay of the instrumental work and Ackermann’s vocals most effectively. He recites the spirit-crushing lyrics (“Don’t think I forgot what you said/There’s nothing there and it’s dead”) in such a subdued, sullen manner that you’re compelled to turn up the volume just to hear what he’s saying. In taking that bait, you’re quickly sucked right into A Place’s cold storm of sound, a world that’s very difficult to escape. It’s a brilliantly cunning approach that encourages you to turn up the volume for recordings just as APTBS does for its performances.
Violence, pain and loss are the three most palpable themes in A Place’s work. There’s the band name, the EP and LP titles and song titles like “I Lost You,” “To Fix the Gash In Your Head” and “Ego Death.” The title track on Exploding Head finds APTBS at its most base: “Cause commotion, cause a scene/Cracking skull, expanding seam/Every time there is a choice, it’s tear it apart.”
Ackermann doesn’t appear to have considered the importance of violence to his music before, but gamely offers up a theory or two.
“It’s really strange because I’m not a very violent person, but maybe that’s because I let things out in this kind of music and, for some reason, I take comfort in a lot of violent music,” he says. “It’s maybe even like watching horror movies or something, where maybe it’s therapy so you don’t have to do any of those kinds of things and can let something out.” ©
A PLACE TO BURY STRANGERS plays the 20th Century Theatre Friday with The Joy Formidable and Exitmusic.