Oliver Ackermann, lead singer and guitarist of A Place to Bury Strangers, was kind enough to chat with me before the band’s performance at Chicago’s Thalia Hall on May 11th opening for the Black Angels. We talked about the tour, the New York music scene, bassist Dion Lunadon’s upcoming album, shoegaze bands, and where to get good tamales.
7th Level Music: Thanks for taking the time to talk with me. I’m really looking forward to the show.
Oliver Ackermann: Cool, man. Thanks so much. We’re psyched to be coming there. We’ve been doing some crazy things at some of these shows. Definitely with the energy of Chicago, I’m sure it’ll be crazy.
7LM: Have you ever played Thalia Hall?
OA: No, is that place cool?
7LM: It is very cool. It’s a converted opera house, so the acoustics in there are great.
OA: That sounds so rad.
7LM: It is a very cool venue. I’ve been told the restaurant there is amazing, but I’ve never eaten there.
OA: Oh, cool. Hopefully they give us a discount or something like that.
7LM: If not, I can recommend a place. A short walk east is this really good tamale restaurant (Dia De Los Tamales – 939 West 18th Street).
OA: Really good tamales? That sounds delicious.
7LM: If you get there early enough, I highly recommend that.
OA: Awesome. Maybe we’ll hit that up.
7LM: The other day I was describing your music to somebody, and I said it’s kind of like a Zen master whacking you with a stick on the head.
OA (chuckling, as he’s clearly never heard that before): Okay.
7LM: The reason I came up with that analogy was because the last time I saw you guys was in Detroit when you played with Grooms and Sisters of Your Sunshine Vapor. Rick from the Sisters and I were at the back of the venue chatting, and you guys come on and as soon as your set started it literally knocked the sound out of our mouths.
OA (laughing): Awesome.
7LM: I got to thinking about it, and your music has that effect on people where it shakes people out of things.
OA: Sure. That kind of makes some sense. There are those shows that you go to and have your mind blown and we’re always trying to hark back upon those moments.
7LM: I remember the first time my wife and I saw you was at one of the Levitation shows. You played at the Mohawk. You completely floored us, and I had a similar experience. By the end of it, I was standing there thinking, “I’ve never seen anything like this.” It was great.
OA: That’s awesome. Right on.
7LM: How influenced is your sound from living in New York and being from that area, if at all?
OA: I don’t know. I wonder that, too. Sometimes I feel like we have no influence from that. I’m so busy in New York and we don’t always get to do things, and there’s so much crazy stuff going on, but I guess that must be an influence as well. There are a lot of great creative people that can definitely drive you, but I feel so disconnected from the scene.
7LM: I was watching some of your videos, and I noticed this reoccurring theme in the videos, and some of the lyrics, about how technology separates us from each other. Maybe I’m overreaching here, but it seems like you touch on those themes a lot.
OA: Sure. Definitely. That’s pretty funny you bring that up. That’s definitely a theme of some of our music. Sometimes you want to go a little old school, and you kind of miss some of those days of just being able to wander and go meet your friends if they were there, or having to go knock on their window. I think it brings us together as well, so maybe that’s just part of it.
7LM: Is Lia (Braswell) still drumming with you guys?
OA: Lia is drumming with us, yeah. That has been awesome. That’s definitely been a big influence on where our sound is going.
7LM: How did you two meet Lia?
OA: (Bassist) Dion (Lunadon) had seen her play in a friend’s band, Baby Acid, and said she was a wicked drummer. We were looking for different people to play with, so we invited her over to play drums, and she was amazing.
7LM: I saw her play with Lindsey Troy of Deap Vally and she killed it.
OA: Yeah, she’s incredible.
7LM: Did you and Dion meet when he came on with Exploding Head?
OA: We actually first met in Los Angeles. I was out there doing some sort of job for a friend and I didn’t have a place to stay. He was staying at this house with some friends of his. I spent the night at the house because he offered a place to stay. We met again back in New York when he moved there in 2007 or so. He was in the D4 and a bunch of killer bands.
7LM: A friend of mine wanted me to ask you what your favorite shoegaze bands were, and I know the Jesus and Mary Chain is one.
OA: Yeah, the Jesus and Mary Chain, Slowdive, My Bloody Valentine, of course all those bands. Ecstasy of Saint Theresa, Heaven Piano Company, Alcian Blue was really good, the Cocteau Twins, the Emerald Down, Mallory. There’s a bunch of good shoegaze bands.
7LM: Have you heard the new Slowdive stuff?
OA: I’ve only heard a couple of the songs. It sounded awesome, though. I’m super-psyched to hear the whole thing. What do you think of that record?
7LM: I like it. I’ve heard the first two singles. In some ways it’s like they just stepped right out of a time machine and in other ways it sounds like they’re moving in this cool new direction.
OA: Yeah, for sure. I’m excited to hear the whole record and maybe if they make another record after this what comes out of it.
7LM: I have a few questions I always ask bands I interview. One of them is, do you have any influences that you think would surprise some of your fans?
OA: Oh, for sure. I like a lot of different music. What do you think people would be surprised by?
7LM: Well, the reason I always ask bands this is because I once heard an interview with Rob Halford of Judas Priest and he was asked this question. He said, “You’re never gonna believe this, but I’m a massive Hank Williams, Sr. fan.” Ever since then I’ve been intrigued with hearing about what influences people have that others might not realize they have.
OA: I love Hank Williams, Sr.
7LM: Yeah, me too.
OA: Yeah, totally. That stuff’s awesome. I don’t know, in this day and age is anyone going to be surprised by anything?
7LM: That’s a really good point. Another question I always ask is, do you have any favorite misheard versions of your lyrics?
OA: I wish I could remember, because there sure are some funny ones out there. It’s kind of cool because when you hear them a lot of times they kind of morph into what makes sense for the people. I really like that. It turns personal for them, which is kind of the point of our music.
7LM: That gets back to the thing I believe where your music changes people’s perceptions, especially live.
OA: Totally. That’s the goal for a lot of our music. It’s a state between life and fantasy and to be able to let go of some of your thoughts and troubles.
7LM: When I saw you in Detroit, you came out into the audience with your instruments and I loved how you made this cool moment where you brought this technology into the crowd, but instead of technology pushing people away it was this big communal thing.
OA: Yeah, that’s a great thing. I think that’s pretty awesome. Not everybody will do that to connect with the audience. We always welcome anybody and everybody to jump up on stage or pull us down or whatever to connect and make it a communal event.
7LM: Do you write grooves first or lyrics first? Or does it depend on the song?
OA: It depends on the song. We always try to reinvent writing songs all the time we do it. It depends on what’s inspiring you. Sometimes it starts with an idea and some lyrics, or sometimes the music brings out a whole story or a mood. Even more recently, we’ve kind of been writing all of it at once. It’s kind of a weird, wild thing. I’ve always fantasized about having a band where you didn’t have any songs written before you played the shows, and you would play a whole bunch of songs at that moment. You start to do this thing where you unconsciously tap into a really pure experience and it draws you in a different direction. You’d dig deep and reveal some things maybe you wouldn’t be comfortable revealing in that moment.
7LM: If you ever do that, I hope I can get to one of those shows.
OA: Right on.
7LM: I’m one of those guys where if I go to a show and the band gets up and says, “We’re gonna play a bunch of stuff you’ve never heard before.” I’m the guy in the back saying, “Fantastic!”
OA: Awesome. I always like that, too. At least to hear some sort of challenge. It’s all about the excitement at that type of show. I’m sure there’s band where I’d be disappointed in that, too.
7LM: Well, the opposite of that is that after we see you guys tonight, we’re driving down to St. Louis to see Tom Petty and Joe Walsh.
OA: Oh, wow, that sounds awesome. That should be so cool. I’ve never seen them.
7LM: Speaking of new stuff, Dion’s new album (self-titled) is out next month?
OA: Dion’s new album is out next month. I’ve heard it. It’s fucking awesome.
7LM: I’ve heard the two tracks that he’s released so far, and I thought, “Holy crap! He’s gunning.”
OA: Oh yeah, it’s so powerful.
7LM: I’ve always thought that about him. When I saw you guys in Austin the first time, it was two songs into your set and he body slammed his bass on the stage so damn hard and I thought, “Holy crap, we’re really in for something.”
OA: Yeah, he’s hit himself in the head a couple times, bled all over the place, climbed up on some things that everybody else would be scared to climb on. I’ve seen him do some crazy things.
7LM: Are you your own guitar tech? I’ve seen the way you handle that thing.
OA: Totally. Yeah, we are all our own instrument techs.
7LM: That’s fantastic. It reminds of when I was in a garage band in college, and our guitarist would cut holes in his guitar and take it apart to get different sounds out of it. I see you getting the craziest sounds out of your guitar by mauling it.
OA: Yeah, you gotta play your instrument to the fullest.
7LM: Where are you off to after Chicago?
OA: We’re going to Minneapolis. We’re playing First Avenue. Purple Rain, Prince, it should be awesome.
7LM: Well thanks for all this. Break a leg tonight. Not literally, of course.
OA: For sure. See you tonight.
[Thanks again to Oliver Ackermann, Lia Braswell, Dion Lunadon, Burgers Rana, and Steven Matrick for being so groovy, arranging this interview and my press pass to the Thalia Hall show, and for the lighter.]
Keep your mind open.