The term “ear-splitting shoegaze” may seem a sly oxymoron, but Brooklyn’s A Place To Bury Strangers have never denied there is some truth to that accolade, as well as the one deeming them “New York’s loudest band.” Their own moniker, “Total Sonic Annihilation”, prominently displayed on their MySpace page, confirms they’re proud of their dangerous decibels, yet they’re quick to remind listeners they’ve always had their share of melody and softer moments as well. Their latest release, Exploding Head, brings their songs to new heights, with a shattering array of themes and nuances, from delicate to harsh and everywhere in between. APTBS invited us into their practice space a day before they were heading to play France’s La Route Du Rock festival with My Bloody Valentine (“Yeah, we’re headlining,” drummer Jay Space jokes), delving into details about the album and what we might expect from upcoming shows.
I’ve read that you intended Exploding Head to be the “craziest” recording ever. It definitely proves you guys are always on the quest to expand your sound and challenge yourselves. The subtleties and multi-faceted details on this album are out in full force.
Oliver Ackermann (singer/guitarist): We were going for more of a hi-fi sort of sound. We also recorded it as an album as a whole, so we spent the time to get the sounds we were looking for, and paid attention to what was going to be getting tracked, as opposed the album before this, which was just kind of thrown together. I think it came out pretty good. [smiles]
Did your producer, Andy Smith, help you bring out new parts in the overall sound?
Oliver: Definitely. He really helped in post-production, the science of mixing and areas I didn’t even know things about, like changing the delay time by hundreds of milli-seconds between the floor tom and the snare mic to make sure everything was totally in phase. I would be sitting there and he’d adjust something and ask, ‘Where does it sound right to you?’ and a few minutes later, there’d be something else and I’d say, ‘Wait a minute. That sounds really cool too.’ And he’d say, ‘Actually, it’s right, right over here,’ and that would be perfect. I definitely learned a lot of new
techniques by working with him. He definitely took us to the next level of hi-fi because of all that experience he’s had working in high-profile studios.
It was more of a collaborative effort with the album this time around as well, right?
Oliver: Definitely. Those were some of the strongest parts of the whole album–the songs we all wrote together. We each have our own sound coming together and it’s a lot more exciting than before.
Lots of sweet melodies too.
Oliver: Sure. We love the melodies.
Jay: [laughing] Oliver ‘sweet melody’ Ackermann!
Tell me about the second song on the album, “In Your Heart.” It’s one that really stands out for me.
Oliver: We were on a U.S. tour and on a day off, Graham from Holy Fuck said he knew this barn that his buddy ran where he’d done this recording. He said we could get in there for free so we did it. We were in there laying down another song and just sort of wrote “In Your Heart” on the spot as a fluke. We recorded both songs and it was awesome. We did record it over again later but that’s where it started.
Jay: Even the first song was a fluke. We kind of recorded that in Minnesota.
Oliver: Oh yeah, that was a fluke somewhere else, he laughs.
Oliver: Those are some of the best songs. Those ones where you almost realize the entire song in like fifteen minutes. It’s the most pure. You’re tapping into your subconscious to find that song, as opposed to some songs that are painstakingly written over weeks. Sometimes they lose something when it’s not as immediate. Though there is something, I guess, to be said for something that’s carefully composed, and comes together from all these different, complicated parts. But I always like the songs that I wrote or we wrote in about ten or fifteen minutes.
Jono Mofo [bassist]: If you go too far into it, you don’t know when to stop and then everything just gets lost. So it’s nice just to do it. Then you just know when it’s finished because it feels like a complete thought.
With your huge tour coming up, will you mix up both old and new songs or stick more to the new album?
Oliver: We always try to do something different every night, if we can. A lot of times we just write the set list right before we go up on stage and it’s based on what we want to do or what we think would be appropriate for the night, depending on who the band was who played before us. Or if there’s someone from the crowd yelling, ‘I really like this whatever song’, then alright, we’ll play it.
It keeps you on your toes.
Oliver: Yeah. That’s even more exciting too. If you know exactly what’s going to happen, it sort of becomes stale to some degree. It’s kind of exciting to play a song we haven’t played in months. We’re getting to the point where we have kind of a lot of songs. We can forget about a song for months and then we’ll think of it and say, ‘yeah, let’s play it.’ It can be for better or for worse, but that’s part of the fun. When we’re playing our live shows, we might try to keep things dark and really loud and confusing, not only for the audience but even for ourselves. That just makes it easier for me to get lost in the moment. You don’t know what’s going to happen next so you’re constantly sort of having to figure out and fight for that moment. At some points, there’s a spotlight on you and you feel a million miles away from the crowd, you can’t see anybody, you’re very aware of where you are and what’s going on. It just makes the whole experience really bizarre.
Jono: Sometimes there’ll be lights on stage and on the crowd and you’re almost too aware. Everything is just out in the open and it just feels very weird. Especially like in a club where you’re expecting it to be dark. All of a sudden, you’re on the stage and it’s all bright.
Oliver: Playing something like Siren, you know what you’re getting into, that it will be outdoors and kind of different than the usual. But I’ve always loved going to Siren, and playing it was awesome.
I think you adapted to that sunny environment quite well. Did your new label, the esteemed Mute Records, give you total freedom to do what you wanted with the album?
Oliver: Totally, it’s been awesome and they’ve given us complete freedom. That’s really the greatest thing about working with Mute. For a little while, we were maybe getting a few e-mails that seemed like we weren’t going to be able to do what we wanted. But all it took was us responding with, ‘Well, what if we do this or something instead?’ That was it. They’re all way cool and Mute is just the awesomeness label. They do nothing but give some suggestions and personal opinions but they’re positive. You’re working as if you just have more members in the band. You get to know the people and their musical taste and you value their opinions.
Jay: And more people you can relay ideas to and bounce things off of.
Jono: There’s definitely a reason why they’ve had such long relationships with such great artists, from Nick Cave to whoever.
>–Madeline Virbasius-Walsh/cover and top photo by Scott Irvine, live photo by Andy Liguz