With the music biz shifting, daily talk amongst musicians mainly revolves around the subject of adaptability. As old doors close, others are opening, offering creative control, DIY tools, and diversification options. Bands rarely find themselves coddled anymore and have to make things happen for themselves, for better or worse.
Nobody exemplifies the embracing of this lifestyle better than Oliver Ackermann. First making a name for himself with the band Skywave, he soon after founded Death By Audio, a homegrown effects pedal company that was on the leading edge of the boutique effects boom. Whereas his contemporaries seemed to be on an endless search for the ultimate Tube Screamer clone, Ackermann cut new sonic paths, unapologetically stating that his stompboxes weren't for everyone, catering instead to players wanting to summon more excruciating tones out of their guitars. Coming full circle, these sounds find their way into his current band, A Place To Bury Strangers, a three-piece that includes bassist Dion Lunadon and drummer Robi Gonzalez, who have been making post-apocalyptic noise rock for over a decade. Live shows are heady, strobe-fueled and impossibly loud sensory-overloading events, designed to bring on hallucinations. Woe to the band that hits the stage after them.
So it's appropriate that Death By Audio HQ, also a venue and recording studio, looks like an electrical engineer's take on Road Warrior. The walls are lined with enough guitars, in various states of customization, repair, and decrepitude, to shame the members of Sonic Youth. Gear stacks the walls, which are covered in stickers and silkscreen test runs. Yet there is a method to the madness, and everything seems to be in its right place. The shop cranks out an impressive number of well-made pedals that have found their way into the hands of artists as diverse as The Edge, Jeff Tweedy, Trent Reznor, and Kevin Shields [Tape Op #26]. You might think that all of this fascination with decay Ackermann might be a tough interview, but he remains one of the most positive and optimistic people you'll ever meet. It makes sense. Things seem to be going his way.
You're originally from Fredericksburg, Virginia?
Yeah. Growing up there was nice, I guess. It's one of those towns where, as you grow older, it becomes really small. There's almost nothing to do. We would just go hang out at graveyards, abandoned battlefields, or down by the river. I listened to my parents' music, like Bob Dylan and The Beatles, and typical stuff, like Madonna or Billy Joel. I wasn't really into music, but when my brother got his driver's license he drove me around playing the Circle Jerks as loud as it could possibly go. I was like, "What is this crazy stuff?" I started stealing his records: Dead Kennedys, The Misfits, Minor Threat, and The Ramones. That changed everything for me. Then, in high school, my friends and I'm self-taught, through books. This was before a lot of the Internet craze. I did check out a few forums, went to libraries, ordered books, and got tons of hands-on experience by pulling things apart. I failed many times. I would read books and not understand a word of it, but eventually pieces started to fit and make sense. It took maybe a year just to teach myself how to solder. Now I could teach someone how to solder really well in two minutes, but I had no one to guide me.
"Why is this $8 soldering iron not doing a good job?"
Blowtorches! Plumber's solder! I started building effects pedals in 2001. I really wanted to go to Europe with my girlfriend, just backpacking around. We'd already paid for the plane tickets, but we were going to be gone for the month, so I figured that I needed to raise about $3,000. I came out with the first pedal, Total Sonic Annihilation, and put it up on places like Harmony Central as a totally unique effect. I sold enough of them to make $3,000 in a month. That was awesome! I figured that was probably going to be it for effects pedals, that the orders would start trickling off, but then I made this other effects pedal called the Sound Saw. It was way too ambitious, with something like 47 wires running between different circuit boards. I created a giant nightmare for myself. I decided I'd take on any custom job, no matter what it was. I'd build or clone anything. Most of the time I wouldn't have a clue how to build what they wanted me to build, but I'd accept the projects just to be able to learn and figure out how the technology works.
I've taken on recording projects for the same reason — to learn how to do it by doing it.
Sometimes I'd feel so bad, because I'd say, "Yeah, it'll probably take me a month and it'll cost $500." Three months later it's like, "I'm still working on it. Don't worry!" Then I moved to New York. At the time I moved, it was hard making money off of just building effects pedals. I was driving trucks for movies or video shoots, web design, and selling the pedals. I had some bad luck too. I sold a pedal to Richard Fortus, who was in Guns N' Roses, for $150. I drove to his place. There was nowhere to park so I parked at a bus stop. I ran up to his door, gave him the pedal, ran back to my van, and there's a ticket for $150 on my dashboard. I was also selling stuff on eBay, as well as selling off pedals from my personal collection.
How did you end up in New York?
Every time we came up we had so much fun. There was just so much going on — galleries to see. It's the polar opposite of living in a small town, where you ache for that kind of stuff.
So you packed everything up, left your warehouse, and moved to Bushwick [Brooklyn]?
Yeah, we didn't really know what we were doing. We had friends in Williamsburg. Even that was still a little dicey around that time — desolate in some ways — but Bushwick was really rough.
Did you find another warehouse space?
We did, but it wasn't the...