Interview: A Place to Bury Strangers

"I think it’s a cool thing to see something take shape right before your eyes. I really love seeing noise rock bands playing house-shows where things inevitably go wrong. You can see the frustration and how they overcome it. There’s something real happening there. It’s exciting to experience."

Sunday’s final sunlit set at Six-Four-les-Plages’s Pointu Festival crashed with the apocalyptic sound of a thousand dying suns. Like a junkyard cirque-du-Soleil, A Place to Bury Strangers sent guitars flying, strobe lights whirling by their cords and amps screeching with feedback in a magnificent spectacle of unbridled madness. Twenty years of relentless gear-wrecking chaos have done nothing to pipe down New York’s most trusted harbingers of noise complaints, who busted no fewer than two fully functional guitars within the first three songs of their set. Dumbstruck and electrified, we were fortunate enough to meet the band shortly after their crushing performance to discuss their long-standing relationship with chaos.

Photo: Robin Ono

 E&D: I’d like to start off with a special mention of gratitude to my friend Sofiane, who saved this interview by lending me his recorder. Is there anyone you’d like to thank for saving you at the last minute?

Sandra Fedowitz: Just about everybody who works with us, because we all need their support. Our light engineers, our sound engineers, stage crew, staff at the venues we play… Everyone who welcomes us is a saviour, in a way. It makes it so much easier for us being on the road. We’re really grateful for everyone who works with us and books us.

Oliver Ackermann: I remember this one show we played where I was hanging from my shoelace caught on a part of the stage. Our buddy Nick came and cut the lace so I could get free. I was dangling off the stage and he cut me free.

John Fedowitz: We did Tallinn Music Festival one time and we had a connecting flight through Heathrow Airport. When we got to Tallinn my guitars didn’t show up and this guy was so nice to me and lent me guitars. He was a real guitar player and he was telling me stuff like, “I just oiled the neck for you!” When I gave the guitar back to him, there was blood on it. [laughs]

He was totally cool with me and I really thank him. He saved the night.

Photo: Robin Ono

E&D: Would you call last-minute saves a common occurrence in your daily life as touring musicians?

Oliver: I purposefully try to get us in really stupid situations as much as possible. [laughs]

It kinda works a lot of times. I guess we do a lot of last-minute saves ourselves and we don’t even think about it. We’re constantly going “Uh-oh! That didn’t go as planned!”. Things slip out of your hand or don’t go in the direction you thought they were going. Sometimes an amp would stop working and we’ll take one of the mics from the floor tom and use it on the guitar cabinet… These things happen so much that they’re just part of the organic way that the show was going to go. But there’s an order to our chaos. Whenever there’s a 6:30 lobby call, we’re always there. If we need to sleep on a floor or sit in a bus seat for 40 hours, or we’ve got no food for days, we will get through it. But I don’t want to put other people out.

Photo: Robin Ono

E&D: Is there such a thing as being “too prepared” then?

Oliver:  I had this thing where I had to give this talk one time and I prepared so much for it. And it went terrible [laugh]. I was so nervous, so weird and awkward. I gave that same talk the next year and I decided to not prepare at all. And it went great. We like to hang out a lot together, so we know each other. And we like to play a lot of music together, so we know more or less how things are going to happen. We play a lot of times with weird, random amps, half-broken instruments and all sorts of terrible things. The odds are already against us so we’re used to that stuff.

John: And I’m definitely prepared to get hit by Oliver’s strobe light one day and get back right up. [laughs]

E&D: That hasn’t happened yet? You’ve never been hit by an instrument?

John: No. I did get kicked under the chin by Oliver’s shoe when they picked him up in the crowd tonight. But it was very soft. [laughs] 

Robin Ono writes: Luck would so have it that, amongst the blind frenzy of shooting the show, we were able to capture the exact moment Oliver’s shoe hit John.

E&D: How do you go about making sure your shows stay legitimately raw and unpredictable after so many years of experience, dealing with the unpredictable?

Oliver: What you’re talking about is all the fun stuff. Pushing the boundaries, doing something new, finding some crazy new sounds… If that’s not happening, I don’t know what the hell we’re doing! You have to make sure that that’s what you’re doing. You’re not always aware of it. I’m not exactly sure how this band has changed over the years, but we’re constantly searching and trying things out.

John: We could also be super tired before the show, but when we get onstage something happens. We turn on.

Sandra: I think it’s also about the willingness to be in that moment and being okay with not knowing what will happen, letting the crowd decide what’s going to happen. Oliver decides what songs we play fifteen minutes before we go onstage, to feel things out first. We never play the same set twice. Every night is different.

Oliver: I feel like that also adds a little bit of anxiety, which is kinda good. I don’t know if you would agree, though. [Laughs]

Sandra: Those are the parts that I really appreciate. Not playing the same set every night is the fun part. Those two dudes never play a song exactly the same way, so I have to read the signals, and most of the time it works out. Sometimes it doesn’t, but we just make something new out of it.

Oliver: I think it’s a cool thing to see something take shape right before your eyes. I really love seeing noise rock bands playing house shows where things inevitably go wrong. You can see the frustration and how they overcome it. There’s something real happening there. It’s exciting to experience. It’s like going into the talk unprepared and throwing yourself into something. You need to push yourself into that situation and your body will make the most out of it. When we’re down on the ground, we have no idea what songs we’re going to play. I can barely breathe I’m so exhausted, but I look up and there’s some girl screaming in my face and I’ll be like “Hell yeah, let’s go!!!” [Laughs]

Photo: Robin Ono

E&D: It does sound like it requires some solid nerves to constantly jump into the void, though.

Oliver: I think that’s a little bit of what we practise for. By doing that stuff, you’re more relaxed about jumping into something stupid. That’s what our goal is, to reach a place that we’re not yet at.

John: The first month that Sandra and I started playing with Oliver, we’d be in the practice space and he’d just turn the lights off. We’d be playing in the dark, trying to overcome it.


Sandra: “And here’s the strobe light right in your face!” [Laughs].

John: We’re not great musicians, so we try to just play the music that we know and that we love.

Sandra: You can also tell that these two grew up together. I met both of them separately but I can sense that they influenced each other and grew up in an important timeframe when they were teenagers. I started playing music with John first and he prepped me very well to deal with this one over here [points to Oliver, laughing]. I needed to learn to read the signals, read the body language to tell when a change is coming… There’s never or barely a “count to four, then count to five, then switch to the next part”.

Oliver: As John was saying about not being good musicians, I’ve just come to embrace it. I don’t sit at home and practise some other songs.

Photo: Robin Ono

E&D: What tuning do you use, by the way?

Oliver: E Standard. I use it because it’s the simplest. I used to use a bunch of other tunings, but my guitars go wildly out of tune, so I have to use my ears and move strings and fingers to make it work. There are a bunch of things which I’ll do to keep things simple, so you can just go full-in with your heart. So that tuning just makes it easier. I don’t have to think about that shit. I used to bring a slide, but nowadays  I just play slide guitar without one. I might use a few more pedals than some, but I don’t use that many. I use around six or seven of them, so I’m not having to think about turning stuff on. I always want to be present, feeling what’s going on and being able to translate that into the music. Sometimes you lose some strings and you’ve got to make up the parts… It becomes much more of a human thing, with us feeling something together and desperately trying to get it out.

John: I don’t wear earplugs, and neither does Oli.

Oliver: We want to be there with the crowd and what’s going on. It’s loud onstage, actually louder than it is for the crowd. (Laughs) Whenever I jump down, I’m like “Damn, it’s quiet down here!”. I like it loud; I want to feel it pumping through my body. We’re honoured and feel so grateful to get the chance to do any of this stuff. The best place to see A Place to Bury Strangers is probably up onstage, standing next to one of us. So next time you’re at a show, jump up onstage. 

Photo: Robin Ono

E&D: As you reach your second year with this current line-up, how would you describe your bandmates’ input onstage and in terms of writing?

Oliver: For me, it’s really great. I really love their band Ceremony [East Coast], and it felt perfect. You don’t have to tell them what to do, they just naturally want to do the coolest shit all the time, so it’s just fun.

John: It was a little awkward at first because people were wondering what happened. But I got over that very quickly. It just happened and it’s organic. Oli and I grew up together, but we’d see each other occasionally. And all of a sudden, we were hanging out every day, so we had to learn how to do that again. [Laughs]

Sandra: I was curious how it would be. I started learning drums in 2017 and it was mainly just John and I as a two-piece. I was curious to see how it would feel to be in a three-piece. Luckily, it worked out pretty well [laughs]. It’s a lot of fun to be the life support for A Place to Bury Strangers. And I’m just embracing every single second of being onstage, watching the two of them being in their own world, seeing the whole crowd. I’m just sitting back there in the perfect position and I just need to hold the beat. I hold the beat so they can go out wherever they want and rely on being able to land back on their feet. That’s all I’m doing.

Oliver: Sandra and John bring their own different personalities to the table. Sandra’s selling herself short. We used to go down in the crowd and play a drum machine, but she decided to bring a freaking drum! It’s badass and organic and it can move in all these different ways.

They’re bringing their own element, which makes these songs what they are. It takes each one of us to make this band what it is. When writing the setlist, I try to curate the situation to what I think is going to excite everyone. These parts wouldn’t work the same with different people. I also just love being around them. You also want them to have as much fun. One thing I’d say to people who’re starting a band or a company is to find people you love hanging out with. It makes things so much better.

Photo: Robin Ono

E&D: A Place to Bury Strangers is defined by a very distinct visual aesthetic. What would you say are the influences that led you to shape this world, mood and colour palette?

Oliver: I remember seeing this Kenneth Anger exhibit when I was a teen. I went there with my parents and I ended up wandering off in this museum of pitch-black rooms where you’d watch these movies. It was so freaking bizarre and got so immersed in it. The colours were really cool.

John: My parents never took me to an art museum. The first time I ever went to one was when I went on a school trip when I was seventeen. I’d only seen pictures in books before. To see an Andy Warhol or Alexander Calder piece blew my mind. I was really moved. I was late to experience that, but I just love art. And whenever Oliver does a T-Shirt, poster or album cover, I’m his biggest fan. I’m really into the band’s art.

Sandra: John and Oliver are pretty much in the same artistic realm.

Oliver: We grew up in a small town in Virginia. The things we’d find in books would change our world and we’d share it with our friends.

Sandra: The cool thing is that these two are really hands-on people. If we want to do silk-screen designs, we’re going to do it. We silk-screen our own shirts, posters …

Oliver: We taught ourselves how to do all that. It was because we wanted there to be a scene and we wanted to make t-shirts and press records. We wanted to figure out how to record music because we lived near some shitty recording studios where some asshole was there telling us what to do. We’d figure out how things worked, buy tape machines, figure them out, break them, re-record the album on a borrowed 4-track…

Photo: Robin Ono

E&D: How much did the internet play a part in that DIY approach?

Oliver: We’re old. [Laughs] It wasn’t a resource at the time. It’s the same with how I learned to build pedals. It’s mostly from reading books. I’d go to technical libraries and check out things, read books cover-to-cover without understanding what they’re talking about… Things eventually sept in. It took me about two years to teach myself how to solder, just because I was learning from books. I can show someone how to solder in five minutes now. You couldn’t just look up a YouTube tutorial video back then.

John: We travelled three hours to a seminar by Eddie Kramer, who recorded Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix. He was going to talk about 4-track recording but he ended up talking about how Jimi was so great. [Laughs] He didn’t say anything about recording.

Oliver: Everybody else was loving it! [Laughs]

John: We left. We wanted to learn how to record.

Oliver: I didn’t really know who Eddie Kramer was, but now I’d be like “What did Jimi do?” [Laughs]. The best way to learn something is to want to do it. It’s how we’ve gone our whole lives. In New York, if you show up and your bathroom sucks, you make it good. (Laughs) It’s the way it is. You’ve got to do your own plumbing. In the place I lived in before, we built the bathroom and the shower. We cut into the water main because we didn’t want the neighbours to be pissed off that there was no water. I didn’t realize how insane it was. There was water shooting all over the place. I didn’t realize you couldn’t solder to a wet pipe. It took us forever.

 Special thanks to APTBS and Richard at Pointu Festival for making this interview possible.

All photos by Robin Ono.


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