09 Feb Interview with Oliver Ackermann of Death by Audio
“If you can make something that nobody can get anywhere else, and sounds like what you wish the future of music would sound like – yeah, that’s the motivation”
When it comes to making noise in Brooklyn, Oliver Ackermann has the track record to beat. Frontman of A Place to Bury Strangers, founder of the Death By Audio effects company, and one of the people responsible for opening and operating the late, great DIY venue of the same name, he’s been at it for years with an apparently endless commitment to fostering creativity, collaboration, and volume.
I recently had the chance to sit down with him at DBA’s new location in Ridgewood, which sported not only a workshop and storeroom, but the beginnings of a recording studio to boot. And as if moving into a new space wasn’t hubbub enough, Ackermann had also just gotten back from the NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) show in Anaheim, where knob-turning gear freaks flock twice a year for a taste of all that is new and cutting-edge in the world of fancy noisemakers. Whether the topic is pedals, progress, or passion, Oliver tells it like it is, and it’s perhaps no surprise that such a sincere person can boast such continually sincere work and ethic.
Sooooooooo…how was NAMM?
It was awesome, man. I was really surprised – I thought it was going to be terrible [laughs]. One time when I was younger, this friend and I sold at a comic book convention, and I remember it was just us selling off our collections, and all the kids just walked by us like we were ghosts. We were practically trying to give the stuff away! And nobody was interested in it. And going to trade shows – well I like going to trade shows, I guess no one else does probably – where they manufacture plastic parts, and metal machine parts, and medical equipment – it’s such a dire scene, with a couple dudes, just sitting around, and the guy’s got a big bowl of Kit-Kats, or something like that, and they’re just snacking on Kit-Kats all day, and barely anyone’s walking around. So, I imagined that on one side of it, and then the other side of it, which was true, was that it would be the kind of vibe where, let’s say you went to Guitar Center, and murdered the leader of Guitar Center, so then you got sent to hell, but it was Guitar Center hell, you know? So that was kind of going on, but it was still fine, because you kind of expected that, and it was super fun. Tons of people were into our stuff, we got to be really crazy, and we were having a really good time, got to get out and see tons of peoples’ stuff.
Any highlights? People or products?
I’d say the Red Panda – I don’t know what their new pedal is called but it was really incredible. It was sort of like a tape transport, whatever you were playing, you could just reverse it all of a sudden, and start playing it backwards as you were playing, on a guitar! You could speed it up, slow it down, or transpose the pitch. I’ve never seen anything like that in a pedal before. It’s the kind of thing you could only do once you’ve recorded something, so the way it would do that was pretty neat. Then there’s all that gear that you maybe get excited about because maybe it’s too expensive to afford [laughs]. Lots of cool keyboards, rack modules, microphones, and all that stuff. But it was pretty cool how many people were really psyched about our products, and a bunch of people gave us free pedals, and people who knew about us, and people who were like, “oh man, I got into building effects pedals because of you guys!”. So that was pretty crazy to hear, and pretty wild, and then you have all the people who were even fans of the band. It was just nice to be somewhere where we’re actually in the middle of a bunch of people who all do the same thing that we do. You kind of feel, when you’re in New York, and you’re in a company, trapped in some warehouse somewhere, that it’s just you and these 7 or 8 other crazy nerds, who enjoy all this kind of stuff – or I guess I’m the crazy nerd and these guys are all very cool [laughs]. So it was really cool to just be in a whole world of all those people. Even the people like the head of Boss, and stuff like that – just some regular people, and some regular engineers.
Yeah, I wanted to ask, along those lines – what interests me about something like NAMM, and maybe the industry in a larger sense, is this unique feeling that with something like pedals that in this point in time, at an event like that, where of course Boss, and MXR, and all these very large companies that have been around for decades, they’re there. And they presumably operate with a more corporate model and culture, but then right next to them you have much smaller companies…
No, they separated everybody.
Well, in a more figurative sense, then.
Yeah, totally. There was this whole other wing which was the more corporate events, with whole floors of just, like, Boss and Takamine guitars, and then we’re way down in the basement…
In the dungeon.
In the dungeon! Which was all the people who manufacture Chinese microphones and stuff, and other crazy pedal builders, and then as you went through it was kind of like – I can’t remember what city it was – like Hong Kong or something, where it’s on a mountain, and all the really rich people live up at the top, and all the poor people live at the bottom, and it all kind of trickles down. So it was definitely built like that, but it was cool because all behind the scenes, none of that stuff – well there were a lot of douchey people who knew nothing about what was going on, who were just working, like, the Orange Amplifier booth or whatever. But then if you got lucky, maybe you’d see the people who were actually designing the amps and excited about this stuff. So some of these people were there to make big deals and big sales, but a bunch of those other people were there too, so it was a cool mix.
So would you say that there’s some truth in it, or is it some kind of over-romanticized sentiment, that the small upstart pedal company can compete with the big dogs, and actually drive progress in the industry?
You totally could. It was kind of interesting though, there were a lot of people around us who think they’re more innovative than they actually are, unfortunately. And a lot of people just might not have huge imaginative ideas. There are a lot of people who do, don’t get me wrong – there were a bunch of cool amazing things – but you’re also so surprised at how many pedal companies, and things going on, where it’s like you want to tell the guy, “you know they make a way cooler version of this, that doesn’t look so stupid”. Or you know, nobody wants to buy some cloth that specially fits around your guitar and cleans it in one wipe. There are dumb ideas too. But you could! You could be that person who goes in there and cleans up. If you did have something truly awesome, people would be into it. The thing is, there’s a lot that goes into it. I’m pretty nonchalant about our ideas, and we’ll tell anybody how to build anything that we do, and I’m totally open to share any of our schematics, or help people build things, or have people come over and help them out. But it still doesn’t mean that the designs don’t take us frickin’ forever to come up with, and a lot of really intense trial and error to even come up with the ergonomics of everything, and how the graphics are designed, and all of this has gone through many different revisions. It seems like an easy simple thing sometimes, but I work, I don’t know, how many hours are in a week?
What was new and/or featured from you guys?
We had two pedals. One was the Micro Dream, which is a small version of our Echo Dream pedal, which has a really great sounding delay, in a smaller package. I keep on always hearing people say, “man I love that delay!”, and there are things which are a little bit weird with the delay, but I think that’s why people love it. So we made a smaller version of that which is really great, so it can fit on more people’s’ pedalboards, and be a little bit cheaper. And then we did this Evil Filter pedal, which is a circuit that we’d been working on for years and years. It uses this medical chip to create a really precise filter, so the filter sounds really incredible, and we finally got it all to actually work and be totally bullet-proof for all time, and the fuzz to sound really really intense. So it’s like this fuzz and this filter, and the filter, when you drive it with anything, or the fuzz or whatever, it kind of glitches out in these really cool ways. So it’s a filter that you can take the resonance beyond what you would get in a keyboard, and you control the input of the filter where you get to hear the errors once it’s pushed to the limit. It’s really awesome – it kind of creates octaves down, and up at times, and crazy envelope sounds. You can also back it off and it sounds completely normal, or with an expression pedal it’s highpass/bandpass/lowpass, but just the way that it sounds super messed up is just insane. It’s another one of those pedals where you realize, oh, we’ve done another thing that nobody else could ever get their hands on unless they get their hands on this. Super exciting.
Is that the motivation for you guys?
I think so. Once you’ve realized that you can create a tool that some artist is going to use – you know, you hear people who like to make crazy music, and I like to make crazy music, so if you can make something that nobody can get anywhere else, and sounds like what you wish the future of music would sound like – yeah, that’s the motivation. We’re always sort of making things that push the limits and the boundaries, and sometimes it’s for better or for worse compared to other pedal companies, because when you push things to the extremes you have unpredictable results, and some people definitely complain about that. But whatever, if you want to get predictable results, go to MXR [laughs].
A lot of people hear Death by Audio, and they’ll shed a single tear for the venue, which was, at the risk of sounding trite, DIY in a genuine sense. Do you think that same ethos translates into how you run this company?
Yeah, definitely. You get good people doing something – I mean maybe I’m not good, I don’t know [laughs] – but people who are willing to stand up for their beliefs more than they care about making money. Once you find those people who can cross that threshold and do that – because it takes a very particular type of person, because a lot of people really get excited by money – so if you can find people who can do that, and run things in a way that they care more about the art than they money, I think you’ll find the same kind of thing. You know, we do whatever we possibly can to get whoever wants these effects pedals, we repair everybody’s effects pedals for free, for always forever, we’ll work with any artist that we possibly can, and try to make it as easy as we can for people to create what they want to create.
So this [new space] was obviously a big transition, and you’re still settling in and all that, but what’s next? Are you looking down the road?
[Laughs] Who knows! We’ve got so much stuff going on, but it’s really exciting. Right now we’re just kind of playing catch-up from the NAAM festival, we’re building this studio to record a record for A Place to Bury Strangers, super excited about that, and we’ve got a whole bunch of pedals in the works, so we’ll see what happens. But we’re trying to work with more and more people if possible on this stuff, because you get excited more and more with smart minds collaborating. So if anyone wants to hit me up to work on music, light projects, effects pedals…
I’ve got some pedal ideas – I really do.
Come on by, we’ll make it happen!
Big thanks to Oliver Ackermann and Death by Audio for this interview. Head over to the Death By Audio pedals site to check out those new creations, as well as their back catalog of sonic monstrosities. Currently in the pedal library at Red Note Studios are the DBA Fuzz War and Supersonic Fuzz Gun – stop by today and give them a spin!
Red Note Rehearsal Studios is a full-service music rehearsal space on the border between Bushwick, Brooklyn and Ridgewood, Queens. With top-of-the-line equipment, knowledgeable staff, and competitive hourly rates, Red Note Rehearsal Studios offers the best possible opportunity for bands and artists to practice their craft in a comfortable, attentive, and affordable environment.