Sunday, June 3, 2012

From the Vaults: A Place to Bury Strangers @ Death by Audio

Death by Audio, in Williamsburg, is Oliver Ackermann’s baby: his living space (so I hear); his effects pedal company by the same name, and the site where those babies are designed and constructed by hand; a recording studio; and also a performing arts space, with a makeshift bar. So, on any given day, Ackermann and a collective of artists and musicians are toiling away at custom pedals in their upstairs “factory,” then recording bands that practice in their warehouse (for Death By Audio Records), and finally hanging out downstairs, where all of the public shows take place. Not a bad venue to wander into fashionably late!

Squeezing into the jam-packed room, once again admiring the paintings of tigers and a retro Mickey Mouse on the walls, and astonished that the suspended ceiling tiles weren’t falling onto anyone’s head (some are looking pretty hazardous!), I entered during Weekend’s set, having completely missed No Joy. Not to be confused with a band from Baltimore called Weekends (also worth checking out), San Francisco based Weekend was perfectly complimentary to A Place to Bury Strangers’ sound and their fans’ musical tastes. Like APTBS, The Jesus and Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine inspire Weekend, and their music maintains just the right balance between melodic/riff-y and wall-of-noise, with gorgeously languid vocals smothered in distortion on “Youth Haunts,” and some really sexy, walloping build-ups of amplified sound that finally give way to drum beats you can hang onto.

While chatting with Benjamin Curtis of School of Seven Bells, whom I interviewed earlier this summer, and who’s been friends with APTBS for years, I got wedged between bodies in the 200-ish-person room just as the band went onstage. Unfortunately for me, at 5’1’” and never one to wear heels, I couldn’t exactly see them. But, I recalled watching them play in their former practice safe when I interviewed them for BRM back in 2007, and also being up front and center when they performed at SxSW in 2008, so I didn’t quite mind the non-view. As palpable as ever, their blend of 1980s post-punk, dark psychedelic, experimental, avant-garde, noise rock, and shoegaze blasted from the speakers, and I mean blasted! With the use of those handmade pedals, they’ve always been recognized for their volume.  

A few songs in, a technical difficulty with the amps, or speakers, or wires arose, which left Jay Space playing the drums alone. But after things got sorted out, the band dove back into their set with even more fervor and passion, as if that were possible. Completely unpretentious, they grace the stage not to banter back and forth, cover songs of their idols, or try to swindle the crowd; they’re simply there to play potent music, gliding in and out of songs with added loops and digressions, in the performing style of Sonic Youth.

For me, there was something magical about my immersion in that crowd. As usual, APTBS projected abstract images and swirling designs as they played, and I watched floating dots on the ceiling and large shadows on the tiger-wall. The room filled first with cigarette smoke and then with smoke from a fog machine. Songs like “I Know I’ll See You” and “Ego Death” saturated everyone’s bones to the point of frenzy; shoes flew, and guys and girls crowd-surfed for as long as their bodies could be held. Soon, things got even more intense. The smoke machine obscured the band to the point of complete invisibility. It was as if the stage had opened up and swallowed them whole, their music lingering on the event horizon. Heavy distortion fell over the crowd like a cloud of dust, and everyone was covered; the music as impermanent and elusive as the smoke. With the band “gone,” a strobe light pulsed, arms lifted, a girl was carried towards me, her body arched at the ceiling...and all while the song “Ocean” swelled, revolved, and gushed.

Former bassist Jono Mofo once explained how this last part of their shows tends to verge on performance art. “There’s no real music left,” he told me during our interview, “it’s just noises and lights, I’m not even on stage, I’m like standing next to it while it’s happening…my bass is feeding back, Oliver is ripping his strings out.” And true to form, the band emerged from the smoke and abandoned the stage, walking right through the crowd, accepting pats of approval, and heading to the back, while the music looped and echoed, more deafening by the second. Even though the guys were no longer on stage, the crowd stood transfixed, not sure whether to move or to stay, absorbing the last remaining waves of “Ocean” until they regained their senses. Many headed to the adjoining“bar” room, maybe to talk to the band, maybe to exit the backdoor and hang out on Kent, where I too ended up. As I exited via the short hallway to the front door, the music finally stopped. It was all over, but somehow, it was still ringing out.

Fun fact: A Place to Bury Strangers is also the title of an Aleister Crowley poem, as well as a Biblical reference to the thirty pieces of silver Judas received for selling out Jesus, which was then used to buy a field for burying strangers.

[second photo by A. Dupcak, taken at SxSW 2008]

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