A Place to Bury Strangers on the End of Death by Audio and Their New Album 'Transfixiation'
"I embrace change. Sometimes it can be hard to see, but it's the way life is. You gotta embrace it, or you're gonna be a bitter old man, you know?"
It made perfect sense that the meeting spot for my conversation with Dion Lunadon, bassist for clamorous rock powerhouse A Place to Bury Strangers, was at Cafe Colette in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. For more than ten years—five of them with Lunadon on board—APTBS has been the most essential "Brooklyn band" there is.
Lunadon keeps things local. He only lives a block away from the Parisian-themed restaurant where we rendezvoused. He DJs every few weeks at a speakeasy-style joint across the street. And on February 17, only a few blocks south, he and his band began their first nationwide tour in well over a year, with a show at the Music Hall of Williamsburg to mark the release of A Place to Bury Strangers' fine new fourth album, Transfixiation.
"I love this record, all the way through," said Lunadon over a cappuccino. "I love it as an album, a complete work. Because it's not easy to make an album. It's so much easier to make an EP. An EP is just like a couple of singles thrown together, or whatever. An album is a bit more of a monster." In fact, this one was more monstrous in its creation than others. Transfixiation marks the first A Place to Bury Strangers album from the current lineup of Lunadon, drummer Robi Gonzalez, who joined the band in 2012, and longtime guitarist and vocalist Oliver Ackermann. Lunadon describes the trio as "a really tight-knit unit," giving much credit to Gonzalez for his contributions. But that band unity was sorely tested during the recording of Transfixiation.
After a trip to Norway in 2013 to work with Emil Ronzone Nikolaisen of Serena Maneesh—sessions that yielded seven songs, two of which ended up on the new album—APTBS went on a lengthy fall tour of Europe that included such off-the-beaten-path stops as Slovenia, Bulgaria, and Belarus. And as soon as they returned home, they plunged headlong into two weeks of hardcore recording—productive, but straining.
Then, in Lunadon's words, "We just exploded."
"It was me and Ollie," he explains. "Late one night we pretty much blew up at each other over email. And I came into practice the next day, I was willing to sort of leave it behind and go, 'Fuck it, whatever.' But Ollie was pretty hurt, pretty upset by the whole thing. And I was too, but he was like, 'Fuck it, we're taking a break.'" The nature of the disagreement? Lunadon won't specify, but he does say that, in retrospect, it was mostly about "petty things."
"It was probably more over the fact that we spent so much time in each other's pockets without any time off that it just kind of all came to a head," he said. "I'm quite an opinionated person. And I understand, this is Oliver's band. But when you have two people that are quite strong-willed in a band, or have very strong ideas, it can come to a head at times."
That break from one another turned into two months, during which Lunadon worked on a solo punk record, which he says is nearly done, and Ackermann recorded a handful of additional songs for APTBS. "We worked out our shit, and we came back," Lunadon recalls. "Oliver played me a few songs that he'd written and recorded, and I listened to them, and I said to him, 'We've finished the record! It's done!' Which was great." That was in March 2014, but APTBS, who don't like to rush releases or the planning of the tours supporting them, agreed to postpone release until 2015, and take the balance of the year off. But for the band, and in particular for Ackermann, the 2014 drama was only just beginning.
There's one Brooklyn location, now closed, that looms largest in A Place to Bury Strangers' history. Death by Audio was the lovably scuzzy DIY venue adjacent to a guitar pedal factory of the same name that was co-founded by Ackermann in 2001. For seven years, DBA was a fixture of the indie rock scene in Brooklyn, and APTBS was synonymous with it. But under an agreement with its landlord, the club and pedal shop closed in late November, with APTBS naturally playing on the venue's final night. The piece of real estate that included DBA and two other beloved but now shuttered music spaces—Glasslands Gallery and 285 Kent Avenue—is being renovated and will soon become the new home of VICE Media.
That uncomfortable fact hangs like the elephant in the room during the first part of our interview. I bring it up gingerly, and Lunadon addresses it quite candidly. "There's no bitterness or anger whatsoever, man, on my part," he says. "I mean, it was a great time. The whole four years that I was involved with DBA was awesome." As far as the venue's closing—widely seen as an especially cruel step in the process of Williamsburg becoming completely gentrified—Lunadon sees it as both inevitable and even necessary, though he admits he was less invested in the space than Ackermann.
"It was gonna happen anyway," he concludes. "It was just a matter of time. If it wasn't VICE it was gonna be someone else. And I think it was good that it happened. To be honest, things like that can't stay the same forever. I've been a part of other things like that, and you just have to let go and move on. And when things like that finish, another exciting—often more exciting—chapter begins, in my experience at least. I embrace that, I embrace change. Sometimes it can be hard to see, but it's the way life is. You gotta embrace it, or you're gonna be a bitter old man, you know?"
The Death by Audio pedal shop and APTBS' practice space have both relocated to the more hardscrabble Brooklyn Navy Yard area. But in a sense Transfixiation, largely recorded at the original DBA, stands as a final document of the space, and track titles like "Now It's Over" and "Fill the Void" might be seen in that context. But considering they were written months before news of DBA's closing, that's likely coincidental. "That's the great thing about songs," says Lunadon. "They can mean many different things to many different people in different situations, even if they weren't written about that particular thing."
The new album does throw a couple of unexpected turns right off the top, with two tracks that Ackermann wrote on his own: "Supermaster," as moody, spare, and purely post-punk an opener as APTBS has ever offered, with what Lunadon calls a "driving-through-the-night" vibe, and "Straight," released in December as the first single from the record—taut, bright, and decidedly not noisy. "I really liked the idea of leading with 'Straight,'" Lunadon recalled. "When I first heard that song, I was like, 'Oh man this is so cool, I love it!' It was so different. It's real bass-driven, so I was really looking forward to playing it. And I thought it was cool to lead with that, cause we've released four albums now, and we've built up a good sort of following that has kind of stuck with us through the years. But I think it was good to throw something new out there to maybe attract some new people. And I just thought it was an exciting new angle, rather than just releasing the same old kind of reverb-y, pomp-y song first or something."
Not that fans of reverb and mayhem don't get their fill on Transfixiation. "Love High" and "Fill the Void" are fierce sonic squalls. "Deeper" serves up dark sludge. And the "We've Come So Far" has a sparkling propulsion that is tempered by the presence of a woman's voice, guest vocalist Emilie Lium Vordal. Most fiery and thrilling of all is "I'm So Clean," a rager whose title might raise an eyebrow because "clean" is a word you don't associate with APTBS. "That one is really up my alley," said Lunadon. "But it was weird, because when we were first playing it, Ollie was like mumbling these lyrics. And I said, 'Are you singing, "I'm so clean"?' And he was like, 'Yeah.' So I said, 'Well, alright then.'"
Transfixiation doesn't truly go apeshit, though, until its finale. "I Will Die" is a relentless, scabrous jam session-turned closing track so intense that it should put to bed any thought that A Place to Bury Strangers will be tidying up its sound any time soon. "Neat and tidy and clean is not what we're about," proclaimed the bassist. "We're the antithesis of that. We like things chaotic and off the cuff. Rock 'n roll is not supposed to fit into a nice and tidy little box. It's meant to be rough around the edges." And, he added, their work is created to live up to the extreme spirit embodied in the name of Ackermann's Death by Audio. "There are too many bands that are scared to take chances, or are happy with only pushing it so far," Lunadon said. "And especially now that we're getting older. The older I get, the less I feel like I have to lose, and the more chances I want to take, and the further I want to push it. Because often when people get older, it's the opposite. They want to take less chances, they want to get comfortable, their records start to be a little more polished, and less dangerous. I'm the opposite. I want to get more dangerous with age."
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