SXSW Interview: Oliver Ackermann of A Place To Bury Strangers on launching new label Dedstrange with an online showcase

One of the staples of the music industry calendar, SXSW, like pretty much everything else that wasn’t cancelled in the past twelve months, moved online for their 2021 edition. For a festival first-timer like myself just navigating the seemingly infite event listings page was pretty mind-blowing, but without the buzz of live music and free booze flowing out of every doorway and the mad rush from venue to venue in the Austin night it’s only a fraction of the usual SXSW experience. We caught up with South By veteran Oliver Ackermann, frontman of A Place To Bury Strangers, whose new label Dedstrange were running an online showcase event, to find out what we were missing and what Dedstrange had in store for us.

Thank you for taking the time to speak to us, I’m guessing it’s probably quite a busy few days for you.

Yeah, you know, things are always kind of crazy. It’s like you can’t really stop and think about it, or you’d probably be like I’m done with this, you know, but… you do what you can do.

Yeah I’m just getting my head around it. I looked over the schedule at just the mass of everything that’s going on.

Yeah, it would be a lot more fun if it was, you know, going on in Austin or whatever. But I guess that’s not going to happen so…

Have you played before?

Yeah, that’s one of the reasons why we agreed to do it. It’s such a fun festival down in Austin, it’s just such a shit show. It’s like there’s all these parties going on in every single place, like any laundromat or whatever has turned into a venue and has bands there.

You go and you’ll play, I always say yes to every single show we could possibly get, so you’ll play like 15 times in three days or something. And so you’re just going from one weird ass show at a Taco restaurant, to some billiard hall to some bowling alley, to just some show on a bridge and it’s just complete insanity with lots of free food and alcohol and friends you haven’t seen in years and all that kind of stuff, so it’s really like a weird festival that shouldn’t exist. But somehow it works out. It’s pretty good.

And how do you find it this year in terms of its digital equivalent?

You know we’ve tried to set it up where hopefully it’s going to be as cool as it possibly can. It’s a variety show of sorts or something. It’s cool – to connect with the other bands and get everyone excited to do it. Everyone who’s doing the showcase has got some cool things planned so that’s pretty exciting but it’s weird the whole like live performance over some sort of zoom or streaming platform is just kind of strange. It’s pretty cool I think in a way, but it’s definitely kind of weird. It’s like you’re playing a show that nobody showed up to, which is which is kind of fun, in a way. Like I did one where it was just my girlfriend filmed me and we had all these different things set up throughout our house. And so I was like going from station to station where I had like an amp in our shower so I could bring a cord from a drum machine and plug it into the amp and do all these ridiculous things to try to simulate what it’s like at a show, to like surprise people and show up behind them. And then you do all these other silly things that we’ll kind of get ourselves involved in which I think are kind of exciting for someone going to a show but surprising someone watching a video online, it’s kind of a different sort of thing, you know.

I did this other show on Twitch, that streaming platform and it was just kind of crazy. I hooked up all these smoke machines and all these different lights and all this stuff and as many amps as I possibly could and had it all cranked up. But you know, in the end it’s just me throwing around a piece of metal in a room by myself with all these lights going up and stuff. And it’s just, you know, kind of bizarre or something. It’s still kind of fun, but you feel like you’re in like a weird dream of what it’s like to be at some space.

A Place to Bury Strangers at The Dedstrange showcase, SXSW 2021

What’s the plan for the showcase? Is it all pre-recorded, or is it going out live?

It’s all pre-recorded, but it’s all stuff that was done live. Everyone did their showcases live, and so you know, we had a thing where we had a couple of people help us, just friends really with video cameras. And then I melded it altogether and just played all of them at the same time. It’s something that I’ve been getting into with some different artwork and stuff that I’ve been doing, like taking lots of different projectors and projecting on walls, seeing what that kind of stuff looks like and how it feeds in and how photos get sort of messed up when they’re getting mixed with light, you know it’s one of those kinds of effects I guess you can Photoshop it or even if you’re actually developing pictures, but it just looks so immersive and real and kinda something you know. I feel like when you’re watching a  video of something, it’s hard to capture. It seems to be like listening to the audio of something, it’s hard to capture what really is that thrill and excitement of what’s going on in that moment. It’s always like a lesser version of what it was to be there. I mean, I feel like that’s what some of those people who design gear like those microphones that sound incredible, or those pre amps that add like a little bit of distortion or excitement, kind of turned things to be those kinds of things so it’s hard to make that happen. So you kind of have to make something hyper exciting from what it is to let you sort of have a vibe of what that was like, so it’s kind of a weird challenge and experiment.

Yeah, it’s been interesting – we get invited to a lot of these live streaming things that are going out and we’ve put a few on ourselves as well. I think the ones that work best have been the ones that haven’t tried to make it like a gig, they’ve taken the opportunities of doing something a little bit different in an environment where they can control things a bit more and do interesting things with projectors and cameras and things like that.

Yeah that makes sense. You know it’s like this is the format how you’re going to see whatever it is that you’re going to potentially see, so you may as well do what you can with that and if you have the opportunity to play with these things why not?

Yeah, yeah and today it’s a showcase for a new label.  How’s that come about?

Yeah, it’s been going surprisingly great, you know, I’ve started up a few labels in my day and they’re always a little bit better than the last one that I started, so this one seems to be the best label to date for sure. People are really excited and really helpful and really wanting to come and be a part of it and help out with it. So it’s been really cool. I’m so glad that there’s been such a good response. We got distribution through Red Eye and their team is like, really, extremely excited to work on the whole thing, so that’s been really great. And the artists who we’ve been working with so far are really cool.

I guess I’m more aware of how things sort of run than I ever have been, and so you get to take all the experience and everything that you’ve learned. Being on all sorts of different labels, you realise what things you don’t like and make sure that we don’t do any of that stuff.

Jealous at The Dedstrange showcase, SXSW 2021

How has it been, starting it all up at this particular time with everything that’s going on at the moment – has that had an impact on how you’ve gone about doing things?

Yeah, I mean, who knows what the heck is going on at the moment and what is really happening. Even before the pandemic, it seemed like record industries were kind of crumbling and things were sort of changing so I think you can always sort of go back, or at least I’ll always go back to those things where it’s like, you know, just kind of create something that you would be excited to go to, or focus on bands that you would want to listen to. Or you know, try to make something that you would think is cool, and then, I think other people kind of flock to that, or appreciate it. You know so often you think like, oh, there’s these new formats, or there’s this new thing or, oh, I gotta join this new platform or something like that. But you just always have to remember that, just create things with what you have and just create things that you think are interesting and, you know, you sort of take everything that you see and you can reflect upon that and work towards making cool stuff with all that. I don’t know, but you know it’s just it’s all new. There’s all sorts of new ways for people to make money. I don’t really focus on the money side of the thing so much, it’s more to focus on supporting artists and trying to make something creative and cool. And I think that’s always the last thing to think about is the money – that sort of comes with creating cool content to just enable things to work.

You’ve got the showcase tonight – is everyone playing today involved with the label directly? Or is it kind of a bit of a combination?

It’s a little bit of a combination. Some of the people are friends and maybe will have other different parts in the future of the label. Who knows what will come about? But they’re all people that I love, all the people who participated in this and some of the bands will be on the label.

So we’ll see, I guess. But I don’t want to  bind anyone to anything. Being a label it’s first and foremost supporting artists, you know. If there were artists who we pressed all the records and we paid for all the promotion and we did all of this stuff and then in the end they were like “I’d rather go with somebody else,” you know, “We’ve got this deal from Universal,” or something like that I’d be all for it. I just want artists to be doing good. All I ever wanted from labels is just support – it’s hard being an artist in some ways and putting yourself out on the line and it takes people’s support to make all of that stuff happen. That’s what makes a lot of great bands is people’s support and a lot of times people record albums and then delete them or throw them away or write stories and don’t publish them. You have to realise that everything is a little bit of a community effort to make all that happen.

Holy Fuck at The Dedstrange showcase, SXSW 2021

What have you got coming up in the release schedule?

I don’t know if all these things are announced or whatever, I’m mostly focused on the artwork and working with some of the bands and developing some of that stuff in the audio and looking at which bands I love and want to work with. And some of those things like release schedules and stuff, it’s all coordinated with how things work out. And with everything sort of being uncertain with tours and shows and all of these things I think it leaves things kind of open to what things make sense with the narrative of whatever is going on with those bands, you know? I mean, some of these bands that we’re working with were trapped in different countries for times and travelled places and can’t get back. So it’s working with things the best that we possibly can to make all that work out.

Can you tell us a little bit about who you’ve got playing the festival?

We’ve got Randy Randall from No Age, we’ve got Holy Fuck from Toronto, we’ve got Jealous from Berlin, we’ve got Data Animal and Paul Jacobs as well, Canadian artist, and A Place to Bury Strangers‘ new line up, so we’ll see. Yeah, it’ll be the first show ever with this new line up of A Place to Bury Strangers, virtual, but hey, there we go.

Is there anything on the cards with A Place to Bury Strangers that you’re allowed to talk about yet?

Since being on lockdown and quarantine and all of this stuff, we’ve written so much material and been working so much and it’s been strange to have the opportunity to sort of work tirelessly for a year or so. So yeah, we’ve done a lot of stuff. I got a lot of plans. I’ve built a lot of crazy machines and we’ll see what happens.

Randy Randall at The Dedstrange showcase, SXSW 2021

I guess we’ve talked about the band and the label – there’s also the pedal side of things as well with Death by Audio.

Yeah, we’ve been making so many pedals. I guess everybody’s stuck at home and they’re looking for that new sound and want to take their recordings to the next level so, you know it’s been an opportunity to employ a lot of people in New York, which is good. And build tonnes of pedals and have tonnes of time to work with other engineers and what not developing new effects pedals and kind of navigating even like the trade wars that’s been going on with all of the last administration and this administration in the US, and how now they’re not letting boats in to dock at ports. All of this crazy stuff and having all those weird things you thought you’d never get yourself involved in. It’s just another problem. Another thing to solve. Another thing to do so figuring it out should be fun.

When you were putting the line up together was there a particular thing you’re looking for? A thread that links those bands together when you put that back together?

Just bands that I think are awesome. So we just reached out and pretty much, yeah, that was it. I’m so excited by what came together because it was like, you never know what anyone’s gonna do. We’re thinking about it like “I hope it’s not just some guy in his bedroom or something”, but everyone did something so cool, I’m so thrilled. It’s really awesome.

Are you planning on catching anything else within the festival?

I don’t know, I really don’t even know that much of exactly what’s going on. This is the first day, is that right?

Yeah, yeah.

So the plan was to just start watching sometime and kind of peep in and see what’s going on. I’ve been so busy with a lot of other things, but it sounds like there’s going to be a bunch of cool stuff. I’m not exactly sure what, I guess I’ll just have to keep on popping in and seeing what’s going on.

Check back for a review of the Dedstrange showcase in our SXSW round-up later this week.

Find out more online: Dedstrange Records / A Place To Bury Strangers / Death By Audio

SXSW 2022 has just been announced for 11th-20th March – get all the latest details at sxsw.com

Interview by Paul Maps

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