Oliver Ackermann has built custom guitar pedals for Trent Reznor and toured the world, but he still feels like a small town kid.
Ackermann is the founder for Brooklyn-based effects pedal company Death By Audio and the guitarist/vocalist for Brooklyn experimental-noise rock band A Place to Bury Strangers. For a man with a resume like that, a childhood in Fredricksburg, Virginia wasn't exactly the most ideal place to plant the seeds for a life in rock 'n' roll, but this small town kid managed to make history.
Ackermann's family lived in a number of different places while he was growing up. His father moved them around in the early years, working as a math professor. Eventually, though, the family fell in love with Virginia. After a fateful drive through Fredricksburg, Ackermann’s father took a job. Being a traveling academic, he still assumed they would leave in a few years, but that never happened. Ackermann spent his formative years there, with its Civil War battlefields and small town charm. Things could get a bit slow for teenagers who weren't playing sports, as Akermann explains, and what he did to pass the time was more out of necessity than anything else. "I just started playing music,” he says. The burgeoning creativity that would lead one day to working with U2 and traveling the world.
This early experimentation and interest in the arts arts led Ackermann to the Rhode Island School of Design. "I learned a lot of work ethic from those kids and that place. If you were late for a class one time, you failed it," he says. "I still have anxiety if I'm late for something or delivering something. It just seems disrespectful not to be punctual. That could be a bit of the southerner still in me, too [laughs]."
Post-graduation, Ackermann went back to Virginia, where he attempted to make a go of it with his band Skywave. It was at this time that he also started building effects pedals for his guitar because he couldn't make the sounds he wanted to hear in his music. "I started to build the pedals, then I realized that no one else can get sounds like this either,” he explains, “so I started building these custom effects that no one would even dream of.” At the same time, he had an intense desire to move his creativity to New York City. A well-timed phone call from a friend, asking if he'd like to move sealed the deal. Once he arrived, Ackermann immediately gravitated to the burgeoning DIY indie rock scene bubbling up in warehouses in the industrial parts of Brooklyn's Williamsburg and Bushwick neighborhoods. There, things weren't so easy at first.
"Times were tight and having the chips down kind of meant you had nothing to lose,” he explains, “and in some ways that's an awesome thing -- you just dive into doing crazy stuff!"
Word about his game changing effects pedals started to spread, although Ackermann was mostly just building them for himself and others to help fund a trip to Europe with a girlfriend. As news got out, Ackermann started to think it would be wise for his little one man company to have a name. "I was like, hmmm I should probably have a name for where people are getting their pedals, and I just thought Death By Audio sounded cool. That's all there was!" he says. It was after his pedal-paid European jaunt that Ackermann knew building them was more than a hobby -- or some quick cash -- he was still getting requests for more. He and his friends started to look beyond their Bushwick warehouse for a more permanent place to create, eventually leading them to found the iconic Williamsburg art space and venue that shared the name with the effects pedal company, Death By Audio.
In the beginning, the space was a labor of love, as everyone living there helped lay concrete, build lofts and practice spaces, and slept wherever they could. "My one buddy had a day job in the city that he had to dress nice for. He'd come home from work and start building, then go to work the next day. He'd sleep sitting up on a wooden bench with his briefcase right next to him."
In 2007 the rental became more than just a practice space for different art strains, shows started to be thrown as well beginning what would become the legendary DIY venue space called Death By Audio. Ackermann himself wasn’t involved in running the show side, but he could feel that history was being made within the space. One of the Williamsburg waterfront’s last remaining DIY venues, Death By Audio closed in 2014. That opening year, however, was one of Ackermann’s biggest, both with A Place to Bury Strangers seeing increased success and the effects pedal business of Death By Audio was starting to take off outside of NYC.
Word started getting to mega stars like Nine Inch Nails, Wilco and U2's The Edge about Death By Audio effects pedals. "The Edge's guitar tech emailed us and asked if some pedals were in stock and I said they were and I just never heard back. Then a couple hours later our door buzzes and there's a messenger there to pick up The Edge's pedals. It still just seems ridiculous!" he recalls. A couple of years later, Place to Bury Strangers embarked on tour with NIN, opening for the band, while Ackermann was also building custom pedals for Trent Reznor, one of his childhood idols. He’s still in awe of the experience, and talks about it in the present tense, "I remember blasting Pretty Hate Machine as a kid. It's just so nuts to hear these mega artists using equipment that I made!"
Despite the band receiving worldwide acclaim and the effects pedal company growing in size, Ackermann has never felt the need to make it some corporate entity – it’s never been too big for him and a few employees to handle. "I want to stay as true to myself in everything I do with music and effects and everything. Nothing I do is done for money. I want people to have these products. We'll offer discounts if people need them and always offer free repairs. I want to run a company the way I wish all companies were run!" he says. The DIY spirit behind the Death By Audio venue wasn’t enough to keep it alive in New Yorks harsh reality, but the fact that Ackermann’s pedals are used on some of the biggest venues in the world means there’s still some of that history making its way through all corners of rock and roll – whether it be DIY or mainstream.
Ackermann still runs his company in a way he finds socially responsible and his band is gearing up to record some new jams, in a not so normal way. How he prefers to do most everything. "We're doing this thing where we go out in the crowd and make up a song on the spot and record that,” he explains,.”I think an interactive thing like that will make up the next album. We've also recorded hundreds of songs so who knows. It's just fun!"