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Oliver Ackermann on Death by Audio, New York DIY and Starting Over

Future Islands busted out the pink balloons and headlined a top secret show at Death by Audio just five days before its doors shut. 

Future Islands busted out the pink balloons and headlined a top secret show at Death by Audio just five days before its doors shut. 

by Conor Rooney (@sold_for_scrap)
photos by Walter Wlodarczyk (@wlodarczyk)

DIY is dead. If you believe there to be truth in that statement, then you clearly don’t look around hard enough. DIY music and art is, almost by its very nature, impermanent. Venues, bands and people come and go, but there will always be those who believe in its honesty and anything-goes attitude. It's what attracted many people, including myself, to the community in the first place. You don't need someone to give you permission and you certainly don't need much capital to do whatever it is you love to do. Want to start an indie-jazz-funk band? Sure. Want to indulge yourself in off-the-wall performance art? Yup, all yours. Do what you do. As long as there's a passion, there's avenues to explore it. New York and those who call it home have always made things happen. Take Death by Audio, a small club forged out of an obsolete factory space on the banks of Williamsburg. In 2005, Oliver Ackermann and friends rented out a portion of the building at 49 South 2nd street. Initially, 49 South 2nd street was intended to be a practice/living space for a few people and to house Death by Audio, a budding guitar pedal factory founded by Ackermann. Of course, Death by Audio (along with its neighbors 285 Kent and Glasslands) morphed into what many would argue was the beating heart of an entire artist community. Less than 10 years later, the location had become a hot commodity, and the spaces became no more. Death by New York. 

This past March, I sat down with Oliver Ackermann at the new Brooklyn location for Death by Audio pedals, notorious for creating some of the craziest, mind bending tones and effects on the market. Ackerman also fronts New York based band A Place to Bury Strangers (who some have called the “loudest band in New York”). I met up with him in early 2016 to talk about what the past year and half has brought, what his future may hold, and the possibility of reopening a show space. 

I planted my car inside of an oversized loading dock next to a warehouse in central Brooklyn and took the only spot available. Finding the entrance wasn’t too hard, really. By the time I walked over to what I figured was the front, the only door to the space was open and he had just popped out to meet me. I introduced myself as we walked down the hall and up a slanted rickety metal staircase. A short walk down another hallway on the second floor brought us to the new home of Death by Audio pedals. It’s a small rectangular room with two very large windows not 15 feet from the door. I got a quick tour of the efficiently cramped space and remarked at how small it seemed in comparison to the old workshop. “Really”, Oliver said, “It’s not much smaller than our last workshop”. 

Ackermann in his element. With lasers.

Ackermann in his element. With lasers.

C: Before we start, let’s talk about the beginning of Death by Audio. How did begin? Whose idea was it, and how did you guys get it going?

OA: We wanted a space where we could play music, throw shows, and build anything we wanted to. We had this open ended lease at this space in Bushwick, and after about 9 months of searching, found the Death by Audio space. It was this big, empty, greasy warehouse… so we turned it into a whole bunch of loft and practice spaces. [We would] throw shows to raise the money for building materials in order to build an art space. 

C: So when you started there, were places like Glasslands and 285 Kent already in place or did they come after? 

OA: Yeah they came after that. This was in 2005 and I do remember there used to be this small Glasslands there. I’m not sure exactly when that started because we just kind of found it one day. This might have been in 2008. We found it right at the end of it’s life (and they were throwing shows as well right around the corner). I think it was called Glasslands really because they had mosaic glass from floor to ceiling everywhere. It was cool except there was smashed glass everywhere. 

C:  And were these the same guys who were behind the most recent Glasslands? 

OA: Well I think it was Brooke and a friend that she lived with, but someone who knew that situation more could probably explain that better. 

C: Let’s go back… what initially peaked your interest in the DIY ethic? 

OA: Well there were a couple things. I was playing music, and being from Fredericksburg, Virginia, it was impossible to set up tours at the time. We were trying to play shows and nobody really cared. This was before the time of the internet, and so you kind of just had to figure out how to do everything yourself. We were making tons of posters, trying to set up shows with bands and even play in each others living rooms, the backs of pizza places or anything you could do! Then when I moved to Providence, people were throwing these crazy warehouse parties and places like Fort Thunder were just insane! The craziest things you could see were happening here; people just letting lose and going wild. No inhibitions. So this was just a really big eye opening experience [for me]. It was so cool that you could even live that way, that this could happen in your apartment or house. Having tasted that, why would you want to go back? As time went on, you realized that this was something that was this really pure form of art. It’s kind of awesome when it’s not the best, but it’s something that’s completely honest. I like that. 

C: Well also, the atmosphere in those spaces tends to be incredibly unhinged. I feel like there’s more freedom with them, too.

OA: Totally, well people are also setting them up for different reasons. People are throwing DIY shows because they just want to see a really cool concert or event. It comes from a place of passion. 

Behind the show space was “Death by Art”, an exhibit to pay homage to the the community and culture that was built around Death by Audio. 

Behind the show space was “Death by Art”, an exhibit to pay homage to the the community and culture that was built around Death by Audio. 

C: In late 2014, Death by Audio (along with other established places like 285 Kent and Glasslands) were forced out of their Brooklyn industrial space in order to make room for media giant, VICE. In an interview with Commercial Observer, Broker Drew Conner believed that the space was not fulfilling its post-gentrification potential. With this signaled the closing bell for many artist/music communities.

OA: They didn’t even buy it, I’m pretty sure they’re just renting it. But they received a lot of money from New York City in order for that to be really easy for them. 

C: What I never understood about the whole situation was that VICE probably had so many other spaces they could have chosen. Why do you think they made their final decision on that location? 

OA: It’s hard to say, I don’t know. I’m not sure how these giant decisions go down. I’m sure it was a multimillion dollar project, so maybe they got a very good deal to do this. Everyone has to look out for their own best interest, ya know? 

C: They had to have known what spaces were in there, though, right? 

OA: Someone must’ve known. I’m sure anyone who was a writer for VICE definitely knew what was going on, but I don’t know who the head honchos are that run it and they’re probably some dudes in some suits. They probably had no idea what the heck was going on, and [were] just looking at the figures. Also, once a company gets so big they sort of let business managers take over. And for all we know, the people who made this decision could have lived in France. 

C: Was there a point where you realized that maybe Death by Audio wasn’t totally sustainable anymore? That it was over? 

OA: Yeah, it wasn’t even that long before we left actually. We had a meeting with the landlords and they were saying they weren’t going to renew the lease. It had always been this unspoken thing where we were going to be in there and things were cool. There were even years that we didn’t have a lease. We always figured he was saving it for his children and grandchildren when he died. 

Co-owners Edan Wilbur and Matt Conboy ripping through a late night set as Fuckton.

Co-owners Edan Wilbur and Matt Conboy ripping through a late night set as Fuckton.

C: With the old saying, when one door closes, another one opens, where do you think that DIY community stands now? There’s places like Aviv, Shea Stadium and The Gateway that are still fostering all of this music. Though, I’m imagining that it’s getting much harder to start a space. What do you think the future holds for DIY around here? 

OA: Well, I think people are always going to find a way to throw shows. If anyone has seen how cool this stuff can be, I think they'll wanna do it. Hopefully that desire to throw those crazy shows outweighs them needing to live, and if it happens to get pushed out to other areas… well then that will happen. Death by Audio was so great because it was centrally located and easy for a lot of people to get to, but there’s still plenty of spaces that are doing some cool things. 

C: True. Your life must’ve changed completely, though. What’s been different? 

C: Oh, so much. Tons of things. I had this core group of friends that I lived with in that neighborhood, I barely see them anymore. It’s crazy to all of a sudden change most of your friends. It was the perfect workspace, and now I’m split up between a whole bunch of locations. It disrupts such a good workflow, at least for me personally. I had been living in the same spaces where I worked for so long that I’ve now been forced to readapt to life. 

C: Would you reopen Death by Audio? Are you still looking for a new space? 

OA: Yeah, if there’s anybody out there! If they have a space, I’ll gladly [do it]. I would love to live in another place like that. We were looking for awhile, and I think the original idea was to actually buy a place. That being said, it’s really hard to make that happen now. I don’t know, I guess it might still be on the table but it’s harder since everyone has really started a new chapter in their lives. 

Edan Wilbur surrounded by friends and shredded VICE magazines shortly after the final show. 

Edan Wilbur surrounded by friends and shredded VICE magazines shortly after the final show. 

C: I guess everyone is still sort of adjusting to it? 

OA: Everyone is all over the place now. Everyone lives in different places. Edan’s in Florida now for example. He was one of the key people there doing sound and booking. I don’t even know if anyone would even want to do it again. I mean, I’m definitely down but I’m maybe partially insane or something. 

C: What about the cost of living in New York City? It would be much harder now, right? 

OA: Well it is and it isn’t. I was telling this to someone not too long ago, where I was complaining that it was getting harder and more expensive to be here and what not. They asked me, then, to tell them what it was like when I first came to the city. I realized I had the same answer. That being “oh it’s so hard, it’s way too expensive, I’m living of ramen noodles and stuff like that”. Looking at it, nothing’s really changed, right? It seems impossible, but you just sorta need to step into it and do it. When we first moved into Death by Audio, it was nearly two months before we built a single room for people to live. First thing we built was (obviously) the practice space. 

C: Well yeah, the floor exists… why build a room? 

OA: Exactly! Gotta jam first haha! But everyone started getting miserable real fast. I was totally doubting its sustainability. I convinced my friends to come live here with me and they’re all just sad. I don’t know. Maybe I just have to go do it again, dive in. To just sort of restart Death by Audio might not have that same truth in finding it’s way out of nothing, because that’s what happened. There were some crappy shows there in the beginning, but it got easier once more people knew about it. I don't know, it might not be the same.

Lightning Bolt played the final set, leaving behind a brilliantly disastrous mess.

Lightning Bolt played the final set, leaving behind a brilliantly disastrous mess.