Josh Korody and Oliver Ackermann (A Place to Bury Strangers) Talk Designing Pedals and Recording Yourself

The two dive deep on their recording processes, the new Breeze record, and more.

Breeze is Josh Korody, a Toronto-based artist and producer; Oliver Ackermann is the frontperson of the Brooklyn post-punk band A Place to Bury Strangers, and the founder of Death By Audio guitar pedals. Breeze’s second record Only Up — featuring contributions by artists like Cadence Weapon, Broken Social Scene, and more — is out this Friday via Hand Drawn Dracula, so to celebrate, the two hopped on the phone to chat about it.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Josh Korody: Thanks for being a part of this!

Oliver Ackermann: Yeah, man, this is so cool! Your record is great.

Josh: Thanks, I appreciate you taking the time. 

I was thinking about this this week — for some of records that are gonna be coming out [of quarantine], there’s definitely been  certain situations where there have been small compromises here and there. We’re gonna be putting out a live-in-the-studio thing, which is basically one guy that works with me at my studio and then another close musician friend that came down and got tested — we did a solo record for him, and then he stayed an extra few days to help with this record.

Oliver: So you have your own studio?

Josh: Yeah. It was started by myself and my friend Leon [Taheny], who was in that band Rituals you guys might have played with back in the day. 

Oliver: Oh, yeah. You guys have an incredible studio, right? All this beautiful wood, and wild stuff like that on the walls. It’s a legit studio, right?

Josh: It is a legit studio, it is what I do for a living. I mean, it’s definitely a more indie, mid-level kind of situation. It’s in [Toronto’s] tiny little version of Bushwick called the Junction Triangle, and it’s like a factory kind of style. We’ve been there since 2012, and it’s gone through a bunch of different versions. Before it was mostly just a live room and then a control room upstairs, but now it’s kind of like dual rooms — I use it more as a kind of overdub production space. I have a pretty big control room, and it’s a really cool space. It has a lot of character, it’s affordable. 

It’s been a good hub for a lot of the smaller bands here. We’ve had a couple larger artists come through, but it’s mostly been for, like, one day, or they come in to do a guest spot or something like that. So yeah, it’s definitely been a lot more independent artists.

Oliver: Do you spend the night at the studio? [Laughs.]

Josh: It’s funny, because this record was the first time that I really got to use my own studio to make a proper release in probably five years, maybe. 

Oliver: Oh, wow. 

Josh: I do a lot of my electronic stuff at home. I kind of prefer that, because I don’t really need a whole studio to do it, and I can’t really afford to just use my studio as, like, a little playground all the time. So often when I’m not in there working on other people’s stuff, I have a couple of other people that rent it out for me. But this time around, I booked eight days straight and just went in, and basically the whole record was made in that time.

It was kind of the best way for me to do it, because otherwise if there’s no deadline, it’s just like, OK, I’ll just get to this whenever. When it was like that, that’s exactly what happened — I just didn’t work on it. 

Oliver: Yeah, the nonstop noodling at home stuff, I know that kind of thing. When you don’t really have something that you have to do, you could just jam for eight hours straight or something. Then you’re like, What am I doing? 

Josh: Yeah. And I feel like if you do that but it’s really spread out, you’ll end up with something not really cohesive. But if you go into a studio in a very limited time block, I feel like you’ll make a bunch of stuff — and this is kind of what happened for me — the whole time, you’re kind of like, I don’t know if any of this works together. And then as you get closer and closer to the finish line, you’re like, Actually things are starting to kind of fall into place, and there is cohesion. I think the fact that you’re doing it in that little block of time, that’s what gives you that cohesion. You’re just in that headspace, in that moment.

I mean, even having more modern studio that’s a little bit more production based now, and less like, a five-piece band coming in and recording everything live and staying in the studio for a week — it’s really just people coming in for a day here and there, and it can be nice because people can take some time away from it, come back. But I’m really finding these other pretty negative results, because people just won’t finish their tracks. They just keep working on it.

Oliver: Yeah, totally. For sure.

Josh: By the time it’s done, they just don’t even care about it. I watched that Rockfield documentary that came out, about that small studio in rural England. It was basically one of the first studios to set up outside of a major city and be out in the country — it’s where Black Sabbath [recorded], and Oasis did (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?. I think both Stone Roses records were done there. 

Oliver: Oh, wow.

Josh: Basically the whole thing was, bands would go there for, like, eight months and set up, and they wouldn’t leave until they had a record. For some, I think it was the worst possible thing, because you had to sit in close quarters for a really long time. I don’t think you need that much time, these days, to make a record, but there is something about that sort of like, everyone involved is there—

Oliver: And you can actually focus on it. Now I’m trying to make a record, and I’m just doing so many other things, it’s just like constant distractions. But sometimes it’s really going good, and then everybody’s gotta go home or whatever — you know, it can kinda be a little bit of a bummer. That said, you can be beating your head up against the wall for hours and hours and nothing can happen, but I feel like if you’re just going to work on it for a while, you’ll make something cool happen.

Josh: Definitely, yeah. With COVID — so this project I wanted to be a little bit more studio-based, collaborative, and I was able to do that to some degree.

Oliver: It’s cool that you did that.

Josh: Yeah. But with COVID, it definitely had to be a little bit like, OK, I have to essentially create a full-fledged idea, and then I’m going to send it out to some of my close friends and collaborators and see what they can add to it. If what they could add to it was something that I think makes the song better, then I use it, and if it didn’t and it wasn’t necessary, I just didn’t use it. It ended up being a pretty good way to do it, but I think if I do another record, it would be nice to actually be in the studio with more people next time.

Oliver: So what did you do? You sent out tracks to people, and they would add, like, a keyboard or something like that? Were they collaboratively mixing? 

Josh: There were a couple people who helped me for a few days to get some of the tracks together, which was mostly Kyle Connolly, who was always kind of involved in the project. He now plays bass in Orville Peck full time, but he was home because of not being able to tour and stuff. He was a big part of it, and my engineer, Dylan Frankland, who is my only engineer at the studio with me, helped out a bunch.

Everybody else, it was basically all sending out unfinished edits of songs and then seeing what they could bring to the table. It got a little stressful because I was sending things out that weren’t even done. There were a couple of times where someone might have been like, “Hey, at this part, you do this,” and I’m like, “Oh, sorry, I’ve already changed the idea of the song.” So I just maybe 15 to 20 percent of room for people to add something. 

Oliver: Did any of the tracks people sent you totally change the direction of the song? 

Josh: Yeah, there were a couple. The people that I’m friends with that are very creative, good musicians that can play a lot of instruments — some of them gave me a lot more than I needed. But I just had to really stay on track, because the time was so sensitive. Working on other people’s records, I just see how much time gets added on and wasted when you’re just like, “Oh, let’s this redo this thing, let’s add this thing.” It’s just creating more problems.  I just never wanted to be in a situation where I’m like, What is this track anymore? 

Oliver: Someone just recently gave me a remix to do, and there’s something like a 120 tracks. I was like, What is all this stuff? How does somebody work like this? But I guess some people must.

Josh: The whole thing was such a looking-at-myself-in-the-mirror situation, because usually if I’m getting hired to work on someone’s record — when you’re in that position, you want to bring as much as you can to the table. So you do get into this whole space of like, “Let’s layer a million guitars and a million synths and do all this stuff,” and then you kind of create this overkill situation. But because I was writing and playing myself, I almost did the opposite of what I would normally do, and I just kind of focused on the key elements of what would make a song good in my eyes. 

Oliver: And you knew what you were going for, so it made more sense. 

Josh: Yeah. There was no second guessing. Once something good was recorded, you just move on. And a lot of it was pretty loop-based, too — I’ve mostly been making electronic music, personally, over the last few years, so I kind of applied that sort of four bar loop process.

Oliver: How do you loop your stuff? Is it a computer, or what do you do?

Josh: For this record, I mostly just used Pro Tools as a two bar loop recorder, basically.

So if Kyle had a guitar idea or a keyboard idea, I would just kind of have him loop through something12 times, and as soon as one thing sounded good, it was like, “Yep, that’s great, let’s move on to the next thing.”

I’m really curious, because, a lot of A Place to Bury Strangers stuff has been self-produced. Where have you done most of the record? At the Death By Audio shop?

Oliver: Yeah, a few places. Usually a studio, sometimes you build a practice space and then record there. I mean, we even recorded some of the stuff actually at one of the Death By Audio shops when it was closing down — we recorded a bit of Pinned at that place. Some of the stuff we’ve done is at kind of construction places, or we’ve done it at a couple studios here and there. Lot of it is wherever my bedroom is.

Right now we have a studio that we built out, so that’s what we’ve been doing. You always want to have a place where you can play music 24 hours a day, if possible. The times when you’re playing music, and you’ve been playing it all day and you’re kind of exhausted of ideas is often when some of the best ideas come — I think, at least. But the time constraints are good, too — then you’ll at least do stuff.

Recently I’ve been doing what you were saying, where you try to just actually lay down the tracks that you wanna use at that moment. I used to do just piles and piles of guitar tracks, and then you’d be fishing through to find some track that you thought sounded cool, but then it doesn’t sound cool. You spend all day trying to mix, like, 40 guitars or something. I don’t know if that helps you out, really. 

Josh: Well, it’s a tough thing — I’ve told people that have come in sometimes — this is kind of going against what we’re saying a little bit, but sometimes it is kind of necessary in the studio to do that. If I’m recording, say, the most simple, basic rock band that doesn’t even really have a lot of effects, and is just a bass and a guitar with an overdrive pedal and a drummer or something — that can sound huge live, but sometimes it can be really tough to make that sound really big in the studio. So sometimes people come in out and they’re just like, “OK, here’s my one guitar track.” I’m like, “Yeah, we’re going to do a little bit more than that to make it more interesting.” But do you find over the years you’re doing less and less in the studio?”

Oliver: Yeah, I try to do less. I think it just kind of becomes confusing, when you try to record 20 or 30 drum tracks or something. It just gets to be kind of insane, and I don’t think it really helps things out. But there are some cool sounds — like if you really want the guitar to be like the heaviest guitar you’ve ever heard, 10 mics on a guitar cabinet does sound awesome. But, you know, there’s just not room necessarily for other things. You have to keep it fun, so you can dive in and try something you’ve never done before, but I also still often go back to the tried and true methods that seem to work, like an SM57 in front of a guitar cabinet or whatever. 

But if you’re recording at your house and you live in New York, and you’ve got neighbors, you can’t get loud, so. At my house, I’ve got little tape recorders, those little teeny Marshall practice amps and stuff — all sorts of weird things you’re doing to make sounds sound cool. Maybe even drumming on a pillow or something with a mic under it. At this point, I think that I know a lot of the sounds and things that I like, and you just figure out a way to kind of synthesize them. 

Josh: Where do you think the self-producing has come from for you? Do you consider yourself to be kind of a bit of a control freak ,or do you just feel like you know how to get the sounds you want and you don’t necessarily need other people involved? Where do you think that desire to do a lot of it on your own comes from?

Oliver: Maybe it’s being a control freak! Working with other people, I’m just usually not that satisfied. Maybe it’s that I’m trying to search for something that other people don’t quite have the same vision for. You know, a lot of times you go into the studio, and they record these drums that sound really great and you think in the studio everything seems to sound good. And then you bring it home and try to do what you want with it, and you just can’t make it happen. So it’s like, OK, I guess I’ll just do it myself.

Maybe it’s even a lack of self-confidence or something, where you want to be able to craft things and do different things that you don’t really pull off in the studio, and you don’t want to feel some of those pressures. Sometimes it works out, but I don’t know — I want to be able to, like, throw a guitar up against the wall or something, just mess around with it in a freeform sort of way. If I’m at somebody else’s place, I’m like, Maybe I’ll ruin the floor, or, they’ll think we’re crazy for putting a guitar underwater and shocking ourselves or something.

Josh: [Laughs.] I wonder if that has something to do with — I mean, Toronto is our major city, but compared to New York, New York has always been kind of a hub for some of the best recording studios and big producers and stuff. But it seems like a lot of people in the States have moved out to the country, or to slightly cheaper cities to start studios, so that you can have a little bit more time or a little bit more freedom to experiment. It just seems like more and more people are branching out.

Oliver: Yeah, that’s definitely happening. A ton of these studios have all left and everything. But there’s lots of cool studios and little spaces. Then there’s other people who are getting big corporate money and still doing things. There are still cool services going on — I think Red Bull still has their studios. So there are options for people to make stuff happen. 

I think I just like sounds that you aren’t going to get in the studio. Even working with people who are really, really awesome — I don’t know what it is, where it’s just not the sound I was going for. Maybe what I end up doing sounds like crap, but it’s the sound that I like.

Josh: I’ve been in a couple of projects where there’s been a center member, or sort of main visionary of the project. But then you have band members and other collaborators come in and out of the project. Has that been a struggle for you? Do you find it hard to balance that sort of creative percentage of a project when you have different members coming in? 

Some people might only be around for, say, one record or one tour — do you find there’s a certain level of creative control you need to keep? Because I’ve been in situations where you give other members more of that, but then they leave or they’re just not into it any more. You’re kind of left with like, OK, now I gotta revamp a little bit

Oliver: For sure. That kind of stuff always happens. I think different people bring different things to the table, and you should always be kind of trying to search for being able to facilitate them to be able to do whatever it is that they do that’s awesome, and work with that and collaborate with that anyway you possibly can. 

The thing is, I feel like it really takes a while to kind of mesh with people; the best times with the band is when people have been in the band for a while. With pretty much every member that’s been in it,  it takes like a year or two years to get the band to be to that level where you want it to be with all of those kinds of people. That takes playing lots of shows, and all sorts of stuff. But all these people that I’ve been lucky to play with are awesome musicians and awesome people, so.

Josh: You’re one of the few people that does the sort of more electronic gear design that’s still pretty active in not only making music, but also just songwriting and actually still committing to touring and making records. A lot of people that get into pedal making or synth making and stuff like that dive so into just that aspect that they kind of get out of music creation. So I’ve always just been curious, do you think that has been a benefit for you and your sonic and songwriting abilities, getting into the design of the sounds?

Oliver: For sure. We couldn’t do what we do as a band without being able to rebuild our equipment, or make sounds out of anything you could possibly want to, or turn an amp into a synthesizer and stuff. I want to be able to use whatever I possibly can to make something really crazy, and make sense with what you’re trying to express. But for me, I’m a songwriter first, and I’ll always be writing music, whether anybody is into it or not. It’s what drives all of this — I want to hear new sounds. A lot of times, I develop and design pedals that I want to use as an artist. Going out on tour, you realize what things are effective.

I think that’s even where we have, in some ways, advantages over some pedal manufacturer — there’s a purpose for us to create this. We’re not trying to create something to just make some money, or highlight some technology that nobody’s ever used before.

Josh: Have you let a lot of other influences into the designs? I know that you guys have sold pedals to some pretty big artists — has someone like The Edge ever been like, “Hey, you know what would be cool? I’ve always wanted a pedal that could do this…”? Have you ever taken artists’ ideas into Death By Audio. 

Oliver: Yeah, for sure. I mean, I had to make custom pedals for people, and then that’s kind of at least influenced some of the designs that we make. I mean, you kind of can’t help but take influence from everything. And I try really hard not to, because there’s something kind of nice about an idea which is pure. But for sure — I’ve made a bunch of pedals for John Dwyer and other people. Or even just talking to artists and they’re like, “Oh, do you make a spring reverb pedal that can do this?” And I’m like, “Well, I could!” 

We have all sorts of things that I built, like, one-off of an idea, and it kind of almost works perfectly, but doesn’t. So there are incomplete projects, but we get to mess around with that stuff all day.

Josh: That’s very cool. I feel like both of us come from this desire to sound design within a guitar or band context. I would imagine you maybe even had a lot more people in the electronic world gravitate towards your pedals, because it’s such mad scientist, unique kind of boxes — if you look at a lot of early electronic stuff or what people are doing in techno, a lot of it is modding drum machines and all this weird stuff. It seems like there’s certain things that you guys have been able to spread out past the guy that wants to maybe play Zeppelin covers or whatever it is.

Oliver: Yeah, that’s so true. We used to have people at our house, and being exposed to all of this noise music — I used to live in Providence, Rhode Island, and we’d go to house shows. That stuff was just so incredible and so crazy. There was just so much pure energy in it; you know, people who maybe didn’t know how to play, but just waved the mic around in front of the PA, or anything crazy like that. I appreciate all of that kind of crazy insanity. So, you know, we have a company where people buy these effects — you could put that in a box, and get that person who’s playing Led Zeppelin to sound like Jimi Hendrix from the future or something.

(Photo Credit: left, Jayme Keith; right, Heather Bickford)

Josh Korody is a Toronto-based artist/producer who records as Breeze. Breeze’s second album, Only Up is out August 2021 via Hand Drawn Dracula.

(Photo Credit: Jayme Keith)