The Heart of the Matter
Some musicians are too cool for school. They’re unfazed by auditions, uninterested in getting close to new bandmates. They may never miss a beat, but you don’t get the feeling that they’re ever going to bleed for the music either. If it all goes south…no biggie, there’s always the next group.
Lia Braswell is not that musician. From an early age the drummer has put her passions and pain into her music, allowing circumstances both within and outside of her control to feed her hungry heart. Like most successful artists, Braswell doesn’t ignore the messy storylines of life or hide from her own sensitivities. She lays them right out on the table, pushes to form deep musical and personal alliances, and leans forward into the unknown with the goal of creating something new and exciting.
Two years ago Braswell, who’d come to many drum fans’ attention with Le Butcherettes, the group fronted by vocalist Teri Gender Bender and featuring Mars Volta/At the Drive-In founder Omar Rodríguez-López on bass, began working with the popular Brooklyn-based psych-rock band A Place to Bury Strangers. Since then, Lia, guitarist/singer Oliver Ackermann, and bassist/singer Dion Lunadon have spent much time on stage and in the studio developing the music featured on their brand-new album, Pinned. It’s a stirring collection. Braswell brings a new sort of groove and grit to the band’s cavernous yet intimate songs, offering alternately trancey and dancing performances that recall the transfixing beats of Can’s Jaki Liebezeit and Joy Division/New Order drummer Stephen Morris.
We met Lia at a Williamsburg cafe to learn more about her evolving relationship with A Place to Bury Strangers, and about the life experiences that inform her work.
Lia: I was born in Van Nuys, California. My mom married an engineer in Amsterdam and they moved to California and then divorced. But before they did, he built a small studio in our garage. My mom married my dad seven years later. But that studio was such a haven for my brothers and I growing up. My older brother would host parties and jam sessions. The first time I appreciated live music was in that room with him and his friends. I remember it being really loud and vibrating all around my body and thinking, Now that’s a nice feeling to have—what WAS that?
When I was five my brother developed cancer, and he struggled with it for three years before he passed. That was a big reason my mother would allow us to have gatherings as much as possible. He wanted to be surrounded by music and family and creating. It was humbling to see.
I started to really enjoy playing after my brother’s passing. His friends would still come over. I was a little shy at first to play, but they’d say, “You know us, we’re family—just play!” So we would jam. It taught me how to play with older people, and that it doesn’t matter how old or talented you are—you can get together with people and build something from scratch.
In my last year of high school I started my first originals band, Ostrich Eyes, and after graduation I started a band with the girl who played bass in that band, Nikki [Godinez], called Peter Pants. All we wanted to do was play the Smell in L.A., this really cool DIY all-ages place. A lot of teenagers would go there who weren’t into what their more mainstream classmates were into. I homed in on something I wanted to do, which was play music with this energy going on.
That’s why I’m so happy to play in A Place to Bury Strangers. Their approach to music is exactly what I was interested in from the start. In a way it’s a continuation of my coping mechanism for losing my brother, articulating it and helping other people use their anger or loss and creating something meaningful out of it.
MD: Listening to Pinned makes me feel like the players are completely committed to leading listeners to a specific emotional place.
Lia: I’m feeling it as well. Especially the first song, “Never Coming Back.” That song changed a bit. When we recorded it, Oliver incorporated elements of his demo and the way we were playing it live. In the demo there was no ride cymbal in the beginning parts, and when I was playing it live there was ride the whole time. We started thinking, This needs more layers. Let’s make it feel like it’s not heavy all the time. I was playing with this dynamic where it would go from the softest I could play to the hardest.
When I’m playing this song, I channel my brother and the fact that I know that he’s never coming back, and I have to sing that over and over to really push out how that makes me feel. The process that I approach music with now isn’t so much a technical thing—even though that’s where I came from—but a deeply emotional one. That’s so important to me.
I just did a tour with the singer Mirah, who I’ve been playing with on and off for the past year or so. She’s got some beautiful and sincere lyrics, which come from different approaches to activism and trying to understand the world a bit better, and that’s something I can connect with. So when I was learning her songs, just as much as I was learning the parts, I was trying to engage what she wants to evoke in the song. With A Place to Bury Strangers it’s more active—we’re just kind of going with how we feel in the moment, though we want it to be really intense all the time. And that’s really thrilling to me, because it’s catharsis.
MD: What was the recording process for Pinned?
Lia: Oliver wrote demos for the songs, so I based a lot of my playing on what I’d heard on them, which were drum machine beats. I just tried to make them my own while sorting out what he was going for.
“Never Coming Back” was one of the songs where I feel I had more of a variety of things that I had composed for it, because I wanted to put in the wave…. With Peter Pants and Ostrich Eyes, I would try to do the most difficult and intricate drumbeats that I could. But I think the most important contributions I made to Pinned are dynamics and figuring out what I can do to make the songs flow.
At the time we were building a studio, which we wanted to make extremely soundproof. We didn’t really have the space ready to record in time, though, so we went to a place called Spaceman Sound and did the skeletons of everything there—bass, drums, vocals, guitar—all live, with effects as well. Some of the songs have overdubbed guitars or vocals. But we tried to keep it as live as possible and not add nuances to it that we’re not playing live.
MD: The drums sound different on each song.
Lia: It was hard for me to figure out what I wanted the drums to sound like. Oliver and Dion are helping me, teaching me almost an engineer’s approach, a mathematical approach, with effects pedals. Oliver builds circuit boards; that’s his day job as the owner of Death by Audio pedals.
MD: Talk about the song “Look Me in the Eye.”
Lia: If we were feeling tired, we’d play that song to pick back up. It’s really fast, and then at the third verse I jump into 16th notes. That was hard to play at first, because I’m playing fast kick as well. But I was like, I want to get better at this so I can feel the energy and the impact that it has.
MD: What were some of the other challenges during the recording?
Lia: Making sure that I was comfortable playing with and without a metronome. We tried both ways for pretty much all the songs to see how it was flowing the most. Some songs we don’t like to play with a metronome, because it should feel live and have a natural flow.
MD: When you listen to the album now, do you hear how your contributions move the music in a certain direction?
Lia: Absolutely. It’s exciting, but it’s also intimidating, because I enjoy and admire all of the drummers who came before me. I incorporate their approaches into the live shows, but I feel this album isn’t so—and I hate to use this word—but it isn’t so “masculine.” I mean, I’m a rock drummer in terms of categories, and live this band is loud and totally outrageous and abrasive and intense, and I like that and put that into the momentum of how I’m feeling during the shows. But I’m also an artistic drummer, and on the record I’m not just pushing myself to be the loudest and most aggressive drummer ever, and I think the guys appreciate that.
This past year and a half hasn’t been easy, though. At first I was like, Whoa, you’re throwing so many musical curveballs at me. Now I appreciate everything that they were throwing at me. But there were nights when we would practice and I would go home crying and thinking, I’m not good enough for this or We’re not connecting very well. Not in a personality sense, but just because it was so shaky. I was scarred by things that happened in other bands where my energy was welcomed but then put in the background. I was like, I’m in a band that’s been together for ten years, and all of a sudden they want me to give my opinion or my taste to it? That’s scary. Plus there’s the age difference—they’re in their forties and I was twenty-four when I started with them. But I talked to them openly about it. I’d be like, “I’m sorry I’m being so awful, guys!” And they were like, “Lia, you don’t have to be sorry—we’ll work on this.” They’re very empathetic, nurturing, and motivating.
MD: Tell me more about the live show.
Lia: One of the things that we incorporate is this wood cart that has a monitor in it, a drum machine, a couple effects pedals, and a portable multi-track recorder. We’re writing and mixing songs on the fly, and we have a microphone, so at any time one of us can start singing and go into the crowd dancing. It’s really beautiful, because we’re engaging with the crowd, making them part of the show.
MD: How did you meet the band?
Lia: Two years ago I left a band that I was living with and pushing everything for, Le Butcherettes. It wasn’t a healthy environment. I sold all my stuff, including my car, and flew to Europe and hung out there for a little while. I spent time with my family, wrote some music. I sort of lost faith in joining bands and even playing drums in general. I wanted to quit, to just stop trying to impress people.
But I needed to figure out where to go next, so I came to New York, where I found all these different outlets to continue playing and writing my own stuff. There was one band that Dion was friends with, and they needed a drummer for a couple shows. Dion was at one of the shows and thought it was cool, so he got my email and asked if I wanted to play a couple shows in Texas. I learned about seventeen songs and we practiced a couple times. In the meantime I was starting to gain momentum with this band TR/ST in L.A., and I got asked to tour with the band Jerry Paper, but right before that was supposed to happen were these three gigs with A Place to Bury Strangers.
I was thinking, I really love these guys. I love the energy so much. And right before we went on stage for our third gig, Oliver was like, “If you want to keep playing with us nerds, you’re welcome to,” and I was, “Absolutely, a hundred percent!” The moment I met them and listened to the songs and sort of understood what it was, it was immediate. And on top of that, Oliver and Dion opened up this space for me to sing, which I’d been wanting to do with Le Butcherettes.
This whole experience has provided such a profound understanding of where I want to direct my instincts. It’s motivating to me that during every show there’s a point where everything drops out and I bring my autoharp up and just improvise a song. That’s the kind of stuff that I do in my bedroom, but when I’m with people, so much crazy stuff comes out. I’m like, How am I hitting this note right now? [laughs] I’m utterly grateful for that opportunity.
MD: Talk about the pedalboard on top of your bass drum.
Lia: The two main pedals are a reverb and one of Oliver’s pedals called the Echo Master. I use it on my vocals, but I’m learning how to make it embrace the sound of the drums as well. So I have a mic that’s attached to a gooseneck, and I usually keep it pointed down to my knees so that I’m capturing everything. Then there are songs where I’ll lay it on the snare or floor tom so that I can have a huge delay or reverb pushing through. Or I’ll have it just on the cymbals. One of our amps has an octave changer, so when I put it on the ride, it makes this badass low rumble.
MD: You recently had a couple lessons with the noted jazz and world-music drummer Susie Ibarra.
Lia: This was when I started to play with Mirah. I wanted to learn how to play for someone who comes from a very quiet angle. Susie helped me with control, and with restructuring how I do rudiments so that I’m using my feet to balance everything. We also got into tuning a bit. I just saw her playing at Pioneer Works, and the sound of her drums was so wild and powerful and descriptive of what she wanted to evoke in the music. We talked about the circle of fifths and tuning the toms to thirds. She told me to ask the people that I’m playing with what key they’re singing or playing guitar in the most.
MD: Talk about your solo work.
Lia: I’ve been writing songs for years, and I’ve been singing for almost as long as I’ve been playing drums. I recorded an EP, and a song came out of it that I was really proud of. A couple friends of mine started sending it out to people, and the day after I quit Le Butcherettes I got an email from one of them, who said that a label was interested and wanted to have a meeting with me. So I flew to L.A. to have a meeting with this person, and he turned out to be a predator.
MD: Oh, my goodness, that’s horrible from so many angles.
Lia: Yeah, and it was one of my favorite labels. And now I’m looked at as that person who was the first one to call out someone who sexually harassed a potential artist for the label. I’m embarrassed, humiliated, and really sad that that came on to me, after sharing something that was so important and significant to what I wanted to do as an artist.
So I sort of took a break from it for a while. I tried to process it. But I write nonstop, and I’ve finally started getting back to believing in myself.
MD: So, what are you trying to achieve musically with your solo material?
Lia: I want to find my truth through it. I want to invoke a message. I want to be able to feel so alive and present with what I’m singing about and playing. Especially since I’ve become more comfortable improvising in a band setting, I’m feeling stronger in my abilities to reveal the most honest part of me.
Tools of the Trade
Braswell plays a C&C kit with an off-peach wrap, featuring 15×16 and 15×18 floor toms and a 12×24 kick drum, along with a vintage Ludwig rack tom with red sparkle wrap converted to a snare. She plays Dream cymbals (14″ hi-hats, 18″ crash, 22″ ride), her hardware includes a DW 3000 or 5000 bass drum pedal and lightweight stands, and her sticks are Vic Firth 5A American Classics.
Le Butcherettes Cry Is for the Flies /// Gothic Tropic “Underwater Games” /// Peter Pants “Streets or No Streets” /// Ostrich Eyes “Omen” /// Lalande “Guide” /// Only You “Applying Myself” /// Teamgeist “Millie’s”
Lia on Her Influences
Muppet Show/Fraggle Rock theme songs “These two shows were the highlights of my childhood, and I always had the theme songs stuck in my head. I would transcribe them on the kit and sing along.”
Ani DiFranco “Little Plastic Castle” “One of the first concerts I ever attended was an Ani show. I can’t remember where exactly, but my parents loved her, so they would always blast this album in our Toyota 4Runner. My dad would mimic her drummer at the time, Andy, and say, ‘He can hit!’”
Hanson “MMMBop” “The very first concert I ever went to was Hanson at the Hollywood Bowl. It was the first time I saw kids playing instruments on a big stage, and on top of that switching instruments with each other. It blew me away! I had high hopes for starting a band with my brothers and doing the same thing.”
No Doubt Tragic Kingdom “This is one of the only albums that I can sing and play to—quite sloppily—the whole way through. It was my key influence in middle school, and I played along to it until my high school graduation.”
Be Your Own Pet Be Your Own Pet “This was my punk breakthrough inspiration. Before them, I was stuck in the pop culture of the masses, but this album got me to make my way out of the trends and into Iggy and the Stooges, Bad Brains, the Clash, Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, and local Nashville/L.A.-scene bands.”
Mahavishnu Orchestra Birds of Fire “I got into Mahavishnu Orchestra in high school, which inspired me to start playing around with my style and polyrhythms a whole lot more.”
The Slits Cut “As soon as I heard this album, I thought I had found the gold I’ve always been waiting for. Budgie’s beats brought a new style to my horizon.”
Kate Bush The Dreaming “I got into Kate Bush later in life, but everything changed as soon as I heard this album. I was confused at how much it resonated with me, because it’s unlike anything else I was listening to. But some-how the theatrics and elements of the music heightened my attention to recorded performance.”