Interview: Don’t Look Down: Death From Above

Don’t Look Down: Death From Above

Death From Above are back with their new album, and they’re pushing themselves further than ever before.

It’s a few weeks before Death From Above’s third album ‘Outrage! Is Now’ is announced, and the band’s Jesse F. Keeler feels odd. He and Sebastien Grainger have done the hard work - creating an album that they’re immensely proud of - but, speaking on the phone from across the Atlantic, they’re currently in a limbo where the world doesn’t yet know about it. The waiting has him on edge

“It’s awkward to not talk about it,” laughs Jesse. “It’s strange because we’ve put out one song [‘Freeze Me’] that’s part of a varied body of work and it’s difficult for me to think that there’s just three minutes of music representing everything we’ve spent a lot of time on.”

The record - which was announced just three weeks ahead of its release - came to life when they were still mixing 2014’s ‘The Physical World’, following their reformation a couple of years prior. “When you’re making a record, you end up learning a bunch of things,” he explains. “Then my brain starts scrambling, putting together those ideas and next thing you know you’re writing songs already.”

They came quick and fast, so much so that the duo even considered producing and recording it themselves just to get them out of their system, a stripped-down punk record more akin to where they began. But things didn’t quite feel right – these songs were more evolved, and recording them in a previous style wasn’t fitting.

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“I don’t think there are people listening to classical music wearing white wigs!”

Jesse F. Keeler

This time around, it was about pushing themselves beyond their comfort zones – being creatively ambitious, but also to spare boredom. “It would probably be better for our careers if we weren’t afraid of repeating things that we’d done but for me I’m always trying to not do what I’ve already done. It’s more enjoyable. I don’t want to just keep rehashing the same ideas.

There’s things on this record that I never would have done on anything previously. Initially, maybe sheepishly, I presented a lot of these demos to Seb wondering, ‘What’ll he think? What’s he going to like?’ “The stuff he gravitated towards was the most left field. It was exciting that the stuff furthest outside of my normal zone was what Seb was excited about.”

Already excited by the new roads they were treading, they turned to producer Eric Valentine (Queens of the Stone Age), and there began their “fastest and smoothest” recording process. “That was partially because Eric is a genius. We enjoy getting a lot accomplished with very little talking. And i’m not saying that we’re averse to talking,” he laughs, “but there’s an unspoken language that has developed [between the band]. Eric meshed in with that right away. It was like he’d been in our band, always.”

Has he ever felt the pressure to put himself fully into the music due to others’ expectations? “This might sound dumb, but my music is my art and making music is what I do. This has been my job for half my life - I can’t believe it. When you’re broke and suddenly have a band that people like – it’s shocking. It’s probably because I’m getting older that I’m like ‘Wow,this is what I’ve done, this is my life’s work’.

“In that sense, whatever I make is obviously a reflection of me but I don’t like the idea that my music always has to be personal. It doesn’t have to be about what I’m feeling, it could be something I’m thinking about, something I’ve imagined. It could be just a musical idea that I really like and wanted to see through.

“I don’t like the idea that my music always has to be personal.”

Jesse F. Keeler

“You see sometimes people who listen to rap music or old school punk and they dress like they listen to those things? They’re getting something out of it that’s more than the music - finding a piece of identity because of what they’re listening to. It doesn’t always happen - I don’t think there are people listening to classical music wearing white wigs! 

“I like the idea that Seb is free to sing about people that don’t exist and circumstances that are something he thought of and be creative with it rather than real life all the time. Otherwise we’re going to be singing about walking our dogs,” he laughs, “or ploughing fields at my farm and dealing with rodents. That would be strange.”

While those songs would indeed be odd - though, few could be against more songs about dogs - real life did seep into some songs. “I wrote in the middle of nowhere,” he recalls. “I was looking at maps - most of the United Kingdom are places where human feet have stepped. Completely used. On my farm there’s this island out in the pond that no one’s ever been on. There’s no bridge, never been a tree cut down. When I wrote ‘Nomad’, it was -2° and kind of snowed in - it makes a lot of sense up here. That’s not something I would have made in the city.

“With ‘Never Swim Alone’, my daughter was with me and I was keeping her occupied. She was three. I gave her a snare drum and said ‘you play this drum’, and then I recorded the demo. To this day, she’s like ‘dad can you put on the song that I played the drums on?’ She’s convinced it was her drumming on that recording.”

And now, the release of their new album is upon the duo. But, as with all DFA’s work, they’ll continue to grow as time goes on. “I was shocked when I listened to our older records how much songs have changed from improvising. I love how they evolve live. I love to get beyond the mastery of playing a song and move into how this song gets to stay alive. That’s something I didn’t appreciate years ago but now it’s one of the most fun things about going out onto the stage where I look down at the setlist and see what’s next I kind of think ‘Oh what can I do with this today?’ rather than thinking ‘Oh I hope I do the best possible approximation of that recording’. I’m thinking what little things can I do and add ideas that I put them in. I’ll never get tired of it.”

Death From Above’s new album ‘Outrage! Is Now’

Photos: Mike Massaro

Taken from the September 2017 issue of DIY. Read and subscribe below.