Interview: Death From Above 1979: “There was unfinished business”

Death From Above 1979: "There was unfinished business"

Ten years ago Sebastien Grainger and Jesse Keeler released an album of near perfection. Now they’re back, risking it all with a second.

There’s that special aura of the modern classic that surrounds Death From Above 1979’s sole LP to date. It’s trickled down through a generation, feeding an offspring of younger musicians with its influence and leaving elephantine footprints across music fans’ collective consciousness. Whether it’s the record’s brazen stampede of influences that have defined the last decade’s foray into increasingly bent genre boundaries, or simply their stripping down of members to a band’s two key rhythmic components; once their impact is noted, it’s impossible to miss.

“I’ve never really noticed that phenomenon actively,” claims drummer and vocalist Sebastien Grainger. “It’s flattering if I think about it objectively, in the way that we’re on a level with the bands that influenced me - that’s how I relate to it.” Indeed, in spite of their now well-publicised disbanding, the sounds that Sebastien crafted alongside his bass-wielding partner Jesse Keeler on 2004’s ‘You’re A Woman, I’m A Machine’ brought them not only a gold album status in their native Canada, but also an abundance of famous fans, with almost every rising band since claiming to have taken inspiration from the record at one point or another.

They seem such unlikely figureheads for a borderline cultural revolution, these two self-proclaimed “weirdos” who interject their wistful ponderings on their work with equal parts girlish giggling and “looking at boobs on the internet”. But it’s an artistic pairing that they each seem destined to be a part of, despite their less-than-amicable split. “There was part of me that was just ignoring what we had in common for so long,” confesses Sebastien when quizzed on the inevitability of their couple’s reunion after five years of the cold shoulder. “Maybe there’s certain things that happen in your life that send you down a certain path. When you’re a musician type, or an artist type, you go through a long phase of your life looking for the people that you relate to. You think you have them when you’re a kid and then all of a sudden all these people turn out to be normal. If you still keep being weird past the age of nineteen, twenty, twenty-one… it’s harder to find the weirdos. It’s kinda the search for the lost tribe in a way – you’re looking for your people. We were from two different sides of the city, and two different musical and social circles, but we were both weirdos. It kinda makes sense that years and years later, we go ‘oh yeah, you’re weird’, ‘oh, you’re weird too!’

“You get into some funny stuff, just cause you’re comfortable being your own person and you’re comfortable having ideas that no one else around you might share, and you live like that for your entire adult life. And you get real comfortable with your own decision-making process – it creates a type of confidence that I guess is a punk thing, that ‘I don’t give a shit’ attitude. I would never normally put it into those words, but that’s part of where it stems from: being comfortable not included.”

Death From Above 1979: “There was unfinished business”

“The reunion was sort of an experiment initially.”

— Jesse Keeler

Death From Above 1979: “There was unfinished business”
Death From Above 1979: “There was unfinished business”
Death From Above 1979: “There was unfinished business”

Of course, this outsider ethos is somewhat at odds with the band’s now-legendary stature, but they remained cautious once the bridges were rebuilt and the 2011 reunion tour announced. “We needed to see if there were real fans out there; real, active, excited people, and not just people talking about us on the internet,” continues Grainger. “It was sort of an experiment initially,” says Jesse – the first of many occasions in which the band refer to their actions as experimental. “When we started playing together and once our band was available to book again… does anyone actually want to see us when it’s possible to, or is it something people just talked about? We didn’t know. We were just sort of following along and seeing what happened.” And once the reunion proved to be a success? “We knew we could just keep playing the same songs!” he jokes. “At that point we’d just be the best Death From Above covers band ever; not an actual living band, making music. We wouldn’t have been interested in continuing if we weren’t making new music; if the band still wasn’t a living thing. I wanted to make more music. There was an unfinished business creatively.”

But the duo were hardly creatively void in their half-decade apart. Sebastien fostered a relatively successful solo career, and they both dabbled in electronic and dance music, most notably with Jesse’s work as one half of MSTRKRFT. “For me, one of the greatest things in terms of the evolution of this band is that we’ve gone off and done different things and had separate compartments for those ideas,” admits Sebastien. “When you’ve just got the one outlet and a lot of ideas, there’s this desire to bring all those different ideas into the one package and lose focus.” Jesse agrees: “It keeps Death From Above pure in a sense, because we’re not gonna contaminate it with all our other impulses – those impulses have other homes. So Death From Above can retain this pure form.”

“This band has always been a bit of a fight for us.”

— Sebastien Grainger

Maintaining the purity of Death From Above is something the pair seem to see as a duty. Sebastien sows the seed: “After all that time, and having so many people tell us that the record that we’d made, it meant so much to them, what we really learned when we did this reunion tour of sorts is… the band exists separate from us, and we have evidence in all those years that that was the case. So then, when we were working on this new record, the pressure – if there was any pressure apart from the pressure we put on ourselves in general - was that we didn’t want to do anything that would take away from that legacy. We didn’t want to do anything that would cheapen it or ruin it for people who cared so much about it. In a sense they cared more about it than we did, because they kept going with it when we hadn’t. Maybe that was us realising that the band is this other thing.”

So as Death From Above approach the release of their second record ‘The Physical World’, they speak of their legacy as if they’ve taken on another member. ”In this era, the script is kind of half-written. The feeling of it is very different - like we mentioned before, the concept of the band being a third, separate thing. But also, we had people trust us now. The labels we work with and even the fans. We were a weird band - there weren’t a lot of other two-piece bands going around when we started, even The White Stripes were out of my consciousness. So this band has always been a bit of a fight for us, and now we don’t have to fight so hard.”

Death From Above 1979: “There was unfinished business”

“I’d prefer not to have to go away in order to keep it interesting!”

— Jesse Keeler

“The benefit of time on the perception of what we’re doing now is massive,” continues Jesse. “If we had released this record and had never gone away, and had just been a presence all the time, I don’t know if it would have been received as it is now, which is incredible for us… but I’d prefer not to have to go away in order to keep it interesting!” he laughs.

“I think it’s a matter of also continuing to be objective about it,” Sebastien muses. “There’s a lot of bands that just should have stopped a while ago. And then there’s bands like Spoon that keep putting out records, and the records are always good. If we can do that, that’s cool. I’ve seen bands since our reunion take our template and go ‘fuck, can we do that? Can we break up for a few years and then come back bigger than we were before?! Let’s try it out!’” he concludes, finally allowing admittance to the band’s influence in perhaps the most cynical of ways, “but I don’t think you can replicate this experiment.”

Taken from the September issue of DIY, out now. Death From Above 1979’s new album ‘The Physical World’ is out now via Last Gang Records / Caroline / Fiction.


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