“We were playing so loud, Jesse’s retina detached and we had to find the nearest eye hospital,” laughs Sebastien Grainger. It’s fitting that our chat with Death From Above 1979 begins with them recalling tour stories of old: having lit up stages with their high intensity, ear-shattering dance-punk over the course of two decades (albeit with a halftime break), it’s a small reminder that the Toronto duo have never compromised in their approach.
This month the pair - completed by bassist Jesse F. Keeler - return with fourth album ’Is 4 Lovers’, and though they’ve marched to the beat of their own drum on past releases, this time was about assuming full autonomy. As vocalist and drummer Sebastien says: “When we were working on the other records we had voices saying, ‘That’s not so Death From Above, is it?’. This time there was no external voice, it was like, we’re the band, we can totally trust in one another.”
As well as taking the recording entirely in-house, it’s the first time DFA have truly been able to shake off the legendary aura that preceded their comeback, following a well-documented hiatus in the late ‘00s. “We’d done it as an instinctive, youthful exuberance kind of thing - took a break and when we came back, the band had a mythology,” recalls Sebastien. It’s a rarity that a group becomes larger than the sum of its parts - more so after one album - but the magnitude of their boundary-breaking 2004 debut ‘You’re A Woman, I’m A Machine’ weighed heavy on the duo. Scenes at their surprise 2013 SXSW reunion show played further into the folklore, chaos unfolding when desperate fans stormed the venue, wire fences toppled and police arrived.
However, after so long in the game, the urge to shake things up once again came from looking inside rather than at the wider musical landscape. When asked about the current state of alt-rock - a genre they rewrote themselves - Sebastien laughs. “I don’t know if either of us has a clue what’s going on elsewhere. Look at what Jesse’s wearing; he’s in a poncho. We’re both two and a half hours away from a city, so we don’t really know what’s going on.”
"We took a break and when we came back, the band had a mythology."
— Sebastien Grainger
As the knowing title ‘Is 4 Lovers’ suggests, DFA found new ground thematically this time around, resulting in what they call their first ‘love album’. “If there’s a declaration on this record, it’s looking backwards without having any regrets,” Sebastien explains. Yet, while that idea might concur with following your gut romantically (“If you feel love in your heart, then you should lean into that,” he adds), then sometimes - as the band are more than aware - looking back on your history isn’t quite as simple.
Back in 2017, blog attention around Jesse's friendship with Vice co-founder and alt-right leader Gavin Mcinnes began to ignite. Having met when DFA signed to Vice Records for the release of their debut album, the accusations led to Jesse publicly distancing himself from the figure and strongly denying any link to the Proud Boys movement that Gavin had founded and that were subsequently heavily involved in the storming of the US Capitol this January. “I began noticing that Gavin was promoting violence and a form of radical politics that I absolutely do not agree with. I have always been anti-war and anti-violence. That is my baseline position,” Jesse asserted at the time.
It’s an interesting time to have turned their lyrical attentions to matters more of the heart; having been tangled up in social media finger pointing in the past, has it made the pair steer away from commenting on politics through their music? “I think there’s too much nuance in those discussions to boil it down in a rock and roll song,” interjects Sebastien. “It still exists on this record, this is still a bit of social commentary, but in a song like ‘Totally Wiped Out’ I’m talking about internet addiction, porn addiction, news addiction and all these things.”
He continues: “I can’t stand when I see it in others, when I see artists, actors, musicians, comedians definitively declare their feelings or thoughts on something; I always think it’s a mistake because who knows what you’re going to think in two to five years.” “I think it messes up the art a little bit too, to tell people what it’s about,” Jesse adds. “Maybe part of the reason we love and have this reverence for this really old art is because we don’t have the artist there to interrogate.”
It’s been a rollercoaster so far but, all things considered, could the pair have seen their reunion journey remaining so musically fruitful and productive when they first got the band back on track? Jesse is quick to respond: “It’s a wild ride man. I think about the people who do the voices for The Simpsons all the time; I’m like, did any of those people know when they first took that job they’d be doing it for the rest of their lives?”
Looking back to that chaotic reunion show, Sebastien bats away any semblance of rose-tinted nostalgia. “They’re just expressions of the pure energy of the band. If we can come anywhere close to that in the music we make, everything is the fence coming down, everything is the sirens, everything is the energy level because we’re the expression of that energy.” He pauses and continues. “This record more than any other is so integrated into our lives and it’s set a blueprint for the future.”
With their vision clearer than it’s ever been, hopefully Death From Above 1979 - and their retinas - are here to stay.
‘Is 4 Lovers’ is out now via Universal Music Canada / Spinefarm.
As featured in the March 2021 issue of DIY, out now.