Death From Above 1979 Friends Fatale
Published Sep 05, 2014Sebastien Grainger: "It was kind of out of the blue. I mean, we'd never explicitly talked about a new record. It's just one day there were demos in my in-box. Jesse was like, 'Here are four new songs.'"
Jesse F. Keeler: "No, I told you. I swear. I told you it was important we make another record. We were watching METZ play. No it wasn't METZ. We were watching Nightbox. But we were drinking at that time so…"
Sebastien: "We always have two different answers for every question. Sorry."
In the ten years since Death From Above 1979 released their first (and, until this month, only) album You're a Woman, I'm a Machine, many things have changed, but the important things have not. Sebastien Grainger and Jesse F. Keeler are still a two-piece: drums/vox, bass. They are still signed to Toronto indie label Last Gang, which is releasing the long-awaited follow-up, The Physical World. They still make infectiously danceable, exhilaratingly wild, slightly sleazy rock'n'roll, in the spirit of AC/DC and Jerry Lee Lewis, not whatever is trending right now. And they still don't give a fuck what you think about it.
Grainger and Keeler have long been Canadian anomalies, in that they are not concerned with being nice. This doesn't make them not nice, necessarily, but it does make them tricky to talk to, to figure out as people, and as artists. There's a sense, either when interviewing them or reading interviews with them, that they find their predicament as rock stars to be absurd, and will thus play along by being evasive, dismissive, cocky, sarcastic, and absurd themselves.
When sitting down to dissect The Physical World and the state of Death From Above 1979 since the band's split in 2006 and reunion in 2011, Jesse responds to this observation with a laugh. Followed by, in all seriousness: "We're actually nicer to everyone else than we are to each other. As soon as the interview is over, we just get that much worse. That's just how we communicate. And always have."
How the pair first met remains one of their biggest in-jokes. (Back in the day they spun yarns about pirate ships and gay bars.) They claim to no longer remember. What they remember is meeting in 2000, starting a band at the height of nu-metal and electroclash, living together in cramped quarters for quite a long time ("until Sebastien could afford to leave"), being poor and lugging their gear to club shows for a few dozen people where the most common reaction was "where's your guitarist?"
"Oh yeah, for years. After shows some guy would always come up to us: 'You guys are great! If you're looking for a guitar player…'" recalls Sebastien, not laughing about it in hindsight. For all the cult status DFA 1979 have accumulated during their hiatus, the pair remember the "uphill battle" to win over audiences. By the time they rose to the level of opening for the Foo Fighters, they were already feeling the strain and, privately, called it a day. ("We didn't exactly go out in a blaze of glory," says Sebastien.) Not even an offer to join Daft Punk's legendary Pyramid Tour could convince them to keep playing together, and eventually Jesse released a statement that they had grown apart and had decided to "stop doing the band."
Jesse went off to make electronic music and do remixes as MSTRKRFT; Sebastien moved to L.A. and recorded two solo albums. Whenever pressed, each would claim to have no communication with the other. (In 2008, Grainger bluntly told Exclaim! "We're not friends.") They did not talk for five years, and the chance of another record seemed highly unlikely.
Which brings us to 2014, three years after Keeler and Grainger reunited to play some shows, including a riotous SXSW gig and a spot on Coachella's main stage, followed by some modest touring to mostly sold-out crowds. "There were so many questions," says Jesse. "I didn't know if I could play the songs. At one point, I looked up the tabs that kids had made to see if I remembered them. In the end, I played along with the record until I figured it out. And I didn't know that I'd like it. Then we got together and it was fun and I realized I could do this."
Into those sets, between the now-classic DFA singles "Black History Month," "Romantic Rights" and "Blood On Our Hands," crept in some new tunes which gradually evolved into "Right On, Frankenstein," "Government Trash" and "Cheap Talk" — three of the 11 tracks on The Physical World. The latter, which opens the album, was actually the last song they had been working on before breaking up, and the first one they picked up after getting back together. The song's chorus — "I don't care what you say/ talk is cheap" — could be considered a theme of the album, which is a kind of call to action to just do it, and of the duo, who continue to shrug off whatever people say about them.
"People just project their own stuff — their feelings about their friends, or parents or siblings or their bandmates or girlfriend or wife or husband — on us. It's because we're a two-piece. We're the mirror image of any relationship anyone's every had." The myth of Death From Above 1979 as two cantankerous pranksters who don't much like each other, making music that could self-destruct at any moment, may be shifting. For a start, The Physical World is a rather fun record. The lead single, "Trainwreck 1979," is the poppiest thing they've ever done. (So much so they worried about releasing it first.) And in person they actually seem to be getting along and having fun. When asked about their dynamic today, each flatters the other.
"He's the band," claims Sebastien. To which Jesse replies, "I'm the fabric maker. He's the seamstress. I'm just making rolls and rolls of beautiful linen. And he sews it together." Much laughter ensues. They insist, however, when it comes to promoting their music they will never give up their peacock postures.
"If you want to be in a band you have to believe in yourself completely," says Sebastien. "Not in jest. Not some exercise. You must tell the world you are The. Best. Band. You cannot survive otherwise. It's not rock'n'roll."