Death From Above 1979: "I don't think our nature is to be this super present mainstream band."
It's to be expected given they formed twenty years ago, but Death From Above 1979 lead a very different life to their DIY 'get-in-the-van' band beginnings. Escaping Toronto's "vortex of sadness and shame” to live in the city’s outer regions, the dance-punks have both been nestling into dad duties of late, but haven't lost any of the hunger or immediacy present in their first album when it comes to their music.
Despite achieving increasing plaudits and a cult-like status during their two decade career, the Canadian duo of singer/drummer Sebastien Grainger and bassist Jesse F.Keeler have shunned any previous (and self-admittedly misjudged) aspirations of mainstream, stadium success in favour of a back-to-basics approach, reverting to the ethics that established the band's foundations. Their new album Is 4 Lovers rekindles the intensity and frenzy of their 2004 debut You're A Woman, I'm A Machine, by taking the reins in producing, mixing, and mastering the record themselves. Paying homage to relatives and their relationships, as well as their own, it's the duo's most insular and personal record to date. And arguably their most engaging since their debut.
Speaking to them via Zoom ahead of the release of Is 4 Lovers, they were both harmonious and hilarious (amidst numerous interruptions from their kids and cats) as we discussed their DIY roots, avoiding the pitfalls that led to their break up back in the day, and paving the way for bands like Royal Blood to succeed.
“This record especially, it's a very direct sound. This is what the band is: drums, bass, and a singer.”
Jesse, Sebastien, thanks for joining me. The new album, Is 4 Lovers, is rad - it's ferociously paced and as meaty as ever. First question: for a band that has continually defied expectation about releasing new material, why was it the right time to write and record a new album?
Jesse: We wrote it around this time in 2019, that's when we started on it. Then Seb had finished mixing and recording vocals this time last year. The record was basically done almost a year ago, but we didn't really want to release music when everything was so up and down. When this all started, during the first pandemic wave, it was like "okay, we're going to shut down for two weeks and we'll flatten the curve" and then, of course, it's just become a year and so every time it kept getting extended. It sort of seemed like "when is it the right time to put out a record?" You can't look back at the Spanish flu and see what music came out way back when. There's nothing to go off of.
Seb: As far as you know, when it's the right time for us to put out a record, there's never a right or wrong time. It's just when we have the right amount of music and the right amount of things to say. Writing an entire record is an exhausting process of "what are ten new concepts that I want to explore", and after I've written ten songs I don't have ten new ideas right away. Especially when you're writing about 'the world' or whatever. We were flirting with the idea of releasing just singles. Not even writing a full LP, just writing one or two songs and putting those out which isn't a bad idea. But then we started working on ideas then lo and behold, suddenly have a bunch of them. It's funny to even say that there's not enough things to talk about! After you're done a record, after you've worked for a year on another record, you're just like, I don't want to make another record - who wants to make a record?
Jesse: I started working on it [a new record] the other day.
Is 4 Lovers as a title sounds kinda misleading, as the album feels more like a snapshot of your worldview in what is a pretty weird modern world right now. Can you shed some light on the inspiration behind the album’s title?
Seb: It's far less of a worldview record than Outrage! Is Now was or The Physical World. It does have some of that in it, but it's more weighted towards a reflection of personal life and of romance. The record art is a picture of my great aunt and uncle kissing, then the inside is them standing on a balcony, and then the back cover is the grave where I buried them last year. It tells the story of a real life. The cover photo is an idyllic image of an older couple still in love, but they weren't a perfect couple. They had problems and part of me honouring them in this way is to correct the record in a sense. In my family we talk about them, the good and the bad, their shortcomings. But when a couple dies, all the drama that was between them is also dead, and you can just honour the purity of it.
When we were my mother and I were over at their house settling affairs, that's where I found these photos, which, to me, were just perfect images to use for an album cover. I also found stacks and stacks of cards and love letters they'd been sending one another throughout their lives. Such poetic letters. Such insane romance. That's also why I wrote the song 'Love Letter', I needed to write a love letter to my wife because I haven't [haha]. My uncle was killing it every birthday/holiday, just like away for work for three days sending these insane letters. It led to the lyric in 'One + One': "love is action". They were always performing love for one another, whether it was working hard to bring home a pay cheque to keep the family household going or it was writing these insane declarations of love in a letter. It's this active performance. Love is a practice, because you're never gonna perfect it. You just have to keep trying.
Is that why you wanted to tie in 'One + One' with 'Romantic Rights', as it's a karmic sequel? Is it a Richard Linklater kind of moment?
Seb: [haha] it's a little bit like that. There are some thematic links, but also on this record I'm looking at my life instead of looking at the world. Our first record is very much not really addressing the world at large, it's about our personal life. Musically we were influenced by our old stuff - on Outrage! I wouldn't have played that beat. I don't know what you guys call them in the UK, but we call it 'boots and pats' [Seb mimmicks the beat flawlessly] which is such a Bloc Party-era beat. Everyone was doing that at a certain point, but just when you thought that beat was played out, we bring it back [haha].
Jesse: Probably part of the reason why this record is more thematically similar for you Seb, is that was the last time we made a record by ourselves? When we're left to our own devices, it makes more sense to be more personal without that element of it being performative for the producer and trying to make them happy. When you take that away, we're just making ourselves happy.
Seb: With The Physical World, 'Government Trash' was written when we were all in the studio watching the Boston bombing happen, so a lot of the lyrics in that song are a reflection of what we felt then. I wanted to talk about something that we're experiencing, so it was in all of our lives. Lyrics, in a sense, are a conversation and if your conversations with this other person or stranger are in the world at large, then you're speaking to the world at large. Opposed to this record, which is more insular.
Why did you want more autonomy over this record? In terms of recording and mastering etc.
Jesse: It wasn't so much 'want'. We've been doing this for some time now and we know how to do these things. Even when we were making The Physical World, at the exact same time Sebastien was also mixing and finishing his solo record. With this record we had talked about getting someone else to mix it, then I was listening to another record that Seb made recently and said "just mix it like that man". I mean, during this pandemic everyone on the internet is like "hey look, I made my own bread" or "hey look, I made my own food", and it took this to figure that out? I think there's an element of that with this for us.
Mastering was something that I've always been obsessed with. My favourite, who's in England, is Nilesh Patel and I actually got to sit with him. He mastered all the Daft Punk records. After he passed away part of me thought maybe I should do it myself. Maybe I should learn how to do this? But instead, I found another mastering engineer named Tom. And then that Tom died. Then I thought I have to actually do this. But it literally took two men dying for me to take on the responsibility of figuring it out for myself?
Seb: Much like what Jesse is saying, you know, he sat in with those mastering engineers, and he was learning as he was sitting there. The same with working with Dave Sardy or Eric Valentine, especially with Eric because I was privy to his process. He engineers and produces. It's inspiring. It's a masterclass. I learned one trick learned from him, and I did that all over this record.
Jesse: To actually answer your question [haha], it wasn't so much about wanting autonomy, it was more just like accepting that we know how to do it, so we should probably just do it.
Without making light of death, it took a cosmic message just to take on the mantle yourselves.
Seb: We lost a lot of people on this making this record, by the way.
Jesse: I mean, even the last record did have a dead body on it [haha].
Being a drummer yourself Seb, do you ever worry about a Spinal Tap incident?
Jesse: [haha] When ordering a logo for a live set and it turns up really small?
Seb: In my 'drummerdom', the drummer is another guy. So I don't worry if he were to blow up, it'd be fine. As long as this songwriter guy sticks around.
"We like the sound of tight, punchy drums that's right in your face because that's the best experience of what our band is. Being right there.”
Lyrically at least, the album feels way more personal than your last. Particularly 'Modern Guy' and 'Mean Streets' to me, seemed to focus on the role of masculinity in contemporary society. Is that something you use as comparison to your uncle's relationship, and how you function in your relationship now, being a father.
Seb: Maybe subconsciously. The thing about our generation is that the progressive liberal ideas that are valuable are well integrated in our lives. In my family, my mother and father had roles, but they weren't traditional. He'd cook - before he'd go on a business trip, he'd stock the freezer with all the meals so my mom could just warm it up. They had this very cooperative approach to parenting so it's totally not foreign to me. Those values are incorporated in our regular lives, and I think our generation did a lot to reinforce these practical, progressive elements.
Jesse: My parents looked at each other, figured out my mom's skill set would make more money, so my dad stayed home and made sandwiches. Even my grandmother was the breadwinner, but you never articulate it. You never think about it in the moment.
Was the message on 'Glass Homes' along the lines of sorting out your own home before commenting on others? It feels apparent with the shit-flinging nature of online debate and how polarised the world seems now through the lense of social media.
Seb: Everyone is stained, no one is clean. The world is messy. I'll tie back to when we got our dog: you get a puppy, you get all the books and how to train the puppy, and you want to do it perfectly. Then all of a sudden, the puppy's doing something naughty and you're trying to keep the thing uncorrupted. Even with the baby now (I've got a new kid) you want to keep her uncorrupted. Then she starts getting these habits, and you think you've already screwed it up. No one ever comes out pious - we have stories of perfect people because they don't actually exist. With 'Glass Homes' it's really the idea of just dealing with what you can.
Jesse: Deal with what's within your reach. It's actually incredibly fulfilling.
What are your relationships with social media like? How tentative are you about your kids being involved in this mad expanse?
Seb: Who knows where we'll be once my kid is old enough to engage, but I'm extremely reluctant. I don't use it for personal stuff, though I kind of operate the band Instagram. I use it as a platform for fans to ask us questions and private messages. I'll reply to everything, and use it as a one to one communication tool more than anything. But neither one of us are on Facebook, or Twitter. Or any of them really.
Jesse: I just think that my life is too boring.
Isn't that part of the problem - it's not 'real life'?
Jesse: After these interviews, I'm going to take about 1000lbs of wood over to my friend's place to run it through a planer and joiner, then I'll carry it all back into the house and join some boards.
I mean, that definitely sounds more interesting than my life at present.
Seb: It's a lot more interesting than most people's lives [haha].
Jesse: I take pictures for myself sort of as like a notebook so I can scroll back and see the date of the photo. But it's like the idea of sharing. I really don't like photos of myself. I'm always shocked when all I see is just people's faces.
Seb: I do have an Instagram account that's just photos that I've taken of me on security screens, dozens of them of me in a security camera. It's yet to go viral.
Your reluctant involvement in the all encompassing world of social media alongside the fact that there was a ten year gap between You're A Woman, I'm A Machine and The Physical World gave you a cult status and element of mystique. Do you think it's offered you a level of freedom that other artists don't enjoy?
Seb: That's an ingredient, but I think it's just circumstantial. I don't think our nature is to be this super present mainstream band. We had some of those aspirations at some point in the last couple of records because people told us it was a good idea. Kings Of Leon for example, their first record is this kind of tight and punchy garage rock, then they have their stadium rock record, right? Big reverbs on everything because that's where they were playing big shows, like, they got big. So now that record sounds like they're playing in a huge room, or they did that to manifest said huge room. We like the sound of tight, punchy drums that's right in your face because that's the best experience of what our band is. Being right there.
Bands like Royal Blood arguably wouldn't exist without you laying the blueprint for a purely bass + drum set up. Was it ever your intention to create that kind of legacy?
Jesse: There's been bass and drum bands before like godheadSilo, Man Is The Bastard, Lightning Bolt. The blueprint was already there.
Seb: 'Big Bottom' by Spinal Tap. Three basses [haha].
Jesse: I think the issue is that we had to argue for what we were doing in a way that our successors maybe didn't have to. When we first started we'd have people come up and offer to play guitar in our band. For me, playing the bass, I kind of took that as a bit of an insult. Was I not enough sound for you? I guess I could be louder? What more can I do? How could I also play this synthesiser? Actually, the first fucking record label the pink record was on [You're A Woman, I'm A Machine] they expected something else. Nope. You signed this.
Seb: When we worked with [Dave] Sarty he was always trying to add more. He produced fuckin' Oasis. There's not a more guitar-y band! This record especially, it's a very direct sound in a sense. The way I mixed it, in sections the drums are on one side, the bass on the other side. This is what the band is: drums, bass, and a singer.
Has there ever been any temptation to expand your set up?
Seb: I fantasise about having someone else play drums.
Jesse: We did try that in the very beginning.
Seb: Yeah, like, twenty years ago.....
Jesse: If we did anything for Royal Blood, it was probably just save them some trouble. I assume they didn't have to justify what they were doing.
Seb: The comparison only makes sense in the format. Otherwise there's not much in common, and I know that because I hear them all the time. To be a stadium rock band is clearly their ambition, and not to disparage them, but to me they sound like a band that's never pumped their own gas.
You've been there, you've done that. In your formative years you were a DIY, get-in-the-van type band.
Jesse: Literally, very much get-in-the-van. And there's nobody else in the van!
How valuable were your DIY beginnings, and do you think the collapse of live music throughout this pandemic will affect future generations of bands?
Seb: There is a burden to that kind of ethic, the righteousness of coming from the punk and hardcore scene that we kind of emerged from. The generation of kids that are coming up now, they're not burdened with that.
Jesse: It's a function of an existence on the internet. You can't even have a fucking illegal rave now. How the hell would you tell anyone? The cops could just be like "Oh, well look at all these kids under that bridge." More importantly, 80% of them would post pics of them at the location. You couldn't do it.
Seb: I have a fantasy that there's an underground that's not online, and there are young people similar to us that are DIY-ing it that we're not observing because we're also online.
Jesse: Cyber-goth? Is that not online? They use flyers?
Seb: I did go to a show in LA. We walked into this bar, this bar called The Smell, Jesse?
Jesse: Dude, of course, I've fuckin' played The Smell.... I cleaned cockroaches out of the kick drum afterwards [haha].
Seb: I was expecting this cool show, but there was this mediocre punk/metal band playing on stage. There's me thinking "err this band isn't good", drinking beer, then I see tonnes of people coming out of this bathroom. Past the hallway there's this other door, open the door and there's this huge warehouse filled with people. A fuckin' real show, with real kids playing punk music. A real underground punk show. A speakeasy situation behind 'the show'. There's still something happening behind the facade. There's still ingenuity.
Jesse: A teenage me would be playing shows all year round.
Seb: Adult me is too scared to do it [haha].
Jesse: We have insurance at shows now in case a drumstick hits someone, especially in America where they sue everyone over everything.
"Love is a practice, because you're never gonna perfect it. You just have to keep trying.”
Earlier on in your career your relentless gigging ethic impacted your relationship, resulting in you breaking up many moons ago. How do you make sure to avoid potential pitfalls and how do you stay motivated working together?
Jesse: We've had a lot of time to figure it out. Figure out how much we each need. What are reasonable boundaries. When should I stop drinking, for instance. That switch goes off pretty early in my head nowadays.
Seb: What have done together this year? It's usually other stuff.
Jesse: Manual labour?
Seb: Jesse helped me move, I drove him to the car dealership the other day to get new rims. That's the kinda that we're actually doing. Band stuff is kinda secondary. The band and our friendship is so integrated, but we know where we stand with one another. For example, there's very few people I could sit on a couch in silence with, not that there's very much silence between us. But there's few people you can not feel self conscious around, and Jesse is one of those people for me. We've travelled a lot, we've seen the world, we've been through a lot together. It's so normal, to a boring extent. Breaking up is even boring, we've already done it.
Tell that to Daft Punk?
Jesse: You know, I'm real happy for them. I've never met Guy-Manuel but I've met Thomas a bunch of times. They're only actually a year or so older than us, but if there was a list of things any young artist could imagine doing, they did everything.
Seb: What else are you gonna do though? They revolutionised the live show - everyone saw their pyramid tour, and it got insane after that. It was no longer just a show. All the Kanye stuff, the big pop stuff wouldn't exist if that tour didn't happen. Everyone saw it, everyone said the same thing: we need to do way better. Except us [haha].
In fairness, you guys have it nailed already. To wrap things up, do you think you'll ever ditch the elephant trunks or is it too far gone?
Seb: It's too iconic. All those folks with tattoos, it'd be rude to change it. Imagine if The Ramones changed their logo to serif font.
Jesse: Or beautiful calligraphy [haha].
Seb: Incidentally, Jesse still looks exactly the same as the logo even now.
Jesse: If you ever see me with a shaved head and a shaved face, I'm on the run!
Is 4 Lovers is out tomorrow (26th March) via Everything Eleven Inc., under exclusive license to Universal Music Canada.