Rock Duo Death From Above 1979: Being in a Band Together ‘Is No Longer Repulsive’
For most bands, an eight-year break would be career-ending. But for Death From Above 1979, it was a long, much-needed breath of fresh air. The Toronto rock duo, consisting of Sebastien Grainger and Jesse F. Keeler, blew minds and eardrums in 2004 with their brand of fierce dance-punk, pulling rave reviews for its sole full-length album, You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine. And then, just like that, they broke up two years later, stressed out from skyrocketing success, grueling touring and inner turmoil.
“We were under duress for probably 90 percent of the first run of our career,” says Grainger, 35, the band’s vocalist and drummer. “It just wasn’t fun so we had to stop doing it. Things are way easier now.”
Today, the duo is sitting outside a Toronto rehearsal studio, where it’s being photographed for this article and prepping for a tour to push sophomore album The Physical World (Sept. 9, Last Gang/Warner Bros.), a collection of gut-punching noise-rock over driving drumbeats that sounds as if eight years hasn’t passed at all. The mood is light; jokes and beers are passed around. The breakup wounds are no longer raw -- even if the music is.
“The reason we still have this band is it’s so easy for us to play together,” says Keeler, 37, who handles bass and backing vocals (and sometimes synthesizers).
“Yeah -- you don’t even have to tune your bass,” says Grainger with a laugh.
“I might play for days without bothering,” admits Keeler.
Things weren’t always so carefree. After forming in 2000 and releasing two universally hailed EPs and its full-length, DFA1979 was on the up-and-up, earning a coveted opening slot on tour for Nine Inch Nails and Queens of the Stone Age. But by the time the tour set off, the duo had secretly broken up -- due in part to their inability to say no to ever-increasing business opportunities.
“Because we started in the hardcore/punk scene, someone got it in their minds that we could play all the time,” says Grainger, pointing out a day in England when they were booked to do three shows -- the last being in a fourth-floor walk-up, where they had to schlep their own gear. “ ‘Are we really going to go carry two giant cabs and a drum kit to play in front of f---ed-up people in the middle of the night because it will read cool in a press article?’ That’s where we were at.”
“We just did f---ing anything we were told to do,” adds Keeler, “and it felt like an uphill climb.”
Post-breakup, the two stopped talking but kept playing through other ventures. Keeler soldiered on with his electronic duo MSTRKRFT alongside DFA1979 producer Al-P and started new bands JFK and St. Mandrew. Grainger put together Sebastien Grainger & The Mountains, did remix work and formed new band Bad Tits. They never even ran into each other. “I guess Toronto is big enough that that doesn’t have to happen,” says Keeler.
Then, in 2010, Grainger emailed Keeler out of the blue. Keeler was shocked. “He noticed it had been 10 years since we started the band,” recalls Keeler. “The idea of the band was no longer repulsive for him, and he wanted to see if it was no longer repulsive for me too. My answer was yes.”
After playing reunion shows at Coachella and South by Southwest in 2011, the band got to work on a new LP in 2012, hiring producer Dave Sardy (Red Hot Chili Peppers, Oasis) and recording at Los Angeles’ Sunset Sound, the studio created by Walt Disney that’s hosted epic sessions by The Doors, Led Zeppelin and Prince.
“We were rooting around in the storage room, and I found the sheet music for the Winnie the Pooh film,” says Keeler. “The entire record was made with gear that’s all 50 years old.”
“I don’t know how to use anything new,” he adds sarcastically.
Memories of the past and its years apart haven’t spoiled the duo’s vision of what DFA1979 is: a boundary-pushing, two-piece raucous rock machine. The Physical World is even better, and more accessible, than its predecessor, straight from the metallic crunch of opener “Cheap Talk” to the pummel-and-pop first single “Trainwreck 1979.” Synthesizers and dance music tropes have taken over the indie rock world, but DFA1979’s surprisingly dense-sounding combo of Keeler’s distorted bass guitar and Grainger’s propulsive backbeat sounds as current, and urgent, as ever.
“It’s not the same -- it’s better,” says Grainger. “We were really deliberate in taking aspects of our band that were poppy and making them poppier, and taking aspects that are heavy and making them heavier.”
But, fitting for a band with punk roots, one of the real eureka moments behind its rebirth came onstage. “Something wasn’t right -- we hadn’t played the songs [live],” says Grainger. “So we got our agent to book us a small tour across the east of Canada. I remember these kids that had come up to us in Halifax, saying, ‘F--- those old songs, just play the new ones; they’re f---ing awesome.’ I said, ‘Thanks very much. That’s exactly what we needed to know.’ ”
This story first appeared in the Aug. 30 issue of Billboard.