Hardcore Realists: Death from Above 1979 Sneer at Glory
My impression of Canadian two-piece Death from Above 1979 pre-interview was that they don’t suffer a fool. That turned out to be true, but it also turned out to be true that Jesse Keeler, bassist for DFA1979, is non-fakely nice; he granted a 35-minute interview to SLUG while everyone else in the tour group was eating breakfast. I only asked one stupid question about robots near the end of the interview and I do believe he was gracious enough not to hold it against me permanently.
[Death from Above 1979]Death from Above 1979 made a few slicing indictments about the absurdity of having music videos playing on the wall above the heads of the crowd while they were trying to play a show at the Blender Bar at the Ritz during SXSW in March. They give off an air of not giving a damn about the media, or about playing the music world game, or fame, or money. Well, they do care about the money, but only as a means to an end. They don’t care about glory. Maybe that’s why people flock to them?
Attitude aside, DFA1979’s music is distorted Mad Max thunder-bass ripping through clever mazes of rigged, tweaked amplifiers offset by the pummeling drumming of lead singer Sebastien Grangier. No Karen Carpenter/Phil Collins, Sebastien. His voice is gruff, haggard, rough-edged. Jesse’s bass riffs are even, hard and deliberate. As heavy as The Melvins “live” but faster. Similar to Jucifer “live” in that there’re so many subzero-low-and-high-end noises coming out of Jesse’s amp that you can barely tell what song you’re listening to.
When I ask Jesse what he runs his bass guitar through to get the sound he does, he says, “Do you want this to be a one-question, 15-minute interview?” I tell him, decisively, yes! that it’s my biggest burning question.
Jesse Keeler: I built 80 percent of the stuff myself. You can try to simulate my sound with other things I guess, but I didn’t want to make a sound that was like something else. I wanted it to sound different, so the easiest way to make something original is to use things that haven’t previously existed.
I tell him I wish I knew how to build amps. He modestly says building amps is based on simple principles.
JK: Sound works like color. There’s a spectrum. Different things fit in different spots traditionally. Vocals are in one K. The different frequencies, if you imagine, are like a rainbow. When a record sounds really sparse, it’s because the instruments aren’t competing for frequencies. The bass is by itself; the snare is by itself. My concept is I wanted to make a bass sound that takes up as much of the frequency as possible. The sound fills the whole spectrum all the time.
SLUG: Why do you pick a bass guitar over, say, a low-tuned guitar? What can a bass guitar give you that no other instrument can?
JK: Nothing. I don’t really prefer the bass guitar. I like it when I’m a little bit limited because it makes you be more creative. When you limit the possibilities, it focuses your thinking.
But Jesse adamantly believes keyboards are the ultimate instrument.
JK: You can play 10 notes at a time. You can have two keyboards playing five different things per keyboard at any given point. Every time someone asks, “How can you make music without a guitar?” I want to say, “How do you make music without a fucking keyboard?”
I tell him learning piano made learning other instruments easier for me. Jesse dismisses the “other instruments” part.
JK: Just keep playing keyboards. Just play with sounds and work on music that way. If I could really play keys … [He trails off longingly]. It’s the most important thing. Keys, drums and vocals are the most important thing.
Jesse started playing bass for DFA1979 on a whim. His main instrument is drums, which he has been playing since before age five; he’s also proficient on guitar. Jesse writes the riffs for DFA1979 and Sebastien adds drums and lyrics afterwards. They keep to their separate spheres.
JK: I don’t tell him what to do so that I am also afforded the luxury of not ever being told what to do. It’s just an understanding that we have. We got along and became friends because we’re both proficient musicians that are comfortable playing together. One of the reasons we’re a two-piece is not because there’s no one else to play with- we live in a city of seven million- but that the number of people we knew we’d be comfortable playing with was mostly zero. At least, for what we wanted to do, which was a Deep Purple cover band, which turned into Death from Above somehow [laughs].
Jesse’s full-time job is the band, but he also produces bands on the side, which is his “real love.” Jesse did a Bloc Party remix and a Futureheads remix and he’s going to do another one on his next day off. He did a remix of The Panthers, the band that played before them at the Blender Bar at SXSW, which Vice Records is making into a video. I tell him The Panthers remind me of Rye Coalition. I get a compliment: “Interesting,” he says. “Good.” He says the singer, bass player and drummer of The Panthers used to be in a band called Orchid that probably played a show with Rye Coalition at some point.
SLUG: I definitely saw the crossover between Rye Coalition and The Panthers.
JK: It’s that Italians from New York thing.
He continues about producing: “The one great thing about this band is, as a producer, it has helped so much. I’m booked until December right now. Every day off my studio’s booked. I’ve been commanding ridiculous prices for remixes; in that way, the band in the music industry has been a commercial for my other work. And I can do that forever and I will.
Jesse says he hasn’t had a day off in two years. I ask him if he ever gets burnt out.
JK: Never from the studio. I get burnt out on the road. Not so much from playing. It’s not your body that gets tired, or your head that gets tired; it’s the shows that get tired. Yesterday I played to 800 kids and they knew all the words to the songs, and big fucking deal. I do that every day. [Laughs] Every day for the last half of every year. I’m not going to lie to you or to them. I do it every fucking day. I’m not an actor. It’s a very weird thing to admit being used to.
SLUG: It’s like nothing’s new.
JK: Yeah. If you’re a painter, and you made a great painting, and you worked on it for months and months, and everyone loved your painting, no one would dare say to the painter, “Alright, can you bring your brushes and some paints and just travel around and recreate the painting in front of an audience in a half hour?” No one would ever ask a painter to do that, but that’s what being in a band is. I spend eight months on a record and then I have to try to recreate the record every day. It’s a challenge; it’s a definite challenge. Every day I debate whether or not I’m up for it. I guess I am because I’ve been doing it for so long.
SLUG: I’ve thought about that, the repetition of doing the same songs night after night, and what that means artistically.
JK: I don’t know how people can do it. I don’t know why I don’t hear what I’ve just said to you more often.
I tell him you could even get used to playing arenas 270 nights a year. You’d get acclimated.
JK: That’s the truth. If the money wasn’t good, I don’t know how many people would stick in it for so long. It is my job, and I probably make more in two days than I used to in a year.
SLUG: How do you relax? Hot baths?
JK: I used to just drink, but I think that got mixed up between drinking because I was depressed at being away from my family and my home and girlfriend all the time, and drinking because it was a relaxing thing to do outside of the show, so I try not to do that too much anymore. Now I just sleep, and I actually made a real ritual out of going online and sending e-mails to my friends and talking to my friends through instant-messaging programs everyday so that I remember there’s a fucking world out there beyond the band and a venue. It reminds you what the hell you’re making money for. You’re not just making it to have it; it’s got to be for ends in some way.
SLUG: Do you have any kids?
JK: I don’t have a kid yet, but I’m planning for that mid-next year.
SLUG: That’s cool that you can have those goals and still be on the road and making music.
JK: You’ve got to remember all the time that in a few years, no one’s going to want to see me fling myself around a stage anymore, because I’ll be too old and tired and broken from doing it all the time. I’m doing it right now because I can, and the world keeps demanding us to come everywhere, so I’ll take advantage of that opportunity while it lasts. But I’m almost 30 years old, and I’m marrying a girl that wants to have kids, and I want to as well. I’m not going to be doing this forever. I think maybe what happens with bands that, like we were saying before, never seem to ever complain about the repetition; well, I’ve encountered a lot of people that really want to be famous, and that’s what they’re there for. And I just want to not be broke. This pays well, and it’s fun, and …
SLUG: … It does for now.
JK: Yeah. And it’s only getting better. It’s fun for now, even though it’s a shitload of work. It’s like working in an office, but every day instead of going home, you just stay in the office. You turn the lights off and then turn on the lights the next morning and keep working. [Laughs]. It’s pretty weird.
I tell Jesse their latest album makes me feel like I’m in Tron, what with the electro-buzzy keyboard/overall distortion tone, and this is where I ask my stupid question and ask if he likes robots. Jesse flatly says no. That he doesn’t know what there is not to like, but he doesn’t know what there is to like.
I wind up.
SLUG: So I heard you like pirates?
JK: I like pirates as much as I don’t like robots. Sometimes when people ask where we met, we say, “On a pirate ship,” because it’s a stupid question, and we give them a stupid answer. It’s like when people ask, “What do you eat for breakfast?” I want to say, “I’ll fucking punch you in the mouth.”
I tell him SLUG put out a pirate issue a few months ago, and if he wants I’ll send him one. He laughs and says his girlfriend actually really likes pirates. Then he says a whole mess of army people are walking by the van. I ask if they’re walking in formation. He says no, they’re just running around like idiots.
Check out You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine (Vice Records, 2004), if you haven’t already. Check out one of DFA1979’s live shows, cause apparently they won’t be around once they’re past the dreaded 30-year mark. But from their perspective, and probably from the perspective of a lot of washed-up rock stars, they’ll be moving onto bigger, better and more important things than fame and money. Crazy, eh?