There's 'Life After Death From Above' in the New Movie From The Band
We spoke to Sebastien Grainger, one half of Death From Above in advance of the premiere for their documentary, 'Life After Death From Above 1979'
“It’s always great to be abused by Jesse’s volume,” muses 35-year-old Sebastien Grainger on the phone from Toronto. The Mississauga native is of course referring to his co-pilot Jesse F. Keeler, whom when combined with Grainger form punk band Death From Above 1979.The self-professed “weirdo” and his partner in crime have been creating music together since the early 2000s, releasing their first album You’re A Woman, I’m A Machine in 2004. However, amidst an extensive tour that took the band around North America and beyond, tensions between the two began to stir. Creative differences took hold, and come 2006 Grainger and Keeler decided to part ways. Suddenly, Death From Above fans found themselves without their champions.However, as the story goes, Grainger and Keeler managed to find their way back to one another and by 2011 Death From Above would officially reunite. However, details have remained scarce on what caused the fall out until now. Chronicled in their new movie, Life After Death From Above 1979, the documentary examines the duo’s decade long absence from the music industry right up to their triumphant second joint effort, The Physical World.
We spoke to Grainger about going back into the studio with Keeler, the social media woes, and whether or not the band still drives around their old tour van. A van they affectionately named “Vangina.”
Noisey: What was the first song you were exposed to growing up?
Sebastien Grainger: We always had lots of records. I remember my mother listening to things like Whitney Houston, Robert Palmer and other artists. My Dad -he’s British- kept that link of The Kinks, The Who and The Rolling Stones. There was always pop music in the house. I remember listening to Parallel Lines by Blondie, that was a record that was just always on the shelf.
How old were you when you started to write your own music?
When I turned 12 I started playing guitar, and started writing songs pretty much right away. As soon as I could get two or three chords together I was writing songs. That same year I started playing drums. The song writing and drumming kind of grew parallel at the same time. When I was 16, I started messing around with 4-track tape recorders and recording myself playing everything.
Can you recall the first time you performed one of your songs live?
The first time I performed was at summer camp. I wrote a song loosely based on the “Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe,” and all of her kids were drug addicts and had various problems. It was kind of like a catalogue of all the woes of the world. I wrote it and sang it with all of the kids in my cabin.
Having been in the industry as long as you have, what are some of the changes you’ve noticed since you first started till now?
It’s difficult to really pinpoint. My only experience is this one. It hasn’t been a dramatic change for me. Death From Above started right at the cusp of the digital era of music, so my formative years in producing music were all done on analogue. I had very little sense of the record industry when we started. It was very much if we made any money, it went right into the gas tank. It was never really about external record sales, or external sources of income. The relationship with the business was very hand to mouth.
We still try to maintain that ethos more or less, but there’s obviously far more sources of income- sometimes minuscule- sources of income. I’ve gotten checks for 35 cents before *laughs*. I think that we’re lucky, in a sense, to have started early enough that we have a history rooted in the old school. It’s really hard to gage, because its my only experience and I’m sure a lot of other stuff would have changed alongside of it. There’s so many variables to account for. Social media and the way artists are expected to communicate with the world, I think that’s a big difference. I think it’s weird that people feel they have the right to communicate openly with artists.
Do you see social media as a burden on the music industry?
I don’t know if it’s a burden. I think that it’s a fallacy. The fallacy is if you think it’s anything other than a marketing tool, then you’re delusional. Everyone’s personal Twitter or Facebook, those are manicured projections of who that person is. There’s nothing personal about it. It’s very impersonal, and everyone knows that if you get into any kind of debate online, it’s circular. It’s not a conversation, it’s not progressive. It’s usually degenerative and it goes from argument to the depths of the most terrible human inclinations.
What is your preferred way of going about communicating with your fans?
The most important way I communicate with people is through the music that I write and the records I make. That’s really the number one way that I communicate. All the social media stuff that I engage with, there’s no conversation. I don’t reply to anybody’s tweets. I don’t really read the replies. It’s purely from me outwards. Even with the Death From Above social media, it’s purely marketing. It’s informing people on what is available and when and how. It’s not an opinion based thing. That’s just the most honest way that I feel that we can use it, because what’s there to get in a tweet about a band? It’s just informational.
Speaking of Death From Above, it’s been a decade since we got an album from you guys. What was the recording process like going into The Physical World?
Well, it was really the combination of the writing and the recording, but the writing started with some demos that Jesse recorded, which is very much like the first songs we ever wrote 13 years ago. It started with some musical ideas, and then I started writing melody and lyrics on top of that. We got together, started playing those ideas and then it grew from there.
I went to LA and Jesse met me a couple months later and we started writing again. Then the producer, Dave Sardy, got involved in the last month or two of writing. The recording process was maybe a month together in Los Angeles, and then just months and months of reviewing and going back and re-tracking, a lot of time spent on rewriting certain things and doing vocal takes. It was a cumulative process. The initial recording of the music was very immediate. We did it pretty quickly.
What song gave you the most trouble to record?
“Trainwreck 1979” took the longest, but only because we made a deal with Dave that if we let him not stop until he was satisfied with one or two songs, he would let us do whatever the hell we wanted with the rest of the record. ‘Trainwreck’ was one of the songs that he said he wouldn’t relent until he was super, super stoked on it. That song ended up at his whim, and I just fully went for it and submitted to him completely. He made me rewrite the chorus maybe 20 times, and that took at least a month or two of me sitting in a little studio and doing new things everyday.
It wasn’t until probably two months of that process that Jesse came in and said “you know what, the first one is the best one,” and we went back to the thing I wrote in our demo studio a year before. So, the whole process was circular and ended up where we started from, which tends to be the case a lot. My initial instinct is usually the right one. There were times when lyrically I would be happy to review things, but melodically the first thing I would think up would be the best one.
You guys just performed at Riot Fest and are continuing to tour. What’s it like to be performing together again?
It’s great, we haven’t had a chance to get really good yet. You only really get good when you play on tour. The best time for a band in my opinion is when you play three or four shows already on tour, and you have weeks and weeks of shows to refine the live performance of the song. You sort of fall into these pockets of ecstasy when you’re performing, and you can rely on muscle memory essentially. As a singer/drummer, it’s really important for me to get into those rhythms of being completely thoughtless in my playing.
What do you want your audience to take away from The Physical World?
I don’t know if I have an agenda for the audience. I think there are clues, thematic and intellectual lyrical clues for people to read into. I would like people to be excited by the music, because I like to be excited by music. There’s some records where I listen to it for just one note. I like the whole thing, but I really only listen to it for one note and I want people to have that experience where they listen to it, and there’s something that draws them back.
There’s a lot of life and electricity that went into this record. We used a lot of weird equipment and half broken things. We took a lot of time and care to make it a interesting and muscular record. That was primarily for our ears, but it’s for everyone else once it’s out. We make the music to please ourselves and each other, and then if we’re satisfied with it we feel like it’s good enough for everyone else.
In terms of touring, do you still have the van that you and Jesse toured with for the first album?
No, that van barley made it through that first era. I don’t know whether it’s still sitting up on cinderblocks in Jesse’s dad’s backyard or not. We bought that van for 300 bucks from U of T through a friend of ours. It was an internal auction and we won it, and we had to borrow 300 bucks to buy it. It took us pretty much around the world. We drove it across Canada and the US a bunch of times. We drove it to LA, flew to Australia, went to Japan, and came back and drove it home. It was meant to deliver students from campus to campus, but we sort of put it through its paces. It’s still with us in spirit if you believe in that kind of thing.
Last year you released your second solo LP. I was curious to know what’s going on there?
Well, I knew what I was in store for with Death From Above, and I didn’t want to sit on a record worth of material for a few years. I wanted it to be released and available, and basically out of my hands so that the next time I make a record it’s new and fresh. I decided to partner with the label and put it out, so that I could exorcise myself from those songs and music. I didn’t plan on touring or anything, but in the future I’ll likely play those songs live once I have a chance to put a band together. That record will be part of my repertoire when I start playing live again as a solo act.
What has become your favourite song to perform live together from the new album?
My favourite song to play is “Always On,” it just has to me one of the more interesting drum beats. It’s kind of the most nerdy song that we have, either that or “Government Trash.” Those are fun songs to play as a musician, but I’m sure that will change. “Crystal Ball” is shaping up really nice to be live. It’ll fluctuate with the coming months of tour, but for now it’s “Always On.” It’s a song that Jesse and I really lock in together with.
Aaron Morris is a writer living in Toronto who finally got a Twitter - @aarmor212