"I Had a Fear That We Were Going to be Too Late" - Death From Above 1979 on Their Decade Long Hiatus
We meet the band at a plush hotel in London to talk about their new record.
I met Death From Above 1979 in a suburban kitchen in West Norwood, South London. It was 2004 and a 15-year-old fan had won a contest to have the band play in their family home and I was covering it for NME. “Children have a smell,” pipes up Sebastien Grainger of his memories from that afternoon, a decade later in the somewhat more professional surroundings of London’s ACE Hotel. “Like jam and excrement.” Jesse Keeler nods in agreement: “You can kind of smell their puberty happening”.
The duo were like nothing else around at the time—and not just because they were right in front of me loading their gear into a three bed semi with neatly trimmed privet hedge in the front garden. In a sea of eyeliner indie and tight-trousered ladrock which saw The Libertines, Kaiser Chiefs, The Killers, and Kings Of Leon inspire a generation of wanky Camden barmen with feathercuts, Death From Above provided a fierce alternative; straddling indie, metal and hardcore, supporting Anthrax one week and Yeah Yeah Yeahs the next. They made me want to wear more leather, get into more circle pits and take a sledgehammer to Brandon Flowers' balls. They were that fucking good.
After the kid’s parents served the band milky tea and Rich Tea biscuits, the duo launched into a brutal living room set: a bizarre pastiche of the house shows they’d played in Toronto as part of the Canadian punk scene. As well as tracks from their recently released debut You’re A Woman, I’m A Machine, they chucked in a cover of Danzig’s "Mother", which saw their dozen strong pubescent fanbase gleefully flinging themselves off the sofa and onto a crash-matt made of floral cushions. “We used to do that when we thought we didn’t have enough music,” says Jesse of their bonecrunching take on the 1988 metal classic. “Now we have too many songs!” says Sebastien.
This is something of an overestimation. The duo—Sebastien on snarling vox and clattering drums, Jesse on ferocious bass—released their first album in 2004, split in 2006, came back for a tentative run of live shows in 2011, and then fucked off again. It's only now, ten years later, that they're finally ready to release new material—with their second album The Physical World out September 8.
Even so, we should be thankful that there’s a second album at all. It’s hard to draw out the precise reason for the pair’s split—the closest we get today is a cursory “we didn’t like each other for a long time” from Sebastien—but it was he who broke the five-year silence. “It would never be me!” says the rather more laid-back Jesse with a boyish cackle, ordering himself a croissant and beaming when offered jam and butter on the side. “I was looking at my own career, going ‘what do I want to do next?’,” explains Sebastian while tucking into what Jesse has branded a “cop’s breakfast”—coffee and a doughnut—a thickly inked 1979 tattoo visible on his arm.
“I had these solo songs and they were synth-y sounding, poppy music and then I started writing rock songs and I thought, ‘fuck, rock music is fun!’” Sebastian, who had previously released solo music with his band The Mountains, decided to head fully towards the rock and roll side of his songwriting. “I looked through my wallet and found a coupon—‘one free rock band—Death From Above’. There was no expiration date on it. I was like fuck, I got this coupon, I already have a rock band, I think it’s still good!” Buoyed by the realisation that making a bollock-shredding punk album was totally possible, he started planning everything. Well, almost everything. “I was going through the process—then I was like, ‘who’ve I got to talk to? Fuck, the guy in the band!’” Remembering the crucial part of the puzzle, he emailed Jesse, who wrote back the next day, saying he was willing to give it a shot.
Death From Above 1979’s first reunion show took place at SXSW in 2011, in the yard of Austin’s Beauty Bar, behind a flimsy wire fence which the band were under the impression would be taken down when they started playing. It wasn’t. “There were 20 times more people outside than there were inside,” remembers Jesse, not to mention mounted police. “I could hear the tasers and people yelling and shrieking in pain. The cops were going way overboard.” The group were accused of inciting a riot. The next booked show was at California’s Coachella festival, but from then their future was as much a mystery to the band as it was the fans. “At the beginning we were like, 10 shows, that’s it,” explains Sebastien. “Then we started expanding it—as long as we felt comfortable playing the old material, as long as people were excited by it, we were happy to do it—but at one point we were like ‘I don’t know if we should keep playing without new material’.”
The decision to make a second album was made over three and a half years ago. Why did it take so long for it to come out? “It didn’t take us three more years!” chuckles Jesse. “The music industry and all the paperwork and machinations and the stuff that’s beyond our control did.” They started work on The Physical World in 2012 and finished in October 2013, demoing in Canada and recording in Los Angeles after Sebastien moved to the city. Before entering the studio they secretively road tested the new songs, something you assume would be nigh on impossible in the age of the iPhone and the instant upload.
“Eastern Canada heard most of this record in 2012,” reveals Jesse. “But before we went out Sebastien made a very nice post on our website saying ‘we’re gonna go and try some of these songs for you and the songs aren’t done, so if you could keep it to yourself and actually watch the songs, don’t watch your screen on your phone’—and they were respectful.” Fans actually ended up self-policing the band’s wishes, asking each other to take down videos if and when they went up online. “There was only one time we had to say something, when our fans saw another fan filming and then the kids attacked this kid,” adds Jesse awkwardly. “‘You don’t have to hurt him!’”
The duo approached their return to making new music with a mixture of excitement and straight up dread. “I had a fear that we were gonna be too late,” admits Sebastien. “We looked at the landscape of music and went ‘there’s nothing going on that even touches us. Everything that’s happening in music is so self-righteous and weird’.” When they were setting about making album number two the contemporary musical landscape was dominated by the new school Americana of Mumford & Sons and Bon Iver, frathouse dance music and Drake, Frank Ocean, and The Weeknd—the kind of hipster soul which Jesse dismisses as PBR’n’B. “PBR’n’B, banjo music, EDM, EDM with banjos in it,” continues Sebastien. “We were looking at it going, ‘someone’s just gonna come up and touch that bubble and it’s just gonna blow up’ and we were like, ‘we gotta be that band!’”
Death From Above 1979’s own sound has always baffled those attempting to neatly pigeonhole it. From disco-metal to grind-punk, the band have had genres made up entirely in their honor. “We think that the way our band is described is hilariously inaccurate,” sighs Jesse. “People really reach to try and put a label on it. We just think of ourselves as a punk band, which means everything from the Dead Kennedys to the Pop Group and Wire and all manner of different stuff”. Which is the most ludicrous label they’ve heard? “Disco-metal I think is the stupidest one—those two things cannot exist together.” The band’s influences run far beyond punk, however. At one point during our interview Sebastien ends up discussing an acquaintance of his who once made a concept album about STDs. Sebastien took acid with him one night watching the man slowly drag up while he simultaneously played obscure Quebecois music and the Jesus Christ Superstar soundtrack. “I was musically molested that night by a maniac—but the template for this band in my mind is that record,” he says. Jesse grins, praising the Deep Purple frontman who sang the part of Jesus in the original cast recording. “Ian Gillan, man!” he hoots.
The Physical World rattles with a sludgey rage, the likes of "Right On Frankenstein" weaving Jesse’s killer bass riffs into Sebastien’s drum assault alongside lyrics worthy of the Ramones (“I don’t wanna die/but I wanna be buried/meet me at the gates at cemetery”). Black Sabbath stomping comes courtesy of "Virgins" while "White Is Red" is Springsteen-covering-Suicide cool and "Gemini" is a love song like no other. The record saw the band working with high-end producer Dave Sardy (Noel Gallagher, Nine Inch Nails, The Walkmen), something which seems to have been a slight bone of contention for the duo.
“When we’re in there with a third producer, we give them the benefit of the doubt, but we’re also not fully trusting them, because we’re also producers,” says Jesse, who also makes electronica under the MSTRKRFT name. “A lot of times Sebastien and I would gang up on the producer.” Sardy gave as good as he got, attempting to take them back to the rudimentary hardcore duo they were a decade previously, getting Sebastien to re-write and re-growl his parts over and over. “He was trying to grind me down,” explains Sebastien. “‘Forget that you learned how to sing since you were in this band and get down to the root of it’.” The result is 11 tracks that share the menace of You’re A Woman, I’m A Machine, but also boast an almost pop ear for melody. It leaves us with just one question—will we have to wait another 10 years for the next album? “You’ll appreciate it more if you think there’s nothing else!” winks Jesse.
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