Toronto’s Death From Above 1979 may be a two-piece band, but it would behoove you not to lump them together with blues fetishists like the White Stripes and the Black Keys or noise-rockers like Providence’s Lightning Bolt. These guys aren’t pining after a mojo hand nor or they turning rock ‘n’ roll into an art installation. Bassist Jesse F. Keeler and drummer/vocalist Sebastian Grainger are all about the good times and certainly not about the gimmicks. Not that that stuff doesn’t have its place, but these guys will get your toes tapping and your head banging long before you notice the costumes or the pedal boards.
Their debut LP, the magnificently titled You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine, has the kick of piston-fire and more hooks stuffed into its taut little songs than a tool shed. Keeler’s space-fuzz bass sounds like a shot of Absolut hitting the back of your throat, and Grainger belts out his high notes with a ferocity matched only by his drumming.
So what the hell made these guys from Canada — the land of free health care and Geddy Lee — the raving rock stallions they are today? Was it their stints in prison? Their taste for the drink? Maybe it’s their many adventures with the lone blue van that’s driven them to nearly every show and back? We called Keeler to be exact to get it straight from the horse’s mouth. We may not have gotten all the answers, but it’s at least clear that Death From Above 1979’s shattering power has much more to do with Keeler and Grainger than Zambonis and Molson.
Prefix Magazine: One thing that really caught my attention in the press release about the album was that you and Sebastian Grainger met in prison. How’d that happen?
Death from Above 1979: It’s a lie. I don’t know. Someone made it up a while ago and for some reason it never got removed from the bio and it just keeps coming up forever. I don’t know how it really got going, but it’s a hilarious rumor because we get asked about it in every single interview.
PM: It definitely works in your favor.
Death from Above 1979: Apparently.
PM: ‘Cause you pick up on it. Definitely. But let’s see if we can focus on things that actually occurred. Do you guys ever feel burdened by the fact that because you’re a two-piece you get lumped in with other two-piece bands like the White Stripes and Lightning Bolt? Does that bother you guys? Are you aware of it?
Death from Above 1979: The lumping? You know, it doesn’t happen that often. It’s sort of like people who’ve seen our band live know we don’t sound like a two-piece band. I think people who’ve heard our record know that we’re not doing anything “minimal.” Everything is “maximum.” But, yeah, I think maybe because we don’t sound like a two-piece band we don’t come off like other two-piece bands. It doesn’t happen as much.
PM: Was it a conscious thing from the get-go to be just you and Sebastian with drums and bass, or was it more circumstantial, where you guys didn’t ask anybody else to join and it just came out that way?
Death from Above 1979: Yeah, it just came out that way. I don’t know. It sounds boring. We lived together and that was it.
PM: I’ve seen the term “noise-rock” thrown around a lot when I’ve read about you guys.
Death from Above 1979: I think that’s hilarious. When I think of ‘noise-rock,” I think of bands like Man is a Bastard or Crossed Out or Manitoba [now known as Caribou], more noisy bands. And I guess it all has to do with someone’s references points. You know what I mean?
PM: Yeah, your album seems to be much more about song-structures and hooks and really danceable beats.
Death from Above 1979: That is what it’s about.
PM: Is keeping the kids dancing really important to you?
Death from Above 1979: Dancing is the thing that’s most important to me. I don’t really listen to non-dance-y music, so it’s gonna come out. It’s what I spend most of my time doing or thinking about. The man’s not the greatest dancer, but — nothing’s really happening on purpose. The whole band — from the arrangement, to the instruments we’re playing, to how we play them, to the song-writing, to the album, to the title, to the artwork, to absolutely every single thing about the band — has just been completely natural and not really thought-out at all. There’s nothing planned. That’s how I play bass; that’s how he plays drums; that’s how he sings; that’s how I write songs.
You know, people who’ve heard of the things we’ve done are like, “Oh, okay. Cool.” It’s all consistent. So it’s hard for me to exclaim the impetus when it wasn’t like, “Let’s do this!” It was just like we live together in the same house and so we ended up playing instruments together. And its like, “Oh, this is working!” And that was kinda it.
PM: One of the stories I love about you guys is when you played in that fifteen-year-old’s living room in West Norwood, England last year [it was the prize for the winner of an NME contest]. What was that like?
Death from Above 1979: Uh, small …
PM: Did you find yourself having to alter your performance or the set list for the younger age group?
Death from Above 1979: I don’t think we played “Pull Out.” Young kids don’t need any encouragement to have dirty, ugly sex. I think they’re just fine on their own
PM: At the end of the “Romantic Rights” video, Sebastian comes up from behind the drum kit to sing. I’ve never seen you play live. Do you guys pull a similar trick live? Do you ever feel hampered by the fact that Sebastian has to sing behind the kit?
Death from Above 1979: We had a friend — the drummer who we were on tour with — who wanted to do that, so we did that a couple times. I guess we’ve just done it depending. Different people have come up and played drums in that one part, in that one song. But other than that [Sebastian] has played drums. Although, if he wants to stop playing drums for something and it’s in a spot where it feels right, then ya know.
PM: You guys have gotten a good amount of success with the album, and I know you were pretty angry about having to change your name this past year. Do you think that really changed your view of the music industry and being in a band, or was it more of a sense of, “Whatever, screw it; let’s just move on”?
Death from Above 1979: I guess we were just surprised because we thought the other people involved were more like us, and we just hoped the people would talk to us before doing that. Just, you know, talk to us. We don’t have to do everything with two lawyers. But I mean, in the end I think it really worked out in our favor.
PM: Was there anything that surprised you about the tour you’ve been finishing up? It was a pretty big jaunt. Was there any story or event that stuck in your mind from that experience?
Death from Above 1979: The thing I noticed the most about America — ’cause we were there just post-election — is that America is really self-deprecating. It’s not a good thing, and the end result of that trip was us thinking that America should get more into democracy and embrace it. It doesn’t always work out in your favor. It was weird being in a country that was moping [and] in denial of the fact that some people were so happy and other people were so sad. You live in a country that’s huge, and it’s weird . . . I’ve been around America a lot, but this last time it just seemed like everyone forgot that they lived in a country, not just in a city. It’s weird. America is only bound together by the fact that everyone flies flags on everything and really nothing else.
PM: When you play shows, do you ever get the impression that people — I don’t wanna say “give you shit” — but maybe approach your show differently because they know you’re from Toronto? Do you feel like you ever have to combat that? Do you ever encounter that kind of perception on tour?
Death from Above 1979: You know, it seems to me like something more that people ask about in interviews. I know that sounds hilarious. Really though, it comes up more in interviews than it does in person. No one really asks us about Canada. Interviewers always ask, “What about these other Canadian bands?” And I’m like, “I don’t know them.” It’s pretty funny. But, I mean, sometimes people [at shows] will give us shit later on. Sometimes we’ll hear people yell out, “Holy Canada!” Or someone will say afterward, “Man, Canada is making fucking crazy music.” And I’ll say, “Thanks.”
PM: That’s all you can say. Did you finally retire the big blue van [as seen in some of their press shots]? Did you get a new one?
Death from Above 1979: We’re just not getting another van anymore. We’re just gonna rent them from now own and then lease them ’cause it ends up being a drag holding something that can break and that gets worked to death like that, you know? And so next time [we get a] new van, it’ll be fun, but the blue van has pretty much gone.