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Interview: Death From Above 1979

Death from Above 1979
14 April 2021

The Death from Above 1979 story is a well-documented one. After bursting onto the scene with 2004’s You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine, and touring arenas with Nine Inch Nails and Queens of the Stone Age, vocalist/drummer Sebastien Grainger and bassist Jesse Keeler surprised fans by breaking up in 2006. Grainger kept busy with a solo project (Sebastien Grainger and The Mountains) while Keeler hooked up with DFA producer Al-P to form the electronic dance duo MSTRKRFT. An offer to reunite for a one-off appearance at Coachella in 2011, as documented in the 2014 documentary, Life After Death from Above 1979, led to a full-scale reunion that resulted in new music and touring.

By all accounts, the restart of DFA appears to have been energizing for Grainger and Keeler as they’ve produced more music since reuniting than they did before the 2006 split. The duo’s latest album, their third since 2014, Is 4 Lovers, was written and recorded in 2019 but, as was the case with many scheduled 2020 releases, was temporarily shelved while everybody tried to figure out how to release and promote new music in the midst of a global pandemic. After working with producers Dave Sardy and Eric Valentine on previous releases, Grainger and Keeler produced Is 4 Lovers on their own and the album was released by Spinefarm Records on March 26.

Without any immediate tour plans, DFA have been talking non-stop with the press about the album. Trying to avoid asking the same questions that Grainger and Keeler have answered time and time again, I attempted to stay away from the typical topics during a recent Zoom interview.

I interviewed Geoff Tate of Queensryche about 10 years ago and he told me a story about the longevity of the band – specifically about how there had been a guy who went to see them very early on in their career. The same guy saw them about 10 years later and brought his son to the show. Then, many years later, the guy showed up to the show with his son and his grandson. Queensryche has been around long enough to reach three generations of fans.

JESSE: Nobody’s ever brought their grandkid to a show that we know of. (laughs)

SEBASTIEN: One of the greatest things that people say to us, and this started happening when we weren’t even playing anymore, I was touring with other bands, is, “You were the first band I ever saw live.” That is huge. We toured with bigger bands and we did all-ages shows opening for those bands. Often, the front row would be 12 or 13-year-old kids with their big brothers or big sisters. Because we were the first band on the bill, we’d be the first band they ever saw live. We did those kinds of tours a bunch of times and so that experience has been replicated, now they’re grown people, they’re 18, 19, 20, 25, 30-year-old people who are saying, “You were my first show, the first time I heard a guitar amp was at your show. The first time I heard a grown man hit a snare drum was at your show.” That’s one of the best comments I can ever get.

What were the first shows you guys went to?

SEBASTIEN: There was a lot of jazz in the mall and going to the outdoor symphony in the summer with the family. There were some bigger concerts when I was younger but the first shows that really affected me were the local punk shows, they weren’t even punk shows, they were just shows with 10 bands playing and 3 of them were punk bands. And then also, there was a band – this is not the first show, but the feeling that I got – there were these two bands that I saw at the El Mocambo in Toronto. One of them was a band called The Dears from Canada, they are really good friends of mine now, but at the time, it was just this incredible band and the singer was on the ground in front of me screaming and he’s got this incredible singing voice and just hitting these incredible notes and his face is right there. That wall was completely broken. And then, similarly, not long after that, I think Jesse and I went to the show, we saw a band called Add N to X and I remember listening to their records and thinking they were great and then coming out of the show and they were just sitting in their van, parked right in front, and you could go up and talk to these people and they are actual people who are pumping gas and driving in vans and going to the next town. That left a really big impression on me.

The Dears were a first for me too. They were the first band I ever saw perform at my first SXSW. I didn’t know anything about them before seeing them play the indoor stage at Emo’s.

SEBASTIEN: That same SXSW, I ended up in a van with the drummer at the time, George, and their sound guy, who I know, and someone said, “Hey, we’re going to this party” and we got in a van that was more like a camper, we got in the back. There were these two girls back there with us and one of them, they were kind of short-hair, aggressive looking people, and this woman, she just blurts out, “I had a mastectomy, do you want to touch my boobs?” And then, George goes, “Yeah, I do” and she had a prosthetic breast in her bra and she pulled it out and passed it around. (laughs) That was just the beginning of that night, it remained that weird.

You worked on the record in 2019 and said it was done in early 2020, just before the pandemic hit. What exactly does “done” me to you in terms of the album? Does it mean that you shipped off digital files to the label? Does it mean you sent off tapes or some other physical media to get pressed?

JESSE: We had been given a deadline and we sent it, we had met the deadline. The record label had it and they could have taken that to the vinyl pressing plant and started making records.

SEBASTIEN: “Done” is when you’re not going to make it any better, you might make it worse if you keep going. At that point, I sent it to Jesse to master and he had mastered it. There were files that were sent. Back in the day, you would go to the mastering place and they would burn you a CD that had all of the encoding, all of the digital IRC numbers. That’s the master disc. I have a bunch of master discs from records I made. Now, it’s very unceremonious actually. It used to be that you’d finish a record, there’s a celebration, you went and played it for the president of the company.

JESSE: Two records ago we did that. It was a party. The label rented a club in LA and it was just for the employees to listen to our record on loop.

Now you email files to the label and then throw on Netflix and start binge watching something?

JESSE: There’s a great deal of slaving over everything and really it’s just, can’t believe I’m saying this, sending files is a much less wasteful way of moving stuff around. I have good memories of CDs being fucked up. You burned it and you’ve got to listen to the whole thing all the way through just in case. This way, I know that the thing I sent off is correct and what everybody’s getting is the thing that I did. In my year-and-a-half of professional mastering, I haven’t had any problems, like file transfers and ZIP files and all that shit, even with the horrible country internet.

SEBASTIEN: I mixed it, sent it Jesse and he mastered it. And then I was sequencing it because there was a bunch of incidental stuff in the middle. And then I sent him the files back but I screwed up something in the sequence and he caught it luckily. We were our own quality control. And then once it was out of his hands to the label, it was up to them.

JESSE: If we had had to do it the old way, that would have required us to literally send discs back and forth. It would have taken forever.

SEBASTIEN: Isn’t there a story about Sonic Youth putting their master tape in the back of someone’s amp and it totally demagnetized the reel?

JESSE: It was Confusion is Sex. They still used the tape.

SEBASTIEN: Was it all warbly and weird?

JESSE: They tried to fix it. I think that’s why that record sounds a bit mushy. It probably blurs the left/right signal a bit.

You did everything on your own this time. Is the biggest difference that you don’t have another set of ears this time? Are you stocked up with all the equipment you needed or was some of that missing because you didn’t work with an outside producer?

SEBASTIEN: I’ve had a rolling, modular studio since about 2010. We’ve used it before for writing and demoing purposes but this is the first time we used it as a master section or an actual studio. But we also had my friend – I run a record label with this guy named Adrian Popovich called Ancient Fashion, we play in a band together as well – he’s kind of become one of the people I send stuff to very early. He can listen to something very early and be critical enough that I know he’s not blowing smoke up my ass but also encouraging enough that I’ll see an idea through. Sometimes that’s all it takes is someone to say, “Awesome!” and then you’re like, “I’ll finish it!” He was often that for me when I was kind of in the woods with the record. He ended up mixing two of the songs – “N.Y.C. Power Elite, Part I” and “Free Animal.”

When we started mixing the record, we were going to use other mixers – actually there were a bunch of big name guys that I had emails out to and none of them responded to me. And then our friend Al, who had worked on our first LP, he was slated to do some of the mixing but I was so deep in the record that it was very difficult for me to just let something go and relinquish control. At some point Jesse was listening to something else I mixed and said, “I don’t know why you’re not mixing this. Just mix it. Finish the record, you fool!” (laughs)

At that point, Adrian had offered. We had a deadline and we were trying to get it across the desk and he offered in a way, like, “If you need help, I’ll try to do what you’re doing but in Montreal.” I was ready to send him half the record but I was also just obsessively mixing it so he got two songs, which is great. People love those songs, they are kind of standout tracks.

JESSE: As an aside, the work that I had to do to get his mixes and your mixes to sound like one record was really interesting. The entire album’s mastering, this spot where I put all the songs, is a hybrid between your mixes and his mixes.

What did you do between March 2020 when you turned the record in and, say, December 2020 when you started thinking about the album cycle and all the things that go along with that? Were you talking every day? Were you touching base every month?

JESSE: We really weren’t given any sort of instruction. There was a certain point when, early in the virus crisis time, that people didn’t really know how long it was going to go. There was talk about touring in the fall so there was that sort of thing going on. More than one routing was sent to us and then after it was clear that that wasn’t going to happen, that’s when we knew we were going to hold the record back. At that point I said, “Seb, you know, I think I can do a better job mastering the record than I did.” I’ve owned this house that I’m in for 8 years but I had just really moved into my studio. Like, I moved up here 100% – I had two places and I got rid of the one so I moved in completely here like the week I had to do the mastering. I started trying to do it at somebody else’s studio. I was very comfortable by the fall so I was like, “I’m just going to do one song.” And I did one song the way I would do it now. I sent it to Seb and he’s like, “You’ve got to do the whole thing.” So, we hit up everyone and were like, “Is it too late? You didn’t send it off, the records aren’t made or anything?” They hadn’t done anything yet. I’m very grateful that we had that time because, in hindsight, I wouldn’t have been happy. Like Sebastien said, the first version sounded like it was still in bed, the version that the world hears is walking around, dressed up a little bit.

So you did that in the fall of 2020, after the record was “done”?

JESSE: Yeah, we took it back and did it again. I will credit my lady, she was very helpful in the EQing. I had sort of a last-minute thing where I was like, “I don’t know what to do with this.” And she gave me some overall EQ advice after I had listened to it so much. As soon as I did it, I was like, “(gasp) Found it!”

I think this is a larger answer to a question that you haven’t asked but it’s very hard to decide you’re going to take this responsibility on yourself. When Sebastien said he was going to do this, I was like, “I know you can do it. I know I can do this. We know we can do this and we do it for other people.” But to do it for yourself, people give us money to make records and we’re going to giving them something, it needs to be of quality. It’s weird that, even after doing it for such a long time, that hesitation when you take it on for yourself. The big difference with this record, that’s such a difference, is that having wanted to do this for a long time, the decision to say we’re going to do it all and then having it work, if there’s 99 people in the room and just one believes in you … (laughs in reference to a Lady Gaga quote the two shared before we started recording).

Sebastien, you were talking about sequencing. How important is the first song, the first thing people hear? “Modern Guy” kicks off the way an album should kick off, the first lyrics you hear, “Progress / Not a promise,” that’s the best lead-off track I’ve heard in a long time. How intentional was it to make that the first song?

Sebastien: I would say that if you think that’s a great lyric to start off a record, that’s by chance. It was more how propulsive the song is rhythmically and the way it comes in with that harmonic, it sounded like the opening of a record. You’ll often know what the cornerstones are for sequencing. After we had the material, it was obvious that “Modern Guy” is the first song. And it was also obvious that “No War” was the last song, although it could have been “Mean Streets.”

We knew what the front and the back of the record looked like and then you kind of pin things in, you kind of know what the middle of the record is and then you start filling in the blanks. Often, I would show the record to a friend of mine, Nick Sewell, he plays in a bunch of great bands like Biblical, Mount Cyanide, and his old band, Illuminati, and he has helped me sequence every record since my first solo record, even the Death from Above records. On this one, I sent him the mixes in the order they appear and he said, “It’s perfect.” Whatever it was that Jesse and I discussed, it made sense to put them in this order.

JESSE: It’s almost easier with 10 songs because it’s very obvious where the split is.

SEBASTIEN: That’s important too. We do sequence things as an A side and a B side.

JESSE: When you’re listening to it straight through, it gives it a good curve of feelings and things. If you treat the album as just first song and last song on the whole thing, then you’ve got a much longer space to move around in. But when you think of it like, “How does side B start?” I think about all the records in my life where side B is the shit, where I listen to side B way more than side A. How many times have I listened to the B side of Abbey Road? There’s a lot of records like that. Each side is potentially the only thing that anybody is ever going to hear. Maybe it’s the first thing they’ve ever heard and you’ve got to make it so that it’s interesting enough that they want to flip it over. Sequencing is a big deal.

As vaccines are starting to become more readily available and as things look like they are slowly starting to open back up, have you thought about touring this year?

SEBASTIEN: We have two shows booked in the fall. We have Life is Beautiful in Vegas and then a show out in eastern Canada. It’s very exciting. It’s difficult to get excited about the year 2022 when that comes up. In a sense, we have to wait in line because there was a lot of tours that were pulled because of the coronavirus. Those bands and those operations are probably going to hit the rooms first. I don’t know how high we are on the totem pole. I don’t think we can knock the Foo Fighters down a couple of pegs. I don’t think we wield that power.

JESSE: There’s also a lot less venues. There’s also the fact that things vary from place to place. State to state, country to country, everything is different.

Is there a particular venue you’re looking excited about getting back to?

JESSE: That’s like asking a guy in prison what pornography he wants to look at it. It’s like, “Any of it. Just give me something.” Having this long away from playing, it’s the longest I’ve ever gone since I was like 17. Not to say that I took it for granted, but I always thought it’s a gift that I get to do it. It’s gone from being something that I never had any anxiety about to something that seems much more daunting because I wonder, can I still do it?

SEBASTIEN: Awww, you can still do it buddy.