Q&A: Death From Above 1979 On The Physical World And Being A Cautionary Tale For Young Bands
Tomorrow, Death From Above 1979 will release The Physical World, the band’s first new album in a decade. It’s hard to believe, considering DFA 1979’s enduring popularity over the past ten years, that The Physical World is only their second proper LP, the long-delayed and seemingly never-gonna-happen follow up to 2004’s You’re A Woman, I’m A Machine. If the band’s return is a surprise to fans, it’s an even bigger surprise to the band itself. Having split up rather acrimoniously back in 2006, both Jesse F. Keeler and Sebastien Grainger assumed that their DFA 1979 days were long behind them, even though their noisy legacy continued to engender new generations of young fans. As the story goes, Grainger noted the band’s ten-year anniversary by sending Keeler an email at some point in 2010, which eventually led to playing some reunion shows in 2011 and the subsequent recording of a new album starting in 2012. As the album proves, the duo has not lost sight of the heavy-as-fuck bulldozer riffing that made people go apeshit about them back in the day. They have, however, totally shrugged off most of the industry-generated hysteria that caused them to implode so intensely. I talked to Keeler about how the new record came to be and just how much things have changed in the DFA universe since the last time they released an album.
STEREOGUM: It seems insane to think about You’re A Woman, I’m A Machine coming out an entire DECADE ago. Do you find yourself surprised to be doing this again? There must have been many years when you never thought DFA would make another record.
KEELER: Yeah, I am surprised. To be honest, I just never thought about it. I’m not a very sentimental person, so I just never thought about it. People would often say nice things to me about the band, and I’d always just think that was nice and it was cool to have made something that people enjoyed and continued to enjoy, and that seemed like enough of an accomplishment, really. But if we had gotten back together to play the old songs and it had seemed like people had had enough of Death From Above at that point, we wouldn’t have made another record. After about a year of those reunion shows, we were either going to stop playing again or make new music, there was no point otherwise. We didn’t want to sully our good name. The band had really lived on and somehow grown in our absence. To come back and see all of these young fans that had never seen us play the first time around, that was a shock. I mean, I didn’t think that people who were eight years old when the first record was released would be coming out to see our shows this time around. That was pretty wild.
STEREOGUM: Why do you think that happened? Was it just that the first record kind of became weirdly mythologized after you guys broke up?
KEELER: There are all kinds of bands that I love that I’ll probably never get to see. Not all of them are from the ’60s or ’70s or whatever; some of them are contemporary. I can’t go see Angel Hair or US Maple, you know? There’s so much stuff I love that I didn’t get to see, for whatever reason. I’ve never seen Drive Like Jehu, but now I hear they are playing in San Diego and I’m gonna miss it. Please — if Drive Like Jehu is reading this — please play some more shows. So anyway, we are a living band now. We’re not just playing old songs but also things we just made and that we’re improvising upon live every night. I just need music to stay alive for me to remain excited about it. So for people that missed us before or only heard stories about our shows back then, this is a chance for them to finally experience that. And we want it to be good for them.
STEREOGUM: You guys had the opportunity to go off and do other types of music during the period after DFA broke up. Did you find that your process for making music had changed a lot during those ten years? Did it feel radically different when you got back together to start making new stuff?
KEELER: The biggest change between then and now, really, is that the band sort of continued to exist in our absence, which short of shocked us when we reunited. We were so humbled by that. It created a situation where the band started to feel like this third person between the two of us, like our kid. It was like we were architects and we built this building ten years ago and when we came back to check on it, there were now people living in it. We left this thing behind and people had kind of picked it up and made it their own thing, which was cool. We have a reverence for it now and we don’t want to ruin it. We only wanted to try and make it better — just push it a little further and play with the concept a little bit. Before it was like, whatever we made would just automatically become Death From Above because we made it, whereas now Death From Above is its own thing and we’re kind of just trying to be respectful of that. It’s very weird. It’s a different place to be creatively — it’s made some things easier and some things more complicated.
STEREOGUM: Well, the record is instantly recognizable as DFA 1979, but it doesn’t sound overly labored or too produced.
KEELER: That was really hard. That’s why we went with Dave Sardy as producer. He’d made all of these great records that were super well-produced but don’t sound too over-produced, which is a hard thing to do. There where still lots of production things that we resisted, but in the end he made it work. There would be times when he’d say things to me like, “Stop showing off, I want you to play this part as if you just picked up a bass for the first time and this is how you played it.” It was kind of frustrating to me at the time, but it really kept things in the right spirit for the record. He did the same thing to Sebastien: “Try to make it sound easy but also make it sound good but not too good or perfect.” It’s a lot so wrap your head around.
STEREOGUM: I know people probably keep asking you about the reasons you guys originally broke up, which I’m sure is tiresome at this point …
KEELER: “But tell me about it!” That’s how they all bring it up. [laughs] “I don’t want to make you tell me about your breakup, but tell me about your breakup.”
STEREOGUM: It almost sounds like a cautionary tale for young bands and a lesson about the importance of learning how to say no.
KEELER: That’s EXACTLY what it is, and that’s why we’ve continued to talk about it. There was actually a moment recently where we almost found ourselves in that same exact position, and we had to stop and talk about it. I was like, if we say yes to this then, you know, this is the exact kind of thing that fucked us up in the past. It was like, oh shit, that’s right. You have to say no to things that are potentially soul-destroying, and then you feel so much better. It’s really liberating. Back in the early days of the band we were so poor. SO POOR. We always look back and find it incredible that we ever managed to pick up girls because we literally couldn’t afford to go out and buy a single drink for ourselves or anyone else. We’d snatch up unattended drinks and sneak into the back doors of clubs. I have no memory of ever going to a liquor store to buy anything. We’d go to this one place that served an all-you-can-eat bottomless breakfast and just hang out and eat until they made us leave — and that would be our one meal of the day. So anyway, when you go from that to suddenly being in this band being offered money — not a lot of money, mind you, but still, being offered money to play all these weird things — we just always said yes. There was never a discussion. It just never occurred to us to not say yes. Now we are hyper-aware of what we commit ourselves to, but back then we just said yes to everything no matter what, mostly because we felt like we had to. We’d go to England and play three shows in one day, not ever even knowing if we got paid or not. We just never said no, and the result is that we never got off of tour. We left it up to other people to sort of be the ideological curators of our band, which is insane to me now. It seems crazy that we entrusted so much of our lives to other people, but we just didn’t know any better. We just thought if we said no to something then we’d never be asked back again. So I know what it’s like to be that young band and feeling like you just need to do everything, and I’ve watched so many kids in bands get fucked that way. Ourselves included. Both Sebastian and myself were so exhausted and so burned out by the business back then that it made us forget why we loved playing music in the first place, and it just became this grueling job. So, yes, our story is definitely a cautionary tale for other bands, and you are the first person to really notice that. I just don’t want other people to make that same mistake. It’s so tempting, especially when you feel like the whole world is on your dick and everyone is telling you how awesome you are — and then somehow you end up going home sick and exhausted and with no money.
STEREOGUM: Lots of bands get duped into doing free shit because they are constantly being told it’s a good look for them.
KEELER: Oh, we always laugh when someone would say that to us. MSTRKRFT would get that all the time: “It will really be a good look for you guys to do this.” Ugh. Good look. Yeah, sure it is. That’s your way of fucking us.
STEREOGUM: One of the three times in my life I ever got punched in the face was at one of your shows, which are notoriously crazy. Has that aspect of things changed at all? Being expected to go out every night and create this frenzied atmosphere must be kind of exhausting.
KEELER: We always joke and say that nothing can ever be “over-built” for us in terms of gear. We generally have such reverence for gear, but it’s like we’re always trying to break things just to see if they’ll actually survive one of our shows. We try to take care of ourselves — you know, we’ll do stretches and things like that before we go onstage — but it’s hard. I think we have it hard, but then I’ll see a band like Dillinger Escape Plan and wonder: How are you guys even alive? Maybe it’s because they are smaller dudes. For me the live show is always how we really communicate with our fans. We’re not really good at using the internet, so our most viable communication with fans is when we play live. When I write songs, I do so imagining how they will be played live, and that’s how they fail or succeed for me, when we play them. Sebastien and I have never had a conversation about our live shows — we always just went out and played the songs and it was what it was and we just left it all on the stage. All anger and frustration just gets funneled into the live show. That’s my only real outlet. I feel best when I’m working and touring. The only times I ever feel bad or feel sick is when I don’t have anything to do.
STEREOGUM: Well, you have a long stretch of tour dates coming up soon. How do you prepare for that?
KEELER: It’s funny, Sebastien gets massages and I get tattoos. We joke about how it kind of accomplishes the same thing for both of us, in that it gives you a bit of time for yourself. For him he leaves feeling good and for me I leave feeling refreshed. You focus on controlling the pain of the experience but also you just totally focus your attention on something else. I’ll walk out having not looked at my phone for six hours, which is amazing. I also have two kids now, so I spend every minute now that I’m not making music or on tour with them, which is great because it makes me feel like a kid. I just try to keep my brain busy doing things that feel positive. It’s great having two kids and a wife because it forces you to have these important dates — holidays and birthdays — when you can’t play shows. Sebastien has that too. That’s actually the biggest difference between now and back when we first started. Back then we didn’t have any kind of life outside of the band. The band was everything; it was literally all we had. Now we both have lives of our own outside of the music we make together. And that’s really important. Everyone needs to have a life.
The Physical World is out 9/9 via Last Gang/Warner Bros.