When they first appeared in the early ’00s, Death From Above — then without the “1979,” once more without the “1979” today — drew attention for the singular nature of their lineup: a duo featuring Sebastien Grainger and Jesse F. Keeler, a vocalist/drummer and a bassist, respectively. Bass as a lead instrument is unique enough, but it was also striking how big a sound they could get with just two people and limited embellishments. Their debut, 2004’s You’re A Woman, I’m A Machine, left a mark, but then the duo disbanded before releasing a followup, seemingly condemning Death From Above to be a piece of early millennium ephemera.
Then they reunited and subsequently released The Physical World in 2014, ten years removed from their debut and in a totally new music landscape. It proved not to be a one-off. Earlier this year, Death From Above previewed a new album by way of single “Freeze Me,” and now they’ll return in September with Outrage! Is Now — their appropriately titled third album, given the squalor of punk and dance they kick up onstage and the fact that, you know, there’s a whole lot of things to be outraged about these days. We talked to Grainger about the inspiration behind the new album, their latest name change, and where he sees Death From Above within the music world of 2017.
STEREOGUM: Where did the name Outrage! Is Now come from? Feels like it could be influenced by the current atmosphere in a few different ways…
GRAINGER: There’s a track on the record titled that, and I suppose I was trying to write about this phenomenon I’ve noticed — not only publicly but also in my personal life — where it has become increasingly more and more difficult to talk about ideas that oppose one another. If you have an idea and someone disagrees with it, you should be able to just talk it through. You don’t necessarily have to agree at the end of it, but you should be able to talk about something without getting upset. I guess that there are a lot of current public conversations so enmeshed with high emotion that invariably you just end up getting into arguments with people. What I noticed in my personal life is you can agree on 98% of subjects, and the 2% of things you disagree with can create an irreparable rupture, socially. So that phenomenon, extrapolated over a population, you end up with the political and social climate we have now, where people believe they’re enemies with one another when they’re really not.
As an artist, you’re sitting outside of the system and you’re looking at it and trying to render it, and it came out as that song [“Outrage! Is Now”]. That was one of the last songs on the record. The second “Outrage! Is Now” was done, it became obvious that that was the title of the record. I was nervous about calling the record that because it’s kind of provocative and it’s highly interpretable. The title we had before was more vague and kinda passive. I had the previous title pretty much right away and I found that it was so vague that it created almost a creative impasse, where we were having trouble figuring out exactly what kind of record we should be making. Once I removed the title, the record became a lot easier and we wound up writing and recording quickly. Outrage! Is Now just seemed to fit so perfectly and it seemed like a more appropriate and non-passive statement — even though it’s sort of impartial and interpretable, it’s not a light statement.
STEREOGUM: There are stereotypes about band’s careers — the debut into a follow-up that delivers on the first record’s promise or the sophomore slump, a third album where the band coheres or starts to branch out more, etc. When it came time for Death From Above to make a third album so many years removed from the first, did you have any particular goals in mind?
GRAINGER: It’s funny you mention that — those are the archetypes, but I didn’t think about that when we were making the record. We did end up experimenting more. On the first record, we didn’t know what we were doing. We were making it up as we went along. We weren’t a normal band. There weren’t a lot of examples of two-piece bands; there were barely any examples of two-piece bands, or any bands, where the bass was the featured instrument. And so we were really operating on instinct and doing what we thought was cool and interesting. It was not accidental, because we had a vision, but it was uncharted territory. We broke up after that record and the band still existed through that time, even though we weren’t involved in it, so when we got back to make the second LP, there was a form to adhere to all the sudden. As we were working on it, there was a precedent, so you were basing your instincts on something that already existed. Maybe we were less inclined to take chances. I’m not sure.
Then on this third record, that abstraction of — this band as a third party, the band as an objective entity that wasn’t us — that concept disappeared and we were able to feel really free and creative. The producer that we worked with, Eric Valentine, was extremely encouraging to all of our instincts. That was really fun, because he was giddy, like when you’re just starting out and you’re experimenting. And we felt that way as well.
STEREOGUM: One song I wanted to talk about specifically was “Moonlight.” There seems to be a pretty dark, crazy story behind that one.
GRAINGER: We were in Dallas [on tour], and we parked our bus right outside the venue we were playing. We had a hotel room to shower in and everything that was maybe five to 10 city blocks away from where our bus was. When you’re traveling on a bus, the bus is kind of your home. And so, when you park somewhere, that kind of becomes your neighborhood, and you’re very comfortable on the bus, so that kind of extends to the environment around it. I’m a solitary person on tour, I like to keep to myself. I’m into hanging out with people but I like a lot of quiet time and going for runs and walks and meals alone. Also as a singer, I find that if I’m socializing a lot, my voice gets tired, so I end up being alone a lot.
So this particular night, I had gone to dinner and I was walking to the hotel after and I was planning to walk back to the bus, and as I was walking to the hotel…and I wound up getting jumped by a group of people. I have no idea how many there were, because they came from behind. It became…they didn’t stop beating me. They mugged me and kept assaulting me. I literally thought I was dying, that I was being murdered, at the time. It was one of those situations where you become extremely peaceful because you think “This is it,” but also there was this overwhelming sense of “I don’t want to die, I don’t want to die.”
STEREOGUM: Jesus, man, I’m glad you’re OK. That’s a terrifying story.
GRAINGER: It’s strange, because it’s not the first time someone’s tried to murder me, but it happens to be…it’s an extremely intense experience. Obviously terrifying. The reason there’s a song on the record is…I was just as ready to not write about it, but I found that when I was attempting to not write about it, it was infiltrating other songs. The themes I wanted to address on that song were finding their way into everything else and I was trying to isolate it by writing a song about it. I didn’t want it to be a record about getting the shit kicked out of you or almost dying or whatever. [“Moonlight” is] not a manifesto or a full account of the situation, it’s a little echo of it that kept it isolated, in a way.
STEREOGUM: Another thing I was curious about, in terms of being liberated after the reunion and feeling like you didn’t have to adhere to some old idea of the band, is that you guys changed the name again. Were those things at all connected?
GRAINGER: In a sense, yeah. Basically, at kind of the end of touring The Physical World, we were playing this big festival in Mexico City. Jesse and I were having dinner after the show and talking about things, and kind of as a joke, we were like “Let’s just drop the ‘1979’ and see what happens.” I asked him “Aren’t you sick of it?”and he said “Yeah, I’m sick of it.” We were discussing how we never really used the full name, we never said “1979” when we were talking about the band. If someone asked us what our band was called we’d say Death From Above. Onstage, we mostly would say “We’re Death From Above.” Because we were. That was the name. The very long name was kinda fun for a while but when we reflected on it, the reason the name is Death From Above 1979 is for a really boring reason.
STEREOGUM: Right, because it was a legal reason?
GRAINGER: It was basically legal bullshit, label bullshit, bureaucratic bullshit. Do you want your band to have boring bureaucracy in its DNA? It felt like a boring reason to have that. It was maybe a late revelation, but you know…we kinda just went along with what was happening [at the time]. A lawyer sent me a letter, we fought against it as hard as we could…but no one seemed to want to fight with us. Everyone we worked with was like, “Well, we gotta do what we gotta do.” It was just so lame.
We just reclaimed the name, just to see what would happen. We did it two years ago, before we did our last two tours. We used just “Death From Above” on tour posters, tour promo, T-shirts. It had been happening for a while. It wasn’t until we decided to do it on the cover as the statement for this record that it became a talking point. Nobody really asked us about it before. It seems out of nowhere but it’s really not out of nowhere. Truth is, it’s more exciting for us.
STEREOGUM: When you guys first started, there was the retro-rock revival going on, this dancepunk moment, and it seemed there were ways Death From Above were loosely lumped in with that. Then you went away for 10 years. Do you think much about where Death From Above lives in the contemporary landscape?
GRAINGER: To be honest, I’ve always felt a little bit outside of any of the trends anyway. The band came out of the small punk and hardcore scene in Toronto. We clearly didn’t fit in there, we’re not a hardcore band. It didn’t make sense for us, so we left that scene pretty quickly. We went from being created in that scene to playing rock stages with rock bands with onstage monitors and lights and stuff — that happened pretty quickly. We felt like we didn’t fit into the scene we were born out of but we didn’t fit into that rock scene either. We were an anomaly. That worked to our benefit. When you’re starting out, opening for bands is kind of the only way to make fans, to get in front of people. And bands found us interesting enough, so they liked to see us play. We moved through this stage of opening for bands because we didn’t fit in with people.
The point we’re at now, which is strange, is we’re at this sort of mid-level where it’s difficult to know where we fit in, because we’re not a huge band that can sell out giant rooms just on the basis of our own achievements, and yet there’s kind of a gap between the levels of, whatever, success in music. There’s a room that fits 500 people and there’s a room that fits 3,000 people and then above. We’re at this weird mid-level thing. We just don’t totally fit in. Sometimes that works to our advantage and sometimes it works to our disadvantage. Really, I’ve always felt like an anomaly. We were playing these festival gigs, Coachella-style — a headliner could be a rapper or it could be a rocker or it could be R&B, or whatever. It’s easy for us to slot into there. And then the past couple of years, we’ve been playing these straight-up rock fests. What I find in those situations is that we’re the freaks again. You go into those situations and find, “Oh, we’re weird, we’re not a normal band.” That’s a really good reminder to us. Because we’re not a normal band, and if we try to pretend we are, it would be a mistake. The fact that we’re an anomaly, in most cases, is a source of pride for me.
Outrage! Is Now is out 9/9 via Warner Bros./Last Gang Records. Pre-order it here. Here’s the tracklist:
02 Freeze Me
03 Caught Up
04 Outrage! Is Now
05 Never Swim Alone
08 All I C Is U & Me
09 NVR 4EVR
10 Holy Books
The band are touring behind the album, too. Here are the dates:
09/15 Chicago, IL @ Riot Fest
10/20 Montreal, QC @ Corona Theatre
10/21 Boston, MA @ Paradise Rock Club
10/23 Clifton Park, NY @ Upstate Concert Hall
10/25 Brooklyn, NY @ Brooklyn Steel
10/27 Philadelphia, PA @ Union Transfer
10/28 Silver Spring, MD @ The Fillmore
10/30 Atlanta, GA @ Masquerade
10/31 Nashville, TN @ Cannery Ballroom
11/02 Columbus, OH @ Newport Music Hall
11/03 Detroit, MI @ St. Andrew’s Hall
11/07 St. Louis, MO @ Delmar Hall
11/08 Kansas City, MO @ Arvest Bank Theatre
11/10 Englewood, CO @ Gothic Theatre
11/11 Salt Lake City, UT @ Metro Music Hall
11/13 San Diego, CA @ House of Blues
11/15 Los Angeles, CA @ The Novo
11/17 Berkeley, CA @ The UC Theatre
11/18 Portland, OR @ Roseland Theater
11/20 Seattle, WA @ The Showbox
11/21 Vancouver, BC @ Commodore
11/23 Edmonton, AB @ Union Hall
11/24 Calgary, AB @ Grey Eagle Event Centre
11/25 Saskatoon, SK @ O’Brian’s Event Centre
11/27 Winnipeg, MB @ Burton Cummings Theatre
12/01 Toronto, ON @ The Phoenix