Death From Above 1979: Going Steady
Cardiff Barfly was an ugly, lovely place. You descended the stairwell from a bustling road into an oppressively boxy room. The sound was decent, the drinks were cheap. There was a flimsy lighting rig dangling from the ceiling at the lip of the tiny stage, seemingly custom designed for punters to hang from, inches from performers’ faces. It invited, insisted upon, chaos.
In February 2005 it hosted perhaps its finest hour. Two Canadians, visibly road-weathered, with cartoon stink-lines rising from their tight black jeans and greying tees, tore the place to shreds.
Consisting of nothing but bass and drums, the most primal elements in the rock ‘n’ roll set up, they contorted and surged into slippery, monolithic grooves. “Push in, push in…” Sebastien Granger sneered from behind his drum kit. “Push in, push iiiin”
he pleaded. “One, two, three – pull out!” Disorientating bass frequencies played havoc with the senses, the sheer physicality of the sentiments were borderline pornographic, and its carnal intensity tore a hole in a complacent, pallid alternative rock terrain.
“The only reason we had this reputation was cause we were too loud, and we’re still too loud. It was always broke, and we haven’t fixed it” – Sebastien Grainger
“Shit, I remember that show!” announces Jesse F. Keeler, moustachioed hero and one of the most influential bassists in modern music, from his Toronto home. “There’d been a rugby match or something, and I remember standing at the top of the stairs and watching the biggest crowd of drunk people I’ve ever seen just spreading across the streets. Inspirational.” There hadn’t been a rugby match. It was a Tuesday. That’s Cardiff for you.
Death From Above 1979 were a live band, a live band like you’d never seen before. Back in the heady days of the mid-00s, that’s what had people feverishly talking. While You’re A Woman, I’m A Machine was an untouchable debut, the road was the making of them, and it became the death of them. “We’d come out of a punk/ hardcore scene and we slept in the van, we never had hotel rooms, hardly ever eating, taking pills to stay awake,” remembers Keeler wearily, not a trace of affection in his voice. “I remember driving from Phoenix, Arizona straight through to St. Louis, Missouri, which is a 26 hour drive, and as soon as we pulled in, we set up and played right then. That was probably for about 50 bucks.”
The band split 18 months after that Cardiff gig. The pressure of being a hype band from a hardcore background, of not being able to say no to a show, was what saw them off. It was generally accepted that they’d come to despise one another and the lifestyle they associated with the band. But while Grainger and Keeler became almost resentful of the name, Death From Above 1979 took on a life of its own. Millions came to know their recorded selves, they gained mythologised status. Then, having not spoken in five years, the band unexpectedly reformed for Coachella 2011. And finally, last month, almost exactly 10 years to the day You’re A Woman… was released, they unleashed their second album, the masterful this-is-how-it’s-done re-entry The Physical World.
While it was the road that killed them it was what brought them back to life, and vulgar displays of power are still the order of the day. “It’s still too loud, it’s still stupid,” insists Sebastien Grainger when we speak to him a couple of hours later from LA. “The only reason we had this reputation was cause we were too loud, and we’re still too loud. It was always broke, and we haven’t fixed it.” Keeler will never lose that enduring lust for noise. “I was driving around yesterday listening to Cannibal Corpse and thinking, why is it that I love this music?
I’ve been listening to Cannibal Corpse for 20 years, and I think, what the fuck is it that’s stuck with me for all this time?” He’s audibly energised. “And that’s what I’m able to relate to, emotionally. That intensity. I want to feel like I’m being beaten up.”
But away from the skull-crushing intensity, the most vital thing about Death From Above 1979 was the way they put sex back on the table. At a point when rock and indie music glorified po-faced sexlessness and fey romanticism, You’re A Woman, I’m A Machine was a revelation. These guys sounding like they were having a fucking good time, and they were singing songs about fucking.
We put it to Jesse. “Err … I don’t know,” he laughs. “I think … gee, it’s funny you say that after the point I just made about making music that you emotionally relate to. And then you tell me that we made music about fucking, and I think … well, yeah … why wouldn’t you!” He pauses as if considering the alternatives. “There are people that don’t do that?”
We refer to Pull Out. We mention the cowbell-heavy come-to-bed eyes of Sexy Results. “And now you’re giving me examples and I’m like, oh god, that’s all we did!”. And of course, thanks to Brazilian indie-electro flash-in-the-pans CSS and their track Let’s Make Love and Listen To Death From Above, they ended up being babymaking music for a generation. “Yeah, that was pretty funny. I guess they felt the same way you do.”
“I think it’s the natural inclination for the band,” Grainger – the lyricist – summarises. “I think the music is so visceral and kinetic and there are only a few things in life that are as intense as it is to play live in this band, and fighting and fucking are the two things closest to that.” Combine their horndog lyricism with the meaty, rumbling tirades of the band’s sound and there was something undeniably masculine about DFA1979. It was a postmodern form of masculinity – no macho posturing or puffed-chest bullshit, but an ownership of male identity. DFA’s world was one where men sport bulbous elephant trunks against a pink background and know what’s what.
“I think we live in a weird time of bizarre primal identity taken to the point of being surreal” says Keeler. “You get these steroid muscle dudes with this cartoonish athleticism. It becomes a surreal, blown- out caricature of sexuality. And it can be a weird thing to be a man in that environment.
“But I think it’s also cause we’re Canadian. We do have a bit of that lumberjack stereotype DNA. I mean, I do…” he continues warily, self-aware – “…I do have a farm. And I … I guess I spend a lot of time in the woods.” He laughs heartily, realising what he’s saying. “But I do think that idea of the lumberjack is interesting, cause it’s not some mean, objectifying, macho person. It’s this physical being, know what I’m saying? It’s not a superhero, it’s just a guy doing his job.”
“There are only a few things in life that are as intense as it is to play live in this band, and fighting and fucking are the two things closest to that” – Sebastien Grainger
While accepting the premise, Grainger is eager to emphasise a counterpoint. “When I look at our audience, I don’t see an overtly masculine image. It’s a good spread of gender and race, and I’ve always been kind of proud of that.” And 10 years is a long time in anyone’s book. “On this record I was far more aware of gender politics than before” he continues. “I think on the older stuff I challenged those politics in kind of a juvenile way, whereas now I’d like to think I approach it from a more informed angle.” “I think on the older stuff I challenged those politics in kind of a juvenile way, whereas now I’d like to think I approach it from a more informed angle. Before I was writing from the perspective of a heterosexual guy in a bar. Whereas now I’m more aware of those gender ethics and gender politics, so I think I now write from a position that’s bit more conscientious.”
This political awareness spans further than the social sphere, clearly evident on The Physical World. While the rock ‘n’ roll sloganeering remains in full effect, releasing a high-profile record into a time of such startling political unrest preyed on their minds. “I think there’s a very real sense now that we’re going about things the wrong way” says Keeler, the most politically inclined of the two. “We’re not fully sure what we should be doing differently, but we know what we’re doing right now isn’t right. It’s like the movie Network. Step one is opening the window and yelling. And once enough people do that, that’ll be a starting point, because there’s a will to do it.”
Death From Above 1979, through chronological serendipity, were hopelessly inclined towards some form of political narrative. “This band was basically created on 9/11” reveals Grainger. “That’s the first day that Jesse started writing songs for us. The band was literally created on that day.” It’s now almost impossible to imagine a pre-9/11 world, and it’s an intriguing facet of the band. “Before that, I’d started playing in Jesse’s band Femme Fatale, and I’d never been in a hardcore band before. There was a lot of stuff boiling in culture and society at that point. You could see it, and you could sense it. I remember a picture of Saddam Hussein shooting a rifle into the air on the cover of a newspaper, it felt like a kind of declaration. I remember thinking ‘this is terrifying – but fuck, this is the best time to be in a hardcore band. If there was a lack of openly political content on the first few releases it’s because we were, in a sense, subverting certain things that were happening in the world, whereas now I think it would be insincere to not at least allude to things being fucked up.”
And the political parallels reared their head again as The Physical World began to form. Keeler recalls, “When I was tracking the bass for this record, the Boston Bombing happened. That was on CNN while I was working on my overdubs, and we’re watching this military force lock people in their houses and going door-to-door and pulling people out onto the street looking for these kids – locking down an entire city. And you’re like … what the fuck? How is this happening?”
Like clockwork, the parallels continued. The release of Government Trash, the second single from The Physical World and the band’s most explicitly political song to date, came in the immediate aftermath of the Ferguson unrest, and the frequently recurring dialogue around police brutality in North America is something Keeler speaks about with passion. “We’re having the discussion a lot over here about the police, and how they’ve become a militarised force in some places” he says, stepping outside to smoke a cigarette, wind whipping around the telephone mouthpiece. “The police are supposed to be ‘of the people.’ When Robert Peel established the idea of the police force in England, he made sure that the bobbies would have sticks and not guns, because he wanted to make it very clear that it wasn’t military. Now, everyone knows we’ve drifted away from that big time. But what to do about it? In a sense, anything other than total nihilism or apathy becomes political.”
What’s clear about these two individuals, three hours and the width of North America apart, is that they’re that rarest of things: a band whose hiatus has actually done them good. The Physical World shows all the hallmarks of having considered their flaws and crafting a pure distillation of DFA1979. Gemini, the album’s penultimate track, is the best thing they’ve ever done. Pounding, unyielding, with a hook sturdy enough to hang a dozen rain-drenched coats on and a street-smart narrative about bittersweet romance, it’s an instant classic. “I appreciate that there’s been a time between” declares a rejuvenated Sebastien Grainger. “We’ve always been observant of culture, but at the same time, we’ll always be contrarian.”
The Physical World is out now via Last Gang Records / Fiction.