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August 18-31
VOL.14 ISSUE. 26

Death Becomes You

Craig Silliphant
Published Thursday January 22, 05:37 pm
Grainger and Keeler fall in love with DFA 1979 all over again

Monday 26

While the idea of automobile safety may not be super rock ‘n’ roll, I’m hoping Death From Above 1979’s Sebastien Grainger is using a hands-free Bluetooth while we’re talking, because he’s streaking down the 134 in Los Angeles, where he lives most of the time these days. I suddenly feel a bit skittish, not wanting to be the distraction that takes the life of a rock star. “Just a few questions,” I say. “Uh, I don’t want to waste your time.”

“You can waste my time,” he chuckles.

Things are good for him these days, although it wasn’t always that way. To make a long story short, Grainger and his partner in DFA 1979, Jesse F. Keeler, fell prey to the trappings that so many popular young bands encounter, leading to an acrimonious breakup in 2006. (For the full skinny, watch the documentary Life After Death From Above 1979). Both men tried their hands at solo careers, Keeler with acts like MSTRKRFT and Grainger with Sebastien Grainger and The Mountains.

In 2011, the two began an email communiqué that allowed them to put the past to rest. They started writing again, with the task of creating something that could stand tall enough to avoid being smothered in the shadow of their first record, 2004’s You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine. In the decade that followed its release, the legacy of You’re a Woman only grew, finding even more fans around the world, as if some sort of anti-relevance pushed it along.

“I don’t think we sounded like anything at the time,” says Grainger, “and it kind of remained that way. The cool thing is that the old record doesn’t sound dated. It came out of hardcore but it wasn’t hardcore. And it wasn’t punk. And it wasn’t pop. It wasn’t dance and it wasn’t… something. You know, it was its own thing. Nothing came along to replace it. So it still isn’t relevant. It still doesn’t fit in anywhere.”

The sound hadn’t grown cold, but avoiding the sophomore jinx is hard enough for any band, and following up on an album that left such an indelible impression on people is a daunting task. Fans are fickle; some might be annoyed if your sound hasn’t grown and changed in 10 years, and others might talk shit if you go in a direction too far removed from the seminal album they love.

“What we discovered when we reunited in 2011 was that the band can’t help but sound like the band,” says Grainger. “No matter what we do, because of the form, the bass and drums, the way I sing and the way Jesse writes parts, and to a certain extent the way I write on drums, it’s gonna always sound like this band. No matter what we do.

“In a rock ‘n’ roll band the [modus operandi] is to proceed with extreme confidence — you can’t be in a rock band and not think that you’re the best rock band ever. That’s part of the job. So there wasn’t a lot of doubt in our minds when we ventured to make this record.”

A few years earlier, work had slowed to a crawl while Grainger was working on his solo album. Though he’d been free to sound like whatever he wanted, that open space paralyzed him to a degree. Going back to DFA 1979 was like being locked back inside the prison of a certain sound — but somehow, ironically, it was also liberating.

“When we came back to [our sound], it still worked,” he says. “You’re able to be free within those confines, to compose and write and introduce weird ideas and try different things musically. Because it’s put through the filter of what the band sounds like and how we define the band, it ends up sounding like the band anyway.”

But while they can’t help but sound like Death from Above 1979, that’s not to say that their music hasn’t evolved. Not only have they honed their songwriting chops over time, they’re also 10 years older than they were when they wrote the first album.

“When we made You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine, I was still in my early 20s,” says Grainger. “So the proximity to my teenage years was real. I was still in that mode and rebelling against being a teenager, or against my folks or whatever. A lot of the songs were about my parents’ divorce, or about my friends, or being in bars, and a lot of the ideas were holdovers from being 18 or 19 years old. It would have been a mistake for me to try and emulate that now that I’m 35. I can’t write about myself being a teenager.”

The wisdom that comes with being in one’s 30s rather than early 20s has also given the duo a greater awareness of what they need to do to make their live show even better than it was in the past, says Grainger.

“The crowd is the easy part — luckily, we have an audience that’s ready to have a good time,” he says. “We just show up and make a lot of noise and they go crazy. The other stuff — performing well, playing well, singing well — that stuff was never easy. This band has always been difficult to perform in. I have to play drums and sing at the same time.

“We’re better at doing it now,” he continues. “I’m far more aware of what it takes for me to perform a show, and I honour that far more than I did before. Before, I was way more casual with it, and now I really want to do a good job. Same for Jesse. There’s a risk with a band like us, only two guys, really loud. There’s a risk of it being a shtick, a goof that we’re doing. But we want to be really good at doing it.”

You can witness the spectacle for yourself when they hit O’Brians on the 26th. And when it comes to the new album, The Physical World is a destroyer. It follows in the vein of You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine but also its own mad animal, so it’s safe to say they’ve avoided both the sophomore jinx and the pitfalls of over-hype.

“We didn’t know if people were going to be into the band that we are, with so much time in between,” says Grainger. “And so much rhetoric about the band: ‘they’re dance-punk,’ or electro-metal, or whatever the stupid descriptors are, you know? That’s not what the band sounds like to me. It sounds like nothing else. It sounds crazy. But then when we started playing again, we were like, fuck, this band is cool, you know? It sounds weird and awesome.”

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