"A Look At Regular Life!" Clash Meets Death From Above 1979
When Death From Above (who appear, once again, to be including the ‘1979’ suffix in their moniker) announced their unexpected reformation a decade ago, it marked the start of a five year era that, in hindsight, really was ‘peak two-piece’.
The singles from The Black Keys’ ‘El Camino’ dominated every second of television, Honeyblood released the best indie rock record of the decade, Drenge roared out of the Peak District with a boot-full of riffs and Deap Vally reinjected some glam rock glamour into guitar music; not to mention the emergence of Public Service Broadcasting, Cleft, Japandroids, and a whole host of other duos who, if they formed today, would probably start a podcast rather than a band. All of these successes paled in comparison to that of leather jackets-made-flesh Royal Blood, whose 2014 debut spelled the beginning of the end of that era.
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These days, shorn of the financial constraints of their early years, very few of those bands still choose to perform as duos, instead electing to fill their stages and studios with guest musicians and extra band members to pursue a bigger, more respectable sound. Death From Above 1979, on the other hand, seem to be becoming more of a two-piece as the years go by. This commitment to self-sufficiency can be heard all over new record ‘Is 4 Lovers’, which was mixed by drummer/vocalist Sebastian Grainger and then mastered by bassist/keyboarding Jesse F. Keeler.
“We’ve always been tempted by the idea of producing and recording ourselves, but never had the full gusto to do it until now,” explains Grainger, “Then Jesse listens to the record I made with my other band American Lips and he’s like, ‘Dude, that record, the mix sounds awesome! Just make it sound like that,’ and I thought, ‘Oh yeah, I can, we can do this!’ So we sat in a room for five weeks working on music together every day, then I took that music and spent the next nine months picking the bits that I liked to write songs to, assembling the music and stitching things together.”
The result is probably the most futuristic and electronic-leaning version of their distinctive dance-punk sound since ‘You’re A Woman, I’m A Machine’, an album he agrees that this record feels very much like a spiritual sequel to. “This is a return to form in a sense. On the first record I just wrote about my friends and family and the little world we lived in at the time. A lot of it’s about my parents divorcing, which happened when I was a late teen, so that record was very personal. The next two records were very much looking out at the world, literally on ‘The Physical World’ and then with culture on ‘Outrage! Is Now’. Then, aside from a few moments of extrospection, this record is very introspective. A look at regular life.”
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Nowhere is this connection to the past clearer than on lead single ‘One + One’. Not only does the song echo breakout single ‘Romantic Rights’ musically and lyrically, but it’s choppy green video has very much the same vibe as their old artwork for the track. “Well, the person that took the photo on the cover of the ‘Romantic Rights EP’ is the same person who made the video - my wife!” laughs Grainger, “Well, at the time she wasn’t my wife, she was a friend of ours who came to take pictures on our tour.”
“There’s so much of a love story here,” adds Keeler.
As the title and cover art suggests, love and lifelong companionship were very much on the band’s mind when making the album. “While we were working on the record I went and buried my aunt and uncle (he’d been cremated ten years earlier, she died last year). They’re the people on the cover,” Grainger explains, “I went to help clear out her house in Chicago and found all these incredible photos of them. My mum and I took all their photo books back to the hotel and emptied them out so we weren’t taking these huge things back to Canada with us, and I was just stashing ones that I thought were aesthetically great.”
As most of the photos were taken on an old 1x1 format camera, they already looked like LPs. “You’d look at them and go, ‘That’s the perfect record cover!’” he remembers excitedly, “We had the name ‘Is 4 Lovers’ kind of floating around, and once that photo was chosen it was perfect. It’s just people kissing, you know?”
“It’s clear that these people are in love if they’re that old and they’re still being cute,” chips in Keeler, to an incredulous reaction from his bandmate.
“It was taken in the 60s!” he laughs, “She was on her second marriage and they lived for another 50 years.”
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There is a need, of course, to address the elephant in the room. Or rather the lack of them. For any purists missing the band’s signature logo – a picture of them with elephant trunks that has adorned all of their album releases thus far, there’s no need to worry. Just a need to squint. “There’s an LP on the table and the sticker has our logo on it,” Grainger points out smugly, “It’s subtle but still there.”
The duo’s willingness to bend the formula of the past on this release isn’t limited to their visuals. For a full 10 minutes of this 30-minute-long record (lasting from ‘Glass Homes’ to halfway through ‘Mean Streets’), there is no bass guitar whatsoever. Given that DFA 1979’s unique sound comes chiefly from Keeler’s distorted lead bass rumble, this feels like quite a departure.
“When I make songs I make them on whatever is at hand,” explains Keeler, “There are albums’ worth of riffs hummed into my phone’s voice notes. As soon as I have an idea, whether I’m in bed or the bathroom or I’m driving, that’s the start of it, and then whatever I can get my hands on will be where it gets written next. The piano at the start of ‘Mean Streets’ I wrote on one of my daughter’s acoustic guitars! Then I thought, ‘Maybe I should try moving that over onto the piano?’, and that’s as far as I took it because with the bass I’d have to take a chord and arpeggiate around it. I can’t really play the chord, because when it’s so distorted the notes start fucking with each other really bad. If I have an idea and the piano is where it needs to stay then that’s where it stays!”
“The record had a certain shape to me,” Sebastian adds, “and at some point I asked Jesse if he had anything else and he sent me ‘Mean Streets’ and the piano from ‘Love Letter’. I love that stuff because, especially after working on 8 songs of bass or saturated synth, the opportunity to write over a piano part is a really refreshing break from all that chaos.”
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‘Mean Streets’ is a good example of how fluid and symbiotic the process of writing a Death From Above 1979 song has become for the pair. As Grainger explains, “Jesse wrote this thing on his kid’s guitar, played it on piano, I took the piano riff then wrote the drum and the bass part and the rest of the tune, then we took it to another studio and I played the piano, he played the drums and then he played the bass part I wrote.” Simple. He also decided to add the furious blast of hardcore halfway through the song simply to amuse his bandmate. “I knew he would get a kick out of this piano part ending and then all of a sudden it’s just like Bad Brains for 30 seconds!” he chuckles, “It’s like how in interviews or on stage I’ll say something just to make him laugh. It’s not for any other reason really.”
Despite his capacity for writing angry songs (and fond memories of discovering Deep Purple on acid), Grainger admits that he doesn’t particularly listen to rock music these days. Keeler, on the other hand, despite his predilection for techno, always makes sure not to forget his heavier influences. "Every time we’re going to make a Death From Above record I listen to ‘Ride The Lightning’ on loop for like three weeks, just to remember riffs,” he laughs.
“He’s always trying to make a Metallica record, and I don’t like Metallica so I’m driving away from that,” Seb responds, revealing that while creating their latest album he didn’t listen to any other music whatsoever. “When Jesse was mastering it he asked me, ‘Is there any music that you’re listening to, any references? How do you want this to sound?’ and I was like, ‘I have no idea!’ There was a point when I was like, ‘I should probably put on a contemporary rock record to see if this sounds anything like contemporary rock’.”
“90% of the time when I’m mastering it’s all techno, so my ears sort of adjusted to that,” Keeler expounds, “So I tried. I asked people for different references and was listening to Tame Impala and all this stuff. But none of that really made sense, so I ended up using a Perc track - he's the hardest techno guy from England. I was just like, ‘Yeah, this is the one! This feels the most right!’ Seb sent me multiple mixes of all the songs with either the kick drum up or kick drum down, and I just didn’t use the kick drum down mixes ever, I was just like ‘No, no! Up is good!’”
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Everything about Keeler and Grainger’s relationship in 2021 - their musical synergy, their desire to make one another laugh, their creative intimacy - makes it easy to forget that from 2006 to 2011 they were not on speaking terms. Grainger recalls how, on their final tour, they would sit silently on the tour bus accepting friends on their newly created MySpace without even being friends with one another.
“We didn’t know how to interact with one another fully,” he remembers, thinking back to the first rehearsals in 2011 after five years of enmity, “We weren’t fully comfortable, and the band was this separate third thing. We even talked about it like that – ‘The band is the third thing and we just come here to honour the band,’ and all that. At that point we weren’t incorporated with it, you know?”
This feeling gradually wore away as they got used to one another’s presence and started creating under the DFA 1979 name again, until they both separately had the same revelation. “There was a point, it might have been five years ago or even after, where I decided that this is my band,” Grainger recalls, his eyes gleaming, “I’m going to do as much in it as I want and Jesse will do as much in it as he wants, and we’ll take complete ownership of it. There was a point where Jesse said, ‘This band, it’s my life.’ Not in the sense that it’s our entire lives, but this is the band.”
“It is like a relationship, like your great aunt and uncle,” Keeler points out to his bandmate, “At what point do you think - this is the one? This is the relationship I’m in for my whole life. At what point do you recognise that that’s what’s happening? I always go back to the example of, at what point did the people who do the voices for The Simpsons realise that ‘This is what I do with my fucking life’? It’s kind of rare that you start dating someone and realise, well, this person’s going to bury me! It takes a while, and I don’t think it’s that different when you think about the band. For me it hasn’t been ten years it’s been four records, and however long those four records took, you know what I mean? It has its own clock!”
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'Is 4 Lovers' will be released on March 26th.
Words: Josh Gray
Photo Credit: Norman Wong
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