No two fingerprints are the same. Alas, you can’t apply that physiological fact to the music industry. All hope isn’t entirely lost. There is a select amount of artists across the sea of genres that are in a league of their own – musicians that have set a high standard of sound that is distinctive of their possession. Canadian rock duo Death From Above 1979, comprised of Sebastien Grainger and Jess F. Keeler, have the kind of raw, dance punk soundtrack that a listener can immediately pinpoint to them and no one else. “I’m always inspired by art specifically the pop art time in that everyone was trying to be different. Now a Campbell’s soup can has been painted, no one else can do that ever again. It’s done. It would be so ridiculous for someone to do the same thing over. No one can be Jackson Pollock ever again. It’s done,” Jesse says. Pop art as Jesse’s key inspiration in music is a result of its’ visually inimitability. When an art aficionado spots a mural by famed pop art artist Roy Lichtenstein, the individual knows it’s his artwork. Jess adds, “It’s so sad that doesn’t get applied to music or imagine if that was our attitude as music listeners – ‘Well, that’s already done. Somebody already did that thing. Who would do that? It’s crazy.’ We don’t think about music the same way we do art. Maybe that’s why people don’t talk about music as art that much. I try hard not to repeat myself. I don’t know if it can be successful completely. Going through this record, there would be times when we would be writing something and one of us would be like, ‘Wait, that’s too much like that thing we did in the past. We need to do something different than that.’”
DFA 1979’s newest album, The Physical World (out now through Last Gang Records/Warner Bros. Records) is everything new, but with a familiar feeling. It is “different,” as Jesse stated, in the same sense of resurrecting a past relationship with a fresh perspective – which aptly applies to Sebastien and Jesse as a band. It’s been a decade since the duo released their game-changing debut album, You’re A Woman, I’m a Machine (released October 26, 2004). Post tour in support of that album, DFA 1979 broke up both as a band and as friends. Time and their initial bond brought them back together in 2011 when they began working on The Physical World. Jesse says, “The reason why we ended up becoming this band is just because he and I played so well together. A lot of times even when we were working on stuff, it’s just a stream of consciousness that it happens in terms of changes and things like that. We don’t have to discuss arrangements. Very often we just sort of fall on each other’s lead somehow. And because it’s just so easy for us to play together, that’s why I guess we ended up being satisfied with only bass and drums when we got back together.” Here, Life + Times speaks to Jesse about the break up, make up, and progression of DFA 1979.
Life + Times: I know that this (The Physical World) has been two years in the making from what I’ve read. With these kind of projects in general, timing does play a big role. So with reuniting and putting together this new album, did it feel like this was the right time and what role did that play?
Jesse F. Keeler: I think for us in terms of timing the only thing we really ever worried about is just not being too late because I think we felt like if we didn’t do this, then someone else would do it. I don’t know if that’s a totally rational theory that we had or baseless or what not, but we just [thought] if we don’t do this, then someone else is gonna do this exact same thing. So, let’s get it done first before somebody somehow does. Actually I’ve learned since that, there have been other people who have been clearly influenced by our band in the past which is flattering.
JFK: So, I’m not too worried about it anymore. (Laughs) But there was a time when me and Sebastien were like, ‘Gosh, we gotta get this out there quick.’ I don’t know what we thought was gonna happen really. Just being neurotic.
L+T: Like sound wise? Is that what you mean?
JFK: (Laughs) I don’t even know. I couldn’t expand too far on our dumb idea. We have lots of dumb ideas all of the time. We’ll run with those dumb ideas at times for years. So, umm… (Laughs)
L+T: Hey, whatever works!
JFK: I’m just really happy to have the record done and out because that means that my brain is free to think about other things again. You know what I mean? I can now accept the record. It exists. There’s no more changing it. Everything is done and hopefully at some point I’ll get to listen to it how everyone else gets to listen to it. My hope is at some point I get detached enough from it that I can enjoy it the way someone else can. It’s hard. Literally there’s one song that I think every time I listen to it I go ‘I could have put a little thump in the EQ and the high mid on one of the bass tracks.’ I’m still listening to it that way. At some point, I’ll just accept it and I can listen to it.
L+T: No, I get it. I mean, I don’t produce music but with writing I’ll go back after something’s live and be like, ‘Oh man, I could have made that sentence structure completely different.’
JFK: You know, it’s very akin to cooking. If you cook, sometimes when you’re actually sitting down to eat you’re like ‘Ah, I could have put a little more salt in the water or whatever it is. This could use a little bit more of this or that.’ More or less the same thing.
L+T: Yeah, I’m completely with you on that. Now with this album, I noticed you worked with Dave Sardy who’s produced for Red Hot Chili Peppers and Oasis. What was the deciding factor in selecting him to produce on the album?
JFK: Well, we had a shortlist of people we were considering going to; but Dave was always the first choice on my list just because he’s worked on so many different things. I guess our theory was that somewhere in the middle of all that maybe our band needed just a little bit of touch of Slayer, a little bit of the LCD Soundsystem, maybe a little bit of the Nine Inch Nails, or maybe, hey! – even a little bit of Oasis perhaps. Just little bits of everything that he’s done – amongst all those things he’s got the necessary power to work on us. I think it did.
It was weird for us to work with a producer at all because generally we wouldn’t receive that sort of instruction from anyone. I think we both wanted to see what would happen if we did do it that way. Watching too many classic albums I guess, we were like ‘Well, this producer character seems like an important thing we should try to use at some point.’ I think it did help a lot. He’s very good at making things sound great without over-processing them.
L+T: Well, that’s good. That actually was my next question because I know in the past it’s always just been you two – not having a producer onboard. With it being ten years since the last album and then having a third person, were there any challenges on agreeing on things creatively?
JFK: Oh yeah, it was not without its hardships. It was difficult at times. The thing that it did really draw out of us – we had to really be sure of all of our ideas. So, if Sebastian and I said we want to do whatever – some music idea – and then Dave might say, “Uh, why would you do that?” We would have to articulate and defend our ideas. In a sense that alone would have been a great help just because it forces us to question our own decisions. If we had an idea and we can’t defend it all – like there’s no rationale for the decision – then those things would get changed. It didn’t happen very often, but that it happened at all is just a change for us.
L+T: That shows that as an artist you grow. It’s about not being stagnant by being able to accept criticism and tips.
JFK: Well, we were paying him to tell us what to do. So, if he was telling us what to do and we just told him to ‘Go fuck himself’ (Laughs) It would be a little counterproductive, I think.
L+T: (Laughs) But still! Honestly, I’ve interviewed other artists that do not take critiques well at all even though, yeah, they’re paying them (producers) – they’re like, ”Okay, this is how I’ve always done it.” It’s hard to relinquish that power sometimes.
JFK: Well, yeah. You have to want to receive the direction. It’s much easier. Especially at one point we said to each other, ‘Okay, Dave is not trying to make our band worse. (Laughs) If he has to do something and we don’t like it or we don’t understand, he’s trying to make it as awesome as it can be. So, all these things were coming from a good place and we’ll figure it out.’ Really, it didn’t even take that long. We had to take a break when we first did the record because Dave was doing a movie soundtrack. That gave us a few months to just live with the music recordings and think about what things we wanted to change and what not. Then, we just got back together and finished it. It was a learning experience.
L+T: Very cool. In the past you and Sebastien had your hang-ups largely due to burn-out. Now that you have clear focus, what do you admire most about Sebastien as an artist and a friend?
JFK: Well, I’ll repeat something Sebastien said to answer that question. Seb and I were always weird guys and we’re into all kinds of weird shit that we don’t talk about in interviews just because I don’t even want to begin those conversations. In some sense those things that we’d only talk about with the public are the things that are perhaps the most important defining for us as people. It [was a] weird thing when we got back together and started hanging out that we learned that separately on our own we had found some of the same weird shit via different directions. He ended up being this kind of person that has very few people that he can speak to openly. There’s a handful of people in my life where I can tell them the things that I’m actually thinking about or interested in – just stuff that genuinely interests me. Seb is one of those people that likewise I get the same from him. Someone pointed out that when we’re on our own, we’re one thing – we’re alright. Then, when we’re together suddenly our level of confidence goes through the roof. When we’re together that’s how we feel about everything. We’ve played in front of hostile crowds for so long. You either get really strong yourself or you become depressed or whatever. Our way of dealing with it, we’re empowering all the time. We just become one person when it comes to the band.
L+T: Ah, that’s so sweet. I know that’s not supposed to be sweet, but yeah. It’s really endearing!
JFK: It’s funny to say. Yeah, it is pretty cute. It’s very empowering just to know that someone is going to defend you…It’s an empowering position to be in.
Photo Credit: Pamela Littky