Death From Above 1979: Why the ‘AC/DC of hardcore’ stopped trying to change the world
Coachella, California – 17 April, 2011. Jesse F. Keeler is standing sheepishly in a small group at the side of the festival’s main stage. Perhaps the bassist is nervous because his band Death From Above 1979 are hours away from their first major show in six years, save for a set at Austin’s SXSW festival a month earlier, which ended up inciting a riot in which a man reportedly punched a police horse. Or maybe it’s because the older gent in the mustard shirt next to Jesse is Clint Eastwood.
Jesse has little recollection of what the two men said to one another as they watched rapper Nas collaborate with reggae star Damian – son of Bob – Marley that afternoon. One assumes Jesse chose his words more carefully than his bandmate Sebastien Grainger did meeting Pearl Jam at an airport once, when the singer/drummer told the grunge veterans: “I used to love you guys!”
Thankfully, the meeting of starstruck musician and grizzled screen legend was captured for posterity by Life After Death From Above 1979, the documentary chronicling the Toronto dance-punk duo’s inception, meteoric rise, acrimonious split, and a reformation now 10 years and three albums strong. Though the film was released back in 2014, it remains a useful artefact and reference point for its subjects. Recently they used clips from their early days to tease new single One+One, suggesting they’re in a reflective mindset.
“The idea was to remind people how cool we are,” suggests Sebastian, his laughter almost toppling the beanie loosely atop his head. In truth, they’ve had cause to cast an eye to the past: prior to beginning work on new album Is 4 Lovers, they’d re-pressed and toured their debut EP, 2002’s Heads Up, as well as releasing a 7‑inch of demos from that era, the making of which necessitated poring over a raft of 4‑track tapes.
“I was reminded of the energy of the band at the beginning,” recalls Sebastien, more than a little nostalgic about those fuzzed-up formative efforts. “At one point, when we made our ‘comeback’ record, The Physical World , we were at Jesse’s place in Toronto and had the test pressing [of the album]. We put it on, thinking it was pretty good, before quickly replacing it with a copy of Heads Up, and the drums sounded so much better, despite the fact we’d recorded in a cupboard in the basement of our friend Al’s parents’ house.”
DFA1979 have long been governed by a desire to be “the AC/DC of hardcore”, less interested in pushing their sound in new directions than making that sound as singular and undeniable as possible. Their 2004 debut album, You’re A Woman, I’m A Machine, was the 10th record Jesse had made at that point, after years in less successful bands. He knew he was onto something when his father, who’d played guitar in an early incarnation of rockers Steppenwolf, called him one day. “He said I’d caused trouble for myself because I’d made something people would want to listen to.”
Those fans are still listening, too, and not simply for the music, but where each album finds the men who made it. Admittedly the autobiographical links are more explicit this time, with One+One acting as a “karmic sequel” to Romantic Rights from their debut album. While the earlier track has Sebastien articulating the compulsiveness of youthful desire, the latter finds him celebrating stability, serendipity and love as a proactive force, having been with his wife for 16 years. “It’s the realisation this isn’t a choice I’ve made and I’m holding onto. It’s a fate bigger than me, and I don’t like to think of myself without this other person.”
The lyric ‘One plus one is three, that’s magic’ is a reference to Sebastien and his wife becoming parents last year. But this idea of two individuals creating something greater than themselves could just as easily refer to Jesse and Sebastien. “I’d never thought of that,” admits Jesse, having been distracted by his cat bringing a mouse into the room, much to the bemusement of the dog.
“It definitely made its way in there as I was writing it,” says Sebastien of the similarities between unions romantic and musical. “There’s always a certain cheekiness to what we’re doing. [The band has] been together only slightly longer than I’ve been with my wife, so there are definitely parallels, which you can extrapolate as much as you want to.”
Sebastien and Jesse started creating the music for Is 4 Lovers in February 2019, and completed work overall more than a year ago. In other words, as Sebastien puts it, “It was made entirely outside of the realm of this new reality.” The writing of the lyrics coincided with Sebastien’s impending fatherhood, though, which shortened the scope of its purview compared to 2017’s more outward-facing Outrage! Is Now.
“I didn’t want to look out at the world as much,” explains Sebastien, his daughter sleeping in the next room. “The song Totally Wiped Out is about that. The world and the internet are exhausting for everybody, though not in a nihilistic sense. What’s interesting about life is what’s in front of you, not all of this other stuff that when you’re a younger person you feel you can change. The only real change you can make is within your own life and a few layers away from you. Maybe, if you’re lucky, that’ll reverberate out into the world at large.
“The condition of being a human that is able to know about the problems in a neighbourhood 4,000 miles away is not a natural one, and we don’t really have the facility to do anything about it. I was talking to a friend on the phone yesterday and she was explaining a very specific problem in a very specific part of the world, and it’s not that I don’t care about that issue, but how am I going to do anything about it? If I want the world to be better, I’ve got to make a better world around me, and hopefully that’ll bump into some other stuff.”
Meanwhile, a decade on from meeting Mr Eastwood, inspiration has struck via another member of the Hollywood firmament. On Mean Streets, Death From Above 1979, like ’80s popsters Bananarama before them, have name-checked a certain Italian-American actor.
“I saw Robert De Niro on TV being upset about something,” explains Sebastien of how it came to be. “Sometimes when people declare these huge statements, you wonder what they’re covering up. I’m sure Robert De Niro is a fine person; he’s a great actor and has made some incredible films, but he’s not a saint and will have done some nasty stuff in his life. So for him to take a self-righteous position, that’s fine, but it looks like you’re running defence on something. Where is that anger coming from?”
Listening to the feral blast of Mean Streets, one could ask its creators the same thing. Most immediately, the answer to that question is Crass, the Essex art collective and punk rockers both men admit to being obsessed with. Fundamentally, though, this band is loud and confrontational for one small reason: their ranks are reasonably small. A decade before Royal Blood made having two members the most normal thing in the world, these Canadians were fighting for the right because there was no precedent for it.
“We spent the first many years of our band trying to argue for what we were doing,” laughs Jesse. “We’d play shows and someone would always come up to us afterwards and offer to play guitar. That was part of the reason we decided to be stupidly loud, to compensate and say, ‘Fuck those imaginary guitar players.’”
Having overcome that adversity with bloodymindedness and blistering songs, in 2006 they crashed and burned, the pressures of excessive touring overwhelming the duo and resulting in discord between them. It must be quite the turnaround, then, all these years later to be back together while being on the road is an impossibility.
“It is difficult to think of these songs not having lived live yet, and not knowing when that will happen,” suggests Sebastien. “The songs don’t really exist until they’re played in front of people. There are people covering One+One on the internet and sending us videos of it. We haven’t even played the song together yet!”
Meanwhile Jesse, who has a teenage daughter, is mindful of the young people who turned 18 last year but remain in stasis, their lives half-lived, their energies untapped. For them and the bands they’ll eventually get to go and see, he foresees a dynamic with a renewed vigour. “A live show will truly be viewed as the opportunity it is, for the performers and the audience to realise how lucky they are to be in that situation.”
In the aforementioned documentary Life After Death From Above 1979, the band admits they started out because of “boredom”. So what, then, is the ingredient keeping them going now?
“Appreciation,” says Jesse simply. “The general level of appreciation for live music, something many may have taken for granted, is going to be so intense. During the best kind of shows you get tunnel vision and the room vanishes around you. I had that at one of the last ones I went to see, watching Converge. Someone bumped into me and it reminded me that I was in a crowd. I want that shit back as soon as possible!”
Is 4 Lovers is out now via Spinefarm Records.
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