An Interview with Death From Above 1979: Steering The Ship

A lot has changed in the decade since Canadian duo Death From Above 1979 put out their debut album—and up until last year, their only one—You’re A Woman, I Am A Machine. Dispersing just a couple years after its 2004 release, drummer/vocalist Sebastian Grainger and bassist/synth player Jesse Keeler turned their focus to various solo and electronic projects, both in the limelight and behind the scenes at their respective studios. Yet despite only one LP and the lapse in any sort of follow-up, the group accumulated an avid following and became an underground favorite. The two announced their reunion in 2011, and calling upon Dave Sardy to take the reigns as producer, turned their attention to the creation of their sophomore record The Physical World, which came out in September.

Now, after already spending the majority of the summer on the road, the band will be acting as main support for Incubus and Deftones on a co-headlining tour. Keeler recently filled the Aquarian in on the tour, The Physical World, and more.

So you guys recently played the Glastonbury Festival in England. How was that?

It was big and… Festy. It’s a huge festival, with 100,000 people there camping. It was cool, no complaints. Everybody asks, “Oh, what is it like? What is Glastonbury like?” And I’m like, “Well, it’s a music festival.” My experience is similar to other music festivals. There were no lakes to swim in, and that had happened at another festival recently. Not to downplay Glastonbury in anyway because it was fun, but they didn’t have a lake, so….

Which festival had a lake?

It’s called Down The Rabbit Hole and it’s a much smaller festival, but it’s in Holland and the lineup was sick. Plus, they had the lake so we got to go swimming after the show with some ducks, which was super cool. It definitely makes it more fun.

How is playing festivals in Europe different than playing festivals in Canada or the United States?

Maybe it’s just when we get there we assume it’s going to be a controlled sort of chaos, so you go into it expecting it to be kind of raw, but in my experience most of the festivals in Europe have been really great. Years ago, America was different. I felt like there used to be a whole lot of festivals in the States where things got pretty out of control, but I think now everything has become so professional. I’m pretty sure you can go anywhere and it’ll be kind of the same; it’s not like the old days where you’d get somewhere and you’re sitting next to somebody showering or something. That kind of thing doesn’t happen as much anymore.

The band has had a super busy summer so far with extensive touring. How do you two keep up the stage energy night after night?

Well, playing is a challenge. Performing our songs is a challenge for us. I try to write songs that I can’t play when I first make them up because I need to practice and develop the muscle memory to be able to perform them for people.

For example, whenever we play “Romantic Rights,” which is an old song for us now, I realize that over the years I’ve added and changed the way I perform it to make it more complicated. There are things I do at the end of the song now that 10 years ago I couldn’t have done. I always try to push myself as much as I can, and that keeps me interested and engaged, I guess.

Although Death From Above 1979 reunited in 2011, you didn’t officially release any new music until last year. Why was that the right time?

Well, we would have put it out as soon as we could, and in a sense we did. From the day that we delivered the record to when the release date was announced, it was just about a tight of a schedule as anyone would have us do. There has been a lot of things to do with the timing that the band didn’t have any control over. We would have liked to have had it done sooner and get it out quicker but it just wasn’t possible.

I also think sometimes there is a trap that a musician can fall into—I’ve been guilty of it at times myself—where you begin to think about everything and how it relates to you. There was a period of time when we were working on the album that we were like, “Oh, we better get this out quick or someone else will come along and do the record before us.” That kind of dumb shit goes through your head, and that isn’t a good way to think.

Yeah, definitely not. What was the writing and creative process for The Physical World, and how did it differ from making You’re A Woman, I Am A Machine a decade earlier?

10 years ago the band didn’t exist for many people, so we could have done anything we wanted to do, put our name on it, and that would be what the band was. But the band is more than just us now. It existed without us for as long as it existed with us.

So this time around when we were working on writing, we knew what Death From Above was. It’s a thing that’s more than a sound and an idea. It’s not a constraint on your mind, but it’s more of a rudder on a ship that lets you know where to go.

You’re a producer and you have your own studio, but the album was produced by Dave Sardy. Why did you and Sebastian decide to enlist outside sources on this record rather than taking on everything yourselves?

We started the record on our own, and we worked on it that way for more than half of it. From there we thought about all the pressure we had on us, and also how we never had the opportunity to make a record where we hired someone who would be worrying about all the technical junk that we usually tend to ourselves. I really was curious and wanted to know what that was like, because that’s how everyone else makes records.

It was interesting at times, because both Sebastian and I are producers. But when working with [Dave Sardy] we were able to focus on just being artists. It was a bit weird to have someone telling you what to do and then going through lapses in remembering, “Oh yeah, I paid this guy to tell me what to do! I paid him because I value his opinion on things, and that’s why I’m here!” (Laughs) That’s a really weird thing to get into.

Imagine that three people had to chop a carrot on a cutting board, and everyone is involved. One hand holds one part of the carrot, the other hand holds the knife, and the other hand is holding the cutting board. Like the amount of coordination it would take to do such a simple, stupid thing that one person with two hands could do within a moment, and you have to talk your way through everything. It probably would have been easier for Dave if we were just like, “I don’t know man, do whatever, you’re cool!”

Are you working on any of your other projects right now?

Well, I’ve been working on a MSTRKRFT record for a long time, and it’ll hopefully be done soon. I’ve sort of been trying to find time to do that in between doing my normal life and also this band, you know? Like right now, it’s not very interesting but I just bought a chair, and now I’ll go home and make dinner for my family.

What are your plans for after the summer?

Well, I have a farm with a farmhouse, and as soon as we’re done with this tour, we’re just going to go there for a while. We only just got cell phone reception up there a couple months ago, so I guess people can call, but the extent of our plan is that we are going to go up there and hide away for a while, we’ll see what happens (laughs).


Death From Above 1979 will be opening for co-headliners Incubus and Deftones on Aug. 4 at PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel, NJ, on Aug. 5 at Nikon At Jones Beach Theater in Wantagh, NY, and on Aug. 8 at the Susquehanna Bank Center in Camden, NJ. For more information, go to