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Death From Above 1979: “We’re free to run wild”

For two strait-laced family men, Jesse F. Keeler and Sebastien Granger make some curiously horny music. Best known as the respective bassist and drummer/vocalist behind Death From Above 1979, the Canadian dance-punks revel in tight slithers of bold and buoyant thrashing, slicked over with silky, fuzzed-out vocal runs that feel better suited to ’80s funk love songs than mosh-ready bangers.

Nowhere is that clearer than on their latest full-length effort, the aptly titled Is 4 Lovers. Between the playful innuendo Granger doles on lead single ‘One + One’ and the prickly, kaleidoscopic groove driving cuts like ‘NYC Power Elite’ and ‘Glass Homes’, the record unfurls like one long grungy, low-fi sex playlist prime for the post-pandemic hookup boom we’re certain to see in the coming months.

To that end, longtime fans will appreciate how well LP4 captures the breathless, bombastic energy of Death From Above 1979 in concert. It feels delightfully raw, the band employing minimalist production on maximalist performances, the end result messy and muddy – yet inescapably loveable – in a way that only a band like them could pull off in earnest.

And earnest it is; this is Death From Above 1979 in their purest form, jamming out to their hearts’ content and immortalising it on wax. With the record hitting shelves today, BLUNT got down to business with Keeler and Granger to vibe on it in all of its scuzzy glory.

I love the way this record’s title reads on paper – “Death From Above 1979 is for lovers” as a statement in its own merit. Is that the point? Is this the official confirmation that all of your songs were intentionally structured to fit perfectly on a sex playlist?

Sebastien: I wouldn’t have such a narrow definition of love, personally, but I’ll take it! One time, years ago when we were on tour, we were staying at a friend’s place and sleeping on a mattress on the floor – head to toe, mind you, but our genitals were still lined up. And the next day, the roommate of the guy we were staying with, he came out of his room and went, “Hey, I’ve got something to show you!” And he put in a video, which was a sex tape. It didn’t have anything to do with us, thankfully, but our friend’s band, The Blood Brothers, were the soundtrack. It was him and his girlfriend having sex to The Blood Brothers.

Was he a member of The Blood Brothers?

Jesse: No, it was just some random guy! He just thought it would be cool to play us his big directorial debut.

Nice. Well musically speaking, I feel like the shoe really fits with this record. You’ve got tracks like ‘NYC Power Elite’, ‘Free Animal’, ‘Glass Homes’; there’s a lot of that very funky, very groovy sort of swagger in the beat – it sounds sexy! Was that an intentional aesthetic direction?

Sebastien: This is the kind of record I’ve always wanted to make. The route to get there was a little bit circulative, but I thought there was something very loose and sexy about our first LP that got a little ironed out on the second one. I think we returned to form a little bit on Outrage! Is Now, but Outrage! is a far more serious record than this one. Not that we’re not serious about the music, but [Is 4 Lovers] is fun – it’s playful.

What you would call sexy, to us it’s just a little bit more natural. It’s got the funk in it. And that’s in part because of what a tall order it is to make a whole record with only two people, without engineers or producers, or editors in suites… The humanity is left in there – on purpose, but also out of necessity. Because y’know, we have to make the record. We have to finish it. So it’s going to be funky. When you don’t correct music, the music rubs; all the tones rub and the beats rub… And you know what sex is – it’s just rubbing!

There’s a lot of exciting material here for a longtime DFA fan, too – you’ve retained the heart and soul of what we know as Death From Above 1979, but then you’ve got songs like ‘Love Letter’ and ‘Glass Homes’ that are entirely unlike anything you’ve done before. Were you excited to take a few creative risks on this album?

Jesse: I don’t know if we would’ve considered it risky. We started to abandon the idea that our band had any sonic boundaries after the second record. When we made The Physical World, we were constantly thinking about what the band should do as though ‘the band’ was a third entity apart from us. And that made sense because at that point, it had been separate to us for so many years. When we weren’t active as a band, it was like, “Well, it’s still growing, people still give a shit about it.” It had existed without us for so long, so that’s how we approached it. And who knows how many things we didn’t do on that record because of that way of thinking? But we finished that record anyway, and then with Outrage! we started to lose a lot of those conventions.

I guess it’s important to say that with both of those albums, there was a third person there with us, who was thinking about what ‘the band’ was and trying to make sure we stayed true to that. But now, without any voice like that…We’re free to run wild. We can still say ‘no’ to things if we want to – if Seb had presented, like, a mid-‘90s David Bowie drum ’n’ bass song, I would’ve said, “No thanks.”

Sebastien: I don’t know, I think I would’ve presented it in a way that would convince you.

Jesse: I would’ve said, “Bowie yes, drum ’n’ bass no.” But y’know, this record is just the sound of the music we felt like making over the course of like a month and a half. But that’s why it’s called a ‘record’ – it’s a record of that moment. If we were to make [Is 4 Lovers] right now, it might sound completely different.

I feel like the core ethos of this band would lead to a lot of spontaneous and impulsive creativity. Do you jam out a lot?

Jesse: That’s how we write. To use an example from our past, the whole second half of the song ‘Do It’ was written in a stream of consciousness. We’ve played together enough that we both feel like it’s time to change at about the same moment, and we can almost read each other’s minds when we’re jamming. ‘White Is Red’ was like that, too – I had one riff to start off with, but then from that, the rest of the song just sort of happened. We didn’t have to think too much about what to do next.

With this record, there were no demos at all – we didn’t practice anything too much or make any pre-production recordings. What you hear on this record is, for the most part, the stuff we played as we were making it up in real time. We would be recording while we were writing and going, “Oh wait, that sounds really good, let’s keep doing that!”

Do you feel like that came out of necessity in a sense, in order to capture the raw, authentic energy of a DFA performance?

Sebastien: We’ve done both methods. We have spent way too much time on stuff in the past – not to say this record didn’t take time, because it did, but that wasn’t because we were over-labouring. This is not to disparage anything we’ve done, or this track specifically, but ‘Trainwreck 1979’ is an example of the opposite situation. That was something we wrote in a jam session and we were really happy with it, so we played it for the producer [Dave Sardy], and he really liked it as well. It was a riff, then a chorus, and then more riff. But [Sardy] told us that he wanted executive power over two songs on the record, and we wouldn’t be done the record until those two songs sounded just the way he wanted them. So we said, “Fine – you’re the boss!”

Oh, God…

Sebastien: No, it was fine! We hired him for that purpose, right? We were like, “Let’s hire a big rock producer to make us a couple of annoying rock songs that will get played forever.” I literally heard ‘Are You Gonna Be My Girl?’ by Jet and went, “Sardy, let’s make one of those songs! We need a song that you can’t avoid.” So he made me rewrite that chorus, probably, I don’t know, two dozen times.

I wrote chorus after chorus after chorus, for months. We were effectively done with the record, Jesse was still living in Toronto but I was living in LA, so I would go back there five days a week, just trying to write the chorus for ‘Trainwreck’. After about three or four months of doing that, Jesse came down to mix the record and we still didn’t have a chorus for the song, so Jesse said, “Why don’t we do this?” And he played a little melody, and Dave went, “Oh, that’s really great! What is that!?” And Jesse just went, “It’s the first fuckin’ thing we wrote, a year ago, by ourselves!” And that’s what’s on the record!

Is 4 Lovers is out now.