In 2004, Toronto duo Death From Above embodied the DIY dance-punk aesthetic that lived in home recordings and grimy basement clubs. Eventually, they added the “1979” after a dispute with DFA Records (the rulers of the glossier, hipper, New York-driven end of the market) and combined noisy hardcore, gritty synths and earnest screams on cult classics Romantic Rights and You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine. These releases led to a tour with Nine Inch Nails and Queens of the Stone Age, but then the band suddenly broke up, right as they were primed to break to larger, mainstream audiences.
Now, a decade later singer and drummer Sebastian Grainger and bassist Jesse Keeler have reunited for the surprising new The Physical World. Shortly after the record’s released, the two met in Manhattan to discuss touring with NIN, their attempts to break their earlier template and whether the comeback is finally settling in.
How does it feel to come back after being out of the spotlight for so long?
Sebastian Grainger: It’s not strange as much as you forget what it’s like going from having nothing on our plate for a really long time to a new record. Going from zero to a million.
Jesse Keeler: I just don’t want people to be annoyed by us, you know? We did make a record with a guy [producer Dave Sardy] who is really good at making records that annoy people. I’m the type of person who is easily annoyed. One thing I’ve noticed about us is that we seem to behave as if everything is quite absurd. We know that people seem to like our band and I know why we like our band, but I don’t really know why everybody else does. The funniest thing set me off the other day. Some excited kid introduced himself to me the other day, and I said, “What’s up, I’m Jesse.” He was like, “I know who you are!” I was like, “Let me go through the motions, man! We’ve never met! Let me tell you my name!”
Is being approached by those sorts of fans jarring?
Grainger: My ambition was never to be a popular musician, it was to be a good musician. So I’m hypercritical of everything all the time. The dialogue in my mind is that I could have done better at everything. I could have played an instrument better. I could have sang something better.
How does that affect how you listen to Heads Up or Romantic Rights now?
Keeler: They’re honestly sort of abstract ideas to me. I had to go back to listen to them to remember what they sounded like.
Grainger: I think they’re cute. When I listen to Romantic Rights, we made it so meagerly, and you hear all these kinds of mistakes. Jesse and I spent years after that album making other music and learning how to record properly. And even though we had albums and knew how to record properly and had an engineer working with us, we were still kidding around about it. You hear the tambourine falling to the floor. You hear us fucking around in the background. There are tons of funny things that are idiosyncratic, but they’re cute because I remember us just throwing it all together.
Romantic Rights became so iconic to a set of people because of that kind of reckless attitude. It helped you develop a cult-like following. Did that following’s presence influence The Physical World in any way?
Grainger: One of the greatest assets of our band was scarcity. We weren’t available, we didn’t do anything for five years. So it feels weird to be fully available. I still can’t get over that those people are still there. There’s all this other stuff for them to listen to. You have all these other options. I think I’m so flattered I can’t really accept it.
So how does that play out on The Physical World? How do you show that you’ve made other music, worked on other projects, and are still DFA1979?
Keeler: If we made a record of guitars and piano and a choir then it would be something completely different. As long as we are bass, drums and singing, it will sound more or less as it does. It’s funny, because as we were working on this record we tried to expand on that idea, but the form of it holds it in place.
Some kids tweeted at me about how they were worried we would try to stray from the old stuff and I wanted to tell them, “We tried!” We tried to experiment as hard as we could, but in the end it was this. I think what’s awesome about AC/DC, as an example, is that all the AC/DC records sound similar but it’s always clearly that band. That’s not true of every band. Led Zeppelin, there’s so many sounds and tones of Led Zeppelin. Beatles as well. We’re not like that.
It’s been around six years since you last played together, right? On a personal level, were you speaking? What led to the huge gap of silence?
Grainger: It may have been longer than six years. We didn’t even see each other. We didn’t say any words to each other at all.
Keeler: Why the breakup? Because we had the incredible foresight to know that if we ever got back together it would be great? [Laughs] No, the short answer is it became frustrating for us because the creative period of the band had long since waned circumstantially.
Grainger: It seemed a bit hopeless. We would go on tour with other bands sometimes and I guess I had hoped to see that at the higher levels things would get different but it seemed like everyone was doing the same shit.
You went on tour with Nine Inch Nails. At the time, it seemed like a launching point for DFA1979, not an ending point.
Keeler: Even the last tour we did with Nine Inch Nails and Queens of the Stone Age, we were already broken up then. We were barely talking on that tour and just observing rock music at that level, it wasn’t that different from the level that we were at. We were schlepping our own stuff and carrying our own gear so that was different. When you see the height of the profession and it’s not that different from the depths of it – the amenities are nicer but the experience isn’t – you kind of look at it and say, “Is that all this is?” When you’re at a certain age and you’re a little more existential, sometimes you just go “fuck it.” As interest in our band grew it became an affect.
Why did you start speaking again?
Keeler: For me it started with a question of “Is this band still good?” Is this band still a band?
Grainger: The basic reason this band got back together was because I was sick of the disdain I had for it. I was sick of, like, the animosity between Jesse and I. I couldn’t live with it anymore; I found it exhausting to have someone in my life that I had problems with. I found it therapeutic to at least share an email. And then the band was still good. The coupon was still valid, it had not expired.
What off The Physical World do you return to the most? What song are you most content with?
Keeler: There’s no one favorite. The album has a voice I want to understand and realize, and there’s no one song that does that on the album. If I said “White Is Red,” as a bass player it was a breakthrough moment for me. But then I’d be dismissing my metal moment on “Physical World” or when I got to play blues for the first time on “Virgin.” On the course of the album I got to express myself. It’s all of those things; it’s not one. For me to pick one thing it would be like, “Convince me to pick one seasoning.” Impossible!