Death From Above 1979

by Greg Prato

Sebastien and Jesse of Death From Above 1979 on their Is 4 Lovers album, their songwriting process, and their signature sound.

Is it just me, or have rock artists (especially concerning the mainstream) become mind-numbingly predictable and same-sounding? Also, I've noticed as I've become older, I'm more prone to just sticking by my trusty old recordings by artists I've been listening to for years. But in the early 21st century, I was introduced (I can't remember how or when, strangely) to a band that is a most welcomed exception to all the previous rules/observations I just noted: Death From Above 1979.

A Canadian two-man band – singer/drummer Sebastien Grainger and bassist/keyboardist Jesse F. Keeler – they specialize in a sound that is driven by Keeler's distorted bass riffs (and boy oh boy, does he have a knack for coming up with some killer riffs). Upon first listen – especially on their earlier recordings – you may be taken aback by how much of a role "noise" plays into their sonic equation. But then you suddenly realize, Grainger's vocal melodies and Keeler's bass melodies quite often stick in your brain long after you've hit the stop button (and become even, dare I say, hummable).

The duo surprisingly split in 2007 - just three years after their now-classic full-length debut, You're a Woman, I'm a Machine, was released and causing a major buzz. But 13 years later they wisely reunited and have picked up exactly where they left off, with such stellar offerings as 2014's The Physical World, 2017's Outrage! Is Now, and 2021's Is 4 Lovers (while introducing electronics - and even piano - into their sound).

The duo spoke with Songfacts just after the release of Is 4 Lovers, and discussed how the songwriting works in the band, the stories behind several tunes, and how Keeler gets his four-string so fuzzed-out (spoiler: it's not the way you probably think).
Greg Prato (Songfacts): Did the lack of touring last year speed up the songwriting process for Is 4 Lovers?

Sebastien Grainger: We deliberately took the time to make the record, but we did it in 2019. So, we started in February/March 2019, recorded together for five weeks, and then over the course of that year, finished the record with lyrics and additional stuff. But we actually toured in June 2019 – that was the last time we toured. So, we toured in the middle of making this record and then fully anticipated releasing it to a tour – as one does. We made this pre-cough-pocalypse, so it didn't affect the process either way.

Songfacts: How does the songwriting work in Death From Above?

Grainger: It depends. On this record, we got together and made a bunch of music – made something more or less every day. And then, I had a big catalog of things – 40 sessions of Pro Tools worth of music to go through.

We had a sense of what our favorites were. When we were making the music, we would push certain things further up the hill than others, but at that point, the songs need to start getting written. Some songs are more challenging than others, but I'd like there to be some kind of initial burst of creativity in the songwriting, so I'll gravitate towards something that unlocks a lyric or a melody, something that... I don't want to say "obvious," but something that I can hear it already.

So, I would just start reading into the songs. The song selection started coming up, and then I would just continue writing for the next six or seven months or so, on the music. It basically starts with music and the energy of us playing together, and then all of the language and melody comes after.

Jesse F. Keeler: The way I like to be used as a musician is to make riffs – that's what I do. I make up parts that are cool, and I like to make up consecutive parts. I've learned over time that that's making a song. But the song is not a song until it's got words, because people like words. And I do, too! So, there's more to do, and Sebastien has to compartmentalize working on the drums and working on the vocal somewhat separately. Otherwise, I don't want half of Sebastien's energy on drums and half of it on singing. I want it all on one or the other.

We learned a long time ago that the way to work is to make the music first, and then give it to him, and whatever he wants to sing over, that's what will end up being a song. He's got two jobs.

Grainger: On this record, I had about a dozen jobs because I was also engineering and mixing.

Keeler: I'm not usually sentimental about things that I make up. If I make up something and I really, really like it, it's rare that Sebastien doesn't, but, if he didn't, then I wouldn't see it the same way anymore either, and I'll just make up something else. There's not a "song idea pile." It's more like an endless waterfall. It's like the energy from the sun: I'm never going to run out. I'll always have more riff ideas. They keep coming.

We have a good loop of validation when I'm doing something that clicks with Sebastien. And also, we've been playing together for a really long time, so if I have an idea, I have a sense beforehand as to whether or not he's going to get it, or even what his initial reaction to it will be.

Grainger: We're also at a point where we can complete each other's sentences in songwriting. In the song "Love Letter" on this album, it was a song that Jesse wrote that were the chords to the verse, and then he went somewhere else musically on the piano. I tried to work with that for a long time – I tried to make the B part of his proposition, the chorus, but it was going somewhere I didn't feel comfortable taking it, melodically or lyrically, so I wrote the chorus music so we can go back and forth.

That wasn't always the case. At the beginning, I just took whatever he gave me and went, "OK. I'll write on that." But now we're comfortable enough with one another musically that we can interchange. On the song "Mean Streets," Jesse wrote the piano, I played the piano, I wrote the drums, he played the drums. So, we're kind of jumping around a lot more on this record, creatively and musically.

Songfacts: When it comes to lyric writing, is it a collaboration?

Keeler: I talk with my hands. Notes and parts and sonic things is how I communicate. It's my preferred communication with the world.

Grainger: That's not true! Jesse made a one word change suggestion on this record, which I reluctantly adhered to. I changed one word.

Keeler: I helped contextualize – in a very crucial way – what you were saying.

Songfacts: Which specific word was changed?

Keeler: I changed a "'cause" to "for." Yeah! Songwriting!

Grainger: He's a regular Bob Dylan.

Songfacts: Let's discuss the lyrical inspiration behind some tracks, starting with "One + One."

Grainger: "One + One," the inspiration was being in a long-term relationship – "long-term" in that we were together for about 15 years, and then we had a kid.

Having kids is a revelation to the person that is having the kid, and it's always novel and exciting and new. That's what keeps the human project going: It's surprising and new and exciting to everybody.

Before my daughter was a person, when she was a concept and then a thing in progress when we were anticipating her. As a scientific pursuit, the idea of mixing your DNA with someone you've known for so long, going, "Wait a second. We can mash our DNA together, and then make another person that is a combo of the both of us?" is magic, really. So, that song is an exploration of that. It's the exploration of the equation of making new people.

The "One + One" video was directed by Eva Michon and shot at Jesse's farm and three other locations. "I decided to shoot multiple frames for each scene to make a sort of collage / orchestra of the band," she explained. "The technique was inspired by David Hockney's photo collages. It was also a way to represent the 'bigness' of the band's sound despite being only two instruments."

What was it like shooting it? Michon says: "It was really nice and pretty relaxed. Sebastien and I stayed at Jesse's for a few days and had a loose schedule for the four scenes. They essentially set up a performance in each location, they were their own roadies and I filmed them repeatedly in an organized and pre-determined grid. The most fun scene was when we went to Jesse's friend Ross' dairy farm, and we were out in the open with dozens of cows and a protector donkey. Shooting did not take very long, and most of the work came during the editing process."

Michon also shot the "Virgins" video.
Behind the scenes at the "One + One" video shoot with the protector donkey

Songfacts: "Modern Guy."

Keeler: It was the first piece of music that we made.

Grainger: It was day two. If you open up my Pro Tools sessions, it was day two.

Lyrically, it was all propelled by that first lyric, "Progress, not a promise." As with most of our lyrics, it can be interpreted different ways, and I wouldn't want to interpret the song for the listener, necessarily. I don't know what David Bowie is talking about when he's singing. I rarely know. And you get a sense of what Bob Dylan is talking about on The Times They Are a-Changin' album. It's pretty straightforward, but there's still metaphor in there. Very rarely can you get a grasp on what his take really is on things.

Keeler: Isn't the second line that Polish saying?

Sebastien GraingerSebastien Grainger
Grainger: Yeah. So that's what completes the idea. It's "Progress, not a promise, devils laugh if you go too fast." It's a bit of a warning in that as we progress socially, if you don't do it right, it doesn't stick because you're rushing through it. And maybe something that could have happened over the course of a few years, if it happens over the course of a week or so, maybe you didn't do it right and maybe you missed some big details, and maybe the outcome won't be quite what you intended. So, it's a bit of a warning.

We're not young men anymore, so we've seen the world play out as sentient beings, and we've been on a lot of sides of a lot of fences. I'm not talking about politics now, I'm talking about how as you move through life, you see things. Jesse and I talk about it often: the concept of a rich person as a cartoon. Some people are rich forever, but most people have a good year or two. My father, he had a couple of good years, but he also had a couple of bad years. I was thinking of it today, even: There were moments in my life when I walked in the room and I was probably the richest guy in the room. I didn't hang out in the glitziest circles and I'm not saying my bank account was huge, but you kind of ride this line.

Keeler: It's always transient. Maybe that's something that people don't generally think about, but it's something that we think about. An easy way of explaining a lot of our ideas is that having this job affords you a lot of time to read and think. If you're doing 12-hour shifts at the Procter & Gamble factory down the road, you're just trying to rest up and recover so you can do it again tomorrow. Whereas us, what's a "heavy year" for us? We're maybe on the road – at the most – four months? That's a lot of other months, you know? Teachers getting the summer off, you've got nothing on us! We take time OFF, big-time. In that time – I would hope, anyway – you have all kind of time to reflect on things.

An easy example of what Sebastien is saying is someone going to medical school is poor and very in debt if you're just looking at their bank statements. And then and then they get rich in a short amount of time. And that happens to people all the time. How many lottery winners still have their money? How many lottery winners have then moved on to be part of that group of permanently wealthy people that we have in the world? None! A full total of zero, I'm sure.

I realize in a sense we're kind of answering all possible questions of the lyrics that we've ever had, but having that perspective, there's part of me that thinks maybe it's boring, because it ends up being so measured, it's not maybe what people want to hear. Like, people want to be mad or whatever. This is a very measured, real record. For me, every lyric makes total sense. It's perfect. I'm happy with every word Sebastien wrote... since I've changed that one. [Laughs] That's the sort of way our band has always been and what Sebastien writes. I find myself quoting our songs in social settings as a way of explaining. That's happened to me more than once in the last two months.

Grainger: Our lyrics are often reductions of conversations that we have together. We'll talk about a subject, and we'll talk for hours and hours, and then I'll somehow reduce it down to eight or 12 lines that fit into a pop song format. But I have to say also, the lyrics for me are personal in that I want it to mean something to me, and they mean something specific to me. They don't always stay that way. This was really apparent on the last album, Outrage! Is Now. Some of the songs I wrote on that record meant one thing, and then when we were done with the record, they meant the opposite thing to me.

So I leave the lyrics up to interpretation, not only for the listener, but also for myself. And not so I can wiggle out of it, but because I know people change – people's minds change and the world changes and there are certain things that you want to nail down. Like, there was a song on our first record called "Dead Womb" – a controversial song, for some stupid reason – but it's about how we didn't do cocaine, and we didn't want to do cocaine. It was a manifesto against me doing drugs. And you know what? I didn't do drugs throughout our entire band because I had a manifesto to stick to. So, that song was to help me.

Songfacts: "Virgins."

Grainger: Musically, the song was one of my propositions to the band. I was like, "Oh, I've got something. Here's this riff."

I remember when we first started writing for The Physical World [2014 album], Jesse had so many musical ideas, and a lot of them were very complicated. Everything seemed very technical to me. So, when I was writing propositions for the band, I wanted to write kind of a dumb riff, so "Virgins" for me was like, "Here's a dumb riff," and it worked.

Lyrically, it's about innocence, and it's about that moment before a person is corrupted by sex, in a way. I'm not speaking in a moralistic way.

Keeler: Not even a physical way. But it's like when suddenly you're like, "Should I not wear these sweatpants to school?" Everyone remembers that moment when suddenly you care about what you're wearing to school. That happens. My two children – one is about to be 14 and the other one is 9 – and I watched the transition happen.

Grainger: The concept started because I was at the park with my wife, and we were walking our dog. We were sitting on his grassy embankment, and there were some kids playing above us – two girls, probably 10 or 11 years old. And they were just tumbling down the hill with such abandon. I thought, You know, next summer they're not going to be tumbling down the hill. They're probably doing to be doing something else. Like, that kind of androgynous state before you're worried about boys and girls. It was an exploration in that feeling. The feeling of innocence. And to Jesse's point, I stayed that way for a long time. I was kind of asexual until I was 18 years old or so. I thought of girls kind of, but as an abstract.

Keeler: It was this strange thing that we have in common.

Grainger: I was more into nerding out in the music room than trying to get a date.

Songfacts: Jesse, how do you get your distorted bass sound? Is it through pedals or is it plugging straight into the board, or a mix of both?

Jesse F. KeelerJesse F. Keeler
Keeler: It's changed over the years, but generally, I haven't used distortion pedals – it's just amp distortion. I did a really long interview with Premier Guitar a week ago and got into a level of detail that I've always wanted to get into. It was wonderful.

Grainger: I'm glad I left that call!

Keeler: But one of the most counterintuitive and interesting things to share from that is that it has to do more with actually pulling back. I don't know if Seb realizes this, but when we were recording this record, I probably had the volume on my bass at 65% most of the time. I didn't have it turned up all the way because it sounded best to me with that reduced output. And what happens with distortion – to be slightly technical – is that you hit a ceiling where the sound starts to fold back down in and has this kind of compression effect, which sounds really cool on a guitar. The most extreme example I can think of is the distortion of the old Maestro pedal they used on "Satisfaction," for the Stones. That's just a clamp.

But with the bass, when you do that with these low notes it goes to mud very quickly. The very first pedal in my chain is an EQ – its main function is to reduce the gain by the bass as much as the pedal will go. I have it at negative ten. I put it that much further down.

In the late '80s and early '90s when I started playing, everyone was like, "I have active EMG pickups and active 'make it hotter' signal. How hot can we make it? Let's make the speaker cabinets 300 watts!" It doesn't end up sounding any better – you just end up creating more levels of things to deal with. You need that much more power to move the speakers. But the whole sound that I have has to do with pulling back. Like, the volume on "NYC Power Elite" is maybe at 20% on my bass. How to make that sound is turning down to the point where it's almost off.

Grainger: Greg asks, "How do you make your distortion sound?" And you spend five minutes saying, "It's not that distorted." [Laughs] It could be more distorted, buddy!

Keeler: Yeah, it could be a lot more distorted, but it's like surfing a wave, really. I don't want to just swoop down the hill and be on the flat part of the ocean again. I want to go along on that tube so there is sort of a sweet spot. Whatever the amp situation is, there's a spot where you can find, This is actually enough. It's a very old technique.

The first player whose equipment setup I knew anything about was Albert King. And Albert King played an Acoustic head [a Model 260 Acoustic head] with every single knob at 10. The amps didn't have distortion, but every single knob was at 10, and then he just controlled it with the volume on his guitar. So, that was it. The more I apply that, the happier I am.

That's why I think this record sounds the best of anything we've done. For me, the clarity of when I'm playing has never come through so well, and it has more to do with restraint, because distortion sounds will happen. When you have a bunch of distorted shit, the sound will be there, but it's about not giving it as much to work with so it doesn't start to fold back into itself so quickly. So everyone can hear all this stuff that I'm working so hard to do.

Songfacts: One final thing I'd like to say. I think Death From Above is one of the few rock bands nowadays that is not scared with experimenting with your sound. So, I definitely have to give you guys props for doing that.

Grainger: Thank you!

Keeler: I would say to that point, that the whole band from the beginning has been an experiment with sound. That's the core concept: "How little do we need for this to be a rock and roll song?"

Grainger: I also see us described as an "experimental noise band" sometimes. And I'm thinking, I've been to experimental noise shows, and they do NOT sound like our band.

April 22, 2021

For more Death From Above visit deathfromabove1979.com.

Further reading:

Royal Blood Songfacts
Iggy Pop and Josh Homme Meet In American Valhalla
Interview with Les Claypool
Interview with Chad Channing of Nirvana
Interview with Tony Iommi
Interview with East Bay Ray of Dead Kennedys

Photos: Eva Michon (2), Instagram @dfa1979 by koreyschaefer (3,4)

More Songwriter Interviews

Comments

Be the first to comment...

Editor's Picks

Pam Tillis

Pam TillisSongwriter Interviews

The country sweetheart opines about the demands of touring and talks about writing songs with her famous father.

Michael Schenker

Michael SchenkerSongwriter Interviews

The Scorpions and UFO guitarist is also a very prolific songwriter - he explains how he writes with his various groups, and why he was so keen to get out of Germany and into England.

Penny Ford of Snap!

Penny Ford of Snap!Songwriter Interviews

The original voice of Snap! this story is filled with angry drag queens, video impersonators and Chaka Khan.

Roger McGuinn of The Byrds

Roger McGuinn of The ByrdsSongwriter Interviews

Roger reveals the songwriting formula Clive Davis told him, and if "Eight Miles High" is really about drugs.

Adam Duritz of Counting Crows

Adam Duritz of Counting CrowsSongwriter Interviews

"Mr. Jones" took on new meaning when the song about a misguided view of fame made Adam famous.

Michael Bolton

Michael BoltonSongwriter Interviews

Into the vaults for this talk with Bolton from the '80s when he was a focused on writing songs for other artists.