Death From Above 1979 burned out in 2006, after just one incendiary, scene-defining album. But now the punk-rock duo are back with the long-delayed follow-up. Sebastien Grainger explains to Matthew Dunne-Miles what took them so long
Death From Above 1979’s disbanding in 2006 left a void for a fanatic following who were yearning to hear more from the cacophonous Canadian duo. After a four-year hiatus, the pair patched things up and went out on the road again.
For Sebastien Grainger, the drummer and singer for the punk rock outfit, the reunion was more about making music with Jesse F. Keeler again than a definitive plan for world domination. After a three-year spate of small and intimate gigs, the band went back into the studio this year to record new album The Physical World.
As DFA 1979 prepare to take this new record out on tour in Europe and the UK, we caught up with Sebastien to talk about touring, why he prefers smaller venues, and his fascination with the height of British people.
I’m guessing you’ve been asked a lot about reuniting the band. You reformed in 2011?
“Yeah more or less, we started playing shows in 2011.”
Was it a conscious idea to leave it three years before releasing the new record?
“No it wasn’t. There was no strategy involved. It was basically… the reunion at first was sort of a personal one in a sense. Just from my perspective, I just wanted to patch things up essentially and then it was musical. Then we just let that dictate the rest of it.
“Enjoying playing was very important and then the reunion show aspect to the band – it only had a certain shelf life. You couldn’t keep playing reunion shows with the same record. So we made the decision at that point that we wanted to keep being the band, we had to make sure it wasn’t just some stagnant tribute to something we had done long ago. That was the only conscious decision, everything sort of followed in a natural timing and the timing kind of reflects the first era of the band. We met in 2000, started playing together in 2001 and we put out our first EP in 2004. So the timing of it is like a ten-year spread and it’s very symmetrical with starting again in 2010 and then playing around with songs and then by 2014 releasing a record exactly ten years since.”
Do you think that’s a process you will continue? Will you give it a few years before you release a new record, or do you feel like you’re in a zone now where you could make something else instantly?
“I don’t know. We really just follow the flow of the band naturally. If we’re excited to make new music in a year or in a month then we’ll do that; if it suits us then we’ll do it. The primary vocation of the band is what is between Jesse and I musically, that’s why it stopped working the first time. It stopped being creative. So as long him and I find what we do interesting. The audience follows directly after that, but the primary motivation of the band is please one another creatively.”
The venues for the UK leg of your tour are all quite intimate venues. Do you think that’s the best environment for your sound, or do you think there will ever come a time where you have to go ‘stadium’ with it?
“There’s really like an ebb and flow within a band. We’ve gone big and we’ve gone small over the course of our career. But I think that for an initial run through the UK and Europe with this record, it makes the most sense to do small exciting venues and really have that sort of kinetic experience. We’ll likely be back sooner than later.
“I don’t know if intimate is the ‘perfect’ venue, but when you play smaller clubs – the audience really has to choose to engage. They can’t sit on the sidelines. They don’t get the full experience. If you do a big production show with interesting lights and a big sound system, you can create this full experience for most people in the room but if you play smaller clubs you’re asking the hardcore people to come and experience it in their way. So it goes either way.
“Personally, I don’t have a preference. You can do a good show in both styles. I’ve seen amazing shows in tiny little places with almost no one and I’ve seen amazing shows in huge arenas. And vice versa, I’ve seen terrible shows in little venues and I’ve seen terrible big shows. I’m not going to name band names but I’ve seen bands that have massive production and they fail. I’ve also seen bands with massive production and they do an amazing job.”
Did you play a lot of the new material live before releasing the new album and was there certain songs that just resonated with the audience where you thought ‘we have to have that on the record’?
“Actually in December 2012, we did a small tour through Canada playing every new thing we had. We did like half new stuff and half old stuff. We played tiny little clubs in tiny little towns. That was basically an exercise in seeing what worked live. The songs weren’t finished, I didn’t have lyrics for most of it – we took the songs as we were rehearsing them and arranged them in a way and then just went with it. To see what worked. Then we took [it] into a studio and recorded it. We already went through that process before even finishing writing the record because we felt like the strength of the band will always be in the live show. It’s great to make records and you get to reach a wide audience but where we really connect with people is during the live shows, so we needed to make sure that the songs can be performed live and be exciting live. If we did everything in the studio, you end up biting your own tail.”
There’s this idea that duos can be a lot louder than other bands because they almost have more to prove. Do you think there’s an element of that in DFA1979?
“No. I don’t think so. When we started our band, there were not many other examples of two-piece bands. There were a couple of bass and drum [acts] but they were really underground – punk and hardcore bands. Nothing in the mainstream or that really rose even to my awareness. When we started this band, Jesse was like ‘we might get compared to this band called Lightning Bolt’ and I mean they’re awesome but they’re not the same thing.
“Even bands like The White Stripes, they weren’t in the mainstream at that time. I learnt about The White Stripes through a friend of mine that I met in art school and she was from Detroit and they were a local band at the time. There really wasn’t a lot of examples of two-piece bands so we didn’t really see ourselves in the context of the legacy or a context of a scene that was happening or anything like that. It wasn’t really something was that common at the time. If you look at it now in retrospect, you go ‘this is what was happening’. We played in a ridiculously loud band that had seven people in it – comparatively, we were quiet. It was kind of a step down in volume.”
With this album, you brought in producer Dave Sardy (Oasis, Wolfmother, Marilyn Manson). What can a band learn from someone like that who has obviously worked with a whole range of artists with lots of different sounds. Is that quite an interesting guy to have in the studio with you?
“Yeah it’s pretty interesting. We learned a handful of things from him and I’m sure he learned a handful of things from us. He has a ton of experience and that was the primary reason for me to want to work with him. I had trouble figuring out who could do it. We had a shortlist of producers we wanted to work with and there were some producers that I could imagine right away what kind of record we’d make with them and it would be really skewed in their style. When you look at all the different bands that Dave Sardy has worked with, it’s so varied and eclectic that we fit in there somewhere. He wouldn’t put us in a ‘Dave Sardy box’ because it doesn’t really exist. He’s done so many genres so that kind of the best choice for us because his records sound interesting. We were looking to make a big record and he has made that so it kind of fit. Then we met him and he was tall and we’re both tall so. I can’t respect a short guy in the studio! Are they going to tell me what to do?
“What is up with really tall British dudes by the way? I mean I’m half-British so it makes sense that I’m a little bit tall – but aren’t you guys all meant to be stuck down the mines? We were there a couple of weeks ago and it felt the first five men we encountered were all taller than us. We’re about six feet and that’s usually enough. It’s not that I don’t like it – it’s just a new sensation.”
[At this point the PR tells us that time is running out, cruelly cutting short any further discussion of physical stature.]
So finally, you’ve previously said that one of the issues that caused the tension first time round was ‘an inhumane of touring’. Do you feel that how you’re touring now is different from then, and what do you do to ease the tension?
“Well the touring at that time, at the beginning it was Jesse and I. He would do all of the driving, we both did all of the heavy lifting, we did absolutely everything that was needed to tour. That was just two guys. Eventually there were other people but we were moving our gear from day one to final day of our band. Even when we were touring with Nine Inch Nails and Queens of The Stone Age. We were doing everything. That kind of touring, when there is so much of it, you’re basically doing all of the labour and all of the creative side. You’re doing the job of several different people and it takes a lot of energy. Then there’s press obligations and there’s only two people so it becomes very very overwhelming.
“In this era, we have the choice to do what we want because of the history of the band and having a fan base makes us more powerful in a sense. We can decide what we want to do whereas before we had to do everything. So it’s different in that sense. We have not only more perspective but more choice now.”
The Physical World is out now
Death From Above 1979 play the following UK tour dates:
20 Oct – London, Electric Ballroom
21 Oct – Manchester, Gorilla
22 Oct – Glasgow, The Garage
24 Oct – Sheffield, Plug
25 Oct – Bristol, Simple Things