Before forming Death from Above, Jesse F. Keeler (left) and Sebastien Grainger played together in Keeler’s earlier punk rock band, Femme Fatale. Photo by Lindsey Byrnes
“When you have someone else making macro decisions, it frees your brain up to address the smaller things,” attests Jesse F. Keeler, bassist for Canadian dance-punk duo Death from Above [DFA]. Keeler is referencing the pile of songs he and his bandmate, singer/drummer Sebastien Grainger, had written prior to recording their latest gut-punching opus, Outrage! Is Now. When they got together with producer Eric Valentine, they just “dumped everything on him” and let him make the executive decisions about what they would work on. “I’m glad we did do that,” Keeler adds. “It ended up being an album because he had more perspective than we did at that point.”
Toronto-based DFA formed on September 11, 2001, in response to the events of that day (more on that later) and released their debut EP, Heads Up!, in December 2002. In 2004, they changed their name to Death from Above 1979 in response to a cease-and-desist issued by DFA Records, and released You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine under that new moniker. Balancing what Pitchfork called “riff-heavy micro-Sabbath bravado with tenderness,” the album, with songs like “Sexy Results,” was a hallmark for the dance-punk genre. But the overt bombast with which DFA wrote and performed underscored the tension that existed between Keeler and Grainger and, despite their success, the duo disbanded in 2006, citing creative differences. They reformed in 2011, performing at Coachella in Indio, California, alongside other luminaries, including the Strokes and Duran Duran, and have remained together, releasing their second full-length, The Physical World, in September 2014.
Outrage!, which came out in September sans “1979” in the band’s moniker, reveals a new level of maturation for the duo. Pre-production commenced at the end of 2016 and they started recording in January 2017.
“We would dive into certain songs and feel like, ‘We’re not going to beat that sound, but let’s try,’” admits Keeler. “We’d been demoing separately and together for over a year. Some of the songs, like ‘Never Swim Alone,’ I wrote in the winter of 2015. We really planned this session. It’s the most forethought ever put into making a record for us, so it was smooth and quick.”
Premier Guitar caught up with Keeler, who was at home in Toronto doing press for Outrage! and preparing for one-off gigs, like Riot Fest in Chicago and Osheaga Festival Musique et Arts in Montreal, to discuss, among other things, the history of his relationship to the bass guitar, the formation of DFA, his recording techniques, tuning down his Dan Armstrong Plexi basses, and his resilient, vintage gear.
You’ve had some time to live with the songs on Outrage! Is Now since you recorded it. Has your relationship to the album shifted in any unexpected ways?
I listen to it now and think about the best ways to accomplish everything on the record, live. In the studio, I just spend time figuring out every pedal combination to get sounds exactly right, but it’s not like I’m not going to have a guy kneeling in front of a pedal or holding it in his lap adjusting while I’m playing, so how do I approximate what I did, live? Listening to the song “Outrage! Is Now,” for example, I’m thinking about the synth sound and whether I’ve already nailed it and how I can mess with it live when it’s being performed. I feel like I’m still listening to it with those ears.
Is making a record an enjoyable experience for you?
Yes, but in terms of what the songs are, live is where it’s the most enjoyable for me, because that’s where it all comes together. I get to improvise every single time we play the songs. As soon as I started to become comfortable improvising onstage, that’s when I started to love being on tour. I didn’t have to stop being creative just because I was on the road. I could continue to be creative and not just perform something that was already complete.
How far do your improvisations push the song structures?
It’s not like I’m rewriting the songs every day. But just knowing if I’ve got an idea, I can do it. I don’t have to hold back. I’m not trying to replicate the recording. I’m trying to make that moment be the best it can be. That was very liberating for me. It’s been 23 years of playing in front of people. Understanding that I could be just as creative is something I only caught in the last couple of years really.
Your musical journey started on drums, correct?
I started playing drums when I was 3, and that’s because my dad is an incredible guitar player, so I didn’t want to touch a guitar. Well, I did want to touch a guitar, but when he would play, it was so intimidating. When you’re learning an E chord and the person in front of you is playing so effortlessly, it’s incredible—it’s so fucking far away. It’s so far away, it’s like you’re an ant looking at the moon through a cloud. So, I didn’t want to do that. We lived in a house with people from Alice Cooper’s band at the time, including guitarist Prakash John, and there was a drum kit there, so I started playing drums.
TIDBIT: Listen to “Moonlight” on the Death from Above’s latest album to hear how Keeler uses the EarthQuaker Bit Commander pedal to create booming bottom end while he plays high on the fretboard.
Do you still play the drums?
Drums are still, for me, the instrument where I feel the most immediate in terms of the distance between my brain and what I’m hearing. It’s the shortest. I can execute what I hear almost immediately. I do feel like I’m getting closer with the bass. Occasionally, I have an idea and I just play it instantly and afterwards think, “Whoa, I can do that now. I’ve been playing bass long enough.”
You eventually did pick up the guitar. When did you pick up the bass?
When I was a teenager, I started playing guitar and then just continued playing guitar or drums in bands. The relationship with the bass was always sort of something I would do at the end of a recording. I would think, “Oh, I have to add some bass. So, where’s a bass?” and borrow someone’s bass and track it and just really treat it like a low guitar. I did what I think tons of rock bass players probably do: just play along with the guitar and maybe make a modulation underneath. You know, bass [laughs].
Was there a defining moment for you when bass finally became your primary instrument?
The day I started this band, on September 11, 2001, there was a Squier Jazz bass someone had left in our house. I picked it up because everything else was in a case. I just started making up songs. I can’t tell you why, other than that I needed to do something with my hands. Our old band was supposed to go play in Detroit the next day, but considering all the things happening in the world, all shows were cancelled and they locked everything down. All the borders were closed. So, we were like, “I guess we brought all the gear up out of the basement for nothing.” And I just started plugging stuff in and made up this bass sound I’m still using today. It’s essentially the same signal path from that day. Cabinets have changed, speakers have changed, the bass has changed, but the essential setup is still there.