At September 2017’s Riot Fest in Chicago’s Douglas Park, Keeler digs his .73 mm pick into the strings of one of his four vintage Ampeg Dan Armstrong Plexi basses. “The Dan Armstrong has 24 frets,” he says. “I’m happy with that many octaves and it’s comfortable for me to play.” Photo by Perry Bean
Do you overdub bass parts? Sometimes I feel like I’m hearing multiple parts.
I’ll always do an overdub, but it’s just a double. I just play the same parts again. Mainly because I don’t want to go out live and have these harmonies that I can’t accomplish. If there’s a harmony idea that I have, I’ll write it as a synth part that Sebastien can trigger from his sampler. There are instances where you’ll hear a synthesizer part just running and I’m playing along with that or it’s a part that comes in and out. If the synth is being sent through the same signal path as the bass, they start to become indistinguishable. That’s the only trickery: me using my other instrument as well.
Do you have any current go-to effects?
The one effect I don’t know how I lived without, because it’s the greatest thing ever, is the Death By Audio Echo Dream 2, which is on almost every song on the record—and if it’s not on the bass, we used it on the vocals. They threw a fuzz in there as well, which is incredible by itself. I’ve been using it with MSTRKRFT [his electronic duo with Al-P] as well. I’ll run drum machines through it, synths, everything. It’s a magic pedal.
It sounds like you’re experimenting with more reverb nowadays.
Yeah, it’s an EarthQuaker Devices Dispatch Master, which is like a reverb that has an echo in it as well. I never used ’verbs before. I wanted to. We’d play with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and that dude has so much ’verb on everything. I wanted to do that, too, but every time I tried it would just feedback all to hell. It was gross [laughs]. So, I never did it. But then on this record, Eric basically showed me the problem was that I was putting the reverb at the wrong point in my chain. I was putting it at the beginning and he told me that if I put it at the end, right before the amps, that wouldn’t happen. The ’verb was basically going through a chorus and everything else. It ended up being too unwieldy.
There are a couple of songs on the record where there’s a synth-sounding thing, but it sounds like bass to me.
Yes, I’m using an EarthQuaker Bit Commander, which is like a synth thing, but I only use it when I’m playing up high on the neck so the parts don’t lose the bottom. One thing Eric really impressed on me was, “When you’re playing these parts and these riffs, we can’t neglect the low end, so let’s find ways of keeping the low end with pedals.” The whole chorus of “Moonlight” is up at the 20-something fret on the F-string, but I’ve got the Bit Commander pulling the bottom two or three octaves below to keep it solid. The sustain on it is so insane. It’s fun to play with.
Since you mention your high F-string, can you talk about when or why you decided to tune down a whole step?
I started playing guitar like that when I was 17 or 18, and initially it wasn’t some deep meaningful thing. I had the guitar tuned to drop tuning, which I didn’t like, but instead of tuning the guitar back up, I tuned down to the D. I really liked how having less tension on the strings made it fun to play. I liked how the strings reacted, depending on how hard you pressed on them. When they’re that much looser sometimes you can just press on a string and that can be a bend. My brain really likes creating in keys where those open strings work. Half the DFA songs are in G or C or F. There are open strings all over the place on all the songs. My brain is just happy creating with those.
Let’s talk amps. You obviously prefer solid-state heads.
I remember when I was a kid asking my dad about tubes and solid-state stuff, because he really liked solid state-stuff, and what he said was, “The attack on the solid-state is always going to be more immediate than the tube. Maybe it’ll be infinitesimal, but you’ll notice it.” And that’s been my experience. There’s no mush on the solid-state amp—even with a ridiculous amount of distortion it’s still very instantaneous. And the way I play and the way the songs are, I need it. Before we could afford to bring our amps on tour with us, I used SVTs and tried to recreate the sound the best I could with pedals. I didn’t dislike it, but I found the character was different.
Have you ever tried to reverse engineer the Peavey Super Festivals to clone them?
I’ve spent thousands of dollars doing that just to have the result not be right. I talked to the people at Peavey. I found out the whole history. The guy was hired from RCA or Zenith, so he was making amps with TV components because that’s how he was comfortable designing. Even when I’ve tried to go one-to-one matching all the caps—the old and new values are supposed to be the same, but you scope them and see how different the rise and fall and response is on some of these components. I’m trying my best, but I guess I just have to keep these old guys because they’ve been doing their job. So, I just buy them when I find them on the road.
How do you record your bass?
I record a DI signal, using the MXR M80 Bass D.I.+, and what I’m sending through that is just probably 200 Hz and lower. It might even be lower, but it’s just sub information. And then afterwards we’ll screw around and run an octaver on it. There are a lot of songs where the whole song might be above the 12th fret, so having the octaver on the DI helps keep it as actual bass. And then I mic the cabs. We mic them at a distance rather than close-miking one cone, which isn’t really what it sounds like to stand in front of 8x10s anyway. We mic them about 2 feet back or so and put them in an isolation room and leave the door open and then have some mikes out in the room to catch the room sound.
Any pieces of gear or secret weapons that have changed your life?
Palmer DIs. This tech for the Deftones, named Drew Foppe, gave them to me at the end of a tour and I guess he got them from Fleetwood Mac, who he also works for. It’s the PDI 09—little DI boxes that you put between the head and the cabinet. Even though my amps are very powerful, I never have the volume up very loud. I just don’t need to. I guess the signal is not too hot for these little DIs. So, the combination of the mics in front of the cabs, mics outside the room, the DI, and these cab DIs is pretty much how I recorded everything.
Do you run your sound the same way live?
Live we don’t mic cabs anymore. I just use the Palmer DIs. I don’t know if this is an old wives’ tech tale, but apparently when the speakers are moving the negative motion sends some sort of resistance back into the speaker cable and somehow these Palmer DIs pick that up and apply that. I don’t know if that’s what’s happening, but the DIs are passive and whatever they’re doing, they sound amazing.
You play exclusively with a pick?
Tortex .73 mm big triangle, and I’ve been using that forever. I’ve tried using other picks, and when I’m playing by myself I’ll play with my fingers because it’s just fun and it’s a different way of being fast. My bass influences, in terms of bass players, that I really liked from when I was a kid, were Larry Graham and Chris Squire. As I got older, I learned that they both played Rics and they both played with a pick. I like the harmonic control. I know how to use a pick, so I feel the most comfortable working that way. And, just from playing guitar for so many years, it seemed like that’s how I want to play—although, I play guitar with my fingers [laughs].
Onstage in July 2017, Death from Above claw into “Freeze Me” from Outrage! Is Now. Note Jesse F. Keeler’s guitaristic approach on his Dan Armstrong Ampeg bass as he kicks into a gnarly solo a bit after the 2-minute mark.