Death from Above 1979 roared out of the Toronto scene at the turn of century, wielding a sound that was as exhilarating as it was novel — a punky, funky Rock & Roll two-piece made up of drummer/vocalist Sebastien Grainger and bassist Jesse Keeler. The duo’s full-length debut, You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine, was an intense monolith of a record, at once intimidating and oddly danceable.
Alas, the band suddenly called it quits at the height of their relatively modest popularity in 2006. Then, seemingly just as randomly, Grainger and Keeler reunited in 2011 for a few one-off live gigs, which were followed by a full-blown tour in 2012, both of which were met with unbridled enthusiasm from the band’s rabid fan base. A new album, The Physical World, dropped in 2014, its sonic contents largely picking up where the debut left off, with one exception — “White Is Red,” a moody, tempo-shifting love song of sorts that is damn near romantic.
CityBeat recently touched base with Grainger to discuss everything from growing up in Toronto to the “embarrassing” nature of writing a song like “White Is Red.”
CityBeat: How have things changed both personally and creatively between the two of you since reuniting the band?
Sebastien Grainger: It’s kind of a hard question to answer. At this point we’ve been back together longer than we were originally together. The two eras kind of blend into one another. The thing that has changed is that when we started we lived together and it was a very intimate situation. We were younger and inclined toward narcissism and nihilism a little bit more. Those two things are not really the case anymore. Socially it’s a healthier dynamic, and I think creatively it is as well, because there’s a certain amount of objectivity to the project now. We’re able to compartmentalize it and give exactly what we need to give to the project without feeling like it’s the complete personal identity of each member.
CB: How did coming up in the Toronto scene impact you guys?
SG: There is something really special about the way it’s worked out for us in Toronto. There is so much music culture that it kind of creeps into what we do. I don’t think that it would be easy to pick it up, but the Dancehall, sort of West Indian music scene in Toronto is very vibrant, and that has certainly crept in somewhere in our influence. Even just the fact that Jesse is literally half Indian — no one can tell because his skin is so white — but we’re a multicultural band.
CB: You came of age in the early 1990s. How did the musical landscape of that era influence you?
SG: I went to Catholic school as a kid, so I was kind of sheltered in a way from a lot of Alternative music. You had to be really involved to engage in it. I was kind of unenlightened until later in my teenage years when I went to public school and I was exposed to all these different scenes. It definitely had a huge influence on me. Nirvana was undeniably this thing that happened. I remember being in sixth or seventh grade at what I think was my first boy-girl party and dancing to “Lithium” with the girl that I thought was the prettiest girl in school. It was the first time I danced with a girl, and it was to that song, so that will affect you and carry a lot of weight in your life.
CB: When you got together, was it obvious right away that you were going to be a two-piece?
SG: When we ventured to do this, we found that we weren’t missing anything sonically because of the way Jesse was playing and the tone he was using. Certainly it would be a lot easier if I didn’t play drums and sing at the same time, but somehow I was able to do it, so we kind of stuck with it. It was also something that wasn’t very common at the time, so for us it was an interesting approach. There was The White Stripes, who I discovered in parallel with our band through a girl in art school who was from Detroit, and then there was Lighting Bolt, who were wandering the more experimental regions of what we were doing at the same time. There were more, but I didn’t really know about them, so from our perspective it was kind of an original idea. And that accounts for a lot in art — you want to find a fresh approach.
CB: How did limiting your sound to drums, bass and a few other wrinkles impact your process? Did you find it kind of liberating in some way?
SG: When you limit yourself in that way, you create a specific palette. I think you’re able to absorb and reflect your influences more discreetly because it doesn’t sound like the thing you’re ripping off. It’s just something that’s worked for us, and after doing it for so long it’s really a non-issue. It’s not something we think about. We just do it. It’s never really been about doing two things at once; it’s about seeing how much we can do between us at once. It becomes an exercise in what we can pull off, and whether we pull it off or not is debatable, but the band’s M.O. has always been to push ourselves completely, and I think that translates live with the audience. There’s a communion that happens between band and audience and you kind of fill in each other’s blanks in a way, because you’re both experiencing something. It’s an exchange. We thrive on that.
CB: The new album is definitely an extension of the sound you developed on the first record, but I was struck by “White Is Red” and how it was kind of a curve ball in terms of the tempo and the mood it evoked. Is that type of mood-changer something you want to explore more?
SG: I see that song as kind of a growth or a development in a way. It was probably the most beautiful thing Jesse has written musically. Beauty in this genre is embarrassing, and when he started playing that riff and the tempo was very different and our approach was super different — it sounded like a Police song on crack — we kind of kept going with it. The idea of a ballad on the record is not necessarily new — we had “Black History Month” on the last record, which was kind of a down-tempo tune — but it was kind of a flexing of songwriting skills. The different sections and the complete narrative of the lyrics is something that I don’t think I would have been inclined or able to do on the first record. I don’t know if it’s going to remain a key factor on our records. It was definitely an anomaly for us, but in a good way.
DEATH FROM ABOVE 1979 plays Bogart’s on Friday. Tickets/more info: bogarts.com.