“In the real world, at least, it feels like it’s working.”
Sebastien Grainger hasn’t been following the online response to the new Death From Above 1979 record, but if he had, he’d know that it’s been met with near-unanimous praise. There’s certainly the temptation to believe that such a positive reaction might, at least in part, have been born of the fact that most reviewers will have been genuinely shocked that a second album from the Toronto pair had actually come to pass, but The Physical World serves as definitive proof that Grainger and Jesse Keeler have well and truly put their differences aside; it plays just like the DFA we all knew and loved a decade ago, but with a touch more polish, and a little more streamlining.
Their reformation was announced - as has become de rigeur for bands in that position over the past few years - via the Coachella lineup announcement in January of 2011; the obvious excitement that greeted the news was tempered, in some quarters, by the potentially cynical reasons behind the move - after all, hadn’t Grainger and Keeler parted on pretty icy terms last time around?
“It took a while to sort of get to know each other again, that’s for sure, but the stakes were really low for us, too,” explains Grainger. “It wasn’t like we booked a giant tour and thought, “oh god, we’ve got to do this for months on end.” We just did it piece by piece, and we both knew that if it fell apart after the first couple of shows, then fine - we could just stop, there and then. It really wasn’t a big deal for us - it was just something to do, you know? It’s cool that it’s worked out, and that we get along, have a good time and make each other laugh, but if that hadn’t happened, we just wouldn’t have carried on. It’s not worth being miserable for.”
Given that a spate of reasons, both personal and professional, had apparently driven a wedge between Grainger and Keeler first time around, it’s a little disarming to hear that they’re on such good terms these days; I remember feeling similarly surprised when I saw one of their first shows post-reformation. Between songs at their Manchester show in October in 2011, Grainger mentioned off-hand that the pair had been out for a curry in nearby Rusholme that afternoon; the image of a duo who’d been at loggerheads so famously for so long digging into a chicken madras together rang a little false, somehow. Funnily enough, that same show comes up in conversation when I ask Grainger if a new album had been planned from the very outset of the reunion.
“We didn’t really talk about that at all in the beginning,” he recalls. “We really just wanted to try playing again, to maybe do it right for the first time. We felt like we’d left something unresolved, and that the shows could potentially be, if nothing else, a way to say goodbye in style. Once we actually got into our own headlining shows, though, away from the festivals, we started to feel like this was actually a proper band. I think we played our fourth or fifth show in Manchester, and we started writing a song in that soundcheck; I think that was when we knew, “OK, we can do this.”
Grainger’s attitude is admirable; the band have enough of a fanbase across the world to mean they could comfortably have toured extensively and received something like a fitting payday for their revered debut You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine, but instead, they chose to move slowly, and on their own terms. When I suggest the notion that the pair could have stayed on the road for longer than they did post-2011, Grainger dismisses it out of hand. “There’s no doubt that we could have carried on touring; the offers for us to play kept coming in, but we felt it was kind of a rip-off, both for the fans and ourselves. It just seemed a little but cheap to go out and keep doing this reunion thing. We knew we could only milk it for so long; on an ethical level, it felt bad, and on a business level, it was like, “how long can this really last?” So, instead of watching the whole thing decline, we decided to just stop, and make a start on new material. That was what was really exciting us at the time.”
One of the major differences for the band from last time out, though, was that they were now finding themselves on some pretty big festival stages the world over, Coachella included; previously, they’d exclusively been the preserve of sweaty rock clubs. “It’s hard for me to know whether that actually affected the new record or not,” says Grainger. “I mean, I kind of feel like that’s something for other people to perceive, just because the band, in our absence, took on this life of its own, and became this whole other thing. I know, for sure, that we treat it with a lot more respect than before because of that; we knew the fanbase was there, and that’s why we went into making The Physical World with this philosophy of trying to make it sound as open as possible. We didn’t want it to be obscure. The M.O. of this band, really, has always been to take everything as far as we can, just because we both knew, starting out, that the music we were making as Death from Above was a lot more catchy and accessible than the stuff we’d been doing before. It just seemed like our best bet to follow that side of it, as much as possible, as long as we felt good about what we were making. We’ve always wanted to build an audience - we’ve got a rock and roll disease to spread.”
From an outsider’s perspective, you have to imagine that the pressure on the duo was immense; expectations were always going to be through the roof for whatever was going to follow You’re a Woman. Grainger, though, insists that they were able to cut themselves off from external influence. “It was a total internal feedback loop. There was nothing form the label in terms of pressure, and nothing from managers, either; we didn’t really want to talk to anybody about it. We just wanted to get on with it. If there was pressure, it came from ourselves and from Dave Sardy, the producer, but that’s healthy. We were able to just build this wall between ourselves and all of that other bullshit.”
Unlike the first record - it’s probably safe to assume that track titles like "Black History Month" were non-sequiturs - there’s definitely a little bit of a gravitation towards political themes on The Physical World, and particularly on "Government Trash", a song that Grainger’s able to describe in pretty visceral, and personal, detail. “I wrote half of that song a while ago, and then I finished writing it whilst watching the Boston marathon bombings go down. I was watching what happened, and I didn’t know who had done it, or why, but I did know that the city of Boston was basically occupied by the police for a week or so, which was so intense. It made me realise that kind of thing can happen anywhere. In Toronto, a couple of years before I left, there was a G20 summit, and people were being thrown into jail for absolutely nothing; they were walking out of restaurants in the wrong part of town and being handcuffed. There were these massive movie studios on the east side of the city, and they were being turned into huge detention centres for ordinary people on the streets; people who weren’t even protestors, but had just gone for a walk through their neghbourhood at the wrong time and been grabbed by the cops. We do live in this weird, sinister world in that respect; one where you can go out for groceries and just be snatched up by the police.”
I do suggest to Grainger, though, that over the course of the intervening ten years, that kind of treatment of the general public might have become more difficult to ignore; the Occupy movements of the past five years or so spring instantly to mind. “I suppose I’d say yes and no to that. Maybe it has gotten worse, but I remember attending this one summit, a long wayback; Jesse and I were already living together, so I guess it was fourteen or fifteen years ago. It was in Quebec, and I’d gone along with a photographer friend of mine to observe this demo there. We were tear-gassed, thrown around, people were being beaten up; it was really extreme, and that was more than a decade or so ago now. In the band, we’ve always had this non-political view; we’ve never wanted to use it as a vehicle for our own beliefs, especially because I find that when you try to dumb something like that down for the sake of a lyric, it ends up sounding like fucking Green Day. Once you’re into that anti-authoritarian territory, it’s just pop punk bullshit, you know? We try to stay away from that, because we don’t want it to seem hollow; it’s always seemed best to keep things as implicit as possible.”
The one song on The Physical World that really stood out to me - and I mentioned this when I reviewed it - is "White Is Red", which feels a little gentler - and, I dare say, a touch more nuanced - than what we’ve come to expect from the band in the past. Given that the new album doesn’t stray too far from the tried-and-true Death from Above formula, I did wonder if tracks like "White Is Red" might be hinting at what’s to come next. “I don’t think that any one song will dictate the next thing we do,” says Grainger, after a pause, “but I do think that we never would’ve written that song a decade ago. For a start, Jesse would never have written bass chords, because ten years ago, they were totally fucking cheesy, or at least they were to us; they felt very nineties, and we were this band who’d formed in 2001 - we were very much looking forward.”
“What I like about that song is that, in the past, there had always been this dichotomy where Jesse would lay down a really heavy, brutal bass part, but I might counter that with some sweetness in the lyrics. The words on ‘White Is Red’ always would’ve been the same, however the music sounded, so it’s really cool that Jesse was able to be a little sweet on this record, too; he found a way to express that through his instrument, which is awesome.”
Grainger’s presumably a man with precious little spare time, because as well as dedicating most of 2013 to the making of The Physical World, he also managed to put out a new solo album, Yours to Discover, last year; it was a wildly-fluctuating effort, one that swung between polished pop and scratchy demos with an nearly-admirable lack of regard for cohesion. He does confess, though, that the timing of the release came down primarily to the prioritisation of Death from Above duties. “I was maybe three-quarters of the way done with that album by the time we started working on the DFA songs, so I just wanted to finish it and get it out there before the onslaught of DFA activity really kicked in.”
“I knew that I wouldn’t get a chance, once that happened, to release anything under my own name for another couple of years at least, and I didn’t want to have these ten or so songs just sitting there waiting for me; when I did get around to doing more solo stuff, I wanted to be ready to do something totally new, rather than having to work with these old tracks. We spent the winter and spring of 2013 working pretty intensely on The Physical World, but after that, I had some time to quickly just put Yours to Discover out there - so I did. We made this album in LA, and it’s very easy to get a lot of work done there; the daylight really invigorates you, and you don’t feel like sitting around. It’s not like in Toronto, where it’s cold and rainy half of the year; this place just asks you to do better, in my experience.”
As anybody reading this piece will likely know by now, Royal Blood have taken by storm the weird border between the accepted alternative music sphere that this website is a part of, and the hideous world of ‘mainstream’ alternative that Radio 1 peddles. I raise this point because their self-titled debut topped the album charts a few weeks back on account of having sold a genuinely stupefying number of copies, and also because they’re a noisy bass-and-drums duo; comparisons, therefore, have been made with Death from Above 1979, in the same way that nobody, ever, draws parallels between Lionel Messi and Georgios Samaras.
“I was really curious about Royal Blood, because they kept getting mentioned in the same sentence as us,” says Grainger. “I got their record, and I thought it was cool; it sounds great, but I don’t think it sounds like us at all. They’re obviously a two-piece playing the bass and the drums, but their bass player isn’t playing at all like Jesse does - it sounds totally different. On paper, sure, it looks like we must have influenced them in some regard, but I’m hearing bands like The White Stripes and Muse in their sound a lot more than I’m hearing Death from Above, to be honest.”
Grainger and Keeler are now setting off on their first tour proper in support of The Physical World, across Europe; it’s already a given that the shows will involve vicious volume levels, irrepressible energy and sweat practically pouring from the ceiling, so it seems sensible instead to press Grainger on what the slew of dates that the band have lined up actually mean for Death from Above 1979; are they now well and truly a going concern again? “I don’t know, man,” he sighs, after some deliberation. “I really, really don’t know. It depends how we feel once we’re off the road again. We’re pretty laid-back about it, though; if everything just falls apart, then I guess that’s just how it’s supposed to be.”
The Physical World is available now via Last Gang/Fiction/Caroline. Death from Above 1979 play five UK shows this week, including London's Electric Ballroom tonight.