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The Weekly Interview: Death From Above 1979’s Sebastien Grainger

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Death From Above 1979 at Brooklyn Bowl in 2014.
Photo: Erik Kabik
Annie Zaleski

Death From Above 1979—the duo of drummer/vocalist Sebastien Grainger and bassist/keyboardist Jesse Keeler—remains one of the most aggressive and compelling dance-punk groups around. Ahead of the band’s tour with Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Grainger checked in about DFA ’79 circa 2016, his new record label and being in a band in the Internet age.

Death From Above 1979 returned in 2011 from basically being split up for about half a decade. What’s different now in version 2.0? I guess we try to take the show a little more seriously? We’ve actually been a band longer now than we were the first time around (laughs). … I think that the world has changed—obviously social media has changed the way people communicate and the way people interact with art. It’s very different in that regard. It’s not that we weren’t observing it as it happened. We were both performing in different musical acts, so we saw it all happen and experienced it in real time. But coming back as Death from Above 2.0, we missed the whole social-media boom.

It’s really weird. I mean, just the amount of content that is created in every moment, and the fact that there was a time in our band’s existence when we were just judged on our recordings and the show as it was happening … Like, we were performing for an audience and communing with an audience. Now that gets extrapolated digitally, so that people are experiencing this really two-dimensional, kind of crummy version of music through YouTube and other live streaming or video sites. It’s weird to be judged on that.

It does feel like a certain segment of music fans live online. You can forget that it’s part of the physical world. Yeah. Kids will email me or message us through different social media outlets and be like, “I’m trying to find this show online. I can’t find [it].” It’s like “No one had cameras then. You’re a crazy person.” (Laughs.) Not everyone had a camera, [or] one person at a show had a camera. The proliferation of recording media is so … I don’t know, we’re kind of drowning in it. It’s crazy.

I don’t know if you’ve ever attempted to photograph or video yourself having sex. When you watch it, it doesn’t look very good (laughs). You may have had a great time having sex at that moment, then you watch, and you’re like, “Oh, man, I’ve got a zit on my ass.” That’s kind of the experience that people are having with music. When you watch a band on YouTube, that’s not what you’re feeling when you’re there live. I’m sure if I watched my favorite show I’ve ever been to online, it would just be flaccid.

Does that play into any of the themes or concept of The Physical World, the name of your most recent record? It does. It’s kind of the theme of apprehension and reluctance to drink the Kool-Aid completely. We’re of a transitional generation, where we’re very familiar with media and we did grow up with it. We’ve had the Internet since we were teens, but that’s different than the generation [that], as soon as they could hold something, they’ve been holding a device. That’s how they’re growing up. Which is fine; it’s not a judgment on that. It just changes society, in a way. I can’t say whether it’s for better or for worse, but it seems like we’re losing something. Maybe that’s just an old guy talking, but there’s so much transcendence and beauty and mystery and all kinds of amazing things that you can experience in a moment that we tend to not even try to experience anymore.

People don’t realize how stressful being online a lot can be. I got offline and read a book, and just kind of hung out, and I wasn’t glued to my phone. You’re like, “Wow. That’s actually really nice. That’s right, I used to like doing that.” It is weird how almost your brain gets rewired. There’s a really strange direct line between very base, subconscious thought and how people present themselves online. There’s a direct connection between the worst part of yourself, potentially, and how you present yourself online. The things that people say to each other in comment sections, and the way people comment on things in any regard, is so mystifying and depressing to me sometimes, if you just look at how cruel people are. It’s not true communication. It’s this weird, direct line to the base monkey brain or something. It’s so brutal.

I see band Facebook pages and the things people say. You would never say that to someone’s face, or to someone if you met them on the street. It’s just unreal. It’s like Weezer having that whole backlash when they were making their new record, and there was a petition online raising money to try and raise a million bucks for them to not make a new record, and everyone saying they’re sh*t. Then they go on these cruises with these same people, basically, and they find that these people are very kind and supportive, and they love the band so much. It ends up being this weird, bizarro version of themselves that they’re presenting online.

Even the positive stuff is always framed ... Let’s say we’re not going to Cleveland, which we are, but if we’re not going to Cleveland on tour. We post our dates: “Hey, we’re so excited to come on tour. We can’t wait to see you. We’re really excited. Blah blah blah.” And then, like, three comments down: “Where’s f*cking Cleveland, you pieces of sh*t?” It’s not nice, you know? It doesn’t make things cool or better. It makes things worse and sh*tty.

You recently founded a record label, Ancient Fashion. What are your plans for that? I’ve been thinking about starting a record label for a long time—not that it’s a great idea, but I’ve been thinking about it for a long time (laughs). I didn’t want to have to rely on a record label. I’ve had experiences where things haven’t really gone the way I’ve wanted to, and I don’t quite understand why. I’d rather be the one to blame for that if something goes out and doesn’t quite meet the expectations that I have. At least if I’m doing it, I know what I did wrong. Also, no one’s going to put as much energy behind something or feel as strongly about something I’ve made than I feel.

Initially, it was a friend of mine in Montreal who I’ve been working with on and off, Adrian Popovich. He played in a band called Tricky Woo, which were a great Canadian rock band from the mid-’90s to the early 2000s. I was a huge fan of theirs, and we eventually became friends. He owns a studio in Montreal and, at one point, offered, “Hey, if you ever need to record anything, come to Montreal, and we can do it in my studio.” When I was doing my first solo record and even some of my second solo record, I went there to work on it with him, and we developed this really nice, sporadic friendship

We made this record together and decided that that would be sort of the flagship record for the label. We’re slowly building, just from word of mouth. We put out a song and a video, and we’re going to put the record out early next year. It’s just a way to keep things moving and create. My m.o. now, in my life, is just to be involved in as much art and music as I can be, so this is in that spirit.

I listened to the song “Heat Wave” that you guys posted. It sounded almost Burger Records-esque. Yeah, it’s Adrian’s tune. He’s such a talented songwriter, writes really catchy tunes. I mixed the record and made it sound a little bit more crazy (laughs).

You and Jesse Keeler from Death From Above 1979 always have so many different projects going. Yeah, yeah. Well, I can’t necessarily put everything into Death from Above, and Jesse feels the same way. There’s a very specific aesthetic and momentum to Death From Above that we respect and want to maintain. If we were to put all of our different ideas into it, it would become too eclectic, I think, and lose focus. That’s why we moonlight.

Do you have any new DFA 1979 music in the works? I don’t know if I want to comment on that specifically. I haven’t decided how to talk about what we’re doing. Let’s just say that there may be some new music live. We’re rehearsing in Cleveland the day before the [tour starts], so we’ll see what happens in that rehearsal.

Have you had any memorable Vegas shows or visits? The very first time we went to Vegas was probably the most memorable. I think Vice magazine sent us down there, to play during one of the clothing shows. We played opening for The Stills. We went down there with basically no gear and just played on their setup, which was like Fender Twin Amps and a pretty standard drum kit setup. It was just kind of catastrophic, maybe the worst version of our band. We played the show, and then there was this Puff Daddy, P. Diddy party after I guess was for his vodka at the time? I don’t remember exactly. But we went to this club and just got annihilated, and had just a super debaucherous night that ended with a transgendered cab driver and Jesse puking out the door—and that individual’s tone going from very measured and feminine to, the second he said he was going to puke, this person became very masculine and assertive. It was a super strange night.

Death From Above 1979 With Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Deap Vally. October 27, 8 p.m., $25. House of Blues, 702-632-7600.

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