Jesse Keeler discusses the band’s current direction, his take on the voice of the artist today, and the moments that ground him
Canadian dance-punk rock duo Death From Above emerged long ago as musical trailblazers. Since their first release, 2004’s You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine, Jesse Keeler and Sebastien Grainger have repeatedly jolted the music scene into new experimental directions. Their newest record, Outrage! Is Now, continues to push the envelope out at the edges.
It would be easy for a band of their status to keep making the same music over and over again and expect to find similar success, but that’s not their way. Instead, the duo felt they had a responsibility to hone in on theory and concentrate on songwriting to help create songs that translate through a variety of mediums. As always, the result deserves, and in fact demands, volume.
ARTISTdirect’s Christopher Friedmann caught up with Jesse Keeler to discuss the band’s current direction, his take on the voice of the artist today, and the moments that ground him.
Christopher Friedmann: We are talking because you are about to release your new album, Outrage! Is Now. Just to start, how is the mood in camp?
Jesse Keeler: It’s great. Everything is going better than we could have ever imagined, I guess. All the press people seem to be happy and we’re personally happy. The thing about this record that was very different from the others, was, I guess we finished recording it in April, so it’s not like… sometimes you finish something and it’s like you’re at the mercy of the world and the record label as to when it will actually come out, but we didn’t have to keep it hidden for too long. For me, I appreciate that. The songs still seem very fresh in my mind.
CF: Your last album received a lot of critical praise. This time you really seem to push the edges. What made you want to push the envelope and continue to grow as artists?
JK: I’m sure that it would be easier for us as a band to just keep doing whatever anyone liked in the past. I guess there is obviously that temptation there for others, and they try to keep going with it. But I think Sebastian and I’s heroes music-wise are people who were always comfortable having their music evolve as they evolved as people. It’s just personally way more enjoyable to always be changing and trying out new stuff, and just seeing how far you can push things around within the confines of the thing you’ve made.
It’s interesting, for us one of the things that we noticed about this record when it was done, and you can’t really get a sense of it until it’s finished, was how a lot of these songs could have been on even our first record, but we’ve just never been recorded like this record makes us sound. Personally I’ve never had a recording of my own bass that I’ve been so happy with. I said to Eric, “I want it to sound like you are standing in front of my amp,” and it really does. That was a holy grail, a great white buffalo for me for so long, and then to finally get to that point…
In terms of how other people will see it, I know just from showing the record to my friends who have been there since the beginning and decades before, they were all taken aback by how it sounded, “Wow it sounds so pro.” “I hope so” [laughs]. “I hope so, I’ve figured out a lot of stuff.” I’m better at doing everything, it’s going to sound evolved.
Some of the really big changes, or steps that we wanted or things that we wanted to try out on this record were just playing around with tempos more. That’s probably a reflection to whatever the hell we’ve been listening to and whatnot. The songs still need to be 215 beats per minute to make us happy. Just being able to play them with different things and trying out different feels. Seb has never been more focused on his singing and really trying to push himself in that direction. For me, I always want to feel challenged when I’m playing the bass, but then I don’t want it to sound challenging. I don’t want people to listen to anything I’m doing, even if it’s hard to do, or I don’t want it to sound hard to do. I feel like I got there more so this time, more than ever before.
CF: Eric Valentine produced the record, and you described it as the “fastest recording process.” What made Eric the perfect person to work with on this record?
JK: The thing that drew me to working with Eric initially was when I looked at his catalogue, it was just so varied. He clearly isn’t the guy that one type of act goes to. He has made every type of record you can imagine, and it’s like he doesn’t try to insert himself into what’s happening. He doesn’t try to make whatever band he is working with conform to the form or something he did in the past that was successful. Maybe there is a temptation for him to be like, “Oh, well this thing I did for whatever band 10 years ago really worked. What I should try is to [laughs] smush every band I work with from now on inside that box and hopefully that’ll work again.” I understand the temptation to do that. Being a producer is a lot like being a band in choosing how you’re judged and what not. He doesn’t do that at all. There’s not a drop of that in him. He learns from every experience, but it seems like he approached our band in a complete… it’s like he had to join the band to, and I’m assuming he does this with everybody, but it really felt like he was completely in it with us. I don’t know. He doesn’t work with anybody else, it’s just him. He does everything. He had an assistant here and there, but for the most part it’s just all him. So it’s us and him in his studio just grinding away. Eric is incredibly organized, really thorough about taking notes about everything. Every day sort of taking stock of all the things that had been done or all of the things he might be intending to do, so the next day you come in you know what you’re aiming at. We jumped around a fair bit between songs. It kind of helped moving around like that and coming to different things in different songs helped me get a sense of the record. We kind of came to him and gave him like 17 demos or something like that, and really let him choose what we would work on. That was his first production task, and he kind of rated everything, “Yes, we should pursue this. Maybe we pursue this. We don’t need to pursue this because we already have something on the record that fills that kind of spot.” We just trusted him. For me it was very freeing to let go and not try to also be producing the record myself.
CF: I understand that you wrote this album on your farm, two hours outside of Toronto. Does your environment affect your writing, and if so, how?
JK: I think so. I think it’s probably freeing being up at the farm and just away from everything. You kind of don’t feel like you are a part of the rest of the world. You know when there was that terrorist attack at the Eagles of Death Metal concert in Paris, we were up in the farm working and it was pouring rain, and I felt so far away from it. Seb was trying to text the one dude, but it felt like we were a million miles away up there.
I have a bunch of videos of, like, after we’d write a song, I’d just open the door and blast it and then just go stand out in the field and listen to it in the distance [laughs]. I think the space definitely came into play. I felt really unaffected by anything.
CF: You say you felt unaffected, but the songs on the album seem to be both personal and universal. Can you take us through a bit of your writing process?
JK: For me, generally, I have a riff idea and I’ll be writing a song wherever I am, airport bathroom, walking, driving, whatever. Then when I get into one of my studios, I’ll try to figure out how to play whatever it is I was humming and that is sort of always the first stage of compromise, there will be some sort of impossible or undefined thing I’ve got to sort of approximate with the bass. Then I try to imagine what Seb could play over it and then I’ll listen for the purposes of recording a demo. Then I’ll do a little mix of the instrumental demo, and I’ll listen to it for a week, or in some cases way longer than that. I think I wrote “Never Swim Alone” in fall of 2015, I think, and then just listened to it for a really long time, and then I left it with Seb. I know it took him three or four months, then suddenly the vocals appeared, and so on.
I like to sit with things for a while and have a chance to either accept them or let whatever it is that is going to bother me about the song really, really bother me, enough that I’m inspired to change it. I try not to get too married to whatever the first iteration of things were. Demo-itis i think is what Seb calls it.
CF: To point at the album’s title, Outrage! Is Now seems to discuss the rather tumultuous world we live in at the moment. How do you view the voice of the artist in today’s world?
JK: I think Seb and I sort of sit on a lot of things, kind of outside any box. I think being an artist is part of what has kind of enabled that position. We were talking about it recently, like we read massive books. I’ve been studying economics for the last 12 years on my own, just getting textbooks and reading the whole thing, and just going from one to the next. My house is full of them. I was actually doing that today. And we were talking about who the hell has time to just read for three hours a day. This isn’t school, this is in my spare time. We have time to dive into that kind of stuff, when most people, normal job, your days are full. You’ve got some air of responsibilities, and I guess it’s a function of us just wanting to try and take advantage of that time, and it’s a positive thing to do with that time we end up having. On the road for that matter, we just read like crazy. It’s a little nerdy, but I feel like the more you know, the less extreme a lot of your ideas become, and that eventually becomes alienating because you are surrounded by people who may only have a moment to sort of assimilate an opinion on whatever it is presented in front of them. When the more you know, the harder it is to be so black and white about anything, and that’s alienating. And you end up sort of, or at least it has been for us, I feel like much more of an observer in the world than a participant. I expressed that to Seb one night and he was like, “Yes, holy s***, that’s it.” It’s a weird spot to be. I don’t know how to describe it. I don’t want to sound like a weird prick by talking about, but you end up in this weird spot where I try my best to relate to the lives of other people, but I’ve been doing this for my whole adult life. I guess it makes it weird.
For Seb and I, we’re surrounded by people who get pretty heated about everything, and I don’t want to just ramble about it endlessly, but I hope you get the point of what I’m saying. We’re part of the world, but then also kind of removed from it due to circumstances of our lives.
People save up to travel. I don’t save up to travel [laughs]. I travel out of necessity. It’s weird. I was on the Eiffel Tower years ago and I got there before it opened, and this was in a different time when people weren’t as paranoid about this stuff, and the elevator wasn’t running and the security guards were just like, “You can just go up the stairs.” So I went up to the top, and I was just there by myself for about an hour, and then the first elevator load comes up and it’s all these old tourists from America, and there’s this old lady and I helped her with her wheelchair and she was looking out at the city like, “I’ve been waiting for this since I was a little girl, to see this. I can’t believe it,” and she was moved to tears, and I was just thinking, “I’m just a f***ing bum.” I slept on a park bench that night [laughs], and here I am doing this thing with this nice old lady who saved up for years to do it. F*** man, this is a weird life.
Just to be very clear, in regards to the title, everything we have to say is on the record. That’s the point. We’re musicians; that’s how we communicate with the world. Whatever anyone gleans from it, that’s the right thing. It’s a piece of art. It’s our creation, which means whatever it means to us. But whatever anyone takes from it, that’s cool. I’m pretty sure different things in the songs mean different things to Sebastian and I. I wouldn’t want to color the enjoyment of the record by saddling it with my own ideas.
CF: This is certainly a visceral album, but there are also more insightful comments on society. How do you mix the physical with the emotional and turn it into something that relates to both sides?
JK: I don’t know what it is. It’s not that complicated because in terms of the way we make music there is a lot of theory involved when we are actually deciding on how a song is going to end up being. I think we speak about it as much in theory as in what we are actually doing. A concept that has come up for us a lot in the last couple of years is how there’s a difference between a song and a performance piece.
“Whole Lotta Love” by Led Zeppelin doesn’t translate onto the piano very well. Performance-wise it’s incredible, and what we love about it is it’s this amazing performance, but when you try to take the song, take the music, and play it differently, or move it onto a piano, is it still going to hold you or affect you in the same way? You can take a lot of Nirvana songs and then play them on the piano and it’s like that could be some other great song. The song itself gets beyond just the performance of it and the recording of it. We were very inspired by that idea, and trying to… pretty much every time when I send Seb a bass line, he tries to figure it out on the keyboard to see if it still affects in the same way. Sometimes instead of writing to my demo, he’ll figure it out on the piano and then write his vocals to the piano.
I guess what I’m saying is that there is probably an equal amount of theory and concept that goes into everything that we are doing. It’s kind of who we are, constantly exciting the overwhelming nerdiness [laughs].
CF: Throughout your career we can imagine that you’ve had a fair share of interesting experiences. But is there one moment that stands out, a grounding experience or moment of perspective that reminds you why you do all of this?
JK: I don’t know if I know what that would be. I had a funny moment this morning when my daughter was telling me when she was on her Instagram, she was amazed at all the people that would take my face and then use it as a filter on Snapchat to change their own faces [laughs], and then post it. She thought that was the funniest and weirdest thing in the world, that anyone would do that with her dad’s face. That kind of thing is strange, and I don’t think you ever get used to it. I certainly can’t imagine being used to it.
There have been all sorts of crazy moments. I should probably say this because it’s the most interesting as of late and has to do with the record. We played in D.C. at the 9:30 Club, and then afterwards Seb caught this girl pouring something on the bumper of our bus. He kind of stopped her like, “Hey, what are you doing?” And she was crying, and they were her dead brother’s ashes. I guess he was a huge fan, and she wanted to send a bit of him on tour with us. So I guess Seb and her talked and she gave us a container of his ashes and they were sitting there on the bus afterwards kind of like holding this kid’s remains. I shook it and realized, “Hey, this is a great shaker. We should use it on the record,” and it is, and we credited him. We credited James Marshall as the shaker. I know he’s on “Nvr 4Evr” but he’s probably on other songs as well.
That kind of thing, there is no way to get used to that. I can’t imagine how fucked up your life has to be for that to be a non-event [laughs]. We’re going to spread his ashes up at the farm now that the record is done. When Seb is up there next he is going to bring them. It’s crazy to think you could make something that would mean so much to somebody. Music is something I would be doing whether or not it was what I managed to make my living doing. It’s what I’ve been doing since kindergarten age, just making music.