The New Violence: An Interview with Death From Above 1979
Sure, they're aggressive and look dangerous, but they're just writing pleasant little pop songs.
Death From Above 1979 make Cro-Magnon rock. Bare-knuckle, put the women and children to bed and go out looking for dinner muzak. Sebastien Grainger smashes at his drum kit like Barney Rubble's BAM BAM gone berserker. Onstage, his upper torso is a blur in a mesmerizing display of brutality. His partner, bassist Jesse F. Keeler, is cagey. He frequently turns his back on the crowd, unwilling to disclose the intimate experience shared by him and his instrument, gyrating wildly as he strokes away with sexy results. On the vox synthesizer, his voice is haunting, almost nether-worldly. Grinding their instruments together like stones against a flint, they've sparked the fires of the new noise revolution. Grainger's vocals couldn't sound rawer if he ate #2 coarse sandpaper everyday for breakfast. Jagged, sweaty, abrasive, and utterly primeval, DFA 1979 is nu-metal for the millennia.
Together we're heavy, but not metal
Rising from the ashes of their former band Femme Fatale, the two-piece duo from Toronto started as Death From Above, a name they bitterly rescinded to the New York production team DFA, who had rights to the letters first. With that battle now behind them, Grainger says they never intended to sound that prehistoric, it just happened. "I think it's easy to label it as that because were a loud rock band," he says. "It is raw and primitive, but I guess it's because we write and create music for this band with such urgency that that's sort of the way it comes out." Like on "Turn It Out", the opening track from their recent album You're a Woman, I'm a Machine. It starts with fingers skulking across a piano before the bass squawks like a pack of ravenous vultures ready to peck the flesh from your body. From there, the duo whips up a wall of aggression as Grainger savagely wails into the microphone. But, as he says, "Essentially, they're harmless little pop songs."
"Most of the lyrics of the record were written during the recording process. We took four days, went to Montreal, and did the vocals. There are so many different ideas within the songs I don't think one song on the record is about one thing in particular. It's not very focused on specific ideas per song, it sort of goes between a few." By few, I offer two: violence and romance. "Violence is totally romantic," Grainger gushes. "The idea of violence for someone or for something is a very romantic idea. I mean war essentially is a romantic idea. Having sex and or making out and fighting are the only two times when people have that much contact."
Although he's unwilling to concede that the album has a cohesive element, those two savage emotions weave their way in and out of every song. "Musically and lyrically DFA 1979 are very different. I'm just a regular guy. I was writing about things that were happening to me while the record was being made and definitely romance was a part of that. I think the only reason you're asking this question or people ask this question is because [they're] used to hearing heavy music that lyrically is so soft -- for the most part." Perhaps it's that precarious balance between hard and soft, macho strutting and pansy posturing, luring in the band's ecclectic fan base. "I don't know if you noticed how varied the crowd was at the Toronto show," Grainger asks. I acknowledge it. From indie hipsters to greasy long hairs on standby for a Motley Crue video, DFA 1979 united them, if only briefly, under one roof. My own appearance, as a die-hard classic rock and hip-hop afficionado with indie ties, demonstrates that there is indeed something more to this stripped down rock band and the Vice hype train steering their path to success. "It's a reoccuring theme for us. No one demographic likes our band. I don't know any other rock band that has seven or eight East Indian girls or Guyanese or brown girls [in the front row] at the show. It's really weird, people who don't like rock music will like our band for some reason." The Black Keys, the White Stripes, and other two-piece outfits, do they have anything to do with it? "I think maybe the fact that we're a two-piece band helps some people because it's a trendy thing. It's not something that we decided to do because it was easy or because it was fashionable. It was just something that happened because there were two of us in the house when we would sit and play".
There's one thing Grainger can't understand, whenever he does interviews, journalists always think they have their influences pegged. "The other day I got asked about Black Flag and Motorhead", he recalls. "I've listened to Motorhead but I've never [really] listened to them and I've only ever heard Black Flag a few times. So it's funny that we get compared to these bands that I've never even listened to. I don't know why that is". It's already too late for me to recant my foolish attempt to narrow down their influences, so we move on. "I'm a fan of music. I'm a fan of songs. Jesse and I both like songs. I don't have a favorite band, because there is no band that has the perfect body of music. I like songs. I like different bands for different reasons and different songs for different reasons. It's just the idea of writing a song that's attractive to me and that's inspirational to me."
2004 has been good to DFA 1979. They're Toronto's "IT" band, though Grainger knows the title is fleeting. "We're aware of what we're doing now and how were doing it won't last a very long time," he says, without a hit of irony. "We want to make music for the rest of our lives, whether it's the music we're making now or something completely different. I want to score movies, Jesse wants to produce records and we're both sort of on that path. So DFA 1979, if nothing else, is a tool for Jesse and I to remain relevant musically." After a brief break for the holidays, they'll bring their savage rawk sounds to the UK, Japan, and back to Australia. They'll pause just long enough to write and record a new album then get back on the tour bus to promote it on tour, where they've become synomous with raucous live performances by the band and those in attendance. "We were playing a party and some guy was dancing and vomiting at the same time and it didn't stop him from dancing. Live, we have no sort of restraints, we just say what we're thinking and play as hard as our bodies will permit us to play." Anyone who's been to one of their shows can attest. Forget Eminem's politicized call to arms; in spite of their chewing on glass shards aesthetic, this is the band that will make you Mosh. "If I were to see a band that had at least the same ethic as us onstage, I would be inspired to do similar terrible things".
Death From Below
A day before DFA 1979 returned home to Toronto after a stint on the Vice Record Tour -- death came from below. A distraught fan climbed onstage at a concert for the heavy metal band Damage Plan, then shot and killed heavy metal legend and former Pantera guitarist Dimebag Darrell. Thirty years earlier, Marc Chapman shot and killed John Lennon. In '69, at the Altamont Festival, members of the Hell's Angel's biker gang viciously stabbed a fan to death during a performance by the Rolling Stones performance. Violence is no stranger to rock and DFA 1979 don't shy from it. In fact, they channel it into a sound that drags your bloodied carcass, back to the cave, where they've taken the most primal of instruments and tapped into our primal urges -- love and hate. In other words, as if you didn't know by now, DFA 1979 is the new violence.