Death From Above Is More Mature and Focused Than Ever

"I'm very happy to be Canadian," bassist Jesse Keeler says.

Death from Above (Lindsey Byrnes)

When Toronto dance-punk duo Death From Above 1979 broke up in 2006, five years after forming and having released just one album — 2004’s You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine  that should have been the end of the story. After all, short-lived hard rock projects come and go with a regularity that is less alarming and more entirely expected.

In fact, that was only the very beginning of the tale. While the band was away, its legacy, reputation, and legend only flourished. Fans old and new wouldn’t let the music (as little as there was) die, and they all-but demanded a reunion. That finally happened in 2011.

The pair — bassist Jesse Keeler and drummer-vocalist Sebastian Grainger — needed that break, and they used it to grow. Keeler is 40 now; he was 24 when the band formed and 29 when it split. In 2004, Death From Above was forced to add the suffix “1979” to its name after Death From Above Records, the label owned by James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem, sent them cease-and-desist. Keeler and Grainger responded with the following diatribe on their website:

FUCK DFA RECORDS FUCK JAMES MURPHY WE DECLARE JIHAD ON THEM HOLY WAR ENDING IN THIER [sic] DEATH AND DISMEMBERMENT… james murphy is a selfish piece of fuck that will burn in the flames of a specially dedicated rock and roll jihad. if i had the resources i would fly a plane into his skull.

Thirteen years later, Keeler is far more diplomatic and, well, mature.

“It’s a painfully long band name to have, but I do think in a sense I’m grateful because on the internet, it’s much better to have a unique character string as your name,” Keeler says. “ ‘Death From Above’ by itself will give you other things, but ‘Death From Above 1979’ is just us. So it’s probably helpful, although when speaking we never say it to each other. I know other people would say it to us, and I would think that I feel bad about such a long name for them to say. I think it was probably helpful overall.”

That’s only one example of Keeler’s milder mindset. Since the original split, Grainger has relocated to Los Angeles, placing the two colleagues in two countries. One would imagine this causes all manner of logistical nightmares, but once again, Keeler is pragmatic.

“At first I was concerned about the spread, but it ended up working out OK,” he says. “The thing I didn’t expect and have learned in the last few years is that it makes it that when Seb comes to Toronto or I go to L.A., we really value that time and then work really hard on stuff together. We don’t waste any seconds that we have together. It’s been a bit helpful. Also it’s nice to have that separation from the band when you don’t necessarily want to always be banding.”

That doesn’t sound like the attitude of a man who would wish a jihad on fellow musician, but then times change and so do people.

“I try to see a positive thing in anything,” Keeler says. “If I don’t, I’d probably go crazy. I feel like I sound like a cheeseball, but I am always looking for the good in everything and everybody.”

That said, Death From Above’s music hasn’t softened at all. Rather, they’ve become a more focussed outfit as new album Outrage! Is Now, the follow up to 2014’s The Physical World, proves. Keeler is happy that, drum-wise, he’s never sounded better on record. He also acknowledges that the title of the album reflects the mood of the country right now, but that wasn’t necessarily deliberate.

“The thing that’s crazy is, we made this record in January,” he says. “As of late, in the last few weeks, I keep seeing the word ‘outrage’ written in the news all the time. There is a lot of outrage, and some of it is justified, that’s for sure. Here’s my one sentence answer: I’m very happy to be Canadian. Not that we don’t have our own problems. We have the capacity to be better than our leaders and I question whether we need those leaders at all.”

Still, there isn’t an overall theme to the record, and certainly not a politically-driven concept. The title of the album is pulled from the song within that they felt worked best when placed on the front of the sleeve. So the furious focus isn’t related to the wedge in the nation but, musically, it exists. Keeler thinks it might come down to a new-found sense of artistic freedom.

“When we made The Physical World, we hadn’t made a record in five years,” he says. “Because the band existed in people’s minds when we were not doing it, when we came back to do the band again we had this reverence for it based on other people’s thoughts about it, not our own. We talked about the band as if it was a third person. When we started to work on this, we just let that go. We can’t have a reverence for the past holding us in place and still be creative. It would get stifling.”

We get to enjoy the fruit of their labor when Death From Above plays the UC Theatre in Berkeley on Friday, Nov. 17. Keeler says that the band has always felt at home here, and that we can expect a career-spanning set.

“I think we’re the best version of our band that has ever existed,” he says. “We’ve been doing it for a really long time and there’s a lot of stuff that we’ve figured out. When we started, we had a lot to prove. When we went on stage, I always felt that the audience didn’t like it and I had to make them like. After so many years, I don’t feel like that any more. I want it to be a confirmation moment. Like, I am right to like this band — this is awesome. I don’t feel that almost hostility at all. Every day I’m grateful that people come at all. It’s wonderful.”

Death From Above 1979 plays with The Beaches, Friday, Nov. 17, 8 p.m., at the UC Theatre; 2036 University Ave., Berkeley. $35; 510-356-4000 or theuctheatre.org.

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