Death From Above 1979: “What happens if a metal band were recorded like The Beatles?”

The dance-punks are older, wiser and more romantic than ever before, as brilliant new album 'Is 4 Lovers' – inspired by friendship and fatherhood – proves. Kevin EG Perry taps into the bromance

Jesse F. Keeler and Sebastian Grainger are so in love they’re having another baby. Their fourth record as Death From Above 1979, christened ‘Is 4 Lovers’, is due this week after an unexpectedly extended gestation period. Written and recorded in 2019, the release is one of the many to have been put back by the pandemic. The eventual arrival of their latest little miracle is exciting news for the proud parents, especially when you consider that 15 years ago they hated each other so much even the prospect of joining the biggest tour of their lives couldn’t keep them together.

NME, I’m gonna tell you a secret that nobody knows,” says Keeler, the band’s luxuriously mustachioed bassist, speaking over Zoom from his farm a couple of hours outside of Toronto. “When our band broke up, we decided in 2005 to stop playing together but we hadn’t told anybody yet. That’s when Daft Punk’s manager Pedro [Winter] asked us to open for them on that tour with the pyramid [the 2006/2007 Alive world tour]. I told him: ‘Dude, you’re too late!’”

Over in his own Zoom window, at his home somewhat closer to Toronto, singer and drummer Grainger shakes his head. “Only the greatest tour that ever happened!” he groans, but even the chance to hitch a ride on Daft Punk’s spaceship couldn’t stop the band splitting in 2006. At that point they had just one album to their name – 2004’s dance-punk classic ‘You’re A Woman, I’m A Machine’ – but they were burned out from years of relentless touring. They played 546 shows across the planet between 2001 and 2005, often touring with just the two of them sharing a van – both wired on stimulants and with Keeler doing all the driving.

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“I swerved one time to avoid an old man on the road,” he remembers. “I said to Seb: ‘I nearly hit that old man’ and he was like: ‘There was no old man… we should probably stop.’ I was hallucinating. He looked like the guy on the cover of ‘Led Zeppelin IV’. I still remember it now, as though it was something that actually happened.”

Things got so acrimonious between Keeler and Grainger that after the band officially announced their break-up they didn’t speak at all for the next five years. The love between them may have fizzled out, but affection for ‘You’re A Woman, I’m A Machine’ was only growing amid music fans. The news that they were reuniting to play Coachella in 2011 was met with delirious enthusiasm, and so many punters showed up to welcome them back at their first show in Austin at SXSW that it devolved into a riot. Somehow, even after half a decade of cold shoulders, the band were able to pick things up where they left off – at least until things got out of hand and somebody outside punched a police horse.

After a couple of years of successful touring, the band released their second album ‘The Physical World’ in 2014, a full decade after their debut. They’ve since been making up for lost time. Third record ‘Outrage! Is Now’ followed in 2017, but Grainger says he sees ‘Is 4 Lovers’ as marking a thematic return to the concerns of ‘You’re A Woman, I’m A Machine’.

“This is a record where instead of looking outward as much as I had been on the last two records, I was looking inwards,” he says. “We’ve linked this record to the first material only because for me, at that time, I was only aware of the little circle around me. The first EP [2002’s ‘Heads Up’] and the first record are about my family and my friends and nights out in Toronto. My approach to writing then was to write something that means something to me, and if it means something to me hopefully it’ll mean something to other people. I’ve gone back to that.”

the new record started life with Keeler and Grainger locked away together for a five-week recording session early in 2019, after which Grainger went to Italy to meet his wife, the film director Eva Michon, who was there shooting a video for Blonde Redhead singer Kazu Makino.

“I played her some of the instrumentals, and she liked it but one of her comments was: ‘You know, this could be dancier. This could be sexier,’” says Grainger. “Coincidentally on that trip – I don’t know if it was the spirit of ‘make it sexier’ – but we conceived a child. That’s only really interesting to anyone else because all the concepts of this record, the songwriting component of it, was all done during the gestation of this child. My wife was pregnant and making this baby in her body as I was in the studio pregnant with this record. I finished writing and mixing pretty much as soon as the baby was done.”

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Keeler lets out a laugh at his bandmate’s turn of phrase: “Done!”, but Grainger is sticking with his analogy. “Yeah, she was mastered and perfect,” he smiles. “We didn’t even have to remaster her.”

It’s not hard to hear how this happy home life has influenced ‘Is 4 Lovers’. On their 2004 indie disco classic ‘Romantic Rights’, Grainger sang about starting a family but told the object of his affection: “I don’t need you, I want you”. Now, he begins lead single ‘One+One’ with the words: “I need you, I can’t control it”. The difference reflects the fact that this time, he really is starting a family. “One plus one is three, that’s magic,” he sings. “You and me, that’s so romantic.”

The band get even soppier on ‘Love Letter’, the slowest-paced track they’ve ever released. Grainger says the song was a result of the pair no longer being confined by what they though a Death From Above 1979 record ‘should’ sound like.

“We’ve been doing this for long enough now that there’s nothing that should be off limits for us,” he reasons. “‘Love Letter’ is a song about how I’ve never written my wife a love letter, and how I haven’t because I found it incredibly difficult – so writing the song about that proved to be incredibly difficult too! It has such a vibe, so what were we going to do? Not put it on the record? It’s such a great song, with all humility. There was a point where my guiding aesthetic was: ‘What happens if a metal band were recorded like The Beatles?’ That’s a vibe I wanted to get out of it. You can only listen to so much [of] Paul McCartney’s ‘Ram’ without that being infused.”

“We’ve been doing this for long enough that nothing should be off limits for us” – Sebastian Grainger

In another first, the band have ditched their elephant trunk-nosed icons from their album art for the first time. Instead the cover features an old photograph of Grainger’s great aunt and uncle, which he says he chose because it better encapsulates the theme of the record. “My uncle passed away in 2011, and then my aunt passed away as we were recording this record,” he explains. “I went to Chicago to go settle some of her affairs with my mother, and I found all these incredible photos and boxes of love letters and cards and all this stuff that they’d been sharing. I found that photo of them in an embrace, which is perfect, but it’s on its side, it’s on an angle, and their heads are cut off. That’s what the photo is; I didn’t crop it.

To me, it’s a perfect metaphor for real love, which is complicated and askew. Like I said, I want everything [about this record] to mean something to me. I don’t just want to put out ‘content’.”

The artwork for new album ‘Is 4 Lovers’

Keeler and Grainger know a thing or two about complicated, askew love. It is now two decades since the pair first met, when Keeler was looking for a new drummer for his hardcore band Femme Fatale, so even counting the five years they didn’t talk, they’ve outlasted most couples. “Sebastian and I have spent more time alone together, awake, than most people ever will,” Keeler points out when I ask him to put into words what he loves about his bandmate. “I love that when Sebastian and I talk we’re always talking about the present and the future, because we both know the past. It takes five minutes to get caught up, and then it’s about what’s next.”

Grainger, meanwhile, says the key to their long-lasting friendship and fertile musical relationship is buried deep in their past. “When I first met Jesse and we were playing living room shows, my father had the sense to say: ‘You should keep working with this guy,’” he remembers. “I don’t know how he perceived that at the time, but looking back I did have the sense that we were on to something that we were going to be doing for a long time.”

Death From Above 1979. Credit: Norman Wong/Press
Death From Above 1979. Credit: Norman Wong/Press

In those days, he remembers, most of his friends in Toronto were giving up on music to live more conventional lives. “Jesse was the first person I’d met that took it as seriously as I did, so there was a simpatico there,” he says. “It’s evolved and it’s changed, but there’s something in common about that. We had very different upbringings and experiences, but there was something about that seriousness that we had that still clicks. I don’t want to say the thing I love about Jesse is that he completes me…” he leaves a pregnant pause “…but why the hell not?”

– Death From Above 1979’s new album ‘Is 4 Lovers’ is released this Friday (March 26)

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