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Interview: Jesse Keeler of Death From Above

Death From Above - Credit - lindsey byrnes

by Justin Trudell

Things are going pretty great for Jesse F. Keeler and his band, Death From Above. Keeler and bandmate Sebastien Grainger earlier this year said what everyone else had been thinking: “Why do we even need the ‘1979’ part?” So they dropped it. Turns out, the reason they needed it was because of a frustrating, lawyer-induced spat with James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem and his already named Death From Above record label. But, that feud has been history for a while now, so was the need for “1979.”

Death From Above recently released their new album, Outrage! Is Now, which Keeler told us was reason to be more excited than he’s ever been for the upcoming tour. Life is good for Keeler, and we were happy to chat with him about the new Death From Above album, coming back to play Detroit, and when to expect the next “fucking nuts” Femme Fatale record.

How Was It Detroit: The new album Outrage! Is Now is out. How’s the reception been? Have you been able to play any of the tracks live yet?
Jesse F. Keeler: Yeah, we’d been sneaking them out live as soon as the record had been released. And it’s been pretty awesome. It seems like even during the intro from the songs on the record, the crowd starts to get going. I was amazed they knew it so quickly. Although, I guess the amount of time it takes to get a record in front of people is the shortest it’s ever been.

How Was It Detroit: The digital form seems to makes it pretty easy for fans to get new music quick as hell.
Jesse F. Keeler: For sure. I usually will get a new record in a digital format, then I’ll order a vinyl if I really like it. I’m sure that happens for our fans as well.

HWID: What’s your opinion on the resurrection of vinyl? Last year, they outsold digital for the first time ever.
JFK: I’m amazed as well. I’ll tell you in the music business, the conversation with the record label is all about like, “What color vinyl do you want do?” And the CD comes last. I think it just has to do with people wanting to have a tactile relationship with the music, and it just provides a greater value. Buying a file is really uninteresting. It’s the equivalent of you going to a restaurant and them handing you a pill with all your daily nutrition needs. I just don’t think it’s as enjoyable. When you spend money, people want to be able to keep the thing they purchased. They want to be able to hold it, and show it to their friends, you want to see it in your collection, and it just means a lot more.

For me it’s easy because I’ve just been listen to and buying vinyl since I was a teenager, which was a very long time ago now. So that’s always been my relationship with music. I’m not surprised the next generation wants to do it the same way, because it’s really a wonderful format.

It’s the best in terms of artwork as well. I hated making CD covers. Just everything was so small…I don’t know. I was just never into it. Having vinyl back to being such a popular format… it makes me very happy.

HWID: What about quality? As a musician, is vinyl a better listening experience?
JFK: That’s been my experience with this record. Generally, we always do a different master for vinyl and digital releases. I still remember the day that we got the test vinyl pressing for the record. I put them on…and I was blown away. I could not believe how much better it sounded to me. There were a few things on the digital version I wasn’t 100% excited about the way they sounded, and none of those things were there on the test pressing. I just think it’s a more human listening experience.

HWID: You worked with Eric Valentine for Outrage! Is Now What did he bring to you guys that you didn’t have on other records?
JFK: Well, number one, when you have a band of only two people, it helps to have a third voice: a third opinion. Also, Sebastien and I know each other so well, and our way of treating each other has always been so kind. We care about each other’s opinions, so it’s hard to be that critical of their idea. It’s helpful to have somebody else who can say to me “you can play that part or that note better.” It’s kind of strange, because Sebastien (Seb) probably would never say that to me, and vise-versa for him. Valentine’s recording style is incredible; I learned so much in the studio from him. I’ll never be the same after that experience.

Jesse’s world RN.

A post shared by DEATH FROM ABOVE (@dfa1979) on

He’s worked on all kinds of different records, and what was appealing to us is that he’s clearly not trying to jam everybody into some box of a previous success he once had. Like, if you’re a producer or a songwriter, or for that matter just a single person out dating, you do something that works out really well, and you just keep doing that same thing whether or not it’s appropriate for the circumstance. Obviously, that’s just how people learn, but Eric [Valentine] has sort of nurtured that in a sense. He just treats everything as a brand-new experience. All of those things, especially since our band is kind of odd sounding anyways, to have someone to just treat us as ourselves was great.

HWID: On November 3, you’ll be playing at St. Andrew’s Hall in Detroit. Any found memories of your previous times performing in the city?
JFK: Detroit was actually supposed to be one of our first ever shows, it was scheduled for September 12, 2001. So, that obviously was rescheduled. But, Detroit was like the first city I went to outside of Canada. We played up in Pontiac, out in Ann Arbor, and Romulus at some festival down there. We played the PJ’s Lager House during the day one time. I get a lot of work done by Detroit Guitar Repair in Ferndale. Detroit has just always felt familiar to me; we’ve been playing there for 20 years. It’s been good to us.

HWID: I don’t know if you’re aware, but James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem is playing at the Masonic Temple, just down the road from St. Andrew’s Hall on the same night as you guys. Did you have any plans to meet up with him while you’re both in town?
JFK: Oh I’d love to! He and I have had a really great relationship for about a decade now. I’d love to see him. It’s one of those things that you hardly ever get to see friends in other bands, unless it’s a festival, because everyone’s out on tour. That’s pretty exciting. I didn’t know that at all. I love James. We’ve been doing some texting back and forth; it’s mostly just “dad stuff.” But, he’s awesome. Just more things to get excited about!

I don’t think I’ve ever been as excited for a tour has I have for this one. I know people say shit like that all the time, but genuinely, I’ve never been as excited for a tour like this before. My crew fucking rules. I’ve been doing this for 20 years now and we have this shit down to a science, and it’s just so fucking fun.

I love playing these new songs live and letting them evolve a bit more. For a long time, I hated touring because I felt like I was just performing the songs the same every night, trying to replicate how they sounded in the studio. But, over the last few years I’ve realized “Nope.” This is an opportunity for me to keep moving things around and keep playing with them. So all of that is pretty exciting, and I’ll get to see James. Last time I saw him, we had a bottle of vodka when we started, and it was gone by the time we finished talking, and…I don’t remember a whole lot that happened. [laughs]

HWID: The excitement you mentioned about this new tour: do you think that had anything to do with the break you guys took a few years back? Did it reinvigorate you?
JFK: Well, when Death From Above stopped playing, I pretty much was touring with my other group MSTRKRFT the whole time. It was totally a different world of touring – not nearly as grueling [as Death From Above] in terms of the amount of work – it was more of just a party that never stopped.

I think for Sebastien and I, like I was saying, it was just us doing everything. There was a moment when I imagined what my life would be like in five or ten years of doing that, and I didn’t see it as being awesome. I couldn’t foresee people liking our band any more than they already did. I didn’t think it was going to become anything. It just seemed like the best we were ever going to do was just get by. And if that was the amount of work I was going to be doing, and the amount of personal sacrifice for just existing…it’s just hard to rationalize, ya know?

#FreezeMe video. Very powerful. Link in bio. 📸 by @devinsarno 📼 by @machotaildrop

A post shared by DEATH FROM ABOVE (@dfa1979) on

Also, when it’s just two people, and you’re kind of frustrated with your life, there’s only one other person you’re going to take it out on. But, I think both of us, the way we are, we didn’t take it out on each other, we just kind of stopped talking. We wouldn’t really even talk about what it was that was bothering us.

When we started playing again, it was like the trajectory of the band continued, even though we hadn’t been playing. We went away playing for a couple hundred people, and we came back playing for a couple thousand. It was just so different, right from day one. There was so much stuff we didn’t have the first time around, stuff that we didn’t know about. We just applied everything we’d learned on our own, and in the past, which just made it a lot easier. It’s been great and so much better since we started playing again. I’ve never felt that sort of hopelessness again.

HWID: It’s great to hear that, and it’s also great to hear about the relationship you and Sebastien have.
JFK: We’ve both said it now, but Seb’s totally like my brother. I didn’t have a biological brother, but I do have Sebastien. That’s just been our relationship. I’ve known him for about 20 years now, and there’s an unspoken language between the two of us. It’s hard when you’re younger and you’re forming your personal identity and you’re always spoken about as a group, instead of as an individual. For us now, it’s definitely thought of as a source of strength.

HWID: So I asked Reddit for some questions to ask you and the one that everyone seemed to be the most excited to know is “Will there ever be another Femme Fatale record?” [from u/bootsTF]
JFK: Yes. I have it mostly written, and I need to record it, but it’s really hard to find time. I’ve been stewing on that for a long time, and that voice in my head has been yelling at me for many months now. I started working on it and I think it will be the best one ever. If the things I have written so far are any indication, it will be…fucking nuts. [laughs]

HWID: That’s awesome news! The next question from Reddit is “Have you ever considered making your own pedals?” [from u/JonnySniper]
JFK: I have, and I’ve approached Peavey about making a pedal version of the preamp from one of my amps. I feel like it’s never going to happen. I’ve tried to clone the circuits with an electrical engineer before, there are certain aspects to it that are just… It has to do with the old components. I can’t seem to find new pieces that have the same electrical response current, but if I can, yes I would love to be able to just have one pedal that would do all the effects. It would make my life easier. For international touring, I could just plug in to some power amps that would be fucking incredible. As soon as I can find someone brave enough to conquer that – because it would take a lot of time and testing – I would do it.

HWID: Awesome. Well thanks so much for the time Jesse, and we can’t wait to see you guys live on November 3 at St. Andrew’s Hall here in Detroit!
JFK: Alright, I can’t wait to come play. I might swing by the Carharrt main store and buy a whole bunch of shit. [laughs]

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