Death From Above 1979
Silent Uproar: Just to start things out, there have been a lot of rumors about how Jesse and you met, but how did it really go down?
Sebastien : We met on the street; he was with friends and I was with friends, and I’d heard about him through other people. I was living in another city, and I moved back to Toronto after a couple of years, and all my friends seemed to know about this guy Jesse Keeler. He had like a “celebrity” about him already. And, when I met him, I found it interesting that we were both musicians, and we both talked about music, and we became friends just through music I guess and eventually started this band a few years later.
SU: Well, when forming the band, what made you feel like it was complete when there was just the two of you? Did you ever seek other members, or was it always just the two of you?
Sebastien : The original intention was to have…we didn’t want to start a band like standard; we knew we wanted to do something different. The original idea was to have two bass guys and a singer and a drummer. When we started practicing for the band, we were the only two people home, so I played drums and sang at the same time, and Jesse plugged his base into two amp setups. So in our mind we’re a 4 piece band already. Once we sorta got down to it and played a song in that format, as a two-person band, we were getting everything we wanted out of the music anyway. We had melody, and we had rhythm, and we had a rift, and that’s all we needed and all we were looking for, so it was never necessary.
SU: Well, it seems like that only having two members would either make it really easy to write new songs because there’s less arguing, or it would make it really difficult because there’s only two people to come up with ideas. Which would you say you agree with more?
Sebastien : For us, it makes it easier because there’s no lack of ideas between us. We were both, when we met until now, solo artists, and that’s why we get along. We both have the capacity and the capability to write every one of our songs ourselves, but we both have roles. Jesse is really good at coming up with riffs and he’s good at production. Those are his qualities that he brings to the band, and then I can sing, and I come up with melodies. That’s my strength. But, individually, we’re both capable of being ourselves. That’s why there’s no lack of ideas between us, and we sort of have similar ideas about music. That’s what makes it easy to write because we can just discuss things. When things are in a theoretical realm, they’re not that far off from the actual song. Once we discuss things, we can just go and do it. So a lot of the writing happens in conversation, and we have ideas. Then we sit down and play.
SU: Since you just have bass and drums essentially, as far as the music, does it make it easier to right new songs? I mean, you were just saying that once you have an idea, you don’t have to worry about layering all this guitar stuff on top of it. It’s kinda like you write the bass riff and get that down and the drums, and you’re pretty much set?
Sebastien : Yeah, well, I mean, it’s a little more complicated than that. We don’t just stick with being a two piece. We don’t use it as a crutch, or we don’t really concern ourselves with it. When we are recording in the studio we are multi-tracking. We’re not only putting down one bass track, we’re putting down two, three bass tracks. You know, last night we had like seven, eight vocal tracks going in the studio. We’re a two-piece, but we’re essentially a creative two-piece. The reason we keep things simple is because we’re good song writers, and we’re trying to get our songs across in the simplest, clearest way.
SU: Right, I wasn’t trying to over simplify it because I do think it says a lot to be able to have it come across as strong as it does when you’re essentially down to two instruments. Even with layering and things, the fact that you’re able to pull that off with just those two I think says a lot about your song writing skills.
OK, jumping to Vice Records, how did you hook up with those guys?
Sebastien : They’ve known about us pretty much since our first record came out and have been interested in talking to us. They made effort to communicate with us, and we started talking. There was talk about releasing a 7-inch in one of their magazines at one point and then in Canada. We’re working really hard independently for our band, and we were talking to a lot of people in the States and even majors in California trying to make the next move for our band. It didn’t make sense to go outside of Toronto and to go outside of Canada to find label support and to find business support.
It was just hard to communicate with people that were so far away. We were talking through email and on the phone to people in different cities and different states, and things don’t get done unless you can look in someone’s eyes and talk to them. So we started working locally and soon realized that we have world class resources at our fingertips and just around the corner, and people who could really help us out living down the street from our house and working a 20 minute street car ride away from where we practice. So we started going with people locally and ended up signing to a record label in Toronto called Last Gang Records, and through that record label, we started seeking licensing deals internationally.
Then 679 approached us from UK, a bunch of labels did, but we chose 679. Same thing for the U.S.; we probably five or six offers on the table, and Vice just made the most sense to us. When we sat down and talked to them as a record label and as a business, it made the most sense to us. They were an independent with major backing, major influence and a brand that I’ve been familiar with for these past six, seven, eight years.
SU: So, it sounds like you’re saying it was as much about their attitude and their brand and just who they are as well as their resources, too?
Sebastien : Yeah, we were sold on them through the people that worked there, and that’s the way we work in general. I mean, it doesn’t always happen that you like someone you’re meant to work with or delegate something to, but for the most part, we deal with people whose company we enjoy and whose ideas we agree with, or whose opinions or ideas we trust and people we can have a drink with and be honest with. You can’t do that unless you can sit down and have a beer with someone or have a meal with someone, you know? These are people that we’re able to do that with. You know, it’s a business relationship but you develop friendships, and you develop a trust and a caring for people, and I think that’s important because it’s reciprocal –you know, if you care for them, they care for you, and then everyone profits in some way or another.
SU: Right. I think the relationship’s always much better when you have that friendship element as well.
Sebastien : Yeah, because then they’re looking out for your best interests, you know, and they’re not only motivated by what’s going to be in their pocket at the end of the day. And, I mean, we’re definitely financially motivated in our business, but musically, at the end of the day, it’s about the song.
SU: Alright. Well, what are top five best things about Canada?
Sebastien : That’s a huge question. Um, what are the top five best things about Canada? Umm, Toronto is one of the best parts of Canada. I can’t go through five things. That’s a weird thing to ask. I mean, you know, what are the top five things about the U.S.?
SU: Yeah, I have no clue. I could tell you the top five worst things quicker…
Sebastien : I don’t have like a nationalistic view about my country. To me, Canada is where I was born. That pretty much suffices for me. It’s just a piece of land, you know. If you’re talking about the land mass, the five greatest parts about Canada that I say are the Rocky Mountains, the top of Lake Superior, the architecture in Montreal and Toronto and my neighborhood.
SU: Right. Yeah, I guess where that question comes from is that we talked to a lot of bands from the U.K. or from Australia, and a lot of times, they’ll have a strong sense of pride – Australians particularly…
Sebastien : Yeah, I was actually just talking about that with my doctor. We were talking about Australia. That sort of attitude is definitely warranted. I mean, if you have ever been to Australia, there is no reason not to be proud of Australia. It’s like Canada politically and ideologically, but they have a beautiful climate for most of the year. It’s a beautiful, beautiful place to be, and the people are nice, and the people are beautiful, so it’s actually refreshing for me to go somewhere and have people appreciate where they’re from. You know, we go to New York a lot, and so many people in New York just don’t like New York. They talk shit about New York. It’s nice to be somewhere people are like, "Yeah, I love Australia, and I want to be here."
SU: And that’s why I ask people like you these questions. Because when you ask me about the U.S., there’s nothing I can say.
Sebastien : Yeah. Well, I don’t like to talk about Canada. I live in Toronto, so I know Toronto; I don’t know Canada. I mean, I’ve seen more of the States than I have seen of Canada. I’ve seen more of England than I have of Canada.
SU: Right. Well, I saw you play live before I had ever heard anything recorded and was kinda blown away by the rawness and just the energy of the live show. What types of things do you do when recording to try and bring that energy across on the record?
Sebastien : Record recording and live is a completely different philosophy for us. Live, as you said, is very raw, and it’s reckless, and it’s kinda out of control, but we try not to control it too much. We just try to do what we do. And, in the studio, we’re concerned with getting the songs across and the energy which naturally exists within the song...just to get the ideas across so it’s listenable and enjoyable. But, I mean, the live experience is an experience. It’s not a document, not intended to be recorded or duplicated; it’s intended to be experienced and enjoyed. The record is intended to be a document; it’s a document of the song.
SU: The production on this album sounds a little cleaner than on the EP. Was that something you did on purpose, or was the rougher sound of the EP just due to the recording budget, or equipment, or process used?
Sebastien : Yeah, it was resources. I really like the way EP sounds, and it was recorded at our friends Al’s house, in his home studio. Then sorta between the recording of the EP and when we started the LP, he got a job working at a studio that we were really interested in working at anyway in Toronto, where a lot of records that we listened to or have enjoyed in the past were recorded at. So, we started recording at Chemical Sounds on this record, and better resources, a really good live room, a beautiful mixing board, beautiful microphones…just different resources.
SU: Was it a conscious decision to move away from the kinda outright craziness of noise rock bands like Lightning Bolt or something similar to that and bringing more accessible hooks and melodies?
Sebastien : Um, no it wasn’t a conscious decision. It was always the intention of our band to be a song band. We never intended on being a noise band or a punk band or a hardcore band. If anything, if that’s what was happening before, it was by accident, and we’ve always intended to write songs and to write hooks and to write catchy songs. The reason if we were not before was because we weren’t doing our job right.
SU: Well, maybe part of it is just as you’ve kinda gone through your career some you’ve gotten, I don’t want to say better – because the other stuff is still great – but you’ve kinda refined your style a little bit in that sense.
Sebastien : Yeah, I mean, we’re still searching. Still working on this band, and we were learning at the time. We didn’t understand our band as well as we do now, and even after playing for two years or year and a half, I still didn’t get what our band was about. And I was still searching or looking for something else in the music. Sorta eventually, it just made sense to us playing in this band, you know.
Sebastien : Now, it’s just what we do, so if we’re getting better at it then – I mean, I hope we’re getting better at it. We should be.
SU: Jumping to something else real quick – how important is the imagery that goes along with your music – like the album art, or the videos, or any of that kinda more visual elements?
Sebastien : Our job is to write songs and make records, and we hire other people to make sure that people are hearing it. And it’s their job to market us as an image or as a personality artist. That’s someone else’s job, and it’s really important, but it’s not our job. Our jobs is just to write songs and speak to people about our songs. But I mean, it’s essential. Two years ago we did a cross-Canada tour with two bands who had never been to the cities we were playing in, but they were filling the rooms. That’s because they had videos and really strong web sites. After doing that tour, we came back and re-built our web site and started discussing how we were going to assure that the next time we go across we sell tickets to shows. And that’s they way you do it, you know?
SU: What made you choose to do a revised version of the Heads Up EP art for the new record?
Sebastien : We were trying to maintain the imagery, but also we wanted the logo to evolve, and because it’s so simple, it’s able to evolve as we evolve – it’s able to change, but still be recognizable. Cause there’s always going to be an elephant trunk, there’s always going to be the two of us – so that imagery was as much marketing as it was art. And we wanted to bring it back cause we’re still trying to brand ourselves, you know.
SU: Right. And is pink the new orange?
Sebastien : Pink's the new orange – pink's the new black.
SU: Because the Heads Up EP was orange, wasn’t it?
Sebastien : Yeah, Heads Up EP was orange just cause the house we wrote it in had a lot of orange furniture, and You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine is pink because it’s dedicated to my baby niece, a little baby girl. Cause baby girls look nice in pink.
SU: Better than orange.
Sebastien : Yeah, she’d look all right in orange, too.
SU: Just before the holidays you said you were going to the studio to record some new non-Death from Above music. Is that another project that we might hear about, or is that just kinda playing around?
Sebastien : Well, I’ve always recorded since I was a kid, so I was just trying to get back to doing that because I hadn’t done it in so long on account of scheduling and stuff. So I just wanted to get back, get my feet wet again in recording and song writing. I haven’t been writing songs – we’ve been on the road for so long and doing that for so long that I sorta forgot that I’m essentially a song writer. I just wanted to do that again, and who knows if anyone’s going to hear it, but probably, eventually. It’s a work in progress.
SU: Earlier in the conversation you mentioned something about recording some Death from Above stuff – are you already working on new material?
Sebastien : Not so much per se. We were in the studio yesterday doing a cover song for the upcoming Bloc Party record. Bloc Party is a band that just signed to Vice, and they’re going to be releasing a re-mix record and we were asked to do a cover song instead of a re-mix, which is kinda refreshing because in a world of remixes it’s fun to do a cover song.
SU: What is it a cover of?
Sebastien : Um, it’s a song called “Bruno” – off their LP. So we did that, and we’ve been going in the studio for the last little while doing B-sides for U.K. releases. We’ve done remakes of our songs, and we’ve written other songs, and we’ve done re-mixes, and we’ve done cover songs. So it’s an on-going process. Jesse’s actually starting a production company called MSTRKRFT at the moment and also building a studio. So that’s another project that’s happening, and he’s going to start producing other bands and pretty soon re-mixes for other bands.
SU: Cool. And I know you’ve mentioned something before about wanting to do film scores?
Sebastien : Yeah.
SU: Have you made any advancement in getting some projects going for that or just not had time for it recently?
Sebastien : I really haven’t had time for it. That’s sorta like a long-term goal for myself. It’s hard to foresee my longevity in the industry.
SU: What is it about that process that interests you?
Sebastien : It’s the relationship between story and melody and the relation between emotions and imagery and music. I’ve just always been interested in film in general and being involved in it and I just like the relationship. I like how I can tell in a movie when they’re trying to sell a soundtrack to me. And I want to go the other way. You want to be like – I don’t know if you’ve seen the movie Garden State – but the whole time you feel like you are listening to the soundtrack because the songs cue in at the right time, and the tears fall. Then you have other movies like Wes Anderson movies with Randall Poster scoring, and it’s a score. Obviously, he’s selling records, I’m going to buy the sound track to Life Aquatic for sure, but again he’s really creating a solid body of work. He’s creating a very, very specific mood for a movie.
SU: Have you heard the Requiem for a Dream soundtrack?
Sebastien : Yeah. Who did that? That was the Clint Mansell and the Kronos Quartet? Yeah. You know Jon Brion who did music for Punch Drunk Love and he did music for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or whatever it is – you know, those are all great artists, and they create a really, a great love for movies. And I want to do that. That’s something I want to explore.
SU: Well, the last thing I’ll ask you is, if you had to place your musical career on a musical life timeline with one end being you just getting started and the other end being you’re ready to throw in the towel, where would you say you are?
Sebastien : Oh, definitely just getting started. We always knew that this was the way we were going to come out, that this was the way we were going to start. We’ve been involved in music for our whole lives individually, and we came together to do this. As of late, we have sort of establish ourselves musically, and that was obvious to us the first time we wrote a song together - we knew that we were going to get recognized for it, and that was the point.
I mean, you know, obviously there’s life in the band, and there are definite merits to Death From Above as a band, but for us, it’s not the end all of everything – it’s the beginning for us, and it’s a tool that we’re using to establish ourselves so that individually we’re able to achieve our goals musically. And, we’re both doing that. We’re both establishing ourselves, and we have the respect of our peers to a certain extent. One of our goals is making connections and writing good songs, so we’re just starting. We could be just starting, or we could be halfway through. We don’t know – we haven’t written our last record or anything, but for us, individually, it is just the beginning for sure.