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by Dan Grunebaum

Death From Above 1979
The brash young Canadian duo may be the only rockers to cite Puff Daddy as a role model

Photos courtesy of Kyodo

This is the first time that I’ve walked into a room to do an interview and been accused of twisting someone’s words even before pen has been put to paper. But give Jesse F. Keeler and Sebastian Grainger a break—it’s the end of a long day of interviews at their label’s offices in Omotesando, and the pair are weary and cynical.

It’s also February, and the rock duo are riding a wave of publicity in Japan following the release of their debut album, You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine. They’ve just concluded a packed date at Club Quattro, and will be back to a receptive Japan again in May as part of promoter Bongo/Kyodo’s Canada Wet event.
“Japan has been more on point, much faster,” ventures vocalist/drummer Grainger. “They’ve already sold 10,000 records…Our video got played first here, even before North America. This is the second-to-last territory we signed to, but it turned out to be the second place we were released.”

It’s hard to know if Japanese audiences are hipper, or if they’ve just been influenced indirectly by the UK pop rag NME, which has been giving DFA 1979 the breathless treatment these last few months. Grainger isn’t sure, but he’s willing to guess. “If the band that played before us, DMBQ, is any indicator of what people here like, then I can see why they like us. It was a very reckless, very intense performance.”

Photos courtesy of Kyodo

DFA 1979 (1979 is the year Grainger was born) are not only intense live and on record, where they dish out exhilarating, shattering slabs of noise, they’re also loud of opinion in person. In addition to slagging journalists like this one, they’ve got plenty of bile reserved for the music industry and their peers in the rock world. But more on that later.

Debuting in 2002, the duo brought a novel format to rock. While the White Stripes-pioneered two-person approach has spread like a virus, Grainger and Keeler were the first to pare their band down to the bare-bones rhythm section of drum and bass. Says Grainger: “I forget what it’s like to be in a regular band, because this has become regular for us, and I think if I played in another band I would play with the same ferocity. But the dynamic with this band is, since there’s only two of us, we’re desperate on stage. If I drop a stick, it’s almost game over. If he breaks a string, Jimmy Page is not going to come on stage and play a solo.”

Sebastian Grainger and Jesse F. Keeler
Photos courtesy of Kyodo

DFA 1979 was birthed from Keeler’s previous band, Femme Fatal, which had been active in the pair’s native Toronto, a city whose music scene they express ambivalence towards.
“Initially, Toronto acted like we didn’t exist,” spits Keeler. “It didn’t matter that we were selling records. The only music magazine in Canada didn’t review our first record even though our label sent them four copies. But we were selling more records than other bands in Toronto, and when our first record had been re-pressed five or six times, then people had to start paying attention.

“The other bands just played the city over and over, but we always had an international mindset and took advantage of the fact that there’s only two of us and you can recoup the money on plane tickets pretty fast. So we’d be doing tours that involved flying within the first 4-5 shows we did. Now the Toronto scene embraces us because we have unintentionally become spokesmen for the city.”

While they’re basking in their newfound fame, Grainger and Keeler are circumspect about how long their time in the limelight will last. “We’re trying to create a situation where we can be free to make the art we want to make, so we also don’t have to be on the cover of a magazine to make a living,” says Keeler.
“So that when NME is sick of writing about us, which is any day now,” chips in Grainger, “we’ll have a fan base, a foundation. That’s the point of touring, so that people will love our band, so that we can do whatever we want.” DFA 1979, it seems, is not so much an end in and of itself as a stepping-stone. “If we were satisfied, then we’d stay home and collect royalties from licensing deals,” says Grainger. “The only reason we’re out doing this is so we can go back and make something new.”

“We want to do more things,” says Keeler. “Like Puff Daddy, for instance. He was A&R, and then he started his own record label, and then he signed artists, and then he became an artist, and then he’s a producer, and then he has a clothing line and a TV show. You accomplish what you can, and then you continue moving. We’ve already started producing, opening a recording studio, doing soundtracks and music for different purposes: TV things and movie things.”

Grainger again: “We’ve been able to license our music to TV shows and commercials. I personally am using those credentials as a foundation for what we’re doing when we’re not doing Death From Above. And that, personally, is what I want to be doing, making music for film and television. We use this band as a tool for what we want to achieve in life.”
Adds Keeler: “A big difference between our band and a lot of bands that we know is that we don’t see [it] as an end, but as the means to an end. We end up playing with bands who are like, ‘This is it, I’m on tour, I’m drinking, meeting groupies, going ’round the world.’ Well that’s cool, but you can only do it so many times. We’ve been able to do more as a result of this, and we’re trying to keep moving. It all sounds very ambitious and un-rock‘n’roll. We are musicians, but that encompasses so many possibilities.”

DFA 1979 will return to Tokyo for the upcoming Canada Wet event. Another omnibus concert produced by the new, youth-oriented Bongo division at veteran promoter Kyodo, the show also features Broken Social Scene (winners of a 2003 Juno award, Canada’s version of the Grammys) and the Dears and Stars.

Liquid Room Ebisu, May 14. See concert listings for details.

 

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