Catching Up With: Death From Above

Jesse F. Keeler talks about the duo's new album "Outrage Is Now" and why he thinks everyone needs to calm down a little.

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Catching Up With: Death From Above

Death From Above bassist Jesse F. Keeler was phoning from his isolated Canadian farm, a few hours outside of Toronto, ostensibly to discuss Outrage! Is Now, his third molten-chorded onslaught of a record with drummer/vocalist Sebastien Grainger. But as he stared out the window at the rickety cemetery on his circa-1823 property, he was getting a tad distracted.

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“I think this is the best possible time for us ever to have been alive, and things are as easy for us now as they’ve ever been,” says the 40-year-old Keeler, who released Death From Above 1979’s debut EP Heads Up in 2002, disbanded the group in 2006 after a fallout with Grainger, then reunited it five years later (and eventually dropped the 1979). With the release of Outrage! Is Now on Sept. 8, the duo have now made a total of three LPs in 14 years (including 2014’s The Physical World), so you might expect that they have big things to say. Gut-pummeling Outrage! anthems like “Nomad,” the punk-frenetic “Holy Books” and the title track might initially seem politically motivated, Keeler admits, but DFA aren’t complaining. Far from it. In fact, Keeler, who says he despises political parties and considers himself a “volunteerist”, wonders why the disgruntled are grousing so vehemently these turbulent days.

“I mean, the man who built my house is buried out there, along with five other people, and I know how most of them died. Back then, you’d get a bad cold, and there you go—you’re dead. Or you just gave birth to a child, but you got a little cut and there’s an infection. And then you’re dead. We’ve conquered so many things that were life-and-death situations just a couple hundred years ago, and those things were just run-of-the-mill stuff.”

The album title is ironic, about how Keeler and Grainger aren’t foaming at the mouth like their left-versus-right compatriots, and how alienated that’s making them feel. The sentiment is captured in the disquieting video for first single “Freeze Me,” with Keeler and Grainger serving platters of corn dogs to a crew up self-obsessed bodybuilders who ultimately watch the world burn from the safe distance of their remote mansion.

“Everyone around you is so upset, and here you are sitting in this privileged spot, just feeling like you’re on the outside looking in,” he sighs.

Paste: So “Outrage! Is Now” isn’t a political treatise at all, right?

Keeler: Normally, we try to avoid saying anything about politics. For me, it’s just exhausting, because my utopia is anarchy, and not the bullshit Communist anarchy, but an actual volunteer society, where people voluntarily coexist and work together and trade. Out here on my farm, when you go to the farmer’s market, it’s guys just trading stuff. There is no money being exchanged. There’s a guy that comes down from up north with fish, and he trades fish for corn an vegetables, and there’s no government body putting that together or telling anyone how to orchestrate it. Everyone just does it. It’s technically anarchy, but the word has been spoiled over the years. So I guess I’m a volunteerist. So I watch all these politics like a bystander and think, “What’s going on? If this is what you want, alright. If you’re determined to have a king, don’t be upset when the king does something you don’t like. But there is another option: You can just go without, and it works.” And basically being an anarchist is how an atheist doesn’t believe in God; you can’t prove that it’s there or not there. So I just don’t believe in the government, and I try to think of a politician that I’ve liked, and my brain just comes up empty.

Do you feel optimistic about humanity’s future?

Absolutely. I feel like things happen in cycles. And maybe it’s just a function of being older, but when you see some troubling thing happen in the world, your brain kind of says, “Oh yeah, I remember when this happened before.” When all this North Korea stuff was happening, I thought, “I wonder if this is how people who were living through the Cuban missile crisis felt?” Where Kennedy had this big equivalent of fire and fury at the time, and everybody thought, “Wow, this might really be it.” There was a huge panic, because we were as close to nuclear war as we’d ever actually been. And then it just went away, you know? So the thing to be hopeful about is just to remember that humans have been on this Earth, in comparison to the age of the Earth, and it’s like a fart in a hurricane. And we get so worked up about things, based on our tiny amount of time, like, “This is the worst X, ever!” And I’m like, “Ever? Do you really feel comfortable saying that word ‘ever’?” For whatever you can think of, you can look back through history and find an equivalent. And sometimes? It’s worse….

You seem to be very image-conscious with your band. You have that signature elephant-truck logo, and you put it on everything. You even have a DFA belt buckle.

Well, I try to not sell stuff that I can’t see myself ever wearing or owning myself. Although, over the years our manager has expressed to us, “You guys have incredibly specific tastes, and if you only make stuff that you could see yourself using, then we’ll only have one shirt in the merch booth and nothing else there that’s selling.”So we’ve definitely opened up in terms of our willingness to play around with that aspect of the design stuff.”

“I’ve just been in the habit of trying to see if I could accomplish things with less. And this is the least we could do, I guess.”

You had a cool embroidered Levi’s jacket for a minute. But you couldn’t find them in Levi’s stores.

That was very limited. I think there was probably only 40 or 50 of them in existence, and they sold out instantly. But I’ll say one thing that’s in the pipeline, because I’ve really pushed for it: I really want to make beard brushes. It’s a little paddle brush, but the bristles are too stiff to use on the top of your head. But you need them to be that stiff to pull through your beard. I love my beard brushes, and I thought, you know, couldn’t we make these? Because they’re the type of thing that, if you need one, you can use it forever, and it’s your best friend. But of course, everyone is going, “So how many people actually need this?” But we bearded folk are many, so we might even sell 100. So we’ll see. We’ll see if we can even get them made, if the merchandising company can source a place that will make them for us.

Who designed your trunk-snouted logo?

That was me. And I had an artistic goal. I wanted us to just be able to put the logo on a flyer, and just have the venue and the date and who we were playing with. I didn’t want to have to write out our name. The guy who created that picture-language that we’re all accustomed to now, with the bathroom signs and the wheelchair signs and all that, that dude was from Toronto, and I think he died about 15 years ago now. But he was passionate about trying to use pictures instead of words, because it could be a universal language that you didn’t have to learn; you could understand it right away. So I wanted something like that, something like The Misfits skull. You can see it from 50 yards away, and you know exactly what it is.

And you have an equally concise vision for Death From Above’s bare-knuckled, bass-and-drums sound, right? Even though British duo Royal Blood kind of nicked it?

Well, apparently. It seems that way now, after all this time. And with Royal Blood? I don’t know about that. There was Morphine before us, and a band from Canada called The Inbreds that was just bass and drums. And there was a band from California called Man is a Bastard tat was two basses and drums. It seemed like there was lots of bands that were leaving out instruments, in the traditional sense. And I’ve just been in the habit of trying to see if I could accomplish things with less. And this is the least we could do, I guess. I mean, there was The White Stripes and things like that, although there’s way more precedent for a band just being guitar and drums.

Did you have a farewell party for the part of your moniker you dropped, 1979?

No. But we stopped using it two years ago, and even if you look at the posters, the last time we toured with Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, there was no 1979 on there. We just stopped using it, and no one said anything, so I figured, “That’s that.”

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