Sebastien Grainger and Jesse F. Keeler — the singer-drummer and bassist, respectively, in the combustible bass-and-drums rock duo Death From Above — enjoy using colorful analogies to drive home a point.
"A friend of mine would always compare the filming of live music to the filming of sex," Grainger says, hunched over rabbit terrine and black coffee at the Breslin, the restaurant inside the Ace Hotel in midtown Manhattan. "Sex feels great for everybody most of the time, unless you're dysfunctional. I don't know if you've ever tried filming yourself having sex, but it usually doesn't look as good as it felt."
But Keeler — munching on steak and eggs, tattooed forearms peeking out of dark flannel, straight, ink-black hair glued to the sides of his face — is not so sure. "Speak for yourself," he counters. "In my experiences with that, I've been blown away with how awesome it looks."
"Good for you," replies Grainger, the more caustic of the two. "That doesn't help the analogy right now."
"There's no comparison between doing and watching," Keeler allows. "But talking about filming sex — it's pretty cool."
"I'm not saying, 'don't do that,'" Grainger retorts. "I'm saying maybe there's a zit on your ass."
Keeler gets the last word. "Less noticeable in night vision!"
Being shocked by the sudden ubiquity of hand-held video at shows is the kind of thing that can happen to a band that takes a 10-year break between albums, as Death From Above did. But the duo overcame their discomfort — in addition to moving past the personal conflicts that had contributed to their original break-up — and recorded a third LP, Outrage! Is Now. That record, released in September, seemed like a turning point for the group: a signal that they were invested in traditional band goals, like longevity and building a discography.
In fact, these two seem to thrive on, if not enjoy, a certain level of discomfort: In conversation, they often present their career as a 15-year attempt to somehow avoid autopilot. [Note from the editor: This interview took place before a blog post surfaced online linking Keeler with Gavin McInnes, a member of the so-called alt-right; Keeler subsequently addressed these accusations in an in-depth Facebook post, writing, "the reality is that I am not 'Alt-Right', nor a White Supremacist."] "I go see bands sometimes, and it's just the sound of words," Grainger explains. "Maybe they've been around for 15 years, and they're just making the sounds they made before, and there's nothing behind it. I feel like audiences know the difference when someone's just making noises with their mouth."
Taking a long hiatus is an especially defiant way to avoid coasting. Death From Above's 2004 debut, You're a Woman, I'm a Machine, imported strident, slugging energy from metal into the indie-rock scene. "My default musically is much harder and faster than our band," Keeler says. "Where my head wants to go is just lunacy. Then I pare back from there." "You're reigned in by my aversion to that very thing," Grainger adds. "Left to his devices, the band would be a lot more chaotic. Left to my own devices, the band would be a lot more saccharine." But their differences proved temporarily overwhelming, and Death From Above officially went on break in August of 2006.
During this period, Keeler and Grainger worked on individual projects and did not speak to each other. But the album continued to buzz, leading to an inevitable reunion. In February of 2011, Grainger announced, grandly, "Jesse and I have decided that what we can do together should not be denied."
The more common way that bands attempt to avoid creative stasis, of course, is not by breaking up — it's by making a new record. However, after re-forming, it took Death From Above a while to do that: The Physical World did not arrive until 2014. This delay turned out to be a natural byproduct of their latest attempt to battle inertia. "One of the goals working with Dave Sardy [also a producer for Oasis and LCD Soundsystem] was we wanted to see if we could get on the radio," Grainger says. "We hadn't had that experience. We went to the guy that had songs that were annoying to us because we heard them so often [on the airwaves]."
That meant long hours in the studio searching for "the perfect snare sound." But with Sardy's guidance — and help from a major label, Warner Music Group — Death From Above achieved their goal. "Trainwreck 1979" cracked the Top 20 on the Rock Airplay chart; "Nothin' Left" is likely the most immediate thing the band has ever recorded. Mission accomplished.
Except now the duo faced a new problem: Simply by continuing to exist, the stakes for the group felt lower. "When you start out, you feel subconsciously that you have to prove that your band is good," Keeley says. "After 15 years, I'm proving to the fans that think our band is good that our band is good. I'm reassuring them. But I don't need to prove to you that the concept of our band is worthwhile. Many have come and gone — we remain." "It's not as much of a sales pitch," agrees Grainger.
So they prepared for another hard veer on Outrage! Is Now, teaming up with the producer Eric Valentine, impressed that he had handled acts as diverse as Smash Mouth, Third Eye Blind and Queens of the Stone Age. Keeler handles the analogy this time. "When you're young and single and trying to attract someone else, at some point, hopefully, you start figuring it out," he explains. "Those initial things that you do that work, you try them the next time. That's the learning process. But at a certain point you can get to where the things that you're doing are you going through the motions and not you being a part of the actual moment and almost ignoring the person you're being that way for."
"When you're a producer and something works," the bassist continues, "the easiest thing you can do is do that again, to fit into the slot of what you know has worked for you. It's not malicious. It's just how we are. Until the point where it doesn't work. Eric is that guy who treats every band like he's coming in new."
Many of the decisions about how to approach the songs that ended up on Outrage! Is Now were made before entering the studio, but Valentine walled off small portions of songs "for total freedom to stumble on something interesting," and these are where Death From Above moves beyond the basic act of reassurance and approaches something closer to daring. "Never Swim Alone" throbs and howls at ear-splitting volume until it reaches a loose and plinking outro, a surprising moment of levity after a surge of brute force; "Caught Up" takes the opposite route, as the band leaves behind a cool-headed groove to gallop through a tenacious, quadruple-time bridge. "Holy Books" detours suddenly into what Keeler calls "a piano, Pink Floyd-y, Bowie-esque moment." "The song becomes a bittersweet thing that happens only through that section," he says. "Without that, it's just a thrash-through song with a bunch of big riffs."
"Those are some of the most adventurous and most musical moments on the record," Valentine tells Revolver. "Death From Above are playing a very important role in rock music right now. A lot of musical genres have been afflicted with this need to make music that's very familiar. But rock music is not supposed to be safe and familiar."
Death From Above's continued aversion to "going through the motions" helps them as they attempt to escape this trap. "You can't check out — it's a brain challenge," Keeler says. "It's more fun to always feel like you're learning in some way rather than just doing what you're comfortable with."