Make no mistake—Death From Above 1979 is huge. But if you’re an average Canadian, you probably don’t know that. What many people don’t know is Jesse Keeler and Sebastien Grainger are rock stars in a lot of countries. Their first single “Blood On Our Hands” hit the Top 40 on the UK charts and the rabid British music press loves them. They’ve toured the globe twice behind their critically acclaimed LP, You’re A Woman, I’m a Machine.
Here’s what you might know: DFA 1979 is a two-piece with Jesse Keeler on bass and synth and Sebastien Grainger on drums. They are from Toronto and formed in 2001. They’re playing in town next week—Thursday, May 5 at The Attic and Friday, May 6 at The Pavilion. If you come across an article about them, it probably says something about how their buzz-infused sound mixes punk, alternative rock, metal and indie dance like a witches brew of sexed-up noise.
These art-punks from Toronto are something special. But not many people in their native land outside of the independent college music scene have a clue who DFA 1979 is. Keeler has an interesting theory behind it.
“I blame socialism because it’s a stupid system that doesn’t think people should be rewarded when they do more or when they better themselves,” he says. “Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Broken Social Scene, Avril Lavigne, Shania Twain, any successful artist from Canada, unless they’re from Quebec, didn’t ever have any success in Canada until they went down to the States and were successful there.
“Like why? They were here, they were fucking doing it,” he rants. “There is something wrong with the way we view our own art. There is something there because it’s been like this for the last 40 years.”
Keeler relates his situation to the age-old adage of the two fishermen, one on either side of the Canadian and American border, fishing for lobsters. “The Canadian doesn’t have a lid on his bucket of lobsters. The American asks, ‘Why don’t you have a lid on your bucket of lobsters?’ The Canadian says, ‘Don’t worry, they’re Canadian lobsters; if one starts to crawl to the top, the others will reach up and pull him down.’”
It’s not that the guys in DFA 1979 are arrogant and believe they should be the biggest band in the country. They are just extremely confident in what they do and the value behind the songs they create. Like a rock ‘n’ roll epiphany, Grainger and Keeler knew their lives changed permanently the moment they completed their first song, “Too Much Love,” from their Heads Up! EP.
“The first time we played a song all the way through with me singing, playing drums, and Jesse playing bass, we knew it was going to work,” Grainger says. “That’s all we were concerned with—liking it.”
Keeler remembers being more excited when they stumbled on what he knew instantly to be a good thing. “We said to each other, ‘This is going to be huge, people are going to want to hear this.’ We figured it out, we’ve got the formula, the experiment has been successful,” he says. “We literally knew that—I’m not making it up. Everything’s been going according to plan ever since. I know it sounds ridiculous, but it is possible.”
They set lofty goals for themselves, one of which was to play on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, their favourite late night program and a show known for showcasing the best in cutting-edge music acts. That dream became a reality on March 12. The guys say that they were more nervous watching the show afterwards than actually performing.
“While we were waiting to play, I’d bump into the trumpet player as he was going to grab a sandwich or whatever,” Keeler says. “We were hanging out with Max Weinberg, talking about arthritis in his hands and playing drums. It felt like we were playing a show, but a variety show, and it was really good because we had only one song to play.”
The trajectory to success hasn’t always been smooth, however, and as Keeler likes to point out, that has especially been the case in Canada. Before the release of You’re A Woman, the band applied for a VideoFact grant to shoot a promo for “Romantic Rights.” It was rejected by the MuchMusic Network funding agency. Eventually DFA 1979 got the money needed to shoot the clip—a brilliant Lite-Brite-themed visual spectacle created by Ghostmilk Studios, the same production company that did Wintersleep’s last two videos. It became a sensation and a source of vindication, hitting the top 10 list on MTV UK and receiving major airtime in Japan and Europe before it was even played back home. Not that the band is bitter.
“If any other Canadian band reads this, I hope they don’t get discouraged if no one in Canada doesn’t pay attention to you because it hasn’t paid attention to anyone until later on in their careers,” Keeler says. “So you just have to continue on and not get bogged down or frustrated if it doesn’t work out in Canada at first because it doesn’t for anyone.”
The group also found themselves answering a lot of questions about the ambiguous nature of their lyrics and cover artwork on which the two have elephant trunks for noses. To the wrong person’s ears, the lyrics could come across as depraved, predatory, and perhaps even misogynistic. But Grainger, who writes the lyrics, goes out of his way to downplay that angle, almost getting annoyed by the suggestion that the words to his songs resemble anything remotely chauvinistic.
“The lyrics aren’t meant to be taken literally,” he says. “I understand that there’s a stereotype for a rock and roll musician and for some parts that is true. When we’re on the road, there is a lot of stereotypical rock things available to us.”
“There’s a lot of booze, if you want it; if you want girls, they’re there,” Grainger adds. “But I didn’t start a band to fuck girls and get drunk every night. I don’t do that—I’m happy to walk around, holding hands with a girl than finger banging them in an alley.”On a more personal level, DFA 1979’s balls-to-the-wall tour schedule also had an adverse effect on Grainger’s health. For two years the drummer/ vocalist dealt with a nasty and painful case of chronic tonsillitis. He flew back to Toronto after the South by Southwest Festival in Texas last month, had the tonsils removed by laser on a Monday, then flew to Los Angeles to perform a show later that week on Friday.
Perhaps that’s why the duo is so self-assured when they talk about their music. The group has been touring ever since it had enough songs to do so, rarely taking a break in four years. Through the pain of chipped teeth and cracked, bloody hands attributed to fierce live shows and a lifestyle that indirectly forced one member to get a body part removed, DFA continues to toil, bringing its ass-shaking rock-fest to the appreciative masses.
It doesn’t stop there. After two shows in Halifax, Keeler and Grainer head to Japan, then to the UK to begin recording their second full-length album in the studio Keeler plans to build between tours. It’s fair to say that the duo will keep a full schedule for a long time to come.
“We’re just going to continue on and try to maintain the tidal wave we’ve been creating,” Keeler says. “As it crashes around the world, we will continue to make music and entertain people to the best of our ability while really entertaining ourselves. When people don’t want to see it anymore, we’ll go away and that’s all anyone could ever want or ask for from a band.”
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