There’s a rumbling in the distance. A menacing throb, a low-level distortion rippling along the pavement. The return of Death From Above 1979 caused literal shockwaves, with their infamous comeback show at SXSW in 2011 resulting in actual, genuine rioting on the streets of Texas.
The duo’s new album ‘The Physical World’ (review) is out now – an eye-bleeding, visceral comeback that is more than worthy of their name. About to commence a UK tour, DFA1979 will make their grand return to London on Monday (October 20th) before headlining the Clash stage at this year’s Simple Things Festival in Bristol on Sunday October 25th.
Clash got on the blower to bassist Jesse Keeler (the other half to Sebastien Grainger on drums and vocals) to discuss ‘The Physical World’, life on the road and the band’s incredible live show.
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DFA1979, ‘Trainwreck 1979’, from ‘The Physical World’
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How do you prepare for a tour like this?
Oh God. Step one is trying to find all the clothes in my house. There’ll be a full day of just laundry, all day long – that’s the beginning. It’s so exciting! Hopefully I’ll find enough socks and underwear to last me. I dunno, man, I’ve been touring for a long time and I’ve got this one suitcase which I’ve had for the last 10 years and I never really fully unpack it. It’s actually sitting a few feet away from the bed and I’m so used to living out of it that when I do laundry I just put the clean clothes in a pile in the suitcase. Living out of a suitcase for a long time has made it very comfortable for me.
That reminds me of Robert De Niro in Heat: “Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat.”
Yeah! Although I thought you were going to say the GG Allin movie. He’s like: “I’ve got one pair of pants, one shirt. Get into town quick, stay one step ahead of the law.” He didn’t own anything! Just one pair of pants. I’m not there yet! I think I’ve got three pairs of pants.
DFA1979 have an imposing live reputation. Does that place extra pressure on you both to perform?
It’s weird because we’ve never discussed what we’re going to do when we go onstage to perform the songs. Everything that we’ve been doing all these years we felt like doing at the moment, I guess. It’s weird. It is a weird pressure, but I never think about what I’m about to play – it only comes up in interviews. Or maybe an idle moment, not long before playing: what the hell am I going to do up there? I have no idea, I’m just trying to play the songs!
Is this an album in which the songwriting has been informed by your live show?
It’s got to be that way. I want to write the songs, but I imagine playing them live to start with – right from the first riffs that I’m writing, I have to sort of imagine playing them for other people. That’s the test in my mind. It’s like, if I can’t imagine myself playing that in front of a crowd, then I usually scrap that idea.
Are you both quite strict on yourselves during the writing process?
Sometimes. It really depends on the songs. There are some things during the process of writing the song that we’ll not change. Our song ‘Peppermint Trash’, nothing ever changed in that song from the moment we decided it was a song. There’s a bunch of songs on the record that are exactly as we envisioned right from the beginning. Y’know, interestingly enough it doesn’t matter how complex those songs might be, they’re always easy to play because they’re so natural. What my body wanted to do.
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DFA1979, ‘Government Trash, from ‘The Physical World’
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Did you both arrive in the studio with reams of influences, with pointers on where to go?
Songwriting is just decision-making. Why this note and not that note? I have to have a reason. Then sometimes you’ll try to do something that might be… not uncomfortable, but not the same as something which comes very naturally. Then when you have to play those things live they require a bit more thought.
Are you still a big metal fan?
Metal fan? As in heavy metal? And black metal? And death metal? Absolutely. Always. Metal is like the one… I’ve learned that I have to qualify that and say: real metal. A friend of mine plays in Sepultura and he’s always talking about false metal. I had to ask him what he meant, and he said: y’know, this metal made by pretty people. There’s a technical thing, but there’s also got to be a feeling.
Is that impact something you want in your own music?
Oh yeah. And that was a struggle with us this time round because the guy who was producing us (Dave Sardy) was really trying to control that feeling. He got that for playing live it’s full-on all the time, and his concern was that to make a record this full-on all the time there’s no break and maybe people will miss the music through being too distracted, or caught up in the pummelling and missing the fact that there are melodies and notes and stuff.
But you rebelled!
Well, I think it sounds like it. He would say interesting things, like he asked me if I could play bass like I wasn’t showing off. I was like, “I’m not trying to show off here, I’m just playing the songs.” I’m the only instrument that is not drums or singing! So how do I not show off if I’m right out in the open the whole time? Then he said, “Try to play the bass as though you’ve just learned how to play it.” You don’t want it to be a Steve Vai record!
It’s a weird thing to be asked to do, because there’s an element when you’re playing a song for me anyway, which is like trying to stay on a horse when it’s bucking around. So it was weird. I got used to it and in the end I think that’s how it comes across – as easy but not too showy, even when it gets very complicated. Again, I think if we could make the record again totally differently I would still be totally happy with it because the songs were live things first. That’s a f*cking horrible sentence, just score that out! Just make up every answer for me, but make it interesting!
You’re coming back to the UK shortly, is that exciting?
It’s great. It’s been a few years since we got to tour properly because we’ve been making this record for so long. The other thing about coming over to the UK that makes me very happy is that it’s at the end of this tour, and that’s always the best because you’ve already been playing every day so your fingers will be as fast and as callused as it can get. Whatever’s going to break will have broken and been fixed by the time we get there. So I’m looking forward to it.
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Interview: Robin Murray
‘The Physical World’ is out now. Death From Above 1979 online. See them live as follows:
20th – Electric Ballroom, London
21st – Gorilla, Manchester
22nd – Garage, Glasgow
24th – Plug, Sheffield
25th – Simple Things Festival, Bristol (Clash Stage – buy tickets)