Death From Above (who, in case you’ve been living under a rock, have quietly but officially dropped the former “1979” from their name) are set to play The Fillmore tomorrow night as part of a tour for their latest record, Outrage! Is Now, which was released earlier last month on Warner Bros. I hopped on the phone to one half of the duo, Jesse F Keeler, on Canadian Thanksgiving to talk about the LP, the hyper-emotionality that comes with hyper-connectivity, the persistence of vinyl, and, of course, about working with bodybuilders for the insanely fun, ultra-weird video for “Freeze Me”. Internet-eavesdrop on our full conversation below, grab a copy of the record, and be sure to catch the gig tomorrow night if you’re in town!
Congrats on the new record! Did you feel any pressure to get this latest record out within a “reasonable” amount of time?
I started writing it in the fall of 2015, so I’ve been chipping away at it for a while, but the intention was to have everything happen a year earlier. We did a big tour with Black Rebel Motorcycle Club last year, and we were both in the same boat in terms of our intentions to have records out at that time, but we went on tour together anyway. Their record is done too, now, I think. But we just needed more time to stew; we live on opposite sides of the continent, so it’s not so much that it’s hard to make time, but when you are together, that time becomes so important. Talk about pressure – that’d be the pressure. “Well, we’re together now, so we’d better do something amazing!”
Do you try to be in the same room together when you’re working on stuff? Or do you try to employ sending digital files back and forth to deal with the distance thing?
Something with this record that we wanted to do was not just write songs by jamming. We didn’t want to do that because we noticed that when we were writing in that way together, the way that we did initially when we started the band, the music was leaning towards the stuff we made at the beginning. So we wanted to evolve more, and when we were writing stuff, we’d really see the ideas through more before presenting them to each other. That’s generally how we do it; I’ll write out nearly an album’s worth of songs, and I’ll present them all to Seb, because I feel like the ideas make more sense in that context. It’s a more complete context, rather than just, “Here’s a bunch of riffs!” In the end, when we’re actually finally working on the record, everything’s sort of up for grabs – we might take a part from one demo and stick it into something else, and they all kind of become Lego blocks that you build with afterwards. That’s how we worked this time.
Going into it, when it first became clear that this was going to be a full-length, how did the narrative evolve from beginning to end? Did anything emerge that you hadn’t expected or intended initially?
Well, we’ve never written so much music for a record before. Generally, we write 10-11 songs, and those 10-11 are going to be on the album. This time around, though, I think we wrote about 20-something, and then picked through those. We let Eric [Valentine] choose the songs; we trusted his opinion, and it just made it easier for us to offload that responsibility. (And also, he knows what he’s doing.) Those became the record. In terms of a narrative, I don’t think that really developed until Seb had finished all the vocals. He likes to wait to write the lyrics until the instrumentals are finished so he can hear it all, and I know he likes to dive in and not think about having to play drums at the same time as he’s writing. As he was finishing vocals, I think I noticed a narrative appearing in terms of the tone. It’s always a reflection of where his head’s at, and that’s true on this one as well.
What’s going to happen to the tracks that didn’t make it on?
We didn’t even record them. We didn’t finish them with Eric or anything. But they’re all part of a bin full of wayward riffs that can be pulled out at any time. There’s a couple of things I made that I’m really happy with that I’d like to revisit, but when we were working on the record, the thought process was, “Okay, we’ve already got something that feels like this, so we shouldn’t have another song with a similar sort of feel to it on the record.” That’s the main reason certain things end up in the bin for now, but who knows?
I feel like “Who knows?” is kind of the overarching theme for this entire year.
You know what it is? It’s not that anything is any different than it’s always been, it’s just that we’re so connected to things that aren’t connected to us before. If you think about it, when there was that tsunami because of the earthquake in the Indian Ocean, 280,000 people died from that. 280,000. That’s the equivalent of a nuclear bomb going off in Minneapolis. It’s pretty massive. And obviously we reported on it a fair bit, but (I don’t know about you) it’s not like we connected to that in the same way. I was talking to someone else recently about how when I was a kid, when you watched the news it was mostly local, and things that were happening outside of the city, there’d be like an international moment that was five minutes of the broadcast, and you were more concerned with things that had a direct effect on you. Whereas now, with the omnipresence of the internet, it’s hard to even determine what affects you and what doesn’t, and everything sort of demands an emotional response, in a sense. Just by the sheer knowing of something, it’s hard not to be affected or have empathy. (At least for those of us who aren’t psychopaths.) If there’s anything that would define the record, Sebastien and I sort of recognized that our feeling that way about the events of the world is not normal. Or, maybe not “not normal”, but not common. And the title of the record is referencing that, in a sense, that everyone gets so upset all the time. And I don’t hold it against them, it comes with the circumstances, but if you’re upset all the time, it sort of becomes meaningless, you know? So when you’re a musician, I’d hope you’d take advantage of being able to be a bit of an observer. I hate saying “speaking truth to power”, but we are supposed to do that, and it’s hard if your perspective is so much in it and not being able to look at things from a distance and take it in in a different way.
I will say that, personally, as a writer and a human on the internet, it’s been overwhelming to consume and process and respond to all of it.
Oh god yeah. I can’t even imagine. People should be very thankful for freedom of speech, because most countries don’t have that. We don’t actually have it in our Canadian Constitution, which is a bizarre thing to me. I know most Canadians assume we have it, because we’re inundated with American media all the time, and we forget that we actually don’t. If I look at the last however many years, I don’t see the government censoring anyone’s speech. It’s all self-censorship, really. We’re personally so hyper-aware of what we say and do that we end up censoring ourselves. There’s no iron fist coming down on anybody, really, it just seems to be all internal these days.
Aside from how it’s changed the sort of news landscape, how do you feel the internet has impacted you as a musician since the formation of the band? Do you feel the impacts of the way people consume your music? And if you could go back to more “traditional” ways of consuming music, would you?
I’ll say that I’ve noticed in the music business that CDs have really become an afterthought. It’s all reverted back to vinyl. If people are going to pay money for a physical copy of something, they want to hold something substantial in their hands. It’s shocking; I can’t believe that’s what everyone’s been asking for. It’s nice for me, because that’s how I’ve been consuming music for so long; in the hardcore scene that I came out of, pretty much nobody was making CDs, and everyone was making records. And they were so cheap to make and buy, so in my formative years as a teenager, that’s how I got accustomed to consuming music. Although in the last however many years I’ve found myself ripping my records to be able to listen to them on my phone or computer on the road, whereas I used to make tapes. But I thought it was pretty cool to watch that happen, and it’s only been over the last ten years where everyone wants to talk about vinyl. Before that, it was just talking about what kind of CD packaging we wanted. It’s been interesting.
I went to a talk for Record Store Day, and hearing about how all of this has revived the vinyl pressing industry. Like, factories were closing, and now they can’t produce fast enough since the demand reignited so quickly.
Yeah, there’s new pressing plants opening up all over the place. It’s incredible. And really, it’s not so much the vinyl itself, it’s just the idea of people happening to have a physical relationship with the music – flipping the record and holding it in their hands, and thinking about how to store it, and be involved with the listening. I guess you could get the same thing from cassette tapes, but something about them being so small and the sound degrading so quickly, it’s not as exciting for me. But I think that’s what it is. I think people want to have a more involved relationship with music in that sense, and vinyl is still a really perfect way of doing it.
Meanwhile, the visual consumption of music is still going strong. So I guess finally, tell me about the video you guys did for “Freeze Me”, because it’s AMAZING. Who came up with the concept, and what was it like to work with those bodybuilders?
The director’s name is Corey; he’s from Vancouver, and we got sent a bunch of treatments by the record label, and they were all fine, but his treatment was really exactly what you see in the video. “A bunch of bodybuilders in a dilapidated mansion working out and eating corn dogs, hanging out with each other, having a party, lifting weights in a pool, and then they call in a nuclear bomb.” We were like, “That’s awesome.” So when they asked us if we wanted to be in the video as butlers at the party, we said, “SOLD!” It’s a piece of art, and it was a bit of an experiment, because I really enjoyed reading the YouTube comments of people’s theories about what it means, and I just kept thinking, “All of your theories are correct. You can read into it any way you want.” It’s been fun. When it’s so abstract, and also there’s just enough stuff to make you ask weird questions about it, it’s kind of perfect.