Published on January 25th, 2015 | by The Editor0
Interview: Sebastien Grainger from Death From Above 1979
Craig Silliphant has a phone chat with Sebastien Grainger, one half of Death From Above 1979, as he barrels down the 134 in Los Angeles.
The duo Death from Above 1979 met, made a record, because famous in indie rock/dance/electronica/whatever the fuck you call it circles, started to hate each other and broke up, took shots at solo careers, then got back together. Their latest album, ‘The Physical World, also made The Feedback Society’s Top 20 Albums of 2014 (which I’m sure is a huge honour for them).
I caught him on his carphone as he was barreling down the 134 in Los Angeles, where he lives most of the time these days. Though he got distracted while driving at times (which didn’t seem all that safe to me), I got a chance to ask him about trying to follow up on the legacy of ‘You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine,’ how his life has changed in the last decade, how they maintain a solid live show, and much more.
THE FEEDBACK SOCIETY: Obvious question. Where did you guys meet?
SEBASTIEN GRAINGER: Ah…where did we meet? I don’t know if I remember anymore. I think it’s on our Wikipedia.
TFS: It’s been over 10 years since last album. In following up an album that grew its own legacy after you guys broke up, how did you plan to follow that? Did you have to worry about how to still sound relevant?
SG: I don’t think we were relevant when we made the first record. I don’t think we sounded like anything at the time. It kind of remained that way. The cool thing is that the old record doesn’t sound dated. It came out of hardcore but it was not hardcore. And it wasn’t punk. And it wasn’t pop. It wasn’t dance and it wasn’t…something…you know, it was its own thing. Nothing came along to replace it. So it still isn’t relevant. It still doesn’t fit in anywhere.
TFS: You walked away from DFA and it grew its own legacy thanks to the lasting power of ‘You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine.’ You go to put out a second one — do you have to worry about having to live up to an album like that?
SG: Not really. What we discovered when we reunited in 2011 was that the band can’t help but sound like the band. No matter what we do, because of the form, the bass and drums, the way I sing and the way Jesse writes parts, and to a certain extent the way I write on drums, it’s gonna always sound like this band. No matter what we do. That was a strange feeling because when we got back together we didn’t know if anyone was going to be into it. It was all hypothetical.
What an audience is, is people standing in front of a band enjoying music, to me. The idea of the audience going out and buying your record in a store or the people that download your record or whatever, that’s such an abstract for a musician. We didn’t know if people were going to be into the band that we are, with so much time in between. And so much rhetoric about the band. They’re dance-punk. Or electro-metal, or whatever the stupid descriptors are, you know? That’s not what the band sounds like to me. It sounds like nothing else. It sounds crazy. But then when we started playing, we were like, fuck, this band is cool, you know? Sounds weird and awesome.
When we ventured to make a new record it was…sorry, I’m driving…we found that because the form was so well defined already, we spent a lot of time back in 2001 to 2005 making this sound work. When we came back to it, it still worked. You’re able to be free within those confines. To compose and write and introduce weird ideas and try different things musically. Because it’s put through the filter of what the band sounds like and how we define the band it ends up sounding like the band anyway.
In a rock n’ roll band, the m.o. is to proceed with extreme confidence. You can’t be in a rock band and not think that you’re the best rock band ever. That’s part of the job. So there wasn’t a lot of doubt in our minds when we ventured to make this record.
TFS: Going back to the split up — I don’t want to ask you the same question you’re being asked over and over, about breaking up. The story is already out there and it feels to me like it takes focus away from the music, when whole articles are about the drama of it all. Do you get sick of talking about it? Do you think it’s lazy journalism?
SG: It doesn’t matter to me. I haven’t done an interview in a couple of months, so I’m not sick of it at this moment. We also made a documentary about it [Life After Death From Above 1979]. The information is now as wide as it can be, public. If people want to know that story it’s more interesting to find that movie and watch it than it is for me to say the same thing again, you know? It’s boring, but most of interview fodder is boring anyway. No offence.
TFS: No, no, that’s totally what I’m trying to get at. It’s more rhetoric for the sake of drama. Did the solo work you did while you were away from the band affect DFA’s music?
SG: I think so. I feel like my ability…hold on one second [turning signal in the background]…my ability to “craft a song” has been sharpened over the years. When we first were a band, I’d written a bunch of songs, but I’d never written ten songs all the way through to put on a thing. I’d been in bands, but they were four piece bands. I’d write a couple of songs or whatever. But as far as a body of work goes, I’d never done it. Some people are very prolific and can just sit down and write, you know, two songs a day. I’m not that kind of writer. I take a lot of time to do it. That time has decreased through experience. When we made the first record that kind of established me in my own mind as a writer. It’s hard to call yourself something when you haven’t achieved anything. Even back in the day when we talked about writing the new record, in 2005 when we were talking about it, I was already thinking I wanted to write a ballad that was a story about someone else, not about me. I didn’t have the ability to do that in 2003 or 2002 or 2001. It wouldn’t have been any good. Through doing it a couple of times through my solo music, I’m able to do it, you know, write a song like ‘White is Red.’ By most perspectives it’s a fictional story that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. I don’t think I would have been able to do that on ‘You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine.’ One example of progress, I think.
TFS: Lyrically, it feels like there’s more storytelling on the album as a whole.
SG: The lyrics on the first Death From Above record, they have their own thing. They do the job. When I wrote those lyrics, they were more a vehicle to emote something in performance. I wanted to get this emotion across when we played the songs, so I wrote lyrics that would conjure up the required emotion. Those lyrics were a recipe for the performance. On this record, there’s some of that, but I was far more aware of the fact that people were observing it and I was going to have to live with them. Not that I was writing thinking about the audience, but in a way that’s like, as a songwriter I need to write good lyrics. I definitely paid more attention this time around.
I like lyrics. I like writing. I like melody and I love writing songs. There was a time when I resented it and that’s not too long ago. But I love it.
TFS: And on the personal side of things, you’ve literally grown 10 years older. That maturity must also add things to your point of view.
SG: I’m sure it does. That’s the thing. The lyrics to ‘Turn it Out’ off ‘You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine,’ those lyrics were written when I was 18 years old. The first verse was something I wrote in high school, a blues song I wrote in high school. It was just this little thing I recorded to cassette tape and may have shown to one friend. It was just this melody and this lyric that I had. When we made ‘You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine,’ I was still in my early 20s. So the proximity to my teenage years was real. I was still in that mode and rebelling against being a teenager, or against my folks or whatever. A lot of the songs were about my parents’ divorce, or about my friends, or being in bars, and a lot of the ideas were holdovers from being 18 or 19 years old. It would have been a mistake for me to try and emulate that now that I’m 35. I can’t write about myself being a teenager. If there’s any reference to youth on the record, it’s about ponderance of. ‘White is Red’ is about characters being young. ‘Virgins’ is about when I was young; it’s not about being young.
TFS: What did [producer] Dave Sardy bring to the team?
SG: Initially he started sitting in on rehearsals when we started writing. We sent him a handful of demos that he liked. And he came in and observed our process and gave us a couple of pointers in sort of a compositional way. Like, why are you playing that part at the end. It’s the best part. Why don’t you use it at the chorus? Oh, okay. That’s not new information, it’s just that you need someone objective to come in and say that.
It’s like when I was making my solo record, I was working with Jimmy from Metric, and he said the same thing. He was like, your bridges are always your choruses. Stop wasting your best part on a part that lasts 10 seconds and repeat it three times.
Jesse and I, because we hadn’t worked together in so long, it was important to work with someone else so that we wouldn’t just go back into the old mode. We’re quite easily satisfied between one another. We both respect and admire what one another do. It’s pretty easy to do something and then go, ‘okay, done.’ Dave’s role was to be objective and question our choices. If we could defend our choices, then great. If not then maybe there’s something wrong with them so we’d explore another idea. That was his most important role. Introducing that critical element to the band. It made us a better band and made the record better. We also went to him for his sonic ability. He’s really great at getting awesome drum sounds and producing vocal sounds. It was a challenge for him to record Jesse like it is for anyone because Jesse’s sound is so fucking wild that it’s almost impossible to translate to tape. I felt like we needed a big time guy to come in and fix that for us. Someone to say, this is how you record Jesse. Though he still didn’t really figure it out (laughs). But I think he did a really good job. It’s almost an impossible task.
TFS: Limitation breeds creativity. How do you harness this with the minimal set up that you have, using less than a typical four-piece rock band.
SG: The challenge is to not repeat yourself. If you repeat yourself, then it’s in a self-aware reference. It’s actually liberating to have confinements in a sense, you know? If you have too much freedom musically, and I’ll relate it to my solo music, between my first record and my second record I went into a crisis about what my music was going to sound like. On a production level, what do I want to sound like? That drew out the process of making my record for so long, because I was self-producing. Fuck guitars, I’m not gonna use guitars. Well, maybe just for guitar solos. I’m just gonna use synths, or whatever. It created this drawn out process that, in the end, you get to experiment a lot and I think the results are awesome, but with Death From Above, what the band sounds like is already decided. So we can just get on to making cool songs.
TFS: Let’s swing over to the live show. You’re not old men, of course, but you’re 35. Is it still easy to whip yourselves and the crowd into a frenzy or is it harder now that you’re older?
SG: The crowd is the easy part. Luckily we have an audience that’s ready to have a good time, largely. We just show up and make a lot of noise and they go crazy. The other stuff, performing well, playing well, singing well, that stuff was never easy. This band has always been difficult to perform in. I have to play drums and sing at the same time. That’s still hard. It didn’t get easier over the years. It didn’t get harder either. We’re better at doing it. I’m far more aware of what it takes for me to perform a show and I honour that far more than I did before. Before I was way more casual with it and now I really want to do a good job. Same for Jesse. There’s a risk with a band like us, only two guys, really loud. There’s a risk of it being a schtick. A goof that we’re doing. But we want to be really good at doing it. At playing. So that’s still the challenge.
TFS: Going back to ‘White is Red’ for a second, [Feedback Society writer Dave Scaddan] wanted me to ask you if there was a bit of winking at 80s power metal ballads. Maybe lyrically, but more in how it sounds and the production. Bands like Skid Row.
SG: That was not part of our frame of reference, but I don’t take that as an insult. I think that maybe that’s a lost art. I don’t know. But it was a deliberate attempt to write a ballad. It was about something that has a journey in it, a story, a narrative. It’s a driving song; it’s about being in a car. It’s a classic ballad. Like fuckin’ Springsteen, you know? He’s not far off. I mean, we recorded it in a big studio just like they used to in the 80s.
TFS: I think that’s about it. Thanks so much for your time, man. Have a great tour.
SG: Take it easy.