Bass-drum duo and Toronto outsiders DEATH FROM ABOVE (formerly suffixed with “1979”) used to savour outrage; now they’re frankly sick of it, according to drummer-vocalist Sebastien Grainger.
“In Canada we have a certain amount of freedoms, but we don’t have a constitutional freedom of speech. There are laws about it but it’s not written in the DNA like it is in America. Strangely, that is the place where it seems to spark so much controversy. Observing how conversations are happening, not only online but in real life between people, between friends in the political climate, it seems to be escalating. There’s an outrage culture.”
The duo’s third and latest LP, Outrage! Is Now, is a rebuke of this hysterical society and, ironically, the pair’s most furious effort yet. These new ten tracks are a gargantuan infusion of disco-punk, electro-operatics and metal-isms mediating on the overwhelming heaviness of being in the year 2017.
Grainger is a lot less naive than when he and bassist Jesse F. Keeler hit explosive success with their 2005 debut You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine, before their untimely combustion the very next year. After the pair’s estrangement, devoted fans of their overdriven bass mania didn’t let the band stray from memory, culminating in the fervent response to their touring return in 2011 and The Physical World in 2014, depicted in the documentary Life After Death From Above 1979. Outrage! Is Now, for Grainger, is a purer return to form for the band than The Physical World.
“It’s just following our instinct,” he says. “Not second guessing as much, or at least not letting someone else second-guess. It was like the first time, it really was.”
Grainger also notes that his lyric writing “muscles have gotten stronger” and finding a strength of style in diminution, ironically parallel to the minimalism of the “comment section” discourse he bemoans on second single ‘Never Swim Alone.’
“On the last record even I was trying new things like narrative songs,” he says. “Songs about a historical event or things like that while on this record, I just wanted to write reductive statements about things. I was trying to say as much as I could in as few words as I could.”
Grainger’s falsetto yelp grapples with the absurdities of the twenty-first century in word association style: “Valet park my hump machine, Backseat conceive, so unclean.” Both it and album highlight ‘Caught Up’ represent a musical update for the duo too; slinkier, funkier, lacking their trademark thrash.
“I was very conscious of wanting to take chances,” says Grainger. “And I was encouraging him [Jesse] to do that. And so whenever he would write, I would automatically be attracted to the most far out thing. I think ‘Caught Up’ came from the first batch of demos and I think it’s the only one that survived.
“Much to his chagrin, I just kept bringing it to the table. I think at a certain point he regretted ever writing it because it was such a bizarre musical phrase but in the end it’s one of our favourite songs on the record. It was nice to take those chances. We don’t lose anything for writing weird songs, it’s just more interesting for us.”
For the duo, this was something that the shackling pressure of a ‘comeback record’ on The Physical World often disallowed.
“We made the best record we could on The Physical World and we worked really hard on it but we had never made a record with a Hollywood producer. I think that a lot of the times we were letting him decide things that we should have fought a lot harder for.”
The ‘Hollywood producer’ Grainger references is Dave Sardy, whose dizzying resume spans from Slayer to Oasis. This high-end tension was something they had hinted at in interviews for the last LP mentioning moments of “frustration”, as Keeler put it to Faster Louder. For Outrage!… the pair tried to remedy this with self-production before running into issues.
“Jesse and I are like brothers,” says Grainger. “So we don’t really like to criticize or upset each other, making it in a sense difficult to push songs forward together. I really appreciate someone there to challenge me, if only to make me certain that those are the right ideas. If someone asks me why are you doing that, I can explain it, then it makes the whole thing better. If I can’t explain then fuck it, we’ll change it.”
The pair at this crossroads, keen to avoid acrimony, brought on Eric Valentine, someone Grainger has admired for most of the last decade.
“With Eric, there was never an argument about anything, our idea was the best idea always, and he never pretended to know better than us. He knows how to make records and he just let us flex our music.”
It’s no wonder that a hands-off approach works best for the pair; their psychotic grooves have never been easily pigeonholed, bemusing some to the limits of their bass and drum combination or where they really fit in. Grainger muses that they’ve never really fit in anywhere (despite wanting to “out-disco-punk” LCD Soundsystem), because their primary constant was never genre based.
Grainger explains that “the approach to playing was that aggressive form, no matter what we were listening to;” something that relates also to the stylistic changes of their own on Outrage! Is Now. Death From Above have carried a zealous and subversive drive through hiatus, growing pains and copycats (looking at you, Royal Blood) to remain as thrilling as their sweaty conception seventeen years ago.
Outrage! Is Now is out now via Last Gang Records. When pressed on whether the band would, on the off chance, ever play Canberra when they tour, Grainger replied: “We will … on that off chance”.