Death From Above 1979 made a bold statement with its 2004 debut full-length, You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine. Drummer Sebastien Grainger and bassist Jesse Keeler created a unique sound together that was bigger than most would ever expect from a bass-and-drums duo, equal parts noisy punk and fist-pumping dance-rock, but beyond easy categorization.
An “inhumane” amount of touring earned them a rabid fan base but also caused enough exhaustion and interpersonal strain that the duo called it quits in 2006. In the downtime Grainger was able to stretch out on solo outings like 2008’s Sebastien Grainger & the Mountains and 2013’s Yours to Discover, on which he played most of the instruments. But in 2010 he reached out to Keeler about playing music again, which led to some well-received reunion dates. DFA 1979’s return to the stage came at an undersize venue during South by Southwest in 2011 and was greeted by a small-scale riot—a testament either to how much the duo was missed by their fans or to the feelings that their music has the potential to incite. This past fall saw the release of The Physical World, the band’s first album in almost a decade and its first release on a major label.
Grainger’s introduction to the drums was similar to that of many future rhythmatists who were brought up in the late ’70s. “We had a Muppets kit in the basement,” Sebastien says, “so probably my first influence was Animal, who was based on Keith Moon. My father was a big Who fan, so it all made sense.”
Grainger’s development was supported by friends who had also caught the music bug. “The last few years of high school I went to an art school and played percussion,” the drummer recalls. “I hadn’t had any musical training, but I passed the auditions just based on feel. Once I started studying, I realized how far behind I was. I really cut my teeth playing with people. I had a core group of friends when I was a kid, and we kind of taught each other based on whatever was happening on the radio or [what was in] our older siblings’ record collections. I had a friend who had a sister who was much older than us, and she had all the classic rock records, Led Zeppelin and that kind of stuff. So that influence crept in too.
“Early on my biggest influences were Mitch Mitchell and Ringo Starr,” Grainger continues. “But my guitar playing happened at the same time—the Beatles were huge for me—and I thought my folks would never buy me a drumkit. I finally got my first one at twelve years old, so I’d already sort of delved into the songwriting aspect of music by then. Drumming for me grew out of that kind of adventure. I was never really a drummer’s drummer; I used it as a vehicle for songwriting and playing in bands.”
Coming of age in the ’80s and ’90s in the Toronto area made an impact as well. “U2 was very big to me, and obviously Nirvana,” Grainger says. “As a teen I found some more obscure stuff, like William Goldsmith of Sunny Day Real Estate, and at fourteen or fifteen I started going to local shows. The most important part of my formative playing years was going to punk and hardcore shows and seeing people play up close. Standing right beside a drummer was a huge thing. Before I’d experienced it, I was kind of a snob and had this distorted perception that punk was this unsophisticated music. But there was this math-rock band from Toronto called Holding Pattern, and their drummer, Evan Clarke, was such a monstrous drummer, and he was kind of a gateway. Checking him out, I really started to see the skill level involved.”
As the lead vocalist in DFA, Grainger finds drumming while singing a fairly natural act—though on songs that are heavy on the 16th notes, the cardio aspect can be a problem. “I sort of have to plot out where I’m going to breathe,” he says, adding that the original concept of DFA wasn’t a duo. In fact, Grainger wasn’t even supposed to be the drummer. “When we first started,” he explains, “Jesse had written a few songs, and the idea was for both of us to play guitar. He’d made these bed tracks of bass and drums and really simple riffs, and he started playing them in his car while we were driving around. Those basic tracks inspired us to just play [those parts], and we never did end up playing guitar.”
As proven by Physical World songs like “Right On, Frankenstein!” DFA can fill up lots of space with nothing but drums, bass, and vocals. But the band has no rules when it comes to the studio; the album-closing title track, for instance, includes loops, vocal harmonizers, and keyboards. “If we’re in a studio [and there’s] a piano or a Mellotron there, they’ll make it on the track,” Grainger says. “We don’t want to be so militant that we wouldn’t entertain those things. But I don’t want it to be two guys on the record cover and five on stage. It’s a tempting thing to do for certain two-piece bands, because the format can feel stifling. But creatively, I need those boundaries—and it’s so much more fun for me.”
DFA won’t be incorporating backing tracks or an offstage keyboardist anytime soon, but some electronics and loops have found their way into Grainger’s live rig. “I’ve used the Roland SPD-SX since the reunion, initially just for sampling in between songs,” Sebastien says. “I had a band, shortly before Death From Above got back together, in which I was playing kick and snare and covering bass and certain synth parts on the SPD-SX, while the other guy was playing keyboards and guitars. I would sometimes play along to loops, so I started incorporating that into Death From Above. We aren’t going to start playing to a click or anything, but there are a few instances on the record where there are parts we were never able to play live, and I’ll play them on the SPD-SX.”
Grainger has recently found other benefits to embracing electronics. “I just bought a Roland V-Drums kit as a means for practicing and writing,” he explains. “I grew up in a semidetached house, so practice time was pretty scarce. And now I live in a place that can’t accommodate a drumkit. I’d found that I could go months without playing drums, but I forgot that it was both a passion and a hobby when I was younger.” Grainger figures he’s played more in the past several months than he has in his entire adult life. “I’ll dedicate hours to playing,” he says, “and I’m not imposing noise on anybody. It’s almost like meditation for me now, and it’s been an amazing time of rediscovery.”
Tools of the Trade
Grainger plays a set of clear Ludwig Vistalites, including a 9×13 tom, a 16×16 floor tom, and a 16×24 bass drum, as well as a 6.5×14 Truth snare. His cymbals include a 24″ Paiste Giant Beat and 15″ Vintage A Zildjian hi-hats. He uses Promark sticks, a Rhythm Tech Hat Trick tambourine mounted on his hi-hat, an LP cowbell, and a Roland SPD-SX sampling pad.
Story by Stephen Bidwell
Photos by Alex Solca