Blood On Their Hands - Interview by Rachael Clegg
DFA are from Canada, but want to save America from itself - as well put the world to rights in between pummelling out dirty bass lines and thundering drum work out outs - Rachael Clegg finds out what makes this bomb tick...
Sebastien Grainger wears a bandana with the American flag on it, a white vest and a sufficient beard. At 6í2 he has to slouch against the wall to avoid towering over me. Unfortunately, the only place available to talk in the Night and Day is a dingy corridor, well, not only dingy, but dingy and painted in garish orange and which happens to be the bottle disposal department. Words are mingled with the sound of crashing glass - in terms of decibels it would be the equivalent of the sound of a herd of elephants. The bandana, vest, dreadful noise and orange walls make it quite a surreal, and slightly comical context in which I pick Graingerís brains about Death From Above 1979.
MM: First let us begin with the band name. I typed ĎDeath From Aboveí into the Internet and was presented with numerous websites on ĎNam veterans and fighter-bombers. Is the name anything to do with this?
SG: Itís entirely to do with that Ė the name comes from the American paratrooper motto, which is Ďdeath from aboveí so itís actually a term that symbolises jumping out of planes and shooting at people. Weíve encountered Vietnam vets who have challenged our name. It humbles you when someone actually knows what it means and has experienced that.
MM: The 1979 bit of your name, this is a tenuous link, but does it by any chance have anything to do with the Life of Brian, which came out in 1979?
SG: My father is British so I have grown up watching [this film].
MM: Humour was quite a central part of your show, in terms of your interaction with the crowd, that is, and it seems you both have a very dry, ironic and deadpan sense of humour. Is your humour derivative of your dadís, and could you put this down to ĎBritishnessí.
SG: I donít know about the music, I donít think there is that much humour in the lyrical content of the music but definitely my humour is derivative of my fatherís, for sure. Dry wit and dry sarcasm is very British.
MM: Itís a shame though, because it seemed that the crowd didnít seem to respond too well to your comments, particularly when you essentially mocked racism. Your announcement that Ďracism can be funí was not whole-heartedly understood, it seemed.
SG: Well, whatís Ali G?
MM: It can be frustrating when society fails to perceive irony, especially where racism is concerned. It is racism that should be challenged through humour and not race itself yet the two become confused with one another.
SG: Thatís [something] that we try to challenge all the time: peopleís sensitivity to racism and prejudice and sexism. That is something that needs to be challenged in order to eliminate it I think, eliminate the reality of it. Humour is way more effective to destroy it [than other methods].
MM: You are taking the piss out of the problem and not the cause. This is obviously incredibly nuanced territory, however, during the gig Jesse (Keeler) joked that ĎI donít like black peopleí and the audienceís response was that of silence. Whilst you were obviously mocking the problem, i.e. racists, and not the cause, i.e. race, your comment was still misunderstood as harmful. Do you make these sorts of jokes at all your shows?
SG: Itís just something that we joke about all day long.
Ironically, despite the fact we are talking about irony and humour Sebastien couldnít be more serious and stolid. Unless Sebastienís seriousness is ironically lacking in irony and therefore I ironically missed it.
MM: Do audience responses vary to these sorts of comments from country to country?
SG: Definitely, in our hometown people sort of know us from what we do [the humour] is a lot more effective and successful, but in places where we donít play very often people donít quite get it.
SG: Like here !
MM: Going back to the music, what I have listened to seemed like a juxtaposition between dirty, gritty riffs and romantic lyrics, such as those in ĎRomantic Rightsí where talk of monogamy and children are contrasted with sexy, visceral music. Is this a new type of love song?
SG: When Jesse and I came together we were both solo artists and, when you listen to [Jesseís] solo projects [such as] Femme Fatal, theyíre very riff-orientated, punk rock, trashy reckless music. What I was doing was [music with] very pretty lyrics pretty over-the-top of pretty melodies. What I knew, and what he knew [were very different] and when we came together thatís what sort of happen[s], you get this sort of dirtiness and this sweetness, which is the reality of my life.
MM: On your album cover the picture comprises portraits of Jesse and yourself, with elephant trunks. I have only seen one video, but it didnít seem particularly surreal, unlike your album image. Do you ever consider dabbling in surrealism for your videos?
SG: We are in the process of working with an animation company and making those characters come alive so thatís sort of [what we are working on now]. The elephant trunk thing came from a concept [of mine]; I wanted to use our faces and our image as something to sell the band and Jesse wanted to use a logo. The result was our faces obscured by an elephant trunk.
MM: Returning to more serious matters, it seems that when listening to Death From Above, particularly Jesseís bass-playing, there exists a wealth of influences from jazz to punk to metal. Which musicians have influenced Jesseís playing?
SG: Jesse grew up listening to a lot of soul and R Ďní B music, and also, he listens to a lot of hip-hop and house music when heís alone. Thatís where the bass lines [are coming from]. Also, heís a guitar player, so the bass lines are a result of his technique as a guitar player.
MM: Thatís what I wanted to ask actually, whether Jesse learned to play guitar or bass first as the bass is played like a guitar.
SG: He learned guitar first.
MM: In the drums there was definitely a Bonham-esque power there, I wondered which drummers you are inspired by?
SG: My inspiration for drumming is most definitely from the seventies: John Bonham, [Led Zeppelin], Bill Bruford from Yes. Those are the drummers I listen to.
SG: With Zeppelin itís the sum of the parts, I mean itís everything together. I mean, I could say Moby Dick because itís a ten-minute drum solo.
SG: Iím not positive. Iím not entirely sure where we fit in or whether we fit in at all. Thatís up to the buyers and the public to decide.
MM: I read that originally you had two bassists, how do you compensate for the missing bassist now that you have just one?
SG: By playing through two separate amps. [Thatís how we get the distorted sound.]
At this moment the elephant herd-like crashing of bottles is at its loudest.
MM: What are your ideas for the next album and is the material similar to what we heard tonight?
SG: Itís going to be dependent on circumstance; our bandís based on circumstance. Our ideal is to make it way more precise and groove-orientated, I donít know, it might a dance record. Originally our idea was to have the most extreme songs we have ever written as well as the most serious, and then everything else is in-between. Weíll see what happens.
MM: Is there a particular reason why you wear a bandana with the American flag imprinted on it? Not that there is anything wrong with it, I am just curious? Most American artists I have seen make a explicit case of excusing themselves from any association with the American administration, such as REM, Martha Wainwright, Bonnie Raitt and Sparta, yet you are Canadian and wear a bandana with a US flag on it.
SG: I think that America is a beautiful country and I think people should remember that America is not only the administration that is in power right now but that it has a lot of variety. People forget that before America was this Ďevil enterpriseí it was just a regular place. From the person who is the most politically involved to the person who is the least politically involved there are a lot of beautiful people in-between.
MM: There is a real anti-American vibe amongst a lot of young people in Britain, which is sadly often solely fuelled by political views. This is more acute amongst students, who probably formed a large portion of the crowd this evening. What do you think about that?
SG: Itís the same thing in Canada and the US but you have to remember that America is not George Bush and America is not the administration, America is the people who live in it, the people who live in it are generally good people, even if they are mislead, they are good people. It is a beautiful, beautiful place and it needs to be saved and we are not going to save it by hating it....
words: Rachael Clegg
pictures: (c) DFA Website
(c)(p) December 2005 - mbm licenced to musicdash