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Death From Above 1979

In today’s episode we speak with Jesse Keeler of Death From Above 1979 about the secrets to his bass sound, the origins of the band, the “Freeze Me” video, and their new album, Is 4 Lovers. Additional topics include Jesse’s musical upbringing, his thoughts on the future of music creation, and of course his affinity for Regular Slinky bass strings.

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Transcript

Evan Ball:
Hello, and welcome to Ernie Ball's Striking a Chord podcast. I'm Ernie Ball. Today we welcome Jesse Keeler from Death from Above 1979 to the show. Jesse and I discuss many things, such as the making of their new album, Is 4 Lovers. We talk about the band's early days in Toronto. Jesse lets us in on some of his bass sound secrets, which are, of course, critical in a two-member band. We discuss the future of music creation and the Freeze Me video. If you haven't seen it, I put a link to it in the show notes. I'd actually recommend watching it right now since we lead with it. It'll be three and a half minutes of your life well spent. But without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, Jesse Keeler. Jesse Keeler, welcome to the podcast.

Jesse Keeler:
Thank you for having me, long time coming.

Evan Ball:
Yes, this is great. I'm looking forward to it. And I think I want to start out talking about the Freeze Me video because it might be the greatest video ever. How did the concept for that video come about?

Jesse Keeler:
Literally, the guy who directed it, he's from Vancouver. And he sent in that treatment just out of nowhere. He had the whole idea in his head already, and then the record label were like, "Oh, you guys got to be in the video." And I thought, "Well, what is terrible bodybuilders?" So then I had the idea that why don't we be the... Why don't we just have cameos as the butlers at this weird muscle party? And they were into it. I learned that a plate full of 50 corn dogs is much heavier than you'd imagine. Yeah. But it was really a fun day and a very weird day too because it was filmed in this strange widow's house. It was way out of town outside of LA, like a couple hours out. And it was this giant house that her husband had designed for the two of them, but then he passed away before it was done. So the video is in the parts that are done, but the rest of the house was just untaped drywall.

Evan Ball:
Oh, how weird.

Jesse Keeler:
And the design of it, she hadn't changed anything. So it was exactly how he had left it. And so all that front... There was no staging to do. That's what was in the house.

Evan Ball:
Quite a pad. And for our listeners who haven't seen it, you're probably getting an idea of what the video is, but it's basically like a bunch of giant bodybuilders in a super posh mansion just being fabulous, living a life of luxury. Is there a cultus thing going on with the white robes, or is that just part of being highbrow?

Jesse Keeler:
I think the director was trying to get something like that going. There's that scene where they're all standing around in a circle in the robes, and then they all eat an ice cube at the same time.

Evan Ball:
So good. Yeah. I mean, there's this overarching... Not to dwell on this for too long. There's this overarching theme of the city in the distance that's going to hell, and these guys are at a safe distance living high on the hog. But within the concept, there's just so many great shots. Do you have any favorites? I mean, the guitar solo was amazing.

Jesse Keeler:
Well, I'm pretty sure it was Seb and I, idea to put the dog in it. That was just the director's dog that was there. I feel like I spent a lot of time with that dog when they were shooting other things, just hanging out with it because it was barking at people when it wasn't attended to. But yeah, that whole scene on the balcony looking out was so cool because they're really... I mean, it really is just on location in that crazy house.

Evan Ball:
I'm glad you brought up that dog because I, for some reason, love that scene when the older buff dude is holding the dog and sort of evaluating, admiring the dude doing sit-ups.

Jesse Keeler:
Yeah. That is definitely one of the most interesting shots.

Evan Ball:
Yeah. There seems to be something inherently funny about lifting weights to music. Who got to cast the characters because someone did a phenomenal job?

Jesse Keeler:
Those bodybuilders were the nicest people ever. I wish that we had been involved with that, but it was so interesting because when they were all there, you learn that that world is actually... It's just like the music scene in a sense like all these bodybuilders hadn't met before that, but then they all knew each other, and they have this whole world that the one guy, the guy who's pretending to do the guitar solo, he had a competition the next day. So he was in the most-

Evan Ball:
Extra ripped.

Jesse Keeler:
... rendered version. And just like the way... They were using real weights for a lot of the time in the exercise because they didn't want to use the fake ones.

Evan Ball:
Of course not.

Jesse Keeler:
They were like, it didn't feel right. They couldn't fake it.

Evan Ball:
Right.

Jesse Keeler:
This director do just... That was all in his head. If I could find the original treatment, it would read pretty much exactly as the video turned out.

Evan Ball:
Yeah. I was just wondering how you can convey the concept, do it justice on a piece of paper, and say, "Hey, what do you think we do in this?"

Jesse Keeler:
It was admittedly probably a paragraph and a half long, but he had it. It was all there.

Evan Ball:
I'm a fanboy obviously of that video, so well done.

Jesse Keeler:
Well I'm glad.

Evan Ball:
All right. Before we get to the new album, maybe we can go back and grab some band history.

Jesse Keeler:
Sure.

Evan Ball:
I was watching your documentary Life After Death from Above 1979. So in it, you're talking about the early days, and you guys had a gig plan in the US for September 12th, 2001. And then it gets canceled because of 9/11. So I know the band starts around this time, but-

Jesse Keeler:
It starts on that day.

Evan Ball:
Okay. So, the gig you're talking about is from a previous band that you and Sebastian had together?

Jesse Keeler:
Yeah. So, we didn't live in the worst neighborhood, but it wasn't the type of neighborhood where you leave all your gear in the van overnight when you have to leave in the morning. And so we had just put all the gear in the living room, ready to take out the door the next day. And we'd been up until, I don't know, six o'clock in the morning or something. I fell asleep on the couch, sitting up with the TV on, and when I woke up, that's when I saw the first building on fire, and then I went to wake Seb up. I'm like, "Hey, you got to see this man." And then he was like, "Ah." I go back downstairs, and then I watched the other one happen, and I go up, and I'm like, "Dude, it happened again. You got to come down here." And so all of us who or had been intending to go to Detroit and play with The Blood Brothers that night or that next day-

Evan Ball:
Was this Femme Fatale?

Jesse Keeler:
Yeah.

Evan Ball:
Okay. You were the lead singer in this band, right?

Jesse Keeler:
I was the everything. All the instruments... That was something that I wanted to do, I fantasize about making one more record, and I guess I probably should. I have a records worth of ideas, but over the time I started just putting any riffs that I would have used for that, I just started to put into Death from Above instead, and the most obvious example is our song called Government Trash. That song sounds amazing on guitar, and when I don't have to really cycle through the notes on the bass, I can actually hit the chord.

Evan Ball:
Yeah.

Jesse Keeler:
Anyway, that day I just... I'm a musician. I make music with my hands and the stress of that moment... And it was weird too because there was fighter jets flying around our city because they were... I don't know why anyone would want to crash into the CN Tower, but I guess that was a worry. It was just a weird vibe. No one was on the street.

Evan Ball:
No one understood what was really happening. So it was just paranoia everywhere.

Jesse Keeler:
And so I was just looking at all the amps, and I didn't even own a bass. Someone had left this Squier Jazz bass in our house that didn't have a case or anything, it was just leaning up against a corner in the living room, and I just thought, "Oh, maybe I'll just plug in a bunch of amps that are here and... Wait, how am I going to split this bass signal? Oh, I got my dad's old Ibanez chorus pedal. Why don't I try that? Oh, wow. I never actually used this stereo out on this chorus pedal before. Well it works. Oh, it's just a really fast pan between two amps. Wow the bass sounds a lot clearer now, when the signal is split like this and the mud is gone." And I've got all this definition, and I was playing through Solid-State amps, to hell this attack, and I'm like, "I'm going to make up some songs." And so I wrote three of the songs that are on our first DP, Heads Up, that day.

Evan Ball:
Wow.

Jesse Keeler:
I keep saying this, but at some point... My lady says, at some point, you got to stop saying this, but drums are my real instrument. I started playing drums when I was three years old in 1979. I've played drums in bands. I've been asked to play drums in bands. I've done it a lot, but I actually played drums in one of the songs in this record, but like-

Evan Ball:
So in Femme Fatale, though, were you already a... Were you playing guitar and singing? If you play live? Didn't you have a full band?

Jesse Keeler:
Yeah. Well, it was actually other people that gave me the idea because they were just records. I made three records like that, where I played and wrote everything. And most of those records are first or second take because I just had it all in my head. And in terms of playing the bass, I wouldn't say I was a bass player. I was just a bass operator. You know what I mean? Like, "Hey, what would I do on the guitar?" But if I only had one or two fingers and couldn't play chords and wanted to pull the feeling of the chords or what was happening with the guitars around.

Evan Ball:
So, bass comes to the fore on 9/11, right? As far as it being your main instrument?

Jesse Keeler:
Well, when we made that first recording, everything... There's so much that has to do with our band starting in that time. Femme Fatale had... I had a record out on a label from Berlin, I had another one out from a label in Vancouver, and we were getting asked to play shows, and basically, my friends heard these records and were like, "You should make a band and we'll play your parts." I'm like, "All right. That sounds cool." Being the singer in front of people was strange, but admittedly, I don't think I'm built to do that, but we were doing that stuff, and we had shows booked. And because there were so many people in that band and back then I was still sneaking across the border to play in America, we had some shows booked, and not everyone in the band could go.

Jesse Keeler:
So, Seb and I, who had started Death from Above on the side, we're like, "Well, we could go. It's just the two of us. We can go on a car and borrow cabs and stuff when we get there." Yeah. I mean, we played our first show ever in Long Island, second shows was in Boston.

Evan Ball:
I'm wondering about that cross-border that stood out. We had Stefan Babcock of PUP on the podcast. So also from Toronto, but he was saying... We were talking about how it can be tricky for Canadian bands to breakthrough in the US with visas and just the cost of navigating the border. Was that an issue then, or was it a pre 9/11 thing, or were you actually sneaking across?

Jesse Keeler:
I'm not going to get into a ton of detail about it because I'm a... I do things very legally, but before music, I didn't have any, what you'd call a legal occupation. I basically went from crime to music, and it worked out, but yeah, we would just... There was ways.

Evan Ball:
There were ways.

Jesse Keeler:
There were ways you could get across the border. And of course a lot of people I knew, you'd get snagged and then you'd get banned for 5 or 10 years if they felt like it. That's happened to lots of people that I knew from that time.

Evan Ball:
Oh, wow. Okay. Let's see. So back to Death from Above. So, that start, is the initial plan to be two people, or when does that decision come about to have it just two members?

Jesse Keeler:
Well, I just recorded the bass and the drums for those first three songs because I didn't want to forget them. And it was also something to keep me busy that day. But in my head, I thought Seb and I could play guitar over this, and we'll find people to play these easy bass and drum parts. But when Seb heard it, he immediately thought I want to sing over this. And so the initial thought was that we could find someone to play drums, and I'd just play the bass. And then one day... It was the middle of the day Sebastian just said to me, he's like, "You know, I think I could sing and play drums at the same time." And we went down in the basement and just, I mean, literally the very first time we played Dead Womb, that was it. It happened, and I remember we've finished the song, and we're just standing there, looking at each other. And I said out loud, "I think people are going to like this."

Evan Ball:
That's awesome.

Jesse Keeler:
It actually worked. And yeah, we just kept going from there, and that was the end of trying to bring anyone else on.

Evan Ball:
Were you roommates at the time?

Jesse Keeler:
Yeah. How do I say it? I don't know what the statute of limitations on anything is, but I had a house, and Sebastian and this one other guy that he'd known needed a place to live, and I had three bedrooms, so I'm like, "Hey, come on down." And it all happened while we were living together, which of course, made the writing really easy. You could just walk downstairs and play.

Evan Ball:
Yeah, that's great. That's got to be a nice benefit to whenever the creativity sparks. You're there to make it happen and run with it.

Jesse Keeler:
Oh, yeah. And it's something that really troubles me for the future. I mean, at that time, I was 25 years old, and I could afford to find a detached house in the City of Toronto. Now, I don't think you could buy a detached garage for that much money. And I wonder about... I think about the future me somewhere who is going to want to start a band and be loud, and they're going to have to be rich. I mean, even a little tiny rehearsal space costs thousands of dollars a month.

Evan Ball:
Yeah. You don't think about that, just to set the table to allow creativity to come forth.

Jesse Keeler:
I mean, I know that financial situation isn't the same everywhere, but at least for Toronto, I think that all the rock bands are either going to be the children of rich kids or from the suburbs. Because that's the only place, you could... Being loud is kind of a bit of a privilege to have. Especially when you're a kid to, a have parents that are like, "Oh yeah, you need drums? You want a 24 inch ride?" And then be able to play them and not have neighbors complain. I mean, that's not condo life.

Evan Ball:
You know what this reminds me of is I just saw... I don't know if you've seen the new Billie Eilish documentary that came out.

Jesse Keeler:
No. But I could quiz my daughters, and I'm sure they'd tell me-

Evan Ball:
Yeah. Well, it's really amazing and fortunate that it's just brother and sister who live together. And it's again this dynamic of having the perfect setting to be creative. I mean, they needed each other to play with each other, and they both have so much natural talent, but they're also so lucky that they're brother and sister and they were in the same house. I mean, they recorded this enormous album on their MacBook at home. It's crazy but a different situation. It wouldn't have happened.

Jesse Keeler:
It's very inspiring really because that is... The computer, in this sense, has realized all my 44-year-old asses old DIY dreams. I mean, even when I think back about it now, and it's like all the records that we would make or that other... I mean, I didn't press any viable, when other people would do it for me. I mean, we didn't have to have a lot of money, but it still cost a fair bit of money to release music. Or you needed to know somebody that had a four-track tape machine or something-

Evan Ball:
Yeah. The equipment to do it.

Jesse Keeler:
Now there's no cost. There's no cost. I started making electronic music on my mom's old laptop, and I could do it anywhere and with headphones on and didn't need any space. It changes everything, so-

Evan Ball:
Yeah. No, I'm the same age as you, and I so appreciate what I have on my MacBook right now. Starting on Grunge Band and going to Logic because I had an eight-track reel to reel. It was a seven-track, one of them was broken and then didn't have an ADAT, but there was that awkward stage before going to computers. I don't know if you remember Roland had these. It was the VS-1680. It was the first standalone hard drive unit with a full screen on it. Thing was like $5,000.

Jesse Keeler:
Well, I didn't have that one. I had a smaller... Was it a hard driver recorder? I think I had one that had some... Maybe it did have a hard drive in it, but I had some sort of digital recorder, and that's what I record those first three tracks on.

Evan Ball:
Okay.

Jesse Keeler:
I did everything on it, and it was so small, so I would go downstairs, track all the drums with a single stereo mic that I had, and then I would take it upstairs and put a mic in front of a guitar and amp I had my bedroom, and that's how I would write stuff often.

Evan Ball:
Yeah. And now GarageBand comes free with your computer?

Jesse Keeler:
Well, my dream was always to have a situation like the band did for Big Pink, just to have a house in the country where you could... And you had a simple studio setup and so now I have Big Gray, and I live on my farm that's about a 100 miles away from Toronto.

Evan Ball:
Oh, wow. Okay.

Jesse Keeler:
Between me and my partner, I guess there's three studios in this house.

Evan Ball:
Fantastic.

Jesse Keeler:
Yeah. And it's great. But if I had this when I was a child, I don't think I ever would have left.

Evan Ball:
Right.

Jesse Keeler:
I wouldn't have gone anywhere.

Evan Ball:
Yeah. Well, before we move forward. So in the olden days, what were your hopes and dreams for the band when you first formed? Were you pretty driven to make it happen?

Jesse Keeler:
I guess I should give you some background on me. My dad was an unbelievable guitar player, and he sort of shaped the sound of guitar players in Toronto after him. He was in the first Canadian band to ever play on television in America. The singer in his band went on to be the singer in a band called Blood, Sweat & Tears, that I'm sure you've heard of. Apparently, my was in a band with Rick James for a while, but they didn't record. He dropped out of high school in the ninth grade to tour-

Evan Ball:
That's was crazy. Wow.

Jesse Keeler:
He was in the initial version of Steppenwolf, which he quit because he didn't do drugs. The first house I ever lived in was the Alice Cooper's bass player's house. My mom's from India, and the Indian rock community in Toronto is very small in the '70s, so Alice Cooper's bass player, also an Indian guy.

Evan Ball:
Wow. This is crazy.

Jesse Keeler:
Yeah. We all lived in the house. That's where I started playing drums on the drums that they had there. I wish I had a beautiful seven-piece Ludwig kit, and it was all Pearl. Anyway, so I'd grown up around music. My mom had a publishing company at some point. I think my parents had made some money, selling some country songs that they had... It was never lucrative for anybody really around us, but it was things that everybody's still did. My grandmother was a piano player for the ballet in Toronto and wrote all this music for children's ballet and stuff. But her obsession was really playing like Art Tatum, incredible crazy jazz stuff. So, music was always around me, but anything that I had done before, and I mean, I probably put out like 10 records or stuff before Death from Above started.

Jesse Keeler:
I had a weird memory the other day realizing that the first time I ever played a show was in 1992. I think I was 17. Strange to think about but... So I'd been making music, and it was just something that I always did and I'm not going to say I didn't think about it, it was the only thing that I really loved to do, but I never imagined that this is what I would get to do. But then, when Seb and I made the first Death from Above record, I gave it to my dad. I remember he called me a couple of days later, and the first thing he said on the phone was, "Well, you really caused trouble for yourself." I'm like, "What are you talking about?" He's like, "You made something people are going to want to hear. You're going to have to do something with this." Because before that year, he always... About the Femme Fatale stuff, he'd be like, "You have too many parts in these songs." He's like, "You can play a part again. You can go like A-B-B-B-C. It doesn't have to be A-B-C-D done in 30 seconds."

Jesse Keeler:
So, he had a friend who had as a teenager been Johnny Cash's tour manager and stuff like that. I didn't know. We didn't know anything about the music business, and so my dad said, "Well, why don't you talk to this guy, Larry." So then I sent the record to Larry. He sent me a couple of other piece, he's like, "Well, you're going to need a lawyer." And all this stuff and for me, at the time I was living on about five bucks a day, and I just thought, "How the hell, a lawyer." I can't afford to spend anything.

Jesse Keeler:
We went for a meeting. The first meeting we went to we wore fucking wore suits. Seb wore the jacket he wore when it was prom. We didn't know what to do. I was like, "Is this a meeting? Do we have to... Is this a tie or no tie situation?" I think that's the last time I wore a suit outside of a wedding or a funeral. But we didn't know anything. We just knew that we should probably try to do something with this music. I didn't know what that something was.

Evan Ball:
I love that your dad presented it as a dilemma since it was good. It's so true. I mean, if it sucks, then you don't really have to be in that dilemma.

Jesse Keeler:
Well, his thing for me that he had told me when I was very young was that he's like, "Jesse, you don't ever want the music business to ruin making music for you. Because if that happens, then you've lost everything." And I have repeated that advise to friends over the years, many times who I could see were getting really frustrated with the business aspect and how things weren't working out and what it's like, "What's not working out? You should be doing this because it's what you want to do. You shouldn't be doing it to be famous. I mean, you should be making art because you have to."

Evan Ball:
But did you ever feel pressure? Like, this has to make it, so it pays the bills, and I don't have to get another job?

Jesse Keeler:
To be honest, no. I have never really felt like that. There has been times when I was in incredible amounts of physical pain, and I'm still going up to play. And if you had asked me 30 seconds before if I'm going to walk on the stage, "Hey, Jesse, do you feel like playing a show right now?" I would probably say, "No, I feel like being in traction," but then the moment I get up there, I wouldn't feel any pain, and it would be gone and for hours afterwards, and then I would just do it again and just keep going, like there was no stopping. I've never thought about it that way, but partially because of what I alluded to earlier, I will always eat, and I'll never be homeless as long as I still have my faculties.

Evan Ball:
All right. All right. Well, I won't dig any deeper. Let's talk about the new album. So it's titled, Is 4 Lovers?

Jesse Keeler:
Yes, sir.

Evan Ball:
And for our listeners, we're recording this on March 25th. So, the album comes out tomorrow. Right?

Jesse Keeler:
It'll be out at midnight in this digital world.

Evan Ball:
Yeah.

Jesse Keeler:
I think, I mean, I assume, but yeah, it's surreal, man.

Evan Ball:
All right. So, for our listeners, the album is out for you listening in the future, but me right here, I've not heard it-

Jesse Keeler:
Oh my goodness.

Evan Ball:
But will soon. Yes. Looking forward to it. Well, you do have one single out, right? One Plus One, that's on the album, right?

Jesse Keeler:
Yeah. That is track two. Well, now I'm disappointed that you haven't been sent the whole thing. If I had known-

Evan Ball:
You know, what, I think it looks like Allie sent me a little secret link in the [crosstalk 00:26:07] of the Zoom.

Jesse Keeler:
Yeah. Perfect timing, Allie. You can just listen to it in real-time while we're talking.

Evan Ball:
I look forward to it. Is that the album cover the one that you have on the single?

Jesse Keeler:
It's as basically-

Evan Ball:
Seventies couple in bed?

Jesse Keeler:
That's just the single, but the actual album covers also that couple. It's Sebastian's I guess it's great aunt and uncle who both passed away over the course of this last while, but the aunt passed away while we were making the record, and he went over to Chicago with his mom to go settle her affairs, and he found all these photographs and was very inspired by them. I remember he sent them to me, and I responded to the one I'm like, "That's the album cover. There it is right there. That's it, it's done." I don't know if that was his intention when he sent it to me, but it was a no-brainer for me.

Evan Ball:
Okay. So for this album, is there anything particularly different as far as process or maybe your head spaces or anything that stands out?

Jesse Keeler:
Oh yeah. Well, first off, in the past, certainly the last two records. Yeah, even from the beginning, there would have been a demo version of a song prior to making a record. We would have both written a bunch of stuff, gone through it, decided what songs would end up being the album, then go on and record those songs and change them as we went in the recording process, refining it. With this one, we had wanted to make a record by ourselves for quite a while. But I think despite the fact that we both knew how to do it, it was just very hard to take that responsibility on personally when you're asking... The record label is going to give you money. And so then you have to give them something worth that money.

Jesse Keeler:
I think maybe we just didn't want to screw it up, or we were intimidated by it. But this time, we just said, "No, we're really going to try." And so we just set up entirely in one room, we got together for five weeks and wrote something basically every day. And a lot of the stuff that's on the record, in the end, is that initial take. You actually hear the moment after we've figured the part out. Because we would have the computer recording the entire time, we were playing around. And then you could hear, if you listen to those raw recordings, you can hear the moment when we're like, "Oh, let's keep doing that. That's the part there." You know what I mean?

Evan Ball:
Yeah.

Jesse Keeler:
So the record sounds like... When it's just two people making a record completely by themselves, you're also making a lot of decisions based on experience. There's a lot to do, and there's just two of us, so let's not make it overly complicated for us. It's not like there's a bunch of... The interns, in turn, they're waiting to do drum edits. We should probably get it right. We should probably just do it right because whatever right is in our own heads.

Evan Ball:
Sorry, was this on your farm, where you were doing this?

Jesse Keeler:
No. Sebastian was still living in LA, and so I just... And it was winter here, so it was a good opportunity to get away from the snow. And yeah, the last three records, this one included, we made down there, and I would just fly down there for the time. Whether or not I came down with songs or not, it was different, but with this one, really, we just made it up in the moment and then recordings, all the music, at least. I mean, Sebastian always records the vocals afterwards, but the music was such an immediate thing. And I didn't appreciate how that was going to affect the overall feel of the record, but we've been saying it a lot, but I've never listened to one of our albums as much as I've listened to this one. I really enjoy it, and I think part of what makes it so listenable, at least for us, is that it's not overdone. The bread was removed from the oven before it burned.

Evan Ball:
That's something I've wondered. I wanted to ask you. Maybe not just this album, but do you ever have to restrain yourself from adding layers to music in the studio in light of being a two-piece and needing to perform it live?

Jesse Keeler:
Well, I remember when I was a kid, and I discovered Led Zeppelin, I remember listening to those records being so affected by them, had to learn how to play every riff, was so curious. And then later in life, seeing video footage of them playing and realizing, "Oh, there was only one guitar." So it's only going to be one of those parts that I like at any given moment. And I think that that really affected me going forward, where I was always afraid of doing things on a record that I couldn't then potentially do on a stage because I didn't want to leave anyone with that feeling.

Evan Ball:
Yeah.

Jesse Keeler:
And I mean, ultimately, I think we're just doing this for ourselves, and it's a great coincidence that other people like it, but I need to be happy with it. So, that ethic has restrained every record. Whatever we're going to do in the recording, I'm the guy that's always saying, "Well, how are we going to do this live?" Because if we don't have a way to do this live, I don't want to do it. So, apart from double-tracking, which just sounds great and I think also helps to avoid some phasing issues when you've got hard-panned of the two things.

Jesse Keeler:
Apart from that, no, I think that's enough layers, and to be technical, years ago, I figured out that if I augmented the sub on the record of my bass with a synthesizer sub or just a clean DI, which is how I do it live for the most part, then that would free up a lot of headroom on the distorted channels. So, I mean, that's kind of it.

Evan Ball:
Well, I want to ask you about that. I think we're getting to this next question because are there any keys to getting a good distortion sound on bass? Because it can be farty if you will.

Jesse Keeler:
Oh, yeah.

Evan Ball:
You need it big and mean, but you still need clarity because your riffs are the center of the song.

Jesse Keeler:
Well, I hope there's some pedal builders out there listening to me say this, the key is headroom. The key is always headroom and all this nine-volt distortion... I mean, you've got plus, and minus nine is pretty small. My main amp, although the schematics says, it's running on 24 volts, the pre-amp's running on 24. If you put a meter on it, it's actually 36. That makes a huge difference because then you can get really distorted before it starts self-compressing. The more juice... That's why we have all these pedals that now have whatever... I'm doing air quotes. That power pump thing where it runs on nine volts, but then a cap fills up and then a drain slow at 24 because they're trying to create that amp headroom in the small setting.

Jesse Keeler:
For years, people would be asking me like, "Oh, what distortion pedals are you using?" I tell them, "I don't use any." And at the time, I was saying that and doing that really because it's just the stuff that I had, and I didn't have money to experiment with different distortion pedals. But then as I did, as I could afford to, or admittedly as people would just send me stuff for free to try, I started to notice very quickly that I would get to that point of saturation that I wanted, but then I would also lose all my dynamics. And as loud as I am, my rig doesn't feedback unless I'm basically touching the speakers. It won't just feedback for nothing because it's got all that headroom, so it's not folding back.

Jesse Keeler:
But I think that's the key, and then the other thing is to really EQ on the front end. I guess with your bass, you can really only mess with the volume and the tone. I've always had the tone wide open because I need that brightness so that there's attack so that the single notes actually cut through. But I certainly, ever since I started using the Dan Armstrong bass, which is on its own, pretty muddy and farty... I mean, Kent Armstrong made the humbuckers that I'm using in his dad's basses, which I think they sound a lot better than the originals, but there's actually too much output from them in a sense. They drive too hard, so the very first thing in my chain is an EQ pedal where I have the gain as far down as it will go. And then I EQ out the 30 Hz stuff so that I can get that another way.

Jesse Keeler:
Generally, for the stage, we'll have a DI right at the very beginning, and then they just use that 50 Hz down frequency of the clean. And then for the amps, they don't even get that. They don't get hit with this sub that's then going to eat up headroom.

Evan Ball:
Did you use to play out of a guitar amp instead of a bass amp? You said you didn't have pedals for the distortion.

Jesse Keeler:
No. I mean, the amps on everything were... So, I got this acoustic 450B head, which I'm pretty sure I traded some lousy drum machine for in 90 something. And then I had this PVF 800B which people send me pictures of them all the time say, "Hey, I found one. Do you want it?" Well, literally, that happened yesterday even. Those two amps to the sound of the band, I mean, essentially the core of the bass sound is a bass, a chorus pedal, a stereo chorus pedal, and those two heads. And they both just had a built-in distortion. The sound of the two of them together is good. The sound of either one by itself is lacking something. The PV head was too muddy. The acoustic head didn't really get the low end right. But having the two of them and then having that chorus pedal panning between them incredibly fast, somewhere in the phasing or whatnot, it just smoothed out beautifully.

Evan Ball:
Yeah. Okay. All right. I have a few short answer questions.

Jesse Keeler:
Sure.

Evan Ball:
They can be as long as you want. Which bands or artists would you say most directly influenced Death from Above 1979?

Jesse Keeler:
Well, it's certainly in the beginning, the early Deep Purple stuff was a big influence, and also on the design. The punk scene that we came out of, the idea of putting your face on a record was a real no-no. That's just like, that's some weird rockstar shit. Who's going to do that? But we had been listening to In Rock by Deep Purple a lot. And for people who don't know what that cover looks like, it's the members of the band on Mount Rushmore. And we thought that was... Calling it In Rock is just hilarious. But we just thought, "Wouldn't it be funny if I edited our heads in some way, and we put it on the cover of the record, and we called the record heads up?" And it was like a joke. And now-

Evan Ball:
You saw the elephant trunks on your faces, is that right?

Jesse Keeler:
Yeah. Well, I had to-

Evan Ball:
[crosstalk 00:38:23] little less taboo in the punk world, I would think?

Jesse Keeler:
I had to do something. But we used to even... In the beginning, we would even cover Into the Fire by Deep Purple sometimes if someone wanted us to keep playing and we didn't have any more songs.

Evan Ball:
Okay.

Jesse Keeler:
All that unison, guitar, bass, organ riff stuff, that's the blueprint for my whole thought process. If you're listening to a band, everyone's playing in unison, if all the note creating instruments are playing the same note, could I do that by myself? That's essentially what the whole concept is. I mean, even from down to the amps, it's like one amp is more of a bass amp, one amp is more of a guitar amp, and there's your bass and your guitar. And then with effects and things, well, now it's like there's a b3 running through your Marshall as well. I can get to that point with volume and whatnot, and then you also... It's not going to sound as full, but I can definitely be as loud. So that was a huge influence.

Jesse Keeler:
Seb always tells me to try to avoid the blues, which is my default. I always want to play the blues. When alone, that's how-

Evan Ball:
Interesting.

Jesse Keeler:
... I learned how to play, but when he tells me to avoid it, it makes me think about my note choices a little bit differently.

Evan Ball:
Is that why he does it? To push you out of certain parameters, I guess?

Jesse Keeler:
I think it's just to try to keep us from exploring tropes too much.

Evan Ball:
Yeah.

Jesse Keeler:
Sometimes guitar players listening to this will probably know what I'm talking about. You ever notice sometimes in someone's solo where it starts to sound Egyptian? Do you know what I'm talking about?

Evan Ball:
Yeah.

Jesse Keeler:
There's that sort of snake charming scale-

Evan Ball:
Yeah. I think I know what you mean.

Jesse Keeler:
And it feels good to play. I'll do it totally. You get into that sort of zone. I know my dad's thing was he would find himself falling into pulling riffs out of old songs. It would be The Coasters or something, and suddenly he'd be incorporating those melodies into his bits. But yeah, it's just trying to avoid-

Evan Ball:
I could see that. Maybe ZZ Tops already played all these bluesy riffs or something, or-

Jesse Keeler:
Yeah.

Evan Ball:
You might lose that originality, or it could sound like it's down the middle or something.

Jesse Keeler:
Or maybe it's just as a way to keep me from phoning it in ever. I'm always on. I can't just default into... Well, this note should be next. No, no, no, let's make a decision.

Evan Ball:
Yeah.

Jesse Keeler:
Now I'm just talking to you. You can hear my internal dilemma, like a parallel conversation. What are you going to do now, Jesse? Where are you going to go from here? You really got your fingers in the nut there, buddy.

Evan Ball:
That's great. I know the feeling.

Jesse Keeler:
But in terms of other big influences, and I hope that they would be flattered, but there was a punk band or hardcore band, I guess called the VSS, and they were from Colorado, and their guitar bass or synthesizer... The guy played one or the other, occasionally tried to play both at the same time, drums and a singer, but it was... Their records are amazing. There's an album called Nervous Circuits that the first time I heard it... I'm friends with the singer's son. He's an incredible artists. But I just remember hearing that and just thinking my thoughts about what a recording needed to be or what instrumentation needed to be certainly like in the songs, on their records, when it would just be guitar, synth, and drums. And I don't miss the bass. I don't notice that he's not playing the bass. And I realized there's all kinds of other examples of that in music. But for me, that was the one.

Evan Ball:
Yeah, I'll check that out.

Jesse Keeler:
And it sounded like that Nervous Circuits record. If it had come out in 1989, they would have been the biggest band in the world. But yeah, that was a big influence on me and how I would think about putting stuff together.

Jesse Keeler:
If there was another one, I don't want to sound cheesy, but the late-era Beatles are a big influence on Sebastian and I. Still remember his dad, Seb's dad coming over to our house, looking at all of our gear, and he's like, "You got more gear than the Beatles did to make Abbey Road. Where's my Abbey Road?" But the way those records play through, there's always something happening. The whole B side of Abbey Road where it's just a whole bunch of little songs strung together. Even just the way things come in and out, or how the bass pulls the guitar around, all that stuff is a huge influence on us. It's like whether you like it or not, if you've listened to those records enough, it's in there.

Jesse Keeler:
I'll just add in the other big influence on my note choices, sometimes to Seb's frustration, because he finds it hard to think of melodies to sing over, but 70's, Bowie stuff was still a massive influence on my life. I've had to buy multiple copies of Diamond Dogs because I run that needle too hard for too long and start to sound like garbage. But all those chords on this new record, I think that I've probably got that on display, the heaviest it's ever been.

Evan Ball:
Yeah. All right. Do you have any strange fan encounters that come to mind?

Jesse Keeler:
Oh my God, dude. Yeah.

Evan Ball:
You can always pass too.

Jesse Keeler:
No, I mean, there's a lot. There's been a lot over the years. Thankfully, I mean all positive, but I think probably still... What will always win the crown for the weirdest one was... I mean, it's emotional to think about, but we had played in DC at the 930 Club, I think, and then afterwards, Seb found this girl sprinkling something on the bumper of our bus, and he confronted her, and she was crying, and it was some of her brother's ashes because he was-

Evan Ball:
Oh, my gosh.

Jesse Keeler:
... he was a giant fan. And her idea was that she wanted to put some of his ashes on our bus so he could go on tour with us. And Seb just said, "Well, why don't you give us the ashes, we could bury them at Jesse's farm or something?" So, she gave him this pill container full of this guy's ashes, and we were just sitting on the bus, silent, looking at each other, holding this thing, just thinking this is so crazy. He was a giant fan. And Seb hands me the canister, and I shake it, and I'm like, "This sounds really good. We should use it on the record. Then he'll be on the record." And we credited him on the last album as the shaker-

Evan Ball:
Oh, wow.

Jesse Keeler:
I think we've met his whole family since they'd come to shows, met them all. I could never have dreamed that up.

Evan Ball:
Right.

Jesse Keeler:
Hey, do you want to be in a band yet? Someday you're going to be that important to somebody.

Evan Ball:
Wow. That's heavy.

Jesse Keeler:
It's an honor. But it's such a weird thing to process, how... I can't imagine-

Evan Ball:
How important your music is.

Jesse Keeler:
Yeah. I did an interview yesterday. Seb was at a truck stop and couldn't do it with me, so I did it by myself, and the guy kept using the term legendary. And I stopped him every time. I'm like, "Dude, what are you talking about, Legendary. Legendary? That's a weird thing. This is just something I do. Something I've been doing for half my life. It's flattering, but I don't know how to process that. I don't believe it and I'm sure there's lots of other people that don't believe it too that'll hear this." But it's just a strange-

Evan Ball:
What a ride.

Jesse Keeler:
Things to be told.

Evan Ball:
That's amazing. Well, speaking of, I saw you guys are playing at the Life Is Beautiful Festival in Las Vegas.

Jesse Keeler:
Yeah.

Evan Ball:
Lots of giant acts. Any bands, in particular, you look forward to seeing in that show?

Jesse Keeler:
Yeah, I'll have to look at it again because there's a part of my mind that is afraid to get too excited about it and then have it not happen. Having it been so long since playing. I mean, this is the longest I've gone without playing in some form or another in front of people since 92. And even when the show offer came, I was sort of, "How excited do I get about this? I've matched five numbers on the lottery ticket. Should I be excited? Should I even let someone else tell me whether or not I got the last one?" I want to do it-

Evan Ball:
I kind of think the odds are pretty good at this point. I mean, September going through the summer. The way things are moving in the US right now, I mean, knock on wood. But I know it's hard after facing disappointment after disappointment not being able to book anything.

Jesse Keeler:
I hope so. I think the main thing that keeps me from getting too excited about it is I wonder about border stuff. Because even if this is just some brass tacks, music stuff, if we have to go down there and there's a two-week quarantine and then a two-week quarantine, when we get back, am I paying my crew for a month for a single show? If they work for me and then they can't work again for two weeks on either side of it, how's that going to work?

Evan Ball:
I feel like testing and vaccines will be so widespread at that point, where you'd be able to document your safety.

Jesse Keeler:
Yeah. I know. I read that in Israel, they have some sort of vaccine passport, but it works two ways, either you can... Or it's more like an immunity thing. So if you have the T-cells that shows that you had it and beat it, you get the stamp. Or if you get the vaccine, you get the stamp. And that makes me hopeful because that's a fairly realistic thing to do.

Evan Ball:
Is Sebastian in the US? Does he live in LA?

Jesse Keeler:
Seb left LA, I mean, I lived down there for a while. I left in 2011, and he moved there in 2011. I left because I was going to have my second daughter and I didn't want to... We didn't want her to be away from my family. So, I came back. He went down there. He moved back here last year. And interestingly, just after he had a child. So maybe there's something in us that, as Canadians, we're like, "Well have kids now, we got to make them Canadian as well." Although I guess technically, his daughter is American.

Evan Ball:
Yeah.

Jesse Keeler:
So, it makes making records a lot easier to have him be hours away rather than hours flying away.

Evan Ball:
Oh, for sure. Yeah.

Jesse Keeler:
And especially after completing this record entirely by ourselves, now we know that we can do that again, and we're happy with the results, and it seems like other people are as well, because it really could have gone either way. Maybe at the end, we would have had something that sucked. The possibility is always there.

Evan Ball:
Yeah.

Jesse Keeler:
But it worked out. And so Seb, he's fixing up this house that's about... I mean, my house is 197 years old. I think his is about the same. I think he's setting up a studio in his house, basically almost the same as what we had in LA. So then I can just drive over there rather than having to fly-

Evan Ball:
So cool.

Jesse Keeler:
... into place, and yeah, we can just make music whenever.

Evan Ball:
Wait, how old are these houses?

Jesse Keeler:
My house is 197 years old. I also have a cemetery. The man who built my house is buried out there along with five other people. The deed from a house is from the King of England. It's older than Canada.

Evan Ball:
Yeah. This side of the Atlantic 200 years. That's going back there.

Jesse Keeler:
Well, I'm very, very remote. In the wintertime, the garbage truck driver calls the house and asks if have any garbage because if I don't, he's not going to drive up here. My road, sometimes it looks like it's been raining bowling balls and 10 pin bowling balls, not 5. You can go about two miles an hour in the spring on it, but I like it.

Evan Ball:
That sounds cool. Any predictions of what music looks like, say 10 years from now? Could be musical trends or music business model trends?

Jesse Keeler:
Well, I think that music is always reactive. An easy thing to track is like the development of jazz out of swing, big band music. I mean, the people who created jazz were big band swing players that didn't like how structured swing became. The Benny Goodman stuff wasn't inspiring. And then you have... I have a Sarah Vaughan record of a bunch of Count Basie Band recorded at four o'clock in the morning, they'd already played that day, but they needed to do more. You know what I mean?

Jesse Keeler:
Then when jazz gets too structured, then you get free jazz coming out of that. And your words are very obvious when you look at metal, how things start off more rock and then it gets heavier and faster and heavier and then noisier. And then you have off-shoots of just straight-up noise. You know?

Evan Ball:
Yeah.

Jesse Keeler:
And I think it's always people reacting to being put in a creative box. And I noticed there's this rapper that I love called Westside Gunn from Buffalo. Dude puts out like four records a year. It's crazy. I can't imagine being that productive, but there's all kinds of tracks on his records that don't have any drums. I'm listening to a rap album that I love that half the songs don't have drums on them. There might be some drum apparent in the sample, but that's the, whatever, loops. But that's it there's no drums, and it's so counter to what has been happening in that music for decades. But I think that those reactions are going to always keep happening, and then maybe it will get to a point where that idea gets more and more extreme, and then it'll come back around. I think music is always reactive. And I try to predict what is going to come next based on noticing when an idea gets saturated, like an electronic music dubstep came out of nowhere, it became just absolutely unavoidable and now it's very easily avoided, right?

Jesse Keeler:
Because I think it's just because of how quickly things move around now digitally, the amount of time it takes before things get to that saturation point is way, way faster. So I don't know, but the thing that does really excite me as I think about how... My kids are nine and seem to be 14, and they've spent their entire lives in a time where they never had to worry about getting a track that worked.

Evan Ball:
Sure.

Jesse Keeler:
And just thinking about how incredible the computer I'm talking to you is now in 10 years, they're going to be insane, and I can't even imagine what level of stuff will be made by the kids who've grown up with it. Their idea about what's possible is completely different. The things that impress you and I, they've never known a day without that possibility. So their heads are going to be looking way beyond just what can be done to what pushes this stuff to the limit. I hope anyway. This is me. I'm kind of a hippy and an optimist about all that stuff.

Evan Ball:
Well, it's true. I mean, you've made a great point pointing out all those things or reactions to what came before and pushing the envelope. But like we've been saying with the democratization of music, both with the tools to make it and the tools to listen to it and to find your people and find your pocket, there's so much happening at once, it seems like never before. So many scenes simultaneously happening, and so it's multiplying, and it's also happening faster like you said.

Jesse Keeler:
Oh, I have one really great anecdote to that point about how things are changing. I went to see a King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard. I think that was the last rock show I went to before everything went away. But I went to see them and the promoter is a friend of mine and we were standing on the side, and I'm looking out at the crowd, and it was the most eclectic crowd I've ever seen in my life. There was everything there, from someone that almost looked like a crust punk to a hippie, to people who look like they were at a rap show, to every manner of style was there. And I asked the promoter, I'm like, "Is this what all their shows are like?" And he just said, "It's an internet show. It's Spotify show." And I'm like, "What do you mean?" He said, "Well, in comparison to 20 years ago, you're going to go to the hardcore show."

Jesse Keeler:
Everyone kind of looks the same, everyone's sort of dressed the same and influenced, like punks look like punks, and you're the rap show, and everyone looks like they listen to rap music. Do you know what I'm saying?

Evan Ball:
Yeah.

Jesse Keeler:
The metal show is really obvious. Are all their t-shirts, some weird demon blood lettering. Okay. Everyone's going to the... There's all this stuff you can wear. And the music scene you were into started to define way more than what was on your turntable, but also it became how you dressed and whatnot. And you lookout, and it's like, no, all these people found this music without having to join a club. And now they're all here enjoying it together. And the only thing that unifies them as a group is that they all love this music. And that's the only thing that needs to happen. I think that's amazing because if I hadn't seen it and then had it explained to me, I would never have thought of that as one of the things that could happen, you know?

Evan Ball:
Yeah. That's interesting. That's a great anecdote.

Jesse Keeler:
This is what happens when you live out in the woods all day, and I am also a farmer. This is an active working farm. So this is my downtime. We don't get to plant here until middle of May.

Evan Ball:
Okay.

Jesse Keeler:
This is a perfect time for me to have deep thoughts about music.

Evan Ball:
Yes, this is great. Well, before I let you go, let's touch on strings real quick. What bass strings are you playing?

Jesse Keeler:
Well, I play Ernie Ball Regular Slinkys.

Evan Ball:
Regular Slinkys.

Jesse Keeler:
The yellow pack. Yes. I have been playing those strings on pretty much every guitar I've ever had. Certainly on bass since day one, I've tried other gauges. I've had people say, "Oh, you could play the pink package ones, and then it would be easier on your hands." But I have giant hands, and I play with my action way higher than people expect, just because it's easier. It's not trouble for me and I kind of like making things physically hard for myself, but they're perfect, man.

Evan Ball:
Yeah.

Jesse Keeler:
I realize this sounds like a paid advertisement, but-

Evan Ball:
I tricked you into it-

Jesse Keeler:
... I really, I really love these strings, and I'll be honest. I've tried the coated ones on the bass. I love the one guitar, but on the bass, for me, it's just like the consistency of those strings on the road I change them... I don't change them anymore. My tech changes them every other day. And from moments that I had, that I really was very happy with the instrument, sometimes I'll take those strings off and save them.

Evan Ball:
Oh really?

Jesse Keeler:
Yeah. So, I'm looking at my 74 Gibson Grabber that I made the Pink record with is sitting a couple of feet away from me, and it's still got the strings on from the last time it was played on the stage in 2005. And when I pulled it out of the case, after not touching it for so long that it started to smell, it was still in tune. It was still in tune after being in my basement for five years. I love it.

Evan Ball:
Jesse, thanks for so much for being on the podcast. Can't wait to listen to the album.

Jesse Keeler:
Thank you for asking me questions about the music. Because lead up to a record to do a lot of interviews about everything else. But here I am. I'm a nerd. I want to nerd out on frequencies.

Evan Ball:
Thanks for tuning in to Striking a Chord and Ernie Ball podcast. Hope you're all enjoying, Is 4 Lever's, great album. Don't forget to follow Death from Above to stay in tune with new videos, live shows, et cetera. If you'd like to contact us, please email [email protected]

Jesse Keeler:
I was thinking that I would do this during the interview, but I always have a box of strings right next to me.

Evan Ball:
Love it. What do you have in there? That's one of the... Is that coded? Oh, you got the coded ones. Nice. Guitar string.

Jesse Keeler:
I like them on my guitars a lot, and I actually put them on because they're the only strings that I have a lot of, they're also on some acoustic guitars that I have, which is kind of good because when the kids hit them, it's not as bright, but I've pretty much learned how to play an open A, because that way, if the guitar is in open tuning, if they would decide to just smash into them or whatever at least sounds nice.

Evan Ball:
Yeah. That's a good idea. Yeah, for sure. It's a nice pleasant ringing, not a clanging sound.