In 2011, Jesse Keeler got an e-mail from his former Death From Above 1979 bandmate. It took him a little by surprise: He and Sebastien Grainger hadn't spoken in the five years since Death From Above flamed out at the height of its career, leaving only one document of the duo's high-energy, high-volume aesthetic during its original run from 2001 to 2006: You're a Woman, I'm a Machine, released in 2004. He was even more surprised to find his former bandmate reaching out for a chance at reviving the defunct band, which, though it had only one album, also had a rabid fan base.
Even at its apex, wiry duo Death From Above 1979 brandished an attitude rooted in its sweat-soaked DIY-scene origins. The band did its own heavy lifting—literally. Keeler, who plays bass, recalls one show in particular that he and Grainger, who plays drums and sings, played in Wisconsin; the venue was upstairs, and there was no elevator, so they had to carry their equipment—mainly two 140-pound bass cabinets—up 62 stairs in a row, with no landing.
"When we were starting, it was just us," Keeler says. "We had no roadies, we had no help. [So] it became kind of these feats of strength—like, 'Can we do it?' And that's all fun and games until you're done playing the show."
That strength ultimately gave out. The band's 2006 tour opening for Nine Inch Nails should have been its launching point, but it turned out to be the breaking point. Following the tour, Grainger and Keeler pronounced Death From Above 1979 dead, a casualty of creative disagreements as well as the exhaustion of life on the road.
"It didn't seem like it was ever going to get any easier, and we were just starting to break," Keeler says. "And we just started to take it out on ourselves in different ways."
The split was far from amicable—in 2008, Grainger bluntly told Canada's Exclaim! magazine, "We're not friends"—and Keeler and Grainger didn't speak for five years. But the same attitude that spurred Keeler and Grainger to haul bass cabs up seemingly endless flights of stairs urged them back into action to give Death From Above 1979 a second chance at life.
"I think there's still an element of the feats-of-strength mentality," Keeler says. "Like, 'Can I still do this?' It's one thing to have people tell you, 'Oh yeah, you guys were so good, I was a big fan, and blah blah blah.' That's nice stuff, but you hear it a lot. And you just wonder, 'Can I still do that?'"
From the outset of their reunion, it was clear that Grainger and Keeler could still do it; Death From Above's first reunion show at South By Southwest in 2011 caused legitimate riots. Its headlining dates in the United Kingdom that same year sold out almost instantly. But Keeler and Grainger refused to remain in the past, lest Death From Above 1979 become a tired nostalgia act.
"The band has to be alive to be worth the time and trouble," Keeler says. "If we weren't going to make any more music, we just would have called it a wrap a few years ago just for the sake of the legacy of the band."
A bitter decade may separate You're a Woman, I'm a Machine from the band's first post-reunion record, The Physical World,but they sound barely a year removed from each other. Released in early September, The Physical World maintains the band's unique formula—its tumultuous, bull-in-a-china-shop howl in which Keeler's basslines roar like rockets and Grainger's drums stomp like cavalry—and expands it, pairing more conventionally catchy songs with crushingly violent, angular riffs.
It's as if the rocky intervening decade never existed.
"We're using the same stuff and going about things the same way," Keeler says. "We were trying to push the boundaries of the idea of what the band was and is, and define what the band is now, and trying not to repeat things from the first record."
How long Death From Above 1979 will stick around is up in the air. Keeler says he and Grainger are "playing it by ear," and if things turn south, they'll just pull the plug again. For now, Keeler and Grainger are getting along, and they're no longer doing all the heavy lifting. They have people to help load equipment, people who set up their gear and know how all of it works. All Keeler has to do is just walk on stage, pick up his bass and play.
"Now, I can just think about being a musician," Keeler says. "I've never gotten to do that before. It's a novelty, still. I'm not over it."