Bassist Jesse Keeler on collecting teeth and learning to appreciate the band in its second go-round
Stashed away in a junk drawer somewhere in Toronto, Ontario, Death From Above bassist Jesse Keeler has a paper lunch sack filled with human teeth harvested in Columbus.
“The hardcore scene in Columbus in the early '90s had a huge effect on me, and I used to drive down to a festival there called the More Than Music Fest,” said Keeler, who pointed to bands like Three Studies for a Crucifixion (“Still one of the craziest bands I've heard or seen”) and Harriet the Spy as particular favorites. “I would sleep on the floor at this place called the Neilhouse on Neil [Avenue] that had been a dentist's office many years before. When the dentist's office closed down, I guess they had all these mason jars filled with teeth they had pulled and kept, and they just dumped the teeth on the front lawn when they sold the place. Whenever I'd go there, I would always end up out on the lawn with a key or a little stick, digging around looking for teeth. I had paper bags full of molars. I still have some of those Ohio teeth.”
At the time, Keeler, who joins bandmate Sebastien Grainger (drums, vocals) for a headlining concert at Newport Music Hall on Thursday, Nov. 2, learned about various U.S. punk and hardcore scenes by trading letters with people he met at regional fests like More Than Music, taking care to save a few cents by applying stamps to the envelope with a glue stick so that they could be washed off and used again.
“We'd always end our letters with, 'Please send back the stamps,'” he said. “That is how we communicated, really, by mail. … I had an address book, and we sent each other letters. When the internet came around it made all of that a lot easier. I guess now it's at a point where it doesn't take any commitment to be aware of everything, and maybe it all means a bit less.”
With Death From Above, which formed in 2001 and released its third album, the heavy, hook-laden Outrage! Is Now, earlier this year, Keeler and Grainger tap into that same life-consuming dedication that once led the bassist to drive nine-plus hours and crash within spitting distance of teeth-strewn yards in search of musical release. It's the same dedication that inspired Grainger to return to the stage the day after he was violently assaulted during a 2016 tour stop in Dallas — an event that forms the basis of Outrage! track “Moonlight.” (Grainger's assailants, a group of serial muggers, were arrested, and the drummer never missed a show.)
“It came like a wave/And knocked me down to my knees,” Grainger sings atop a slinky bassline that Keeler initially composed thinking he'd landed on “an Isaac Hayes-type groove” before his bandmate took things in a somewhat darker direction. “If I could stand, I could run away.”
“We were on the bus watching 'Westworld' or something, and I get a call from the hotel room,” Keeler said, recounting how he received word of the attack. “It was total shock. It's all those feelings you get. You're happy your friend is OK. You're angry. Then you're sort of sad. He was quite sore and had a cool-looking black eye for a while, but it was horrible. He never missed a beat, but I think it was really hard on him. A lot of Advil was used to get him through [the tour], but he didn't want to let it stop him.”
Coming into Death From Above, Keeler had never actually played bass, and he knew Grainger as an acoustic singer/songwriter rather than a drummer. According to Keeler, however, the ability to operate outside his comfort zone has long been a character trait he worked to develop, going so far as to join his cousin in visiting fringe pubs on one-off ventures the two termed “Cultural Experience Nights.”
“I remember one night he said, ‘I've got this great place for us to go,' and we get to this one bar and it was Elizabethan goth night,” Keeler said, and laughed. “When we got in it was like ‘Marie Antoinette' was filming. [My cousin] really impressed on me, 'No, this is good for us.' You end up talking to people and hearing a whole bunch of music you'd never hear, and now I know what that's like. I've been there. And I try to do that over and over again.”
So when he and Grainger opted to form a bass-and-drums duo, Keeler didn't fret about not being a bassist, instead embracing the challenge by writing songs on a bass guitar that someone had left at his house. Keeler recorded Death From Above's debut EP with the same “borrowed” instrument, and even took it on the road for early tours, which required him to wrap the bass in a couple of towels and buckle it up in the back seat of his 1992 Honda Accord, since he didn't own a proper road case.
Though Keeler said the two-man setup can occasionally feel limiting, the duo developed an early confidence in the concept that has strengthened with the passage of time — “I guess we just hold to the same palette out of some weird stubbornness,” he said — which included an eye-opening five-year hiatus that ended in 2011.
“When we stopped playing, no one really stopped talking about our band. It just kept coming up. People would always talk about how much our music meant to them or how much they liked the record or whatever else,” Keeler said. “It changed my perception of the band, and I was able to appreciate it in a way I never could when I was in the thick of it and just dealing with everything.
“When we came back and started playing again, I think we both had more appreciation for the opportunity. … I can't deny the band has become something more important than I'd ever imagined.”