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The news came out last week, and it wasn’t exactly a huge shock. Death From Above 1979 never looked like the sort of band that would really stick around for a long time. A huge part of the band’s persona is that they were huge fucking assholes, and that’s always been the case. A friend who booked a few of their earliest shows tells me that they were assholes even when twelve people were coming to their shows. If their set at last year’s Intonation Festival proved anything, it was that they could still be assholes when performing in front of thousands. Even though I liked the band, I was a bit mad to see them on the bill at that festival, a show dominated with feel-good triumphant fuzz-pop stuff like Broken Social Scene and the Go! Team. If DFA1979 managed to derail the day’s blissy glow when they came on, it wasn’t because they were playing jagged screamy metallic shit; it was because they were acting like assholes while they were doing it. In particular, I remember this exchange: “Wicker Park in the house?” People cheer. “Cabrini Green in the house?” Nobody cheers. “Yeah, didn’t think so.” Sebastien Grainger wasn’t actually shocked and appalled that nobody in the crowd at a Chicago indie-rock festival came from one of America’s most notorious housing projects. He was just being a dick. It’s what he does. So if you’re a total dick, and you’re in a band with another total dick, and the two of you are the only people in the band, you probably won’t want to be in that band for long; you’ll want to get involved in some other band where you can go be a total dick in peace. “We both changed so much that the people we were by the end of it probably wouldn’t have been friends if they were to meet for the first time again,” writes Jesse F. Keeler in the shockingly non-dickish statement on the band’s website. “It’s a totally normal function of growing up.”
So the band only lasted for a few years, long enough to release one EP, one album, and one remix collection that everyone hated. But they managed to carve out a space for themselves by carving out a singular middle ground somewhere between screechy metallic Lightning Bolt spazz-core and coked-up Rapture apocalyptic dancepunk. It’s the sort of thing that would be all too easy to fuck up, but the band made it work by keeping a serious groove through all their tension, a primal fucked-up roaring-in-the-wilderness thing. It took a while for me to warm up to it; I remember being vaguely annoyed when Nick Sylvester dropped a Best New Music on You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine. That impression wasn’t helped much when I saw the band in Baltimore a few days after the Pitchfork review came out and they acted like dicks in front of a tiny audience that didn’t care much about them. But then I realized that the album worked perfectly during the final forty-five minute stretch of the day when I was at my 9-to-5, that last initial burst of time when I was frantically trying to finish everything I was supposed to have done before the end of the day. The music was squalid and noisy enough, but it had a sort of slinky sex-drive to it, a rhythmic intensity that virtually no other noise-bands ever approached. It wasn’t all that shocking when Keeler started dabbling in one-dimensional house with MSTRKRFT soon after; there’d always been a hedonistic disco push to DFA1979.
That push did a lot to make the band accessible, enough to turn them into maybe the most popular spazz-core band of all time. They were certainly a whole lot more careerist than any other band that ever came from that scene: signing with Vice, making good videos, dating Kelly Osbourne. The last time I saw the band, they were opening for Nine Inch Nails at Madison Square Garden, a venue where no bass-and-drums duo has even the remotest chance of making much of an impression on a crowd whose members are mostly still finding their seats. But at the Intonation Festival, I saw teenage girls howling along with every one of Grainger’s lyrics and kids kicking up huge clouds of dust. And You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine has aged remarkably well for such a Vicemagged-out album; at this point, it hits harder than, say, Lightning Bolt’s Ride the Skies. (One has hooks and one doesn’t, and things just work out that way). I can’t say I’ll really miss the band (they were, after all, assholes), but they actually turned screechy bass-and-drums noise-rock into the sort of thing that could sound huge in front of a crowd of thousands. Like Montgomery Gentry says, that’s something to be proud of.