Last time I crossed paths with Jesse Keeler, he was playing bass in the indie-punk duo, Death From Above 1979. Since then he has pulled the plug on the band that made him a household name in various indie circles and teamed up with fellow electronic music enthusiast, Al-P, to form MSTRKRFT, a group that may have already eclipsed the popularity of Keeler’s previous band.
While we were walking to the site of our interview, Keeler–either feeling obliged or knowing it was too obvious a question for me to pass up–discussed how Death From Above 1979 became no more. Keeler said he and Sebastien Grainger were never really close friends, he was just a guy who rented a room from him.
Long story short, Keeler (who apparently did most of the work in duo), couldn’t stand his bandmate and officially put an end to the group. I then asked him, “Well, what if ten years from now, someone paid you a whole bunch of money to reunite Death From Above 1979, would you do it?”
(left to right: Jesse Keeler and Al-P of MSTRKRFT)
Keeler said, “They’d have to give me a million dollars and two weeks to remember all the songs.” After thinking about it for a second, Keeler responded, “Ten years from now a million dollars wouldn’t even be that much money, so I don’t know?”
Jim Shearer: When you’re remixing a song, do you ever see the people you’re remixing for?
Al-P: Mostly no, we actually don’t even have any contact with them. There are some exceptions though.
Jesse Keeler: Otherwise, no, it’s just a check and a CD from the distance.
Al-P: Recently we did a Kylie Minogue remix and the writer of the original song contacted us after the fact, and was like, “Hey, I like your remix,” which was kind of odd, cause nobody ever really gives us feedback.
Jim: It would make sense that if you did a good remix for someone, they’d take you out for a nice dinner and buy you a couple drinks. Has that ever happened?
Jesse: We’ve gone drinking with people we’ve done remixes for and they got really drunk, and kicked over tables, and got into fights, and we ran away from them. I’m not going to say who it was.
Jim: Can you hint to who it might have been?
Jesse: It’s a guy from England who wasn’t white.
Jim: For your DJ sets, who does the bulk of your record shopping?
Jesse: I’m eye-balls deep in it. Al’s the one that actually buys records and I’m the one that gets the promos. We have such a network of friends around the world that are doing the same thing as we are, and so pretty much everything we play is, “Hey this is my new track, can you use it?”
Al-P: At the time we’re playing stuff, it’s pretty much exclusive. We get it directly from somebody. Once it’s not exclusive anymore, we kind of stop playing it.
Jesse: There’s no track that we haven’t spoken to the person who made it.
Jim: You wouldn’t play something just because you’re friends with a certain person, would you?
Al-P: I’m going to be the first one to tell my friends that they suck.
Jim: (laughs) How important is shot selection–choosing the right tracks–in a DJ set?
Jesse: We spend a lot of time beforehand picking what we want to play.
Al-P: There’s nothing in our crates that is shit or filler. The furthest that we go in that direction is a “tool,” which is something that goes between two bangers for like 30 seconds, just to go from one song to the other. We spend a lot of time selecting big/good tracks.
Jesse: In Europe they’re really used to minimal, but they call us “maximal.” We only choose maximal songs.
Jim: What’s your definition of “maximal?”
Al-P: If you imagine a minimal techno track, where you got a kick drum, squeak sound, and hi-hat if you’re lucky–that’s minimal. We’re the opposite of that. Maximal is jamming as much as you can into your little sonic window.
Jim: Various clothing and drink companies will throw lavish parties featuring DJ sets. I was wondering, what’s the oddest party that you guys have played?
Jesse: A while ago we were asked to play in a clothing store. We started playing dance music and the place was really bummed. The bouncers looked like older dudes from the 80’s who were probably into 80’s soul music, and we just switched into that for like two hours. I played everything I had from my computer. The bouncers were so into it. That was really fun too, cause I thought, “You flew us here, you paid us, and now we’re just playing whatever.” It was basically AM radio.
Al-P: One that I remember is CMJ. We played about four or five parties in one day, and the last one we played was in this dark, sketchy, underground gay club. There’s nothing wrong with gay clubs–that’s were dance music comes from really–but nobody told us what this club was about. I remember going down there with Lazaro Casanova looking for the promoter and Lazaro turned over to me and said, “Dude, there’s a lot of dudes here.” And I look around and it’s an all Home Depot-type gay crowd–just big guys that look like they’re going to work on your house. Not sissy at all, these guys could probably kill you. It was just kind of weird cause we weren’t expecting that.
Jesse: The oddest moment was when we started to play “You Gonna Want Me” by Tiga. There were these two tough dudes–shaved heads, no shirts, leather pants–and they came right to the front and stared into our eyes, the hardest stare you’ve ever seen. I turned to Al and said, “These dudes are so down right now,” and I look up and they’re still staring right into our eyes. You couldn’t shake them. When we put on “You Gonna Want Me,” they we’re like, “Oh yeah!” Lazaro Casanova–skinny, young boy from Miami–he hid under the DJ booth cause I guess he was getting a lot of attention while we were playing.
Jim: You guys have seen The Blues Brothers, right?
Jim: It seems like in your profession you would encounter a lot of those “Rawhide” moments, just like the Blues Brothers did when they played that country dive bar in the middle of nowhere.
Jesse: It definitely happens.
Al-P: Actually one of our favorite quotes from that movie is “Get in the car and start her up,” when we finish a bad gig and just want to get the hell out of there.
Jesse: Every few nights that will happen–Get in the car and start her up!
Jim: In this day in age with laptops that hold zillions of songs, it seems like you’d be able to adjust to any situation? But, was there ever any situation that you couldn’t adjust to?
Jesse: There was one particular in Leeds, England. We were playing a night club and someone said it was an “electro night,” but in England that’s a loose term that gets thrown around a lot. So we go in and play and after two songs we shorted out the power. The music stopped and all the kids rushed up and said, “Play The Strokes. If you play The Strokes it’ll be awesome mate!” We didn’t have The Strokes. After ten minutes of no power people started yelling, and I’m like, “Well, what are we going to play?” There was nothing we could do. We had to get out, cause they were not having it. I don’t have any British, jangly rock music on my computer cause I think it’s horrible.
Jim: For your new album I read an interview that said you were going through some “legal shit?” Has the “legal shit” been sorted through yet?
Jesse: It’s sorted enough.
Al-P: We’re just proceeding and working on our record, which should be out in September. It’s business as usual for us.
Jesse: I have a great way of explaining our legal trouble, we’re holding four aces and a king, and the other dude’s got some twos and three, and nothing suited, and he’s just bluffing. We know there’s nothing he’s got to mess with us right now. It’s cool, keep putting your money down, but there’s no way in hell your hand’s going to touch ours. That’s kind of where we’re at.
Jim: Wow, this interview has turned into a riddle.
Jesse: For legal reasons, sometimes that’s the best way to do it.
Jim: How do you guys create songs? Does someone come up with a bass line? Do you both bring in different elements?
Jesse: I take a bunch of shots of Jager, and then I get my dog to lick my asshole, and then I try to emulate those sounds on a Casio. Oh no, no–I thought you were asking how Tiesto makes tracks.
Jim: (laughs) Ouch.
Jesse: We start with an idea that is usually somewhat formed. It depends though, sometimes we have no idea what we’re going to do and a track comes together immediately, and other times the track comes together over a month or so. In the end, it’s just different paths to the same spot.
Al-P: Like my mom says, “If you throw enough shit at the walls some of it’s going to stick.” Sometimes we’re just cycling through ideas and we’ll finally get something where we’re like, “Yes, this is it!”
Jim: Is it all done on computer?
Jesse: We use real synthesizers and a lot of real sounds, but we do all the sequencing and recording into Pro Tools. Pro Tools doesn’t really do you any favors, but we’re kind of using it like a tape machine.
Jim: Will you tour when the album’s released?
Jesse: Yeah. We’re going to tour the states again. It’s tough to try to divide our time between North America, Europe, and the rest of the world, because we really are an international act.
Jim: Any changes to your live set-up?
Jesse: We’re still DJing. We talk all the time about introducing other elements, but our DJ set is not like other people’s DJ sets where it sounds like they’re just fumbling around. We really pride ourselves in our mixes and make something more out of the parts, something different.
Jim: Do you ever miss playing an instrument on stage?
Jesse: No, live music’s such a sonic compromise. It’s really tough if you’re a perfectionist to go up in front of people and play. And sometimes when you know it doesn’t sound like you want it to, you just have to accept it, because there’s no capacity to make it better than it is. For me, it still happens when we DJ, but not nearly as often, because the whole DJ and club culture is quite centered around awesome sound and keeping us happy. Live music–whew–I would want to pull out my hair sometimes or feel really embarrassed standing in front of a lot of people knowing that it wasn’t what I wanted it to be, but having just to keep going, because you’re there now and there’s nothing you can do. I never felt that way when we were DJing.
Jim: For novice dance fans, is it a good thing when your name is thrown around with groups like Daft Punk or The Chemical Brothers?
Al-P: Of course.
Jesse: It is flattering. I kind of like the idea of operating just beneath that level, cause I feel it’s much more sustainable. Both of those groups have made hits that I don’t think there’s much of a desire in us to make. Al and I would much rather be compared to The Neptunes than Daft Punk, cause we’re more interested in production–in general–than producing dance music.