The MSTRKRFT Moment
You can’t blame Jesse F. Keeler for not wanting to discuss the current status of Death From Above 1979 during an interview for his latest project, MSTRKRFT, the sequined nightclub duo he formed alongside the band’s producer, Al-P. All he’ll allow on the subject is that "dance music was what I wanted to make in the first place.” And his assertion is a fair enough statement to make, given the strength of MSTRKRFT’s output, even if, at first glance, the club act constitutes a 180 degree turn for Keeler. Steeped in synths, sequencer and vocoders, MSTRKRFT take their cues from French house producers like Francois K. and Bob Sinclar, and dabble in the same populist sensibilities that benefited Daft Punk. Their debut album, The Looks (due July 18 on Last Gang), sounds more at home at New York’s Paradise Garage than at CBGB.
On one hand, Keeler can sympathise with the crop of journalists who keep picking away for details about the big band of ’05. On the other hand, he’s not exactly patient with those who don’t see why a successful rock artist would want to dabble in martini-laden house music. "Before DFA 1979, I found that I could do it all simultaneously and be happy with everything,” Keeler says. "Then the one band took over all my time and things started falling off, and I no longer had any time to do anything really.”
But, as a larger story of divergent musical interests, personal achievements, and career aspirations begins to unfold, I wonder if I should beg to differ. The thing is, the story of Death From Above 1979 can easily unfold without a word on MSTRKRFT. But the story of MSTRKRFT is way too entangled in — and reliant upon — the trajectory and ultimate fate of DFA 1979; you can’t really explore the emergence of the former without couching it in the (albeit confining) context of the latter.
Although a narrative of early projects, countless studio sessions and long tours begins years earlier, by the end of 2005 no one would have faulted the two members of Death From Above 1979 for resting on their laurels. By then, bassist Jesse F. Keeler and vocalist/drummer Sebastien Grainger had already carved out a new corner in the Canadian music scene with their 2004 full-length, You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine. From a musician’s perspective, the duo had catapulted into a charmed life in a fashion most other bands would kill for. DFA 79 courted widespread critical acclaim and earned, if not international stardom, at least international notoriety.
Their highly publicised success was part and parcel with its ingredients. Their debut album had taken two of this decade’s popular manifestations of punk ethos — the propulsive dance punk grooves booming out of Brooklyn’s warehouse parties; the high-octane rush of East coast noise punk blaring out of Providence’s basement windows — and fused them into a winning formula for a generation of kids who’d been waiting to thrash beneath the disco lights. Their songs were laced with just enough pop pastiche to lift them above the din of like-minded bands (Chinese Stars anyone?) and onto radio and television. They had memorable TV moments at that: few viewers could forget their one-of-a-kind performance on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, when house drummer and E-Street Band member Max Weinberg jumped behind the drum kit and displayed more expressive vigour than he had in years. Keeler and Grainger also met with high-profile controversy, calling for a jihad on James Murphy when his DFA label forced the duo to alter their name. Not only were they attractive, but sported a signature look; their manicured haircuts and moustaches were almost as recognisable as their music. To top it all off, they toured their asses off.
As a result, DFA 1979 were faced with a luxury experienced by bands that exceed their labels’ financial expectations, and were afforded opportunities that previously didn’t exist. And this is where the story gets interesting. Would the band’s success be an end in itself, or would it merely act as a means to another, more elusive end?
he initial incarnation of MSTRKRFT first got serious in November of 2004, when Jesse Keeler and DFA 1979 producer Al Puodziukas (aka Al-P) agreed to build a studio under the name. They financed the studio with their advances and projected earnings from You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine, which had just been released to great fanfare.
"We’d been talking about it for ages,” Keeler says. "We started planning it out in the winter two years ago [when the record came out], just deciding what it was we were going to buy and how we were going to make it work. We ended up making our business plan, getting the money together, starting up, recording by July 2005, and by the end of August we’d finished two records for bands.”
Those bands, by the way, were Paper Bag artists controller.controller and Magneta Lane. Keeler, who once held a day job as a stockbroker, had decided early on to use his currency as a member of a bankable band as collateral to invest in his long-term future. Apart from control over their creative lives, the pair wanted to ensure that they’d be able to make a living once the hype subsided and the kids went elsewhere.
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