The MSTRKRFT Moment
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.
"When we started, one of the things I made sure we took into account was the flexibility to survive in this business,” Al-P explains. "We didn’t know what was going to happen, so we had to be ready to handle any job, whether it was commercial jingles or voice-overs or punk bands or singer-songwriters. We needed to be able to record, produce, do everything, and the studio was designed with that in mind.”
They needn’t have worried. As soon as the MSTRKRFT studio opened its doors for business, work began pouring in. Nor were they recording commercial jingles. Rather, in a city where so many studios work at a loss, the MSTRKRFT studio took off for reasons no one anticipated. Their success began, as most success stories do, by capitalising upon a turn in circumstances involving Vice label mates Panthers, who were touring through Toronto at the time, and a song called "Thank Me With Your Hands,” which Keeler and Al-P wanted to take a hand at remixing.
"Vice needed them to record a b-side for some release,” remembers Al-P, "so we proposed they come by our new studio before their gig. We recorded the songs for the Vice release, and then we convinced them to re-record all the parts for ‘Thank Me With Your Hands’ to the tempo that we wanted, because the original was quite a bit faster. We also wanted to take control over the sound, because the original hadn’t been recorded that cleanly. We did this at the end of the session, got them to quickly run through the song, and we ended up with all the parts we needed for our remix for free, because we had piggybacked it off a Vice session. We were just doing it on spec. There was no harm in trying anything new. Then Jesse went down to New York with it and played it for Vice. At first they didn’t want it, but he played it to a lot of people afterwards who really liked it, so Vice followed suit shortly after.”
Literally born in the studio — one they couldn’t have afforded without the spoils of DFA 1979 — MSTRKRFT the remix duo hasn’t looked back. Keeler and Al-P followed up their Panthers remix with two remixes for DFA 1979’s "Little Girl” and "Sexy Results”; both appeared on last November’s Romance Bloody Romance remix album. On the strength of those, remix requests began pouring in from the likes of Annie, Metric, the Futureheads, the Kills, Bloc Party, Wolfmother, Buck 65, and the Gossip. In the span of a few months, they had gone from fly-by-night studio hobbyists to a highly prized weapon in the arsenal of any indie rocker with an eye on the dance floor.
"It all happened pretty fast,” Al-P concedes. "It was unexpected. We’d always talked about doing a record, but we always thought it was the thing we’d do in a couple of years, once we’d done our fair share of remixes and got more established. But the timing was such that we were offered a record deal early on, and we thought that we’d better sit down and make one.”
For MSTRKRFT at least, this means the future is happening now.
That record, The Looks, is in many ways an amalgamation of their hometown’s beat preferences. On one hand, the album draws from the late ’80s jacked acid house scene that once thrived between the Chicago-Toronto axis, an combination of the early Chicago gay club house scene and Detroit’s more tech-souled stomp that made its way north of the border through touring DJs like Farley Jackmaster Funk. On the other hand, MSTRKRFT have that innate catchiness found in the city’s numerous waves of electro pop, from the likes of current front-runners Solvent and the Junior Boys, all the way back to the vibrant industrial dance and new wave culture of the ’80s.
Any way you look at it, The Looks is a fresh, energetic eight-pack of bonafide nightclub anthems waiting to happen. But give Keeler credit, though, for not harbouring any false illusions about taking his DFA 1979 fans for a ride they may not want.
"Musically, there isn’t much correlation between Death From Above 1979 and MSTRKRFT,” he says, "and fanwise there isn’t much of one either. When we were touring with [fellow Last Gang artist] Tiga, the people who were coming out didn’t know anything about DFA 1979. The fan base that we’re building now is totally separate.”
Nevertheless, chances are most DFA 1979 fans have heard of MSTRKRFT by now. Much like the popularity of that band, a big chunk of MSTRKRFT’s current appeal has to do with being in the right place at the right time, delivering the sounds and sights that music fans want to see and hear.
"Our timing is really good for what we’re doing,” Al-P admits. "For the past three to four years, bands have been getting more danceable, less brooding and a little more upbeat, especially in British music. There’s stuff over there that you don’t hear about in North America, but that gets huge in Britain. And it’s all got that fast four-on-the-floor disco beat and shredding guitars. And we fit into that, from the other side. We’re making dance music from a real rock and punk aesthetic and sensibility, not only in terms of sound but also in terms of song structure. We have verses and choruses, whereas in other dance music there’s more of a constant evolving theme through the whole track. But we’re working with A and B parts and bridges.”
A lot of the duo’s success has to do with their keen ears and eyes, and a talent for predicting the desired outcome of the musical atmosphere around them. Like the best pop producers, Keeler especially has demonstrated time and again the ability to accurately sort through the sum of trends to what the hipster quotient, who will invariably represent the front line for any musical leaning, will want next.
Al-P got a taste of Keeler’s penchant for strategy during the recording sessions for You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine. "They went into those sessions trying to make an album that was a little more poppy and accessible. Before that, the only mandate was to make it so punk, as loud and abrasive as possible. So when we did the album they were trying to rein it in a little bit. Sebastien didn’t want to do anything specific with the album, as I recall. He just wanted it to be good. But Jesse didn’t really want to make an obscure album. Rather, they were consciously trying to make a pop record.”
The conspicuous sculpting of the music and its trajectory — from the graphic design to the haircuts to the sound — is a facet of Keeler’s success that has been criticised as careerism by some of their more jaded sideliners. And yet many others would consider it among his greatest strengths. The trail of remix work leading up to The Looks belies a sensibility to balance out the kind of work that will raise the duo’s profile (Bloc Party, the Futureheads, Annie) with the more obscure projects that keep their ears to the ground (Polysics, Para-One, Brazilian Girls). It’s a potent recipe built on equal halves of success and credibility, and so far this approach to their music has paid off in spades.
Among Keeler’s strongest assets is a knack for hooks that has propelled every project under his belt, from the early Femme Fatale work to the latest Polysics remix. "My dad always told me,” he explains, "when I was a kid, before I was even making music, that it was all about hooks. He would be playing out the hooks in a song, or I’d be humming a little line, and he’d explain to me that that’s the hook, the part that stuck with you. When we’d be listening to stuff, my dad would be pointing out these little shots and things, always making a punching motion when there’s something happening on the off beat that was important. So I grew up listening to music like that.”
One other trait he picked up from his father, John Keeler (who played guitar in an early incarnation of Steppenwolf) was a sober eye for how the music industry works. In this respect, Keeler’s perspective is more grounded than most, in that he never exceptionally optimistic or needlessly cynical. He simply understands the game.
"You’re only as good as the last thing you did. That’s something I never wanted to say out loud at the height of DFA 1979, but the truth in this business really is just that. Whatever you want to do once you’ve got your foot in the door, you’re always gonna be banking on the last thing you did. With MSTRKRFT, when we started, people gave it a listen because they knew about DFA 1979, and said we should at least check it out. But that’s as far as it could get you. From that point on, you’re on your own. If what you’ve done is good, then it’ll do okay. If it’s not good, then they’ll say, ‘Well, we gave it a listen because it was you.’ We kind of take that as a mantra these days. The most important thing is making a good product and being serious with everyone we work with. We always want everyone to take what we’re doing seriously. We don’t joke around. We work really hard on everything we do.”
It shows. In fact, one gets the impression that both DFA 1979 and MSTRKRFT may only be early chapters of a much longer career to come. As long as these two pop provocateurs keep following their muse, it won’t matter what shape or genre it comes in.
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