Sebastien Grainger Moves Mountains

Sebastien Grainger Moves Mountains
On the phone from his Toronto neighbourhood, Sebastien Grainger is walking off a heavy dinner of jerk chicken and Irish moss. Early in our conversation, he continually references stand-up comedy, from modern greats like Ricky Gervais and Patton Oswalt to the political humour of the legendary Lenny Bruce, to whom he feels a special connection. "I’ve definitely [had] problems with people thinking I was saying one thing when I meant the other thing, either lyrically or with stage banter sometimes,” he explains. "I can get carried away, and people either take me too seriously or not seriously enough. I feel like maybe I owe him more than I knew.” When it comes to Grainger’s former persona, getting "carried away” might be an understatement. Grainger cut his teeth as the drummer and vocalist for Death From Above 1979, the rumbling bass and drums duo who rose to prominence when their lone LP, 2004’s I’m a Woman, You’re a Machine erupted on a global scale. Back then, he was a whole lot cockier, talking shit between songs and making fun of the audience. In many ways, that was the band: hell bent on pillaging the world with isolating bass fuzz and piss-taking cynicism, their addictive and raw sound often uprooted by their cool egos.

Today Grainger is a new man. Jovial and high-spirited, he’s traded his cynicism and unapproachable persona for openness and honesty. When Death From Above 1979 disbanded in 2006, he disappeared for a little soul-searching. "I kind of rebuilt my life,” he reflects. "I relearned how to be a friend and a boyfriend and how to live in a neighbourhood. I relearned how to be a musician and songwriter. At a point, I was fully cleansed and rehabilitated.”

The result of that decision is Sebastien Grainger and the Mountains, his new, mostly solo project. After over a year in the studio, the Mountains’ self-titled debut trades hipster posturing for soulful rock’n’roll, combining Grainger’s sassy post-punk tendencies with elements of David Bowie, Iggy Pop, and Prince. It’s the sound of an artist ditching notions of "cool” and following what feels right on both a personal and musical level. "I was looking for truth and love, and I found it,” he says. "I’ve wanted to be this specific artist for 15 years.”

This stone-cold honesty sounds strange, given the combative persona that Grainger exhibited a few years ago. It got to the point where he seemed to be intentionally pitting the band against the world. Take, for example, the legal complications when Death From Above 1979 first signed to Vice Records. At the time, they were simply called Death From Above, which set off some legal red flags with DFA Records head James Murphy. When he approached the band to discuss the solution, Grainger posted the following message on their blog: "FUCK DFA RECORDS FUCK JAMES MURPHY WE DECLARE JIHAD ON THEM HOLY WAR ENDING IN THIER [sic] DEATH AND DISMEMBERMENT... james murphy is a selfish piece of fuck that will burn in the flames of a specially dedicated rock and roll jihad. if i had the resources i would fly a plane into his skull.”

Grainger started DFA79 with Jesse F. Keeler, who had previously drawn attention in Black Cat #13 and the Crimson Curse, two projects with strong ties to the Southern California post-hardcore scene. The signs of a hipper-than-thou attitude were there from the beginning. "I went away to Montreal for a few years, and when I came back he just seemed to be part of the scenery,” Grainger recalls. "I met him on the street and he acted like a rock star, and he was a guy in his mid-20s who lived with his parents. He was an interesting character.”

DFA 1979’s limited career arc was foreshadowed from the beginning. "Going into it, we knew there was a shelf life,” Grainger recalls. "We never thought of it as a career band. From the first practice we looked at it as a platform to launch our own personal careers. We came into it as solo artists.” Still, with their buzz-saw bass, erratic drumming and anthemic songwriting, DFA79 plugged in to the same early 2000s post-punk audience that had the Locust and the Blood Brothers fielding major label offers. The album reached a vast audience, selling thousands of records and launching massive international tours.

In the midst of all the chaos, the band hit a creative wall. Busy with seemingly endless world tours, they hadn’t written a new song in over a year. "We did this thing together, which was the show, but there was no creativity between us,” Grainger recalls. "I wasn’t writing, I wasn’t recording — I wasn’t doing anything. I was basically just playing this part. My mom would ask me if I was happy, and I’d be in Japan and say, ‘Of course I’m happy! I’m in Japan playing music with my band!’ All of the factors on paper looked good and were a recipe for what I wanted my life to be, but I felt pretty confined in that band.”

As tensions mounted, Grainger was grasping at straws to keep things going. "There were a thousand times I felt like quitting, but I kept it to myself because I depended on that band. It was the longest job I’d ever held!” To make matters worse, they were becoming less compatible every day. "When the question came up to make another record we could barely stand on the same stage together let alone be in the same room together.” The duo disbanded and both felt better for it. "I felt like we had both adopted parts of each other’s personalities, and I got the short end of the stick a little bit because I came out not as nice as I started,” Grainger says. "I don't have any regrets, and I am proud of what we accomplished. We went from playing a sweaty living room on Long Island to 12 people to playing Madison Square Garden in three years! The knowledge of that trumps any possible grievance.”

Almost instantly, Keeler launched his thumping electro project MSTRKRFT with DFA79 producer Al-P. The duo released their debut album The Looks soon after, riding Death From Above 1979’s wave of hype to international club tours with everyone from hipster tastemaker Steve Aoki to international house superstar John Digweed. "They are pretty far off my radar,” Grainger says. "That whole scene looks so much like an old boys club to me. So many black leather jackets! So much whiskey! So many running shoes!” In the wake of the break-up, Grainger and Keeler’s relationship is nonexistent. "We’re not friends,” Grainger admits. "Do I talk to him ever? No. Is it awkward when we see each other? Yes.”

While Keeler remained in the hipster spotlight, Grainger searched for a clean slate. Though he was constantly writing, he made sure to mull over the direction he was taking. "It took a long time for me to strip away any notions about what I was doing and any notions that other people had about me,” he recalls. "There were speculations about what I was going to sound like, and that in a way clouded how I was operating for a while.” He still popped up for an occasional guest spot: drumming on k-os’s smash hit "Sunday Morning,” lending his vocals to tracks for blog darlings Does It Offend You Yeah? and French vintage electro newcomer DatA. Most recently, Grainger lent his pipes to a live performance of Fucked Up’s "Twice Born” on what became an epic and destructive episode of MTV Live. He also used the time to buy a house and build Giant Studio, a recording facility he shares with Metric guitarist Jimmy Shaw. "I was never a super prolific songwriter because I need things to be just so for it to work,” he says. "My goal was to build a life for myself that gave me absolutely no excuses.”

Giant Studio was instrumental in Grainger’s process, allowing him to unleash his obsessive, detail-oriented recording habits and find his solo identity. "I had no idea what the record was going to sound like until literally the day we mastered it. It was a bunch of songs that had been written and recorded over different points of time, and it was a little bit of a mishmash. I would take drums from a session from a year earlier and then I would re-record something and cut out a part and then extend another part, and then do the vocals on top.” This cut-and-paste mentality continued until the very last minute. "The last song that I recorded the vocals for was finished the same day I was mastering. I was up until nine in the morning recording. Then I slept until three and took a streetcar to the studio to master it.” Eventually, he arrived at Sebastien Grainger and the Mountains. Meticulously layered on a musical, lyrical and spiritual level, the album explores a deeper strain of starry-eyed, blissful pop songs. "Most of the songs are a series of observations about my own life or my friends’ lives, though for the first time in my writing I’ve tackled spirituality, dreams and self.”

Despite these heavier themes, Sebastien Grainger and the Mountains is comprised of addictive, catchy rock’n’roll anthems songs firmly anchored in Grainger’s foolproof songwriting. Opener "Love Can Be So Mean” is thickly distorted but entirely poppy, while "By Cover Of Night (Fire Fight)” is a heavy bass anthem with some laidback charm not unlike Weezer’s Pinkerton. "I Hate My Friends” builds jittery guitar runs on its irresistible chorus, while "Niagara” filters Grainger’s pop via the Sonics’ muddy fuzz. That’s not to say it’s all three-chord rock’n’roll; the album is armed with an element of surprise. "(Are There) Ways to Come Home?” opens as a pensive, reflective ballad that slowly builds a wall of guitar and synth as saccharine vocals turn to sinister screams. Elsewhere, "Love Is Not A Contest” starts with some soulful crooning over gentle keys before organ swells collide with cymbals.

Comprised of lofty ideas compacted into spirited rock songs, Mountains is the sound of Grainger ditching limitations and embracing his love of music with wide-eyed enthusiasm, like on the punchy-but-poignant "American Names.” Driven by a thumping snare that builds to a climactic sing-along, the song employs a Springsteen-esque tone, contrasting the frustrating day-to-day of working class North America with the unattainable lifestyle of the American dream. The song came to Grainger after a 2007 tour with Bloc Party and Albert Hammond Jr. Sebastien took a lot from the Strokes’ guitarist’s solo affair. "After listening to Albert’s band every night, I heard a way to make modern American music that didn't rely on cliché or nostalgia,” he recalls. "A kind of music that is honest and reflective of your own life and not attached to a trend or a concept; something less cerebral and more soulful.”

The approach connects not only to an earlier time in rock history, but in Grainger’s life. Coming up in suburban Mississauga, he missed out on the fast life of the city kids. "After school, I wasn’t hanging out and drinking in a parking lot or doing drugs. I never even got into smoking weed until I was already square,” he says. "Living in the city, there are a lot more distractions and more things to do. People in the city have a very specific sort of pride and people in the suburbs have an envy towards that life, but it did permit me to incubate a little bit without being affected by what was cool or any specific trends.”

This isolation allowed him to develop himself as a musician. "I wanted to be a drummer since I was a baby, and at some point I resigned to the idea that my family wouldn’t be able to afford drums so I started playing guitar,” he recalls. "A year after that my parents bought me a drum kit.” In a town with little going on, he put shows on himself, turning community centres and church basements into rock clubs and building a name for himself locally with his blues-inspired rock. It connected him to punk’s self-starting mantra without him even realizing it. "You couldn’t just go play in a bar or club — you had to do it yourself,” he recalls. "It wasn’t overtly punk rock with any of that DIY rhetoric, that’s just what it was. That’s the thing with punk rock ideals. You can be totally operating in it and not know. I knew a lot of punks in high school, but I would never associate myself with them because it seemed so far away from what I was doing or thinking when in reality it was very, very close.” Thus Grainger was blessed with the best of both worlds — all of punk’s tireless work ethic without its dogmatic limitations.

Along the way, he’s grown out of any instinct to feign humility, and is ready to push his new band as far as it will go. "There’s no sense in being modest about it and trying to hold back anything,” he says. "If it’s going to take me somewhere, I’m going to let it do that. It’s fucking songwriting and playing music — not many people have the opportunity to do it on the level I’ve done it and am doing it now, so I feel like it would be a real kick in the balls to the 20,000 other people trying to do it to not take advantage of the opportunity.”

Armed with a deadly live band comprised of bassist Nick Sewell (formerly of Toronto blues-rockers the Illuminati), guitarist and keyboardist Andrew Scott, and drummer Leon Taheny (who also plays in the smart-alecky indie group Germans), the band have built a boisterous performance out of Grainger’s songs. "The live performance is something that’s new every night, and it changes,” he says. "I thought I was going to put out a pretty passive record and be in a pretty specific sounding band, but it’s this kind of unruly rock band. It was a revelation to me.”

Looking back, Grainger thinks the record is an accurate representation of who he is as an artist. "I feel like it’s a vehicle for self-improvement, and the record is a document of where I was in 2008,” he says. "It’s a journey towards the unachievable, which is perfection or something sublime. I’m certainly on a path.” That path has taken Grainger away from the cynical trappings of Death From Above 1979 to a current state of openness that can border on coffee-shop mysticism. "There are times when I'm playing, when I'm at the end of my breath and at the peak of my ability, and I see things, man,” he says earnestly. "I see the future and the past. I can look straight through time. It sounds heavy but it’s the truth.”

If nothing else, Grainger has learned the importance of balance. As Death From Above 1979 got more famous, Grainger lost himself in a sea of hype and cynicism. By allowing himself time to readjust and refocus, he removed both personal and musical limitations and made room for anything to happen. As a result, Sebastien Grainger and the Mountains is a career-defining album. "The real challenge is to find calm and focus in a job that has so much excitement and so many distractions,” he admits. "If you do it right, you can use those things as fuel. If you do it wrong you're just another dude in just another rock’n’roll band.”