Since his band’s 2001 formation, Jesse Keeler has boasted some of the loudest, most distinctive bass tones in the punk/rock racket. Fans of Death From Above are quite familiar with his formidable low-end brutality, which is made all the more significant given the outfit’s two-man lineup of just bass and drums. Yet in chatting with him about his desire for solitude on his frequent bow hunts, and his silent nights at his secluded wilderness home in Toronto—where his WiFi signal might be the only one that shows up on devices for miles—you might not immediately figure him as a guy with a penchant for cranking decibels to large crowds. That said, on his duo’s third studio album, Outrage! Is Now, the 40-year-old is far from quiet. He and drummer Sebastien Grainger are unapologetically louder than ever.
This time around, Keeler decided to embrace pedals and experiment with fuzzes, reverbs, wahs, choruses, and octavers in an effort to expand his sonic presence beyond his usual signature sound that was attributed previously to his trusty ’70s Peavey and Acoustic Heads and two towering stacks of Traynor cabinets–all of which cost him just $300. Mix with that his Ampeg Dan Armstrong Lucite 24-fret basses, and not only does he cop some seriously low frequencies, he also has enough fingerboard to play chords and strum riffs that will leave listeners swearing the duo has added a guitar player. Other songs lend themselves to Keeler’s skilled playing on keys, such as the album’s first single, “Freeze Me,” and “Holy Books.” But whatever the instrument in his hands, Keeler is certain to crank it as loud as it can possibly go.
What did you want to achieve on this record?
The initial goal for us was to capture and record our band so you hear everything we’re doing. A lot of times, playing in a two-piece, there’s an unspoken pressure to fill out all of the space, which we’d done in the past. People think, “Surely it’s not just bass and drums. You gotta add a bunch of stuff.” It’s not a bad thing to have extra stuff happening, but when there’s no space and sounds are happening all the time, it can detract from the song.
Your tone is grittier than before. What did you do differently?
I’m still using the same amps that I always have, but the real change for me is I had a real openness to pedals. I wanted to try different shit and see how far I could push my rig and my sounds in different directions. I was always afraid to put reverb through my rig because it would feed back like crazy, but this time we figured out ways around that. There’s a lot of analog octave-up and down on this album. Another trick I did was double tracking with two different basses through the same processing. I found that between the two, often one would be super hot through the mids and the other a little rounder and low.
Did you have any specific goals for your playing?
One of my goals was to make complicated things sound easy. Our producer, Eric [Valentine], said to us, “If it sounds hard to play, it’ll be hard to listen to.” I definitely think that’s true. I’m sure a lot of people would take issue with it, but I wanted to explore that concept. Even if something was just killing me from a playing standpoint, I would do anything to make it feel and sound natural, which is easier said than done sometimes.
What was a tricky part to play?
One interesting example is the song “Caught Up,” where every other note is a full-step bend. I feel like I’ve never had better calluses in my life than after playing that song so much. When I made the part up, I was worried, because I realized if Sebastien liked it, I’d have to play it all the time. But at this point I’ve done it a thousand times, and it’s actually fun to play. Initially I was losing my mind.
There are a handful of songs with guitar-sounding parts, like “Moonlight” and “Statues.”
My bass has 24 frets, so a lot of times I’m just playing up that high to get those notes and chords. The frequencies are there; sometimes they just need a little extra help to be clear. And with the right high-mid boosts, we don’t need guitarists at all—we bass people can just take care of it ourselves.
How much freedom does it give you to play in a duo?
It’s always been really fun. When we were young and very unprofessional, we would just go for it. I didn’t own a tuner, so I would just tune to myself and go along with however my bass was tuned that night. But once we added synths, that ended. In this format there’s very little impedance creatively between an idea and it becoming a song. Things have always come together really fast for us, which is how my brain wants it to go. I like the responsibility of having to think about the whole spectrum of sound. Not everybody likes having more responsibility, but I do. Or maybe it’s just that we don’t like to play with other people and we’re just shitty humans [laughs].
Death From Above, Outrage! Is Now [2017, Warner Music]
Bass 1969 Ampeg Dan Armstrong Basses with Kent Armstrong Pickups
Amp ’70s Peavey Super Festival 800B, ’70s Acoustic Lead 450B, 2x Traynor YBA10 810, Furman voltage regulator
Pedals Ibanez CS9 Stereo Chorus, Morley ABY, MXR M80 DI, MXR Ten Band EQ, Earthquaker Devices Bit Commander & Dispatch Master V2, TC Electronic Sub ’N’ Octave Up, Dunlop Cry Baby Q-Zone Auto Wah, Death By Audio Fuzz War, Line 6 Tonecore Verbzilla Reverb, Ernie Ball Wah
Synth Roland Juno-60, Dave Smith Prophet-6
Strings Ernie Ball Medium Slinky