Bassist Jesse F. Keeler—of Death From Above fame—recently sat down for the “eight questions” treatment. It went a little something like this.
What influenced you to pick up a guitar?
My dad is/was a guitar player and I was intimidated by playing guitar because he’s so good. Plus, he’s left-handed. So my instrument, when I was a kid, was the drums. And when I was about 11 or 12, I kinda said, “Fuck it. I wanna play anyway,” and I learned how to play upside-down on his SG.
I still think of drums as the instrument that is the easiest for me to play, because I’ve been playing it since I was three years old. But, yeah, the guitar—I was attracted to it because I was brought up seeing what it could do, and having the example of my dad being so passionate about it.
Do you remember your first guitar?
Yes, it was a 1989 Epiphone Les Paul. It cost 200 bucks and I paid for it on layaway at $11 a month. I still have it and it still works and I’ve used it on records ever since. I’ve had fewer problems with it than any other guitar I’ve bought since then.
What was the first song you learned?
The first two songs I learned were both on the same day. The first one was “Bo Diddley” [by Bo Diddley] and straight into “Purple Haze,” because the structure of the main riff, I guess, was similar. I played those two songs forever and then figured out that “Foxy Lady” was also similar. But those are the only three songs I was ever taught how to play. The rest was on me.
When did you switch to bass?
When I started this band, it wasn’t my intention to be the bass player. There was a bass that someone left in the house and I wrote a bunch of songs on it with the intention of adding guitar parts afterward, and we just never got around to it. The next thing I knew, I was being called a bass player. I mean, I’ve accepted it now, but initially I didn’t even own the bass when we made the first record. It just sorta happened and I’ve been going with it.
Have you ever had an embarrassing moment onstage, or a nightmare gig?
I was playing T in the Park in Scotland. The stage was kinda covered in a thin layer of dust, and in the first song, the first step I took, my foot slipped out from underneath me, the head of my bass came up underneath my synthesizer, broke one of the keys in half, and the key went flyin’ and landed on me, when I was trying to stand up. Of course the audience was cheering because they thought it looked cool or something. But I was in pain. That keyboard’s still not fixed—and this was more than 10 years ago.
Is there a particular moment on Death from Above’s latest album, Outrage! Is Now, that makes you proud as a player?
My goal on this record, in general, was to play complex stuff, but have it not distract from the songs. And I feel like I did that. But the solo part in “Freeze Me” was the hardest thing for me to play on the record. I really did takes on it for pretty much a whole day.
I thought I was gonna throw up at one point; I was getting so frustrated. It’s easy for me now, because we’ve done it enough. But at the time, man—I was seriously losing my mind. When I listen to it now, I think it was worth the effort. I’m quite proud of that one.
What is your favorite piece of gear?
My 1969 Dan Armstrong bass is the greatest bass I’ve ever played. It’s the closest thing to a shredding guitar, which is what I really wanted. Its sustain is amazing. The neck is really only just a little bit bigger than a guitar neck.
When I first got it, and started playing things that I’d struggled with in the past with no effort; I felt like I was cheating. And it opened up all kinds of possibilities for me and changed how I play. It’s been many years now and I still feel like I’m still getting to know this bass. I have four of them now.
Do you have any advice for young players?
Play all the time. Play as much as you can. Play while you’re watching TV. When I was a little kid, I always used to be watching television with a guitar in my hand. Every time there was a jingle or someone singing or whatever it was, I tried to play along.
It forced me to hunt around on the neck to find the notes, and to become more comfortable with it, so that when I had my own ideas, I didn’t feel that same need to hunt to figure out where those things were. Often times, learning how to play a song, you end up learning so many things that you might not have stumbled upon on your own, for years. There’s a million moments like that to be had; you have to just do it.