Jesse F. Keeler is of the mindset that artists make projects; they do not spend their careers in any singular band. It's a very dance-music ethos, which is surprising, considering he co-founded (with Sebastien Grainger) one of the most hyped rock outfits of 2004, Death From Above 1979. But Keeler has spent the past year or so returning to his roots: You may not have inferred it from DFA 1979's balls-to-the-wall, high-decibel dance-rock, but Keeler is a house-head at heart.
Before the success of DFA 1979, Keeler spent a lot of time producing “really Latin-y sounding albums on lousy PC WAV-sequencing programs.” His latest project, MSTRKRFT — a collaboration with DFA 1979 producer Al-P — is in some sense a return to that work, though he's kicked the Latin house after-hours style to the curb. “Sometimes, when [Al-P and I] work together now, I'll play something way too jazzy — I think just from making too much of that rotten house music before — and Al will just look at me and sigh,” Keeler says with a laugh. “Something he says to me a lot is to ‘Stop noodling,’ or, ‘That keyboard solo makes me want to puke, Jesse,’ or simply, ‘No. You can't do that. It's not allowed.’”
The duo's debut album, The Looks (Last Gang, 2006), is a raise-the-roof rave-era revival, packed with peacocking, club-strutting singles that pull from Euro-disco, electro and drum ‘n’ bass, as well as the many varieties of house. The guys gained recognition for MSTRKRFT last year by releasing a series of remixes for notable indie-rock bands, from Metric to The Panthers. But The Looks takes all the emphasis off vocal melody — songs employ minimal and often robotic vocal hooks, if any — transferring the focus instead to neck-cranking beats. Just as in DFA 1979's bare-bones approach to rock composition, MSTRKRFT pares down electronic music to its fundamental elements, building each track around a skeletal bass or drum-line structure (sometimes jackin' and funky, other times industrial and petulant) that's ushered unapologetically to center stage. “We want things to be hard-hitting,” Keeler says. “We're closet ravers, so we want a lot of fist-pumping music — mainly because we're not good at dancing, but we like to pump our fists.”
MSTRKRFT rarely works with samples, so a collection of vintage synths (such as a Roland Super Jupiter MKS-80, Juno-60 and JX-3P and Moog Micromoog) and a 1970 Neve console were essential to creating the sharp, coolly dated sound that typifies the album. Take the track “Paris,” for example: It's a dark collage of synths driven by blown-out, reverberating bass and augmented by droning alarm cries, twisted minor chords and shuffling, dynamic tempo changes. Keeler laid out the song's framework, appropriately, on a flight home to Toronto from Paris, France. “I just pulled out my phone and hummed into it; we've recorded a lot of things like that,” he says.
Al-P's production expertise — he's worked in big-name studios recording widely variant artists such as Jay-Z and David Clayton Thomas — played an integral role later, in the editing process. “Al is amazing in his attention to detail,” Keeler says. “He hears stuff that I don't know if anyone else will ever hear, but he'll hear it, and that's enough reason for him to go through and make edits that are like 10 to 15 ms long.”
Keeler doesn't put much stock in live performance: “It's like if I was a visual artist, and I did a painting that everyone thought was great. No one would be like, ‘Oh, could you come to my city and repaint it in front of us?’” Consequently, audiences shouldn't expect any onstage setups when MSTRKRFT tour. When they do book sets, it's as a DJ duo, their tag-team approach pushing club crowds in the same hard-hitting, fist-pumping direction that trademarks their studio work. “When it comes to making tracks, we think, ‘Would I play this? Would anyone play this?’” Keeler says. “We make tracks for DJs to use. It's an album, yeah, but it's more a collection of 12-inch edits. We'll be able to play it out.”