I like interviewing musicians because they have no talking points and they tend to be …
Love of mine / Someday you will die / But I’ll be close behind / I’ll follow you into the dark.
Those poignant lyrics introduced me to the beautiful and complex creativity of frontman Ben Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie. The fact that the song came off 2005 album Plans indicates that I was a little late to the party. Unless you lived in the Bellingham/Seattle area (or the U.K., for some reason), Death Cab really started to make a splash with Transatlanticism (2003) and hit single “The New Year.” If that album(their fourth) made ripples, next release Plans was a tidal wave featuring three highly charted tracks, “Soul Meets Body,” “Crooked Teeth,” and the song that started it for me, “I Will Follow You Into The Dark.” The impetus of their accomplishments continued from there, but some things about the band haven’t changed.
“Follow You” is a solo acoustic ballad recorded in monaural with little editing. It speaks to the soul of all Death Cab songs: Gibbard in his place of contemplation, sharing an emotional journey. While Gibbard is the centerpiece, the abilities and collaborations of bassist Nick Harmer have amplified their music since the band’s formation and only recently, after 17 years with the band, guitarist/producer Chris Walla has made an amicable parting. Now, after years of sustained success, playing stadiums across the globe, and multiple grammy nominations, the band is releasing it’s eighth studio album Kintsugi. We tracked down Harmer to illuminate a bit about the many years of Death Cab and where they go from here.
ELEVEN: When the original lineup got together and started practicing, did it feel like you had something special there?
Nick Harmer: Yeah. It was pretty instant. It was one of those moments where we had all been in a number of bands up until that point, but none of us had ever sort of felt that unexplained sort of electricity. We had one practice where we started going through some of the songs on [which] were on Ben’s initial recordings of what would become a lot of the songs on Something About Airplanes, and within the first few songs we all felt, “this is awesome,” it just felt great. We lost a couple of drummers along the way and then Jason ended up joining right before Transatlanticism, but even when Jason joined it still felt electric and right. I would say it was a fairly immediate, “this is really fun,” it certainly was never a moment of “we could really make a living out of this,” but “we could play a show in town and this would be fun.”
11: What else was going on outside of the band at the time?
NH: At that point in the band early on, I had just graduated from Western and was kind of unsure what my next footsteps were going to be. I was in the process of applying for a lot of PhD grad programs and I was thinking about becoming a professor. I just didn’t know, I thought I would stay in the education track and get a higher degree and that seemed like the way my life was headed. Ben had [obtained] a degree in environmental chemistry, I think he was working in some local labs and he wasn’t sure if we was going to pursue a higher degree either. Chris at the time was working in a coffee shop, he didn’t go to Western and was making ends meet working at a Starbucks and our first drummer Nathan had just graduated from a program at Western, too. Later on, he left the band because he wanted to pursue a potentially more stable career. At the time we thought, “Man, what are you doing? Why?” but it definitely made sense. We were all living pretty hand to mouth and fairly broke for the first few years of the band, basically just living in the van together, driving cross country playing shows. So, we put all [other pursuits] aside pretty early on, just because it was fun to drive around in a van and play rock shows. We never had any designs, we decided, “let’s do this until it’s not fun any longer” and now it’s seventeen years later, it’s still great fun. There’s no reason to stop now. *laughs*
11: Has the attitude or message of the studio albums changed from from the early Barsuk releases to the post 2005 Atlantic ones?
NH: No, you know, all of our albums, even from before Something About Airplanes, all of our albums usually start with a collection of songs that Ben has written in his writing room, wether that’s his bedroom or writing studio or wherever he is constructing melodies and lyrics, they’ve always come from an initial push of an output from Ben, and then the rest of us sort of sift through those demos and figure out which ones we’re excited about and which songs we think are really great and kind of react to them in real time and add [or] deconstruct them when we need to, or not, and that’s when the band starts to put their fingers in it and really make it a Death Cab For Cutie song. But they always start from Ben, and nothing has really changed in that department through all of the albums, including this one, even though Chris is not in the band any longer, all of the albums, I can say that now, including Kintsugi, they all get distilled down from a big batch of demos that Ben writes and we just kind of decide which ones we like, and through that process, songs just kind of gravitate toward one another and magnetically attract each other in a way and before you know it, there is a little bit of a narrative within an album. We’ve never been a band that sits down ahead of time and pre-plans out a message or a concept or has some kind of goal in mind and then go off and do the writing for it. It’s very much like Ben brings us a big chunk of marble and we finish chipping away the final sculpture inside of it, and polishing it and kind of figure out what it’s going to look like, rather than some kind of high level conversation. So no, in that sense, nothing has changed about making albums between Barsuk and Atlantic, seventeen years later. I would say that over time we’ve been able to afford better gear and with Kintsugi we’re able to work with outside producers and certainly a lot has changed from recording with cobbled together music gear in the living room in our house in Bellingham to a fully stocked studio in Irving, California with an amazing producer and engineer so those two worlds, the actual mechanics of making an album have changed drastically over the years, but the fundamental of what inspires us and what brings us into the studio, what material we gravitate towards to make records, all of that is actually, still intact. It always starts with Ben.
11: Do you feel that there’s been an evolution of the sound?
NH: Yeah, I do. If you listen to all of our albums in chronological order you can see the band evolve, but if you listen to Kintsugi and then you listen to Something About Airplanes, I think you can hear that they’re related but you know, some of the tambor of Ben’s voice has shifted over the years as he’s become a better singer, some of our arrangements and the way we approach sound design as I better get a sense of what I like in the bass comb, or what our drummer likes in the cymbals choices, there’s lots of those small nuances that I think come with just playing over this many years, you sort of get to dial in your sound a little more. I think the biggest change for us on Kintsugi that is the most relevant is the fact that we worked with an outside producer on, and having Rich Costey in the studio, I feel like he was really good at being able to [understand] where the band has been and where we were at and he was really good at highlighting and supporting the things we were naturally just good at, the things that make our band sound like our band, without being redundant or basically retreading old material. I feel like he really helped us identify things we were good at and also just pushed us in areas that we had grown comfortable in, pushed us to think about musical choices in a way that we really hadn’t examined in a long time. We had a working relationship with Chris as a producer and as a guitar player and as a friend; there were a lot of layers to working in the studio, a lot of emotional, psychological, interesting layers to working in an environment where your guitar player is also the producer of the album and it was kind of refreshing to be in a studio situation this time where we had somebody completely independent of all of that history and relationship stuff and could really evaluate what we were doing in real time and say things like “You can do that better, man,” or “You know what, I just don’t like that, that chord change feels weird to me, is that what you want to do?” and just push us a little bit to think critically about some of the choices that we were trying to make, but without upending us. Without trying to change anything fundamentally about how we worked or around the sound of the band. So that was awesome, that helped us this time more than ever to kind of re-energize us in a way that I wasn’t expecting, to be honest, and I’m very thankful for it.
11: Being a little older than you used to be, do you still feel ties to the local music scene?
NH: Yeah, I do. I think that some of that is just a function of growing a little bit older. I’ll still go see shows, but I wouldn’t say I’m as familiar with what is happening on the day-to-day. In my early twenties I was working at a really great record store in town called Sonic Boom, which is like a hub of all new music that was happening locally and otherwise, and then I was also going out and seeing shows four nights a week, five nights a week, that’s what you did. Either go see a movie or go see a show. The older you get, I don’t do either of those very often, or as often as I did when I was young. It’s not about being [un]interested in it, it’s just that there’s more stuff to do, there’s more options out there of things that fill your night now, it’s like “It’d be cool to see our friend that’s a painter has a gallery opening,” and there’s all sorts of different things that take up that same time.
11: Have a nice dinner, etc.
NH: Yeah, exactly, “Tonight I want to cook something, that sounds awesome!” When I was in my early twenties, I was like, “Does Top Ramen work? I’ll have a slice of pizza and then go see a show.” If there’s one thing [that] being in a band does is just keep you in that world. We’re constantly listening to new bands and we’re so hands on with the bands that we tour with and we have opening acts come along with us, we pick bands that we like and we listen to and we’re in a world where my friends are always talking about music and the things we are loving and reacting to and I’m certainly aware of almost everything that’s kind of happening, I just haven’t been physically out to see all of the new bands in town. Hopefully they’ll be around long enough and I’ll get the chance. I don’t quite feel the pressure as much. That’s the other thing too, when I was young, and the internet has changed so much even, I didn’t even have it [back then], you would spend time in a record store and you would go see shows because that’s how you found out about music and that’s how you saw music and that’s how you got to listen to music. Now I can sit down in the morning and go through four or five music blogs and catch up on what all of the bands are doing and who played on what late night show and I can see all of these things, I can see snippets and clips and feel like I’m up to date without actually going to a show any longer, which is a strange way of navigating the world these days, but I guess that’s where we’re at, that’s the benefit of technology.
11: As far as personal goals for music, what’s left for you and how do you stay motivated? Keep touring? Win a Grammy (though already having been nominated a few times)?
NH: I don’t know what that award means or not, it’s certainly something that we don’t really even discuss internally, it’s just part of the industry that we’re in but certainly not something that we find ourselves surrounded with [in] any kind of real meaningful way. What’s left for us, is there’s plenty of places that we’ve never played. There’s lots of touring left to do and lots of places to share music and experience music that I’m really excited for. I happen to be really really excited about a couple of the new guys that we’re touring with now; Dave Depper from Portland, Oregon and a guy named Zac Rae who is playing keyboards with us and some guitar as well, just having their musical minds on stage with us right now and in rehearsals is really invigorating and exciting and I’m excited to see what it’s going to be like to tour with them and continue to make music with them as time goes on. We’ve got a lot of unknowns still in front of us that I’m really looking forward to getting some answers to and I’m really hopeful for what’s coming. It’s funny, we never were a band that sat down and made a big list of goals in the beginning, so to get to this point this many years on and say, “Well, now that you’ve done all these things, what’s left?” I don’t know what was there to begin with. We’ve never really approached making music together, our career in this band, as a series of checkmarks on a big checklist and in that sense our goals are pretty modest and kind of never ending. We just want to make the best record that we can make and go and play shows and have a good time together. I don’t think that goal has ever changed, but I also don’t think that goal is ever fully checked off the list. You constantly, no matter what you love doing, you’re constantly seeking to refine and be better and push yourself. That goal is one that will always be right out in front of us for as long as we’re playing music together. »
– Richard Lime