Death Cab for Cutie: An Interview with Nick Harmer

No, were you expecting Ben Gibbard or Chris Walla? Seriously? By the time I had done this interview, the band was quickly being adopted as the saviors of indie rock. By the release of their next album, and the success of the Postal Service record, you couldn’t take a shit without hearing Ben Gibbard in his sing song voice welcoming you to the airport bathroom over the Musak. Or at least that is what it seemed like. Everyone wanted Ben to sing on their record. Why wouldn’t they? His voice is soothing, reassuring, even when he’s swimming in despair you can’t help but feel like he is better suited for it, maybe in a speedo or something while wearing those groovy black rimmed glasses. Nevertheless, I always felt the best interviews, or at least the most interesting came from the person least talked to in the band. How many different ways would Chris Walla or Ben Gibbard answer a question about their own writing process? How much of that answer would be regurgitated in a dozen other mags and rags?

Bellingham, Washington will never be the same.  In the past several years, hometown heroes Death Cab for Cutie have garnered mainstream praise while sticking to their independent ethics.  “…A polished version of the heartstring-tugging formula that has earned the Washington state quartet its cultish following,” Rolling Stone said of the latest DCfC album, Translanticism, and the ultra slick praise of such a world-renowned magazine is well deserved.  Translanticism is an amalgamation of new variations on their previous formulas used on The Photo Album, We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes and Something About Airplanes; formulas that are familiar yet fresh enough to be empty of mediocrity doubled with complimentary instrumentation and witty lyrics.

Benjamin Gibbons, singer and songwriter/guitarist of Death Cab for Cutie and the Postal Service was house sitting for San Francisco’s John Vanderslice, writing songs and developing a theme that rings and resonates throughout Translanticism – a concept of distance so daunting and expansive, such as a body of water creates between people – that it seems impossible to breach.  The theme of Translanticism has been touched on in past DCfC albums, albeit sometimes briefly and at other times screams loudly like on several songs from The Photo Album.  Yet DCfC isn’t necessarily a singer songwriter type of outfit; it’s a band comprised of equally valid parts and strong ones at that.  Producer/Engineer/Guitarist/Mixer Chris Walla (Rocky Votolato, Carissa’s Weird, Hot Hot Heat) is no spring chicken when it comes to musical experience.  Bassist Nick Harmer and drummer Jason McGerr make up the rhythm section of DCfC, rounding out the band with one of the most talented sections this side of Kim Deal and David Lovering in indie rock.

DCfC have the tendency to move in and out of styles, never relying on one trick or beating that pony dead with rewritten versions of their old songs.  This unique trait is readily apparent on the track, “The Sound and Settling.”  A raucous party song full of hand claps, foot stomps, backup vocals skirting Ramones-esque power balladry, and guitars that punch through in distinct octaves of beauty.

Death Cab for Cutie is not your average rock band.  In recent years they have been able to work as full time musicians, but not the kind with a lot of Bling Bling.  Philanthropy is part of their independent ethos as well.  According to bassist Nick Harmer, “We donated our last band van to them (Seattle Vehicle Donations Center), I’m also donating my car to them now as well.  We try and give back what we can.”

In reference to their fulltime jobs, Nick says, “Luckily it’s awesome that we’re at a point where we have to stay busy to sort of keep our heads above the waterline for bills and things like that.  But it really works out because if we were this busy we wouldn’t be able to keep day jobs.”

Prior to working as professional musicians, Nick, Ben and the gang attended college and, “Worked odd jobs and things.  After college, we moved down here (Seattle) and Ben and I worked together for years at this non-profit called Committee for Children which was this organization that makes and develops anti-violence curriculums for kids in elementary school and junior high.”

Translanticism is another chapter in the book of DCfC.  It’s a book of short stories that share similar themes but introduce completely new characters as the albums unfold.  Principle songwriter, Ben approached writing and recording a bit different than previous albums along with the rest of the band.  He wrote much of the record while house sitting for John Vanderslice in San Francisco.  He made his way back to Seattle and DCfC began the process of writing and recording a new album.

Nick relates the story of the writing and recording process by explaining that, “Ben had been compiling a lot of demos between our break between our Spring and Fall tour in 2002.  It was an interesting and fun process.  We spent a lot of time sort of sitting in people’s living rooms and listening.  Ben would come over with a stack of demos and we’d just sit there and listen to them, talk about it, talk about the things we like about them and the kind of approach we would have if we where to record this song or that song.  It was through that process we whittled down a stack of 25 to about 12 songs that we really thought we could do some justice to in the studio.”

That process eventually gave birth to the tracks on Translanticism.   “That’s what we ended up demo-ing and taking to the studio, 11 of which made the record.  We ended up cutting one.  That process was a little different for us than how it went in the past.  Ben submits songs almost near completion as far as lyrics and melody arrangement and even sometimes as detailed as down to the drum part and that was sort of in the past and this time it left a bit more open on our end, for us to take the reigns and run with stuff.  He really, only at the end of the day, would come with a stack of demos and say, ‘I really feel strongly about the lyrics and melody but I don’t have any idea about instrumentation, we should all sit down and talk about it.’  It made for a great foundation for us to build and grow with this record.  Also, just to know there wasn’t any set or predestined plan for any of these songs.  We could let them grow and mature as we put them together.”

“Sometimes on the record, like the song “Passenger Seat” Ben brought in as a demo and we thought, ‘this song is awesome Ben and we don’t even want to touch it.  I think we would do it a disservice to try and write anything around it.’ There were moments like that when the song came in and we knew it was good right away and we didn’t have to do anything to it.”

“Then there were times when songs like, “We Look Like Giants” or “The New Year,” where we went through this nuts and bolts process where we would tear it apart and put it back together and tear it apart and put it back together.  When you put all the songs together and how the songs came together it wasn’t that every song was a long process of stripping it down and rebuilding it.  I think it would have been a little monotonous and too difficult for us to get through ultimately in terms of making any progress we would have spent forever breaking and building.  It made for a real invigorating process.  We felt like we were making progress and challenging ourselves and yet at the same time we were staying far enough away from the material to let it take control and let it do what it wants to.  We definitely have a tendency in this band (and we have before, musically) to over-think a lot of things.  On this record we made a conscious effort to not think so much about stuff and let it unfold on its own.”

Nick got his start in music at an early age.  First starting on piano then joining school band and eventually taking a couple of lessons on guitar, finally picking up the bass in college.  “I started playing piano in early second grade.  Two years later I started playing clarinet in the elementary school band and in junior high I started playing guitar and played through junior high and high school and started playing bass in college.  So I’ve been surrounded most of my life by musical instruments.”

“I took piano lessons.  I didn’t take clarinet lessons because that was part of being in the whole school band experience. I took guitar lessons for about a month and started self-teaching myself after that.  I took piano lessons for about 4 years.  I never took a bass lesson but I have sat down with some more experienced players and picked up some tips here and there.”

“I think if I were to do it again I think I would’ve joined the orchestra instead of the band.  I wanted to play cello really bad, but all of the kids wanted to be in orchestra.  I fell in love with the Tears for Fears song, “Shout,” and there’s this weird little solo in the middle of it that I thought was the flute (I later learned it was played on the keyboards) so I went into the band room and said, ‘I want to play the flute because I want to be able to do this.’ And the band teacher told me, ‘only girls play the flute, we need a clarinet player.’ So I became the clarinet player, only to realize by the time I got into junior high that only girls played the clarinet as well.”  Laughingly adding, “So I was manipulated.”

Even though he may have been manipulated, he learned lessons that would help him later in life, “Right now, the impact school band had on my playing — in sort of, an early on way, I had a good sense of pitch and tone and structure, plus the discipline from playing with others and practicing. Then running scales on piano to running scales on bass and working on song structure and the technical aspects of playing.  I can’t imagine music not being part of my life.”

Nick cites his Mom for getting him interested in music at an even earlier age.  She placed a pair of adult sized headphones on his ears and tried to teach him to clap along with the beat.  “I remember wanted to be able to do it so bad.  To be able to figure it out.”  Music was always around when he was a child.  Lots of classical like Beethoven and Mozart.  His mother also played piano as well as his grandmother.  You could say that music is in his blood, along with commitment and dedication, which he gets from his Retired Army father.

Nick plays a Fender 77 P bass, with a replacement neck and an Ampeg SVT Classic, 8×10 with minimal effects and little distortion.

Staying busy is what DCfC does best.  Not settling for just being a band that goes around and plays shows isn’t enough, which is evidenced by their work with the community before the band formed and the work they do with charities now.  Currently they are on a holiday break from their recently finished tour with label mates and friends The Long Winters and Mates of State.

Death Cab for Cutie will be performing on the Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn (CBS) on January 19.

Their video for “The New Year” is being featured on MTV.com – Check out the short interview there as well.

And then its back on the road supporting the release of Translanticism.  “We’re picking back up toward the end of January, doing Europe and Japan in February and March then we’ll be back here and then on to Australia in early summer.  About this time next year we’ll head into the studio and start rolling up the sleeves for the next one”

Thanks Nick!!!

For more info and tour dates, please visit www.deathcabforcutie.com

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