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

Sirens from the North: Tegan and Sara

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As the old tale of the sea goes, mythological creatures called Sirens resided on rocks far enough from shore so that when their sweet voices lulled the ships and sailors near them, the ships would crash on the rocks. The last sounds those sailors would hear were the Sirens’ angelic voices. It’s kind of morbid in a sense, so if you take out the rocks/sailors/shipwreck and leave in the voices of the Sirens, then you’ve got an inkling of how powerful Tegan and Sara are, especially on their latest release, So Jealous (Sanctuary Records).

Born and raised in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, Tegan and Sara are bringing a certain amount of frosty acoustic rock to the table, which draws inspiration from bands they were listening to in the early ’90s, as well as a healthy dose of classic rock, passed down from their parents. The sisterly combination, along with the fact that they’re twins, is a powerful source of inspiration for Tegan and Sara, but can also be a bit of problem when it comes to disagreements. Luckily, separation seems to breed creativity since Tegan lives in Vancouver and Sara lives in Montreal, which is basically on the opposite ends of Canada. Suffice to say, when Tegan and Sara get together to make music, a connection is formed—and having two heads focusing on writing songs is always better than one.

As evidenced by previous releases and again on their latest album, Tegan and Sara compliment each other perfectly; voices reach beautiful harmonies, juxtaposed by loves-lost lyrics and stellar instrumentation. With drummer Rob Chursinoff and bassist Chirs Carlson rounding out the band, So Jealous was born from Tegan and Sara’s tape demos, made during time off after their previous tour. Further expanding upon their delicate pop sound, former Weezer/The Rentals band member Matt Sharp makes a guest appearance on So Jealous, bouncing between the Moog, Casio and organ to create some deliciously melodious hooks.

In 2000, Tegan and Sara released their debut album, This Business of Art, to much fanfare, and from there began a cult following of folks who loved the clever lyrics and intertwining lead vocals of the acoustic guitar-toting sisters. They released their second album, If It Was You, in 2002 and, as most artists are prone to do, they managed to grow and expand on their sound. With the release of their latest record, Tegan and Sara helmed the production seats, making sure that all parties met the integrity of their vision so that the intimacy of their home recordings could come out of the project.

Although the girls got their start in their teens, their interest and participation began much sooner than that. Sara says, “We actually started playing guitar and playing in bands when we were about 15. Our parents were super into music. They were really young when they had us—total ’70s parents, so there were always records lying around, and there was always music. So my whole life I’ve always been listening to music, and even my grandparents and everybody around me has always introduced me to different types of music.

“When we were in [seventh grade], I would say we started branching out and getting into our own style of music. Instead of listening to what our parents were listening to, or listening to the radio, we started getting into alternative music. There was a radio station that started up on the AM dial in Calgary that was sort of similar to a college radio station but slightly more mainstream or whatever. That’s where we discovered bands like Dinosaur Jr. and Pavement and the Replacements—that kind of stuff, which got us into indie rock. In high school, again we were branching out further, musically—eventually to the point where we wanted to start playing our own songs.”

She adds, “We used to go to gigs and punk shows, and I never really thought I could do it until I started playing guitar, and then I knew that I really wanted to do it.”

Tegan and Sara had the requisite piano lessons growing up. “I played piano for eight or nine years, but it never lent itself to how I approached guitar,” Sara says. “I really didn’t think of it the same as far as with piano I was learning scales and classical pieces, and it never really inspired me to write my own songs. But with guitar, it was easy to emulate who I was spending all my time listening to, you know? As soon as I started playing guitar, I was like ‘screw’ lessons; I was ready to start writing my own songs.

“I think in a loose kind of way [piano lessons correlate to guitar]. I mean, I wasn’t terrific at guitar theory because I was competent in piano theory, but I also think it gave me an understanding of how music works. It had developed a rhythm in me, one that I had hammered out for years and years, so it was definitely a natural instinct. I definitely think more classically and technically about the piano than I do about the guitar.”

For being in the same band and being twins, Tegan and Sara take an interesting approach to songwriting—they don’t write together and “never really wrote together,” according to Sara. The first song Sara ever wrote was inspired by her sister. “The first song I ever wrote, Tegan was sick and she had these purple Etnies shoes that I loved, and when she was sick I asked her if I could borrow them. That was the only time I got to wear them was when she couldn’t go to school. So anyway, when I got back from school that day, we had both started fooling around with our guitars then, and I remember she was really sick and asked me what school had been like that day, so I started writing a song. It was called, “Tegan Didn’t Go to School Today,” and it was about her being sick and me having to go to school all by myself—we used to hate not going to school together. We had this routine and it was always awkward for one of us to be at school without the other.”

She adds, laughing, “So that was the first song I wrote!”

Now, several years later, Tegan and Sara have truly come full circle with So Jealous. Working with John Collins, David Carswell and Howard Redekopp on the boards, Tegan and Sara have crafted a warm, indie-pop-fused record with lots of contagious hooks. “It was a lot more formal this time around because we were in a studio instead of recording in people’s houses like past records. Actually, I liked it more because when we were recording in people’s houses it felt like we were never done. When we were done, we’d just close the door to the room, but it was the same house you’d been sitting in the whole day. But with the studio we had it locked out for 12 hours, and when we were done, we’d go home and have dinner and do laundry and watch TV in [our] own house and so it felt more like a job. Or, not like a job, but it felt like there were more boundaries, I guess.

“But the actual recording process of this record differed because we co-produced this record. We were there a lot more, so we had a considerable amount of control on how it sounded and what we wanted it to sound like. We were kind of learning by the seat of our pants but also taking some of the skills we had both learned by working with Pro Tools in the past and applying it in the process. I definitely felt more confident in the studio this time, but I also felt that I had a considerable amount of more work to do as a result. I kept thinking, ‘Why couldn’t we get somebody else to do this?’ because some days I just wanted to leave, but there were decisions that had to be made so that we got exactly what we were looking for.”

LATEST NEWS:
Tegan and Sara are currently gearing up for a North American tour in support of The Con, their debut for Warner Brothers and first major label release. Recorded with a big fat budget by Chris Walla, featuring Jason Mcgerr and some other highly talented members of Death Cab for Cutie. Tegan and Sara do a lot of outreach, like playing the Bridge School* Benefit Concert in San Francisco, an all-acoustic concert founded by Neil Young to benefit children with severe communication disabilities. They were first signed to Neil Young’s imprint, Vapor Records.

*The Bridge School is a non-profit organization whose mission is to ensure that individuals with severe speech and physical impairments achieve full participation in their communities through the use of augmentative and alternative means of communication (AAC) and assistive technology (AT) applications and through the development, implementation and dissemination of innovative life-long educational strategies.

The Bridge School is an internationally recognized leader in the education of children who use augmentative and alternative communication and has developed unique programs and trained highly skilled professionals in the use of state-of-the-art assistive technology.

For more on the concert and school, click here bridgeschool.org

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So Jealous was an amazing record. I’m just getting used to the idea that Tegan and Sara are probably going to get really big this year, relatively speaking. It is time that music and artists who make records take back the spotlight from the single making folks, even if its only for a short time. The title track on “The Con” is one of the stand out tracks. Pick it up. I’ll be doing a review for HYPEzine on it, so go check it out!