Success hasn’t been easy for Death Cab For Cutie. But now, fifteen years and seven albums into their career, they’re enjoying the fruits of hard labour. Reporter Andrew Trendell talks to bassist Nick Harmer about their journey so far.
“That was a pretty dark time,” admits Nick Harmer, looking back on the time around their last album Narrow Stairs in 2008. Although the album was their first to top the charts in America, life wasn’t as wonderful as you’d imagine.
“We were all processing some personal demons outside of the band and bringing a lot that baggage into it,” says Nick. “The music and tours around that album were quite dark for us as individuals, given our normal dispositions. Thankfully, since then we’ve all created some really great personal balance in our lives.”
He continued: “It finally feels like we’re settling in a way that feels really great. There’s a lot less frustration and angst around us as individuals.”
Now in their thirties and with front man Ben Gibbard being thrust into the limelight after becoming engaged to Hollywood starlet Zooey Deschannel, Death Cab have had a lot of growing up to, and say that maturity has informed their music.
“Over time, in very subtle ways we’ve become more mature and the fiery hot-headedness of young egos has dissipated a lot,” reveals Nick. “I really feel that we’ve settled into an understanding and communication that’s almost tacit between us now.”
The last time I met to Nick was in 2008, when he spoke about how the way Radiohead do things always defies expectations and surprises people. His exact words were ‘what can we do that Radiohead isn’t about to finish.’ Well, they certainly achieved that this time around when they recorded the first live one-take video for recent single You Are A Tourist.
“It’s not a race and we’re certainly not competing with all of the other bands in the universe,” laughs Nick.
“Everybody does their own thing. We were just really excited to have an idea like that and we just seemed really excited about it. It spoke to a lot of different things about us as a band and as individuals – it seemed to be a good fit.”
He continues: “We’re all fans of live performances, whether it’s theatre or music or just live television, it’s just always fun to hang on the edge of whether it’s going to work or not. As a challenge, it just seemed like something exciting and electric that forced us to be really present in what we were doing.”
Could it be said that this video reflects an ambitious approach for Death Cab that represents the album as a whole?
“I’d say there’s a lot of ambition there but the thing we were striving for was a challenge,” says Nick.
“We were trying to challenge ourselves to try and push into some territory that we hadn’t pushed into as a band before – musically and sonically. We were trying to be as thoughtful as we could with the choices that we were making and that started with the lyrical contributions that Ben makes on this album.”
“He was really working hard on his lyrics this time and really wanted them to reflect where he was at personally in his life and where the band is – we’re really proud of the amount of work that Ben has put into it. Watching him work so hard really pushed us to balance that out.
But it wasn’t easy for Death Cab to get to where they are now. They were never what you’d call a ‘buzz band’ or flavour of the month.
“We’re very aware of the kind of band we are and who we are as people, and I don’t think we’re ever going to take any extreme left-turns where people have to redefine their relationship with us musically or aesthetically, but I like to think that over seven albums, we’ve been able to explore enough territory and move in enough subtle directions, that people are able to argue about what version of Death Cab For Cutie they like the best.”
Nick goes on: “We’re not doing that consciously, but I feel that if I can sit down with our first album and listen to all of our records in full through to the new album, that I can sense growth.”
“People say that the band they hear on We Have The Facts and the one they hear on Codes and Keys are two different bands, but I don’t really hear that. We’re still concerned with the same things, but the only difference is how time and age has changed the way we filter the same information.”
For years as they’ve grown and matured, Death Cab have toured relentlessly, gradually building a dedicated cult fan base before cracking the mainstream and finding success – but always on their own terms and without compromise.
“We’re still amazed that we can play in Nottingham and anyone comes to our shows,” laughs Nick. “It’s still not lost on us that we can go to a town in the UK or Germany or Singapore, and we can play a song that we wrote when we were 24-years-old and people will react to it. We’re still blown away by that.”
He continues: “We’re very emotionally and intellectually invested in the music and how we share it with people. It’s not just been given to us, but thankfully we’ve been able to carve out our own small little corner of the music world and I think that’s because we’re dependable people and we’re a dependable band. People can react to that.”
“I’m just thankful that we can follow our muse and our whim and that people who like our band still trust us enough to let us do that.”
One of those whims was to become quite vocal about politics - especially around the time of the last US General Election. The last time I spoke to Nick, he hoped for an end to apathy in the States. Two years on, what’s cchanged?
Nick responds: “When we last talked I thought there was going to be more unification and a mellowing-out where we could all take a deep breath and figure things out. But now there’s not a day goes by where there’s not some crazy scandal with politicians being exposed left and right for their corruption and no one really seems to have the power to do anything about it. I don’t know what the answer is, but I think it will take a long time to unravel in a healthy way. Who knows where we’ll be?”
“I would say that I’m saddened and frustrated more than I am encouraged and hopeful at this point. Not that I was expecting a lot – if anything I think my suspicions about the political landscape have now been confirmed in a lot of ways. I was always suspicious about how much corporate money and wealth divided our country and it impacts on politics from the top down with the wealthiest being able to make the decisions that effect the vast majority of everyone.”
He adds: “I’m still hopeful that Obama will run again and win again. He’s got a lot of ideas and has planted a lot of seeds this term that will hopefully come into fruition should he get elected again, then maybe we can see the true genius of some of his political moves. But there’s so much sabotaging going on that it seems like it’s two steps forwards and one step back. It’s still forwards-moving, but frustrating to say the least.”
In the mean time, you can always rely on Death Cab.
Death Cab For Cutie play Rock City, Nottingham on Tuesday 5th July. Visit www.alt-tickets.co.uk or call 0845 413 4444 for tickets and details.
Their new album Codes and Keys is out now.