Indie-pop’s band of brothers still going strong after 10 years
By Andrea Warner
If you know a guy who wears black plastic-framed glasses, owns a closet full of artfully decorated t-shirts, and waxes poetic about every twee moment betwixt the making and the breaking of love gone awry, it’s likely he’s a Death Cab for Cutie fan.
The quartet toiled in relative obscurity for the first five years of its existence, ruling Seattle’s indie music scene and steadily gaining a global fan base, before breaking into the mainstream with their major label debut, 2005’s Plans. Ten years on, the group’s now considered one of the forefathers of indie-pop, and their last album, 2008’s Narrow Stairs, achieved something many thought impossible: it debuted at #1 on the Billboard charts.
The band’s humble Bellingham, Washington foundations — built squarely on fiercely loyal friendships — has helped keep Death Cab from becoming another Hollywood-style train wreck. Lead singer/songwriter Ben Gibbard is now engaged to actress and musician Zooey Deschanel. Guitarist and producer Chris Walla has founded his own recording studio in his Portland home, producing other indie giants like the Decemberists and Tegan and Sara. Drummer Jason McGerr mentored teenaged indie-pop sister act, Smoosh. Bass player Nick Harmer has preferred to stay out of the spotlight, making him all the more interesting to speak with about fame, friendship, and his possible future in a Journey cover band.
WE: Did you want to be a rock star when you grew up?
Nick Harmer: One, I’m not even sure if I’ve accomplished that yet. [Laughs] I definitely wanted to be in a rock band. When I was really young, I wanted to be in, like, Motley Crew or Twisted Sister. I liked to draw pictures of myself with spiked wrist bands and pyrotechnics going off behind me. I always loved playing music, but I never once had that moment where I was like: ‘This is my career.’ I mean, I’m still not sure if this is what I want to do as a career or if it’s some extended awesome hobby. I almost feel like if I admit that I make my living playing music it’ll jinx it and everything will just disappear or something. I hope that I’m 55 years old playing in a casino someday.
That would be awesome.
Right? Just playing in, like, a Journey cover band. Or maybe I’ll be in a little jazz combo in restaurants on Thursday nights, just up in the corner.
Have you ever seen Big Elvis in Las Vegas? He’s this guy who used to weigh 800 pounds, and now he’s down to 400 pounds because he found God and stuff.
No! [Laughs] And he’s known as Big Elvis? Wow. I’m not a front man, I’m not an Elvis kind of guy. It’d be something like, Big Elvis with Big Bass Player.
In the early stages of Death Cab, did you think it was something that had legs and would last?
It’s weird to say. I mean, I knew the first practice we had, when things clicked, that there was something different about this combination of musicians and the music we were making. It was a very tangible kind of magic where you felt almost goose-bumpy, you know?
And you all still speak to each other, which is more than some bands can say after a decade together.
Yeah, and I know this might sound a little heart-on-the-sleeve, but if, at the end of everything I still have three really close friends, that’s a win. There’s so much about what we do for a living that threatens to tear us apart on all kinds of levels. I mean, we’re friends and business partners and the fact that we’ve been able to iron out the creative, financial, and social dynamics, and still maintain a true friendship amongst it all is absolutely the cherry on top. That’s the core I want to protect.
I know so many people who count Death Cab’s albums as the soundtracks to their most intimate moments.
I’m in the band, but the albums become soundtracks to intimate moments for me, too. It’s kind of a strange thing to be part of making the music and also be listening to it. I mean, I’m not walking around listening to our music on headphones all the time. Early on when we were trying to decide what to record for an album, we were listening for that real emotional connective tissue. Our audience is composed of people like us. I look out at the crowd when we’re playing and almost everyone is people I recognize in one way or another, or the kind of people I would be friends with, or going to have drinks with.
What’s next for you guys?
Ben’s been writing a little bit, then these shows in July, and downtime for the rest of the summer. This fall we’ll generate ideas and start the process of another album. I don’t think we’ll wait as long as we did between Plans and Narrow Stairs. We’re excited about releasing more music more frequently, and maybe doing shorter tour cycles. We’d like to play as many shows in a shorter amount of time, but I really think the internet is part of the marketing tool. It’s really the indispensable fifth member of the band. Utilizing that to share music and change things up just a little bit so we don’t have that hamster wheel of record, go on tour for 18 months, take time off, repeat. That can get a bit stale feeling as a formula.