Q&A with Death Cab for Cutie

Sep 29, 2011 at 12:01 pm
Death Cab for Cutie
Death Cab for Cutie

One of the strangest word combinations to ever create a band name, Death Cab for Cutie controls the alternative music scene across America. They have been a nationally touring band since 1997 with their first release. Now in their 14th year, Codes and Keys has been one of the band's most successful offerings to date. The first single, “You Are A Tourist,” received a lot of airplay on Rock radio across the country reaching number one on the Alternative charts in the U.S. The band recently released the video for its latest single, "Stay Young, Go Dancing" (view it at the bottom of this post below).

CityBeat recently spoke with bassist Nick Harmer to discuss the new album and it’s critically acclaimed reception (as well as a very scary moment on their festival run this past summer). Death Cab starts their latest tour on Friday night in Cincinnati at the PNC Pavilion at Riverbend Music Center.—-

CityBeat: So you guys are going to be kicking off in Cincinnati. What can we expect?

Nick Harmer: Well, a lot of music actually. We are playing a solid two-hour set at this point and trying to cover a good chunk of the new record, but there is definitely representative stuff from every album in the catalog, which is always fun to do (and) makes for a nice full set.

The band that is opening for us, Telekinesis, centers around one guy in the band, his name is Michael Lerner. He is the principal songwriter and singer in that band. He has been a friend of ours for years. We have known him for a very long time even before he had a band together and was a working musician. We are very excited to see him coming up and get stuff going for himself and I am really happy to be on the road with him as well. It will make for a good show overall.

CB: I just was actually on YouTube last night and I saw “You Are A Tourist” is over two million hits now.

NH: Oh, that’s great.

CB: Did you guys anticipate that reaction?

NH: Not at all. That is a fantastic reaction actually. I hadn’t checked in a long time. We were very proud of the video and we really loved the song. We were always hoping that it would connect and people would enjoy it. I think that the response has been overwhelming and one of the highest charting radio songs we had ever had which is always a surprise especially in our seventh album as a band. But I am really proud of how the video turned out. It was such a great meeting of a lot of creative minds and the way that it came together was really exciting to be a part of.

CB: I thought the video was really interesting with the kaleidoscope red light effect. Is there a story behind it and how it ties to the song?

NH: No it was just an artistic choice made by the director Tim Nackashi. He basically had the concept for the video. They had a choreographer work with the dancers to get all the moves right. We had many conversations to determine what we were comfortable with and what was practical given the nature of doing a live video and all that we had to do to make adjustments here and there to sort of make room for that experience to happen as flawlessly as possible. I have to give all the credit in the world to Tim and Aaron Stewart, he was a friend of ours. He was the one that who sort of came up with the initial seed of the concept, planted it in all of our brains, and we kind of took it from there. It was just awesome to be part of such a great collaborative process. And then to see it be successful and have people react to it and like it a lot is always validating and rewarding at the end of the day.

CB: You guys are coming off a pretty busy summer festival season. What was the highlight of your 2011 summer?

NH: What was the highlight? So far, we had some really great shows. Unfortunately, one of the highlights was kind of actually a scary moment. We were scheduled to play the Ottawa Blues Fest right after Cheap Trick. During the Cheap Trick set, the stage collapsed. I will never, ever for the rest of my life forget what is was like to be standing right next to the stage and watch a huge stage like that get blown over. It was something I never expected and something I had never seen. Then it went on to happen four other times this summer. We were very lucky that no one was severely injured or killed in the accident in Ottawa. It was still a very shocking sort of thing that left a very indelible impression on me. I won’t forget that this summer for sure.

CB: I am a music photographer so we are always right beside the stage too, so that was very scary when you watch that. Many of my friends were at the Indianapolis show when the stage collapsed at the fair. It was terrible. Sugarland had changed their mind and made them move back to the soundboard to shoot five minutes before it fell down. It saved their life. It was a crazy situation.

I also watched your VH1 Storytellers again this weekend. How did you pick the songs that you had for Storytellers?

NH: I don’t know. Ben probably came up with the set list. Basically what we encouraged him to do was go through our catalog and pick some stuff from the scope of everything we recorded and find songs that have stories that he wanted to tell. I think some songs have more compelling stories behind them than others. I don’t know what they are necessarily so it was hard for me to weigh in and pick. I left it up to him to pick the ones since I knew he would be doing all the talking.

It was actually really exciting. There were a couple moments during that show where I thought I knew the story of a particular song but when he started telling the story, I remembered being there and I remember the context all around it but I didn’t know the true story around some of the songs. It was kind of interesting and really neat for me to stand on the soundstage while we were taping and go, “Holy shit, really, that is where that came from. Interesting.” We have been a band for 20 years and I have never stopped to ask him where it came from and he has to explain again.

CB: One of the things that draws me to your songs are the names of the songs in general. I find that they are really creative names and so it was cool to hear, “Oh that came from the Laundromat guy.” I’m like “Really???” It was really off the wall, some of them, you would never have known.

NH: Yeah, exactly. I felt the same way. It’s funny that I am in the band. One of the most exciting parts of doing that show was having those kinds of moments happen to me. We don’t ever really sit down as a band and talk like that. When we are sitting backstage before we go on it’s not like I am interviewing Ben, “Where does this come from?” He’d tell me if I wanted to know. It’s not like there is a big secret or something. I just never think to ask. I just listen to the songs and kind of figure out what they meant to me.

CB: I’ve always pictured you guys around the camp fire telling stories right before the shows.

NH: Maybe my biggest fear is that he’ll say, “That song is about you, man.”

CB: Ben talked about the new album Codes and Keys having kind of light and dark elements. You guys have traditionally had pretty dark songs. I gravitate to the light songs, the happier songs. I know you guys have changed. Obviously you have grown up. You are my age and have been doing this for 15 or 20 years. I’m sure personal lives have had a big effect on your music. Many of you just got married and are kind of moving into a different phase of your life. How do you think that is impacting your music?

NH: I think if there is one thing that we have tried to do musically as a band, and I know Ben has tried to do as a lyricist and a songwriter, we have always have just wanted to be honest about who we are and where we are in our lives. If that meant we are having moments of doubt and heartbreak, then that was the music that was going to come out of us. If we were feeling happy and positive, that was going to be reflected in the music we were making as well. I’m really proud of Ben and proud of all of us for trying our best to remain emotionally honest and open about those kinds of things.

There is a tendency, especially in music, as the profile of the band was growing and more people were paying attention and the critics come in and everyone starts evaluating what you are making, to sort of start listen to what people want from you and maybe cater to that in some way. I don’t think we are a band that every album we put out we invent our sound, by any stretch. I think if you sat down in a room and listened to our very first album in lineal order all the way though our newest release, you would hear us grow and evolve and try things and return to similar themes and try new things. I feel like we have tried to do that over the years as much as possible, always just being honest about who we are and where we are at, for better or worse.

Yeah, I think this record certainly has more balance on it between the light and dark because I feel like there is more balance between light and dark in our lives, and not so much as a romantic balance, but it is just a balance between our personal life and our professional life. I feel like anyone can relate to that overall. I think that is a struggle that anybody who works in any field has to sort of figure out.

You always hear that adage that professional highs and personal lows and personal highs and professional lows seem to offset each other in a weird way. It has always been kind of a goal of ours and a priority of ours to sort of find a balance between those two without either one feeling like they are being let down or suffering. It’s not perfect and certainly we haven’t figured out the big secret but we are growing up and we are learning and figuring that out as we go. It is only adding to more solidarity and more confidence in the band.

Also, it is adding to more balance across our whole lives which is nice at this point. Like you said, 15 or 20 years on, I still feel rejuvenated and excited and in love with playing music with these guys and I want to keep doing it. I don’t think we have reached anywhere near the end of what we are going to do as this band.

CB: Any fond Cincinnati stories from the past?

NH: Nothing that really sticks out. We have played Cincinnati before. It’s strange, I was thinking about that before the call and looking at who I was talking to. I am actually thankful nothing jumps to mind because I think the things that usually stand out are really embarrassing things or things that didn’t go so well, little moments of tragedy that sort of burn themselves into your consciousness. I am actually looking forward to being there.

CB: You were on Spin magazine’s Top 20 shows to see in the fall.

NH: I did not see that.

CB: It was a couple weeks ago. They were running through the, “Summer’s over but don’t forget the music. There are great tours in the fall.” So they were kind of promoting you guys. One of the lines in the article was “You better see them now because you never know when you will see them again.” Is there any truth to this? Are you guys not going to play after this tour?

NH: No, I think, certainly what we are trying to do on this album cycle, more than ever before, is be aware of overplaying. I think in the past one of the things we were always doing as a band, when we released an album, we would be on tour for 18 months. That would mean we were in San Francisco five times over 18 months playing shows. I think some of the information we were getting even from people who know us, even our friends were just like, “You guys tour like crazy. I feel like if I miss this show, you will just be back in three months.”

So, we kind of took that to heart. As part of striking a balance in our personal lives and professional lives, we don’t have to be on the road constantly for 18 months. We can play a few shows and be done. I think that is what we are trying to do now, give everyone a chance to see the new songs but let it be known that it is one of the only times you will see this group of songs. If you want to come out and see the show, do that because the next time will be around some other event like an album or something. We are not going to tour to stop touring though.

CB: You’re not breaking up.

NH: We are not breaking up. None of that stuff. We are just being more selective of when and how long we are on the road for. I think so far this year it has been very exciting to sort of adopt that approach. There is usually a moment in any album cycle when we are like “Man, we have been away from home for way too long and this is getting old.” It is nice to not have the feeling of overstaying our welcome so to speak. We want to be on the road. We want to tour. We are doing it as much as we want to do and be aware of how nice it is to come home.

CB: We are all looking forward to seeing you on Friday.

NH: Awesome. I am really excited to be back in Ohio. First show, it will be fun. It will be a celebration for sure.