The process of making records can take a considerable amount of time. Providing insight into how his band ticks, Death Cab For Cutie bassist Nick Harmer shares with me that Death Cab has a “very collaborative process, and it does take time,” and how they’re “kind of on a three-year cycle, but that’s usually because in between is 18 months of touring.”
“So for us,” says Harmer, ironically, via phone from a stop along Death Cab’s summer jaunt in support of their new album Codes And Keys, “The album comes out, and there’s a year and a half of touring. Then in the off months, that’s usually when people are demoing—that’s when Ben (Gibbard, Death Cab singer/guitarist) is basically putting the polish on the bulk of the demos that he is writing for us. Then at a certain point, he’ll just send us over everything that he’s been working on, and then we’ll come together as a band.” Since 2005, Death Cab has perfected this process over three records: Plans (2005), Narrow Stairs (2008), and now Codes And Keys. Each release has trumped the proceeding one, and with all certainty, there have been valid reasons lately to be excited for new Death Cab For Cutie records.
Yes, I did just say, “excited.” It would be no insult to say that Death Cab For Cutie will never be confused with a band like AC/DC, for example. Never ever, actually. But all kidding aside, it’s just that when you think about Death Cab for Cutie, “exciting” wouldn’t be the word that comes to mind first. Their music has always been about atmosphere, spacing, time and reflection—not so much about arena-rock adrenaline. Considering at one point in time Death Cab’s most recognizable contemporaries were Bright Eyes and The Decemberists, their recent transformation into Krautrock-loving bad-asses, who marry indie-darling actresses during their downtime from writing 10-minute-long, bass-looping synth rips, has definitely been a game-changer for Death Cab For Cutie.
I have been largely impressed with the way Death Cab For Cutie have been emboldened by their strengths as a band, by the way they have taken chances with their music without losing credibility—in fact, they have gained more acclaim with each twist and turn they’ve taken. It’s something that Nick Harmer is definitely aware of. “I think there’s a way that you can communicate with people that are interested in the music that you’re making in a more direct way, more than ever before,” he says.
Harmer has seen this take shape, undoubtedly, in the way his band grew from esoteric in stature—a regional sensation, mostly—to that of a nationally known act, thanks to endless touring and some clever cable TV promo slots. “I think we’ve steadily grown,” says Harmer. “In all the ways of measuring a band in its growth, all the data surrounding that would suggest so—in terms of how many records we sold or the number of people who come to our tours. I mean, we were a pretty unknown band. Right around Transatlanticism  things started to pick up, and then you can sort of chart the growth steadily from there.”
It would be no exaggeration to say that acclaim was earned exclusively on Death Cab For Cutie’s own terms. However their career has evolved, the striking fact here is they have been able to create music as if no one was watching, even though the entire world actually was. I invite anyone to willingly fall down the manhole that is “Doors Unlocked And Open” from Codes And Keys, and let the expanse of the track carry you to a far off place you’ve never visited. When listening to a track such as “Some Boys,” with its electro-vamping and Caribbean rhythms, the question begs to be asked: Could there be a better band than Death Cab For Cutie at making creative freedom look so easy? Could there be anyone better at brushing off the expectations that come with being a successful pop group—by making the obscure sound familiar, and the strange seem so thankfully pleasing, no less?
If there is one thing Nick Harmer seems certain of, it is that Death Cab as a band is very happy and comfortable with who and where they are. But it is their striking self-awareness that prompts Harmer to say that despite successful albums, critical acclaim and a growing, devout fan base, one should not plan on catching the Washington quartet anytime soon at your local football arena. “We’ve never really had any grand end goal—we were just four guys who liked playing music together, and what’s always been most important to us is, one: Being able to play shows, two: Doing albums just to be able to record music together for the world, for better or for worse. Despite how we’ve grown, I don’t see us evolving to the point where we’re playing stadiums. And that’s fine, because we never wanted that anyway. I could never see any of us walking around upset that we’re not playing the stadiums of the world.”
But playing live will always be Death Cab For Cutie’s calling card, and with music so emotional, I ask Harmer what the electricity that exists between he and his bandmates feels like onstage. “I’m not a religious person,” he says, “and I’ve never been a church-going guy. But playing in a band, and even going to shows as a fan of bands—music is my religion, and that sounds totally cheesy to say that out loud like that, but in the same way that religion plays a role in people’s lives, to fulfill them spiritually and provide a sense of community, or a place to connect with other people—music does the same thing for me. It’s where I go to feel inspired.”
Harmer stops to laugh, a little embarrassed, seemingly, by his own open love song to the art of music. But I’ll be damned if he didn’t mean every word of it. You just feel the conviction in his words. “There’s just a really emotional thing that happens when we’re all playing together,” he finishes. “It’s not like anything I’ve ever had in my life, so… it’s pretty unique that way.”
Exciting times, indeed, for Death Cab for Cutie, for today, tomorrow and beyond.
Death Cab For Cutie will play Williamsburg Waterfront in Brooklyn on Aug. 2 and Mann Center For The Performing Arts in Philly on Aug. 5. For more info, go to deathcabforcutie.com.