In an industry where bands are a dime a dozen and swallowed up among the endless supply on the daily, 20 active years together is a feat. People age, commitments grow, relationships and responsibilities become more complex, intersecting and demanding to become priority. Then, of course, there’s the task of continuing to create music that both consistently matures and grows with your fans, careful to still tap into what drew them to you without becoming stale, and also attract some new admirers along the way.
The burden of that undertaking isn’t lost on Death Cab For Cutie. Nearly two decades later, member changes and the lapse of time haven’t kept the Seattle-bred alternative rockers down. In the wake of the release of their ninth record, bassist and original member Nick Harmer explains why the band is nothing but thankful.
The band has been together for about 20 years. What has driven you guys to continue making music all this time?
You know, I think when I kind of strip away everything, it comes down to friendship. Ben and I were roommates and friends in college well before we started playing music together. Our love of music started as friends and then it sort of developed into playing music together and Jason, as well, I was in a band with. I knew Jason well before Death Cab For Cutie. We have just known each other for so long, so I think when it comes down to it there is a friendship there that is really important to all of us and that certainly drives and motivates us to continue to make music together, want to spend time together, and all of these things.
I think without that kind of, I don’t know, bond that we all have, I think it would have felt like a job or just something to check off the checklist. We would’ve lost interest a long time ago. I think it really does come down to the fact that I really like the band, and I really like Jason, and now we have Zac and Dave in the band and my friendship with those guys is evolving and growing daily, too, getting stronger and stronger. It feels great to be surrounded by friends and to be able to make music with them.
For sure! Do you guys see a lot of each other outside of touring and recording? Or do you guys need a little break at that point?
I mean, we all have our various interests outside of the band, and Ben and I being the only two members of the band who live in the same city. Jason lives maybe an hour and a half north or Seattle, Dave lives in Portland, Ore., and Zac lives in L.A. So, outside of band events and things like that, I don’t really see Zac and Dave as much, but I see Ben regularly. Those guys come around a lot, though, so I would definitely say that we see a lot of each other at a pretty high frequency after tours and after shows are wrapped up, and things like that. It’s definitely not a ‘we finish shows and then I don’t see these guys until we step on stage’ kind of thing.
You guys have your new album, Thank You for Today, and the title itself really alludes to the sense of being thankful, or at least conscious of the present. Where did this concept come from?
You know, it was funny because we just started saying that, almost kind of jokingly, in the beginning when we were recording the album. It was something we just started saying to each other at the end of each day. It was something we tried to say to each other no matter if we were having a good day or a bad day. It was kind of just, “Thank you for today! See you tomorrow!”, kind of thing.
As the recording went on, it kind of became more and more meaningful and a really cool way to…well, you know, sometimes making records can mean getting lost in the woods. You end up walk off, butting heads, getting into arguments. There are a lot of psychological things that have to get navigated the longer you are all really invested in making good music together. It was just a really good way to wrap the day up. Like, at times when we would have heavy days, it was kind of a cool reset to just know that tomorrow is a new day and we will roll our sleeves up and make the best of the next day.
I like that the title itself has this kind of raw emotion about it. It can be hopeful, it can be kind of sad, it can be really on the nose. It can also mean the sort of wistful, nostalgia thing. I like how adaptable it is to how I’m feeling as person when I say it or read it. I think when we were talking about naming the album, Ben actually was like, “Why don’t we just call it Thank You for Today”? And it was perfect. It just encapsulates the entire experience of the album for us. Like I said, it was sort of this mantra that we had been saying at the end of each day anyway, so it felt like a perfect way to title this particular group of songs.
Absolutely. It might be a bit of a loaded question, but stemming from the album, what are you thankful for today?
I am thankful I am on tour with my bandmates and that we have a new album out. I am thankful for my friends and my family, and all of the support that we get from everybody to do this. Today I am feeling thankful to be playing The Greek Theatre tonight in Berkley and am having kind of flashback memories of playing Ben’s 30th birthday party, where instead of having a true birthday party, we had a birthday show here at The Greek. Just thinking how much time has gone and, I don’t know, I really am just trying to take each day of this tour and just be really thankful for what we have and whatever happens.
Like you said, the phrase can have some other connotations. For example, you mentioned the possibility of it being sad. The band has confronted that sense of mortality in the past, an obvious example being “I Will Follow You Into the Dark”. Do you feel like the ‘wisdom of age’ has changed anyone’s outlooks?
If anything, I think it has made us even more aware of mortality. You know, we’re sort of turning the crest into this part of our lives where we have friends and people that we know around us that are having some health problems, and you realize just how fragile and short life really is; especially the older you get. I don’t know. I think if anything, our darkest albums are yet to come. [Laughs]
[Laughs] Hey, that sounds about right!
Just the weight of that, you know? So yeah, I know it’s been something that has been impactful for Ben as a songwriter. As we move through life, I think everyone collectively has to come face to face with mortality in a more real way as they get older, so I don’t know how we are going to navigate all of that musically. Certainly, I think those things will continue to be around us for better or for worse.
In terms of songwriting and recording, what was the process like in Chris’ absence?
It was really invigorating. We’ve worked with the same producer that we recorded Kintsugi with, and I can only compare and contrast what the environment was like when we were making Kintsugi versus the environment we were making this record in. During the last record, Chris came to us about halfway through the last record and told us that it was going to be the last he would make with us. It was a pretty heavy moment and we elected at that time kind of keep that to ourselves and not share it with our producers or anyone else in the studio, just because we didn’t want any of that to impact the trajectory of the recording or have any kind of bearing on the quality of work we were doing. There was just a lot of heaviness hanging around in the corner when we were making Kintsugi and it was very much a bittersweet record to make. Every time we would finish a track, there was that moment when I would realize that it was the last one we were making with Chris, the last thing Chris will do.
Then, you contrast that with going into the studio with Zac and Dave, and it was like we were a brand new band again in a lot of ways. We just had these two guys with a lot of musical ideas, a ton of enthusiasm, and they were really excited about all the material — like we all were. It was really an all-for-one and one-for-all kind of feeling where it was clear when we were making Kintsugi that there was three of us who wanted to continue forward and Chris was going to go off and do his own thing. There was this sort of this separation in the group in that way, but this record had everybody really invested and really excited about being there. That kind of enthusiasm and energy is just really infectious and it really allowed us to explore lots of things…
I wouldn’t say fun, because it isn’t the right word, but there was a gratefulness in the recording that had been missing for a little while. It was a really great experience, and I’m not saying that there weren’t any hard days along the way, but it certainly was a really positive and fun thing compared to where we were at. Just to note that those two guys were invested very much with what was happening was really, really nice.
I can definitely see the vibe being different, especially given the circumstances surrounding both albums. Do you feel like the band ever struggles to find a balance between, when recording, the sound that fans have come to associate with you guys and maybe the desire to expand and explore different musicalities?
Yeah, I think certainly with Thank You for Today, Ben — when we went into making this record and certainly when Ben was writing demos — he was very vocal with us about having thinking a lot about what makes our band our band. What is the sound of our band and what do people want from us? It’s not in the sense that we wanted to write songs or make an album that was a “Let’s just give everybody exactly what they want!” kind of record. It’s just nice to realize what we are good at, and this is the music that comes out of us when we aren’t overthinking it and when we are just playing with each other, and that’s ok and just accept that and not try to forcefully move that into other directions.
I think this album was very much about us reminding ourselves what we do and what we’re good at, as well as pulling in these new ideas and threads that Zac and Dave keep bringing in to the band. Also, trying to push ourselves into a place that felt really relevant to where we are at now and what we are interested in musically right now. That was really something. I think Zac and Dave certainly, being fans of our band for a long time, were really fun in the studio a lot of times, because we would be playing something in the studio and we would check in and say, “Hey, does this sound good?” or something. It was nice to have their sense of more objectivity than Jason and Ben and I did. We could just look at them in the face and they’d say, “This doesn’t even sound like you guys! It’s not working.” Or, “This is why I love this band,” and we could really believe that. I think that was really helpful at this particular time.
So, coming from a different perspective a little bit on their part.
Yeah, exactly! I felt like it was accompanied by a little more dialogue that way between everybody. It’s kind of like, “Hey! This is the music that comes out of us naturally, let’s play like that, but let’s also look into the future about what’s ahead and what other musical horizons can we start to explore that also feels genuine to the music that we make.”
[Yelling in background on my end.] Absolutely! Sorry if you just heard yelling, there are people around the office watching the Kavanaugh hearing right now, apparently someone just got very upset. I don’t know if you heard that, so I just wanted to clarify!
Yeah, I heard! I get it. I can’t wait to get off the phone and catch up with all of that. I’ve been so busy all morning and I’ve been waiting to absorb all of the news around that. I need to turn on that news as soon as I can.
Oh yeah, it’s been on here all morning and in various parts of the office, so people are getting a bit riled up right now. But luckily, we are on our last question and then I’ll let you go and you can catch up, too!
[Laughs] Thank you!
What new track are you either most excited to play in the future or are really enjoying playing currently?
I’m really liking playing the song “Summer Year”, because that is really fitting in well with our catalog of material, but it also feels really new and fresh for us. That’s really exciting. I’ve also, now — because this is our third show on this tour so far — so we’ve now played everything from the record at least once. I think “Summer Years” is going really well and I’m liking playing “Northern Lights” because it’s fun. We played “60 & Punk” last night or the night before last in Portland, and that felt really great to play, too. Those three, I think, are really sticking out for me right now, for sure.
Awesome! I’m excited and hopefully I’ll get to see which ones you guys end up playing at your local dates here in New York.
Oh, probably all of them at one point for sure.
See Death Cab For Cutie perform live at two consecutive nights at Kings Theatre in Brooklyn on October 12 and 13.