Jimmy Fontaine

Celebrating Life, Love, & Live Music with Death Cab for Cutie

Turning 25 deserves recognition, and there are quite a few people, releases, and events from 1997 that are worth talking about and celebrating in 2022 – quarter century and all. Some examples include: Olympian Simone Biles, the knighting of Paul McCartney by the late Queen Elizabeth II, Titanic (the film, not the tragedy), Hanson’s ear-worm “Mmmbop,” Shania Twain’s release of what Guinness World Records named the ‘biggest-selling studio album by a solo female artist,’ South Park‘s premiere, and the formation of the indie rock icons that are Death Cab for Cutie.

Our interview with Death Cab for Cutie comes right before their Forest Hills Stadium concert on September 30 – tonight. Bassist Nick Harmer, like us, cannot wait to take the Queens stage with his friends and bandmates to keep bringing Asphalt Meadows to life for another set of grateful fans. This record, the band’s 10th (!), has been in the world only two weeks – dropping September 16. It is not only a fan favorite with a runaway lead single and a title track that Harmer himself can’t get enough of, but it is an album that – in all its beauty – come out of a time rooted in confusion, trepidation, and isolation.

Asphalt Meadows is a cohesive composition made in equal parts by the five members of the band, which allow for something new to be heard each time you press play on one of the tuneful, melodic 11 tracks that fill it out. One would not believe upon hearing it, whether in your headphones or in a concert setting, that it was crafted predominantly during the draining, individualistic peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. It fits right in with “I Will Follow You into the Dark,” “The Ghosts of Beverly Drive,” and the array of indie rock hits that are staples in the band’s catalog – something we chatted earnestly about with Nick Harmer.

There is a really cool atmospheric and almost symphonic quality to this record, and while many Death Cab records have that, it reigns supreme for the better on this one. Songs like “Fragments From the Decade” and the title track come to mind. It’s a really refreshing look at what you all do, so we’re curious: what were you and the band listening to yourselves when putting this together?

That’s such a great question. I don’t know because we made this record and wrote most of it independently of one another from our own home studios. We were very rarely all in one place while we were writing it together to talk about influences and all the things that were moving us. I really don’t know exactly what everyone was listening to and what they were pulling from for inspiration. I do know that during the pandemic, when most of this album came together, there was lots of time for discovering that. I think we were all kind of in our own worlds just enjoying whatever we could enjoy at home and that was all kinds of things that then were influencing the decisions we were making in our studios while we were writing. It’s funny, but I’m not sure, since our influences and the things that we were listening to were kind of all over the map this time. During the pandemic everyone was kind of cooped up and stir-crazy and just hungry to watch shows and movies and listen to music and podcasts and read books and do as much as we could to stay mentally active.

And all of that time, especially as a creative, became a chance to broaden horizons and maybe give people the time to gravitate towards things they wouldn’t have before. That being said, I do think that this album is a really great reflection of where you’ve come from as a group while maintaining your core sound. It all comes together very cohesively.

Thank you. I’m very happy with how it all turned out considering that when we first started writing the record, we were all kind of coming to the realization that we weren’t going to be able to be in a room and rehearsing or traveling to even see each other. I think there was this moment where we were all a little bit apprehensive and nervous about whether or not we were gonna be able to even make music in any way so far apart. It turned out well, so I’m very happy with where we’re at now for sure.

I’m so glad to hear that. I know during the pandemic, from the height of it to now, you guys did some virtual shows, little live stuff for the internet, but now you’re on this real life tour, which must be so fulfilling. What does it feel like to finally be able to connect with humans on an in-person level with these songs?

It’s everything. It’s a sense of celebration for us just to be able to be back out here and playing shows after coming from a very dark place where we all didn’t think we’d do this. There was a moment, I think, when the world was like, “Are we all gonna be able to even get together in any kind of large groups any longer? For any kind of entertainment or anything? Music or sports or whatever?” Once we sort of turned that corner in the pandemic and we realized that there were some vaccines and treatments and things that were gonna mitigate how devastating the pandemic was going to be overall, it looked like, “Ok, maybe we’ll be able to get back into the world again and play shows and just do it.” I think that still felt fairly abstract in our minds. It’s only just now that we have a new album and we’re back out on the road with our crew and doing the thing that we had to kind of press pause on for a few years. That just makes this a celebration. We feel so grateful, so thankful – I don’t know how else to explain it, really, there’s a lot of relief in it. There’s a lot of happiness, but there’s also some sadness, too. There were a lot of bands that were putting out their first records just as the pandemic started and it just killed their momentum.

We have lots of friends and know other bands that have found it really challenging to not get that momentum going again and are trying to find their footing coming out of the pandemic. [It] has been really tough. You see a lot of artists canceling tours and there’s a lot going on now, even with inflation and things like that that are kind of throwing up some costs. All in all, we’re just thankful that we have shows to play and that we’re able to do them. It’s a celebration for sure.

It is a celebration even just for a band that was able to come out on the other side, so to speak, full force with such a wonderful album under their belt: Asphalt Meadows. And, just as importantly, it is your 10th record, which is no small feat. 25 years of being a band, 10 albums, and there is still such a spirit at all of these shows. There’s no shortage of tour dates on this run, either. Is there anywhere in particular that excites you or any crowds that you are looking forward to reconnecting with in a big way? I mean, not to sway you, but we do love you over here in the NYC area.

It’s funny because at this point where we’re on the tour and everything, it’s hard to say. It sounds like I’m pandering in some ways, but every show is meaningful in that way. The fact that we get to do one or two or 10 or 20 shows is everything. We sort of told ourselves during the scariest part of the pandemic – and I remember having conversations with Ben – where we though, “If we get to do this again, we’re never gonna take a day of it for granted.” It’s not that we ever did take a day of it for granted, but it just has a different feeling now when you realize how quickly it can be taken away and how quickly the world can really change. I think that that has reframed a lot of our feelings about trying to be as present as we can be with where we’re at. We are thankful for the opportunity that’s in front of us and it feels that way. I mean, it’s hard to say that I’m prioritizing or I’m looking forward to one show over another. I’m just so excited about all the shows. I’m so excited about being able to play music with my friends and being able to travel again. It’s just great.

I love that. Is there a song off this record that is really translating well live on stage so far?

Yeah, we’ve been opening the sets with “I don’t know how I survive,” the first track on the album. That’s been going over really well as kind of an opener for the shows as well as the record. I’ve really been enjoying playing the title track, “Asphalt Meadows,” and I just really like it on the album. It’s got a really cool energy that’s maybe a little bit different than the record [overall]. It has a little more muscle live than it does on the album, too, and I kind of like that. This is just the first week of the tour and we’re playing all of these songs here for the first time, so we’re still trying to figure out what songs are kind of working in which order, and, as you play songs over and over again, you kind of uncover and discover more things about them that you maybe didn’t realize when you recorded them. It’s kind of still a learning process for us a little bit, too, but so far the songs are working and landing really well. I’m happy. Like I said, though, I think right now my favorite is playing “Asphalt Meadows” out of the set. I think that’s a fun one.

It is – and could be a hit single in it’s own right. Speaking of, I have to say that I don’t think a day goes by where I don’t listen to “Here to Forever,” because it is a banger on streaming, it’s all over alt radio, you guys took it to Stephen Colbert this summer – I can go on and on. What do you think makes this song such a great single and a great representation of where Death Cab is in 2022?

This is a really great question. I don’t know for sure, but I think that the reason I can kind of speak to are the reasons why we sort of first gravitated towards it as a demo and why we ultimately ended up tracking it for the album. Really early on we all gravitated towards the sort of juxtaposition in it – there is a dark macabre tone to the lyrics. It is a real sort of existentialist story in that way, kind of pondering life and time and all of that. The song has this heavy gravity in the actual sentiment of the lyric, but then the music that we’re playing against it is pretty upbeat and up-tempo. It feels kind of uplifting. I think that as a band we’ve always really liked those juxtapositions over time where we can add some light against the dark or some dark against the light and kind of push and pull those feelings. That has kind of always been a sweet spot for our band: finding those moments where maybe something is a little bit more heavy and contemplative in the lyric, but then the music is exuberant and kind of over the top – or vice versa. That’s a real classic for us, that pushing and pulling against the up and down of something until it works. It worked for us in the demo form with “Here to Forever,” so we thought, “Well, if we’re all really into it this way, maybe other people will be, too.” We’ll see! 

Oh gosh, they absolutely are. I think you make a great point. I’ve always described Death Cab to people, friends, coworkers, as the band of ‘fine lines.’ Your music walks this fine line of being hopeful and yet melancholy and then having the musicality to either, like you mentioned, juxtapose it or emphasize it. This song? You’re right about it. It is the pinnacle of that in a way and we are glad to see it doing well.

Yeah, so are we. We are glad that it very much fits in well with us. I think that’s the thing about the new album, or any new album, that you never really know about it until you’re out playing shows…. We’re all very relieved about all of the new material fitting in with the old material in set list form and it’s been really exciting for us to realize that this new stuff can live right alongside the songs from 20 years ago. They all kind of fit together as a big picture of who we are and what we do. That has been really nice for us. That song, for sure, slots in really well with our setlists so far. With “Here to Forever,” it all just feels really good.