Doors are Unlocked and Open: A Conversation with Death Cab for Cutie Bassist Nick Harmer
“Light is sweet, in the belly of the beast, and with her song in your heart, it can never bring you down.
Lost in a maze of a thousand rainy days—but when I heard her voice, oh it led me to the end…And when she sings, I hear a symphony, and I’m swallowed in sound as it echoes through me—oh how I feel like, the winter’s advancing, we’ll stay young go dancing….
When we move as one, we stay young,” sings Ben Gibbard on the new Death Cab for Cutie song “Stay Young, Go Dancing”.
Their newest album Codes and Keys will be released May 31st. The ten tracks feature the classic combination of romantic, existential and retro lyrical subjects that define their sound. It is hard not to imagine that songs such as “Stay Young” refer to Gibbard’s new wife, musician and actress Zooey Deschanel. The couple has become one of the most buzzed about in the alternative rock world today, as many hoped the band’s new album would feature her or that certain songs would potentially be inspired by her. Deschanel has released two albums with stalwart alternative rocker M. Ward, as She and Him. Collaborations between Gibbard and Deschanel have been rare but highly valued by fans, such as her appearance at Gibbard’s concert in Seattle in the fall of this year. Deschanel will not be accompanying the band at any concerts on this tour.
Bassist Nick Harmer also tied the knot to his fiancé this past summer, and he explained that the dynamic in the band is now: “Great, better than ever!” Drummer Jason McGerr also had children: “We have had some big personal milestones between [their last album] Narrow Stairs and Codes and Keys. It creates more balance in our lives, since we had been so focused on band stuff. It’s not that we were too focused, but there is always so much in our outside lives, beyond the music. So our personal lives had suffered from neglect. Now we are all better communicators and better band-mates, plus just more rounded individuals. We are all healthier. It’s not that before we were in a bad place, we’ve always treated each other with love—but now we have made each other better band-mates.”
Since their lo-fi first album Something About Airplanes (Barsuk Records, Washington) in 1998, Ben Gibbard, Chris Walla and Nick Harmer have spent over a decade honing their sound, gaining hordes of loyal fans along the way. Drummer McGerr joined for their fourth album Transatlanticism. It was this album that put the band on the radar for many young alternative rock fans—as songs from the album were featured on shows such as The O.C., Californication, and Six Feet Under. The band was then signed to Atlantic Records with the help of manager Jordan Kurland (founder of Zeitgeist Management). Their next album, 2005’s Plans, was nominated for Best Alternative Album at the GRAMMYS®. Both their next full length album, Narrow Stairs, and The Open Door EP received nominations for Best Alternative Music Album at the 51st and 52nd GRAMMY Awards®, respectively. The dark and instrumentally heavy “I Will Posses Your Heart” from their album was also nominated for Best Rock Song.
So how does this album compare to previous releases from the band? “It takes everything we’ve learned into consideration and seeks to improve our sound. It is a great blend of a lot of approaches specifically between Plans and Narrow Stairs—a blend of our live performance aspects—that energy, but also the experimental and textual layered stuff we are able to play in studio. Every song has the energy of the four of us playing in a room. The countermelodies and textures and things that happen here and there in this album make it a richer listening experience,” explained Harmer.
Although he explained that his favorites really come from playing live and the reaction that the band feels onstage from the audience, the song “Home is a Fire” did stand out and speak to him “…early on in the recording process. I reacted strongly to that song. It was a fun song to put together—it captures your imagination in a good way.”
In anticipation of the album release, the band released their first video for the single “You Are a Tourist” in an exciting way that has never been done before. The first take of the filming of the video was broadcast live for fans to watch online—giving an authentic “you are right there with them” feeling of a live performance show. “You always have these notions, dreams and concepts of how things will turn out,” explained Harmer. “Once we got down to L.A. and saw the process with the director, we felt much better about it. We learned our cues and marks and the camera moves, and then we just had to play the song. My part was simple—stand back and watch it unfold. It had all the feelings of a live theater show, or a live TV show. Like, ‘Everyone is watching right now—let’s hope it works!’ We even had dress rehearsal 20 minutes before with things that didn’t work. Then we turned around and did do it right—it’s fun to re-watch. The stars aligned!”
If you are able to catch the band on their tour this spring and summer, they are playing in some great lineups such as Sasquatch Music Festival in Washington. “We are playing with some fun bands at festivals coming up, who we wouldn’t have a chance to see otherwise. We are also playing a ton of places with The Lonely Forest. They have really great energetic live shows. We are playing with some old friends, such as Jenny and Johnny and Bright Eyes in Bend, Oregon. That will be really fun—we’ve played so many shows with Conor [Oberst, lead singer-songwriter of Bright Eyes] over the years. It will be like a family reunion! We get to tour with good bands and bands we have a personal connection with. Every time a band goes on tour, you get a blend of exciting and new songs with old and familiar.”
“We are fortunate to play a lot of great cities and venues—every city has its own great culture that you can’t get anywhere else. We see the world through touring! It is always fun to play oversees—particularly Tokyo and Sydney Australia. I have a personal connection with Japan because I lived there when I was a kid. I studied Japanese in high school and college, so I’m always extra excited to go there.”
Harmer is incredibly happy with being a musician: “Anyone who starts out playing an instrument dreams of being a musician, but you never expect that to become a reality. I am very fortunate. I still have to pinch myself! I feel lucky, but I also do work very hard—it is a perfect combination. I am not sure if I will be able to do it for the rest of my life, you never know, we’ll see!” he laughed.
He cites influences such as British band Talk Talk Talk’s seminal final album Laughing Stock, and work by the band Low. “My influences are all over the map, and there are direct versus subconscious influences—there are so many great bands right now such as Radiohead, Arcade Fire and Spoon. We also love Fleet Foxes, who are from Seattle. We have toured with bands like Stars and The Dismemberment Plan—their music inspires us a lot.” As far as influences beyond music, Harmer explains that he “Read[s] books like it’s going out of style. I love film and comic books. So our influences come from a lot of different places. I am always reading, watching and listening, and curious about what is around next the corner.”
Death Cab for Cutie’s seventh studio album features the songs:
- Codes and Keys
- Some Boys
- Doors Unlocked and Open
- You Are a Tourist
- Unobstructed Views
- Monday Morning
- Portable Television
- Underneath the Sycamore
- St. Peter’s Cathedral
- Stay Young, Go Dancing