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Matson on Music

Music news, concert reviews, analysis and opinion by music writer Andrew Matson.

July 3, 2009 at 12:10 PM

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Interview: Death Cab for Cutie's Nick Harmer

Posted by Andrew Matson

Thumbnail image for Nick_Harmer_photographedbyRyanRussell[1].jpg

Photo by Ryan Russell

Death Cab for Cutie is Seattle's highest profile music emmissary to the world, and given the City of Music (copyright Mayor Greg Nickels) we already are, that's a pretty high profile.

Funny thing is, Seattle and its surrounding suburbs are filled with people who knew Death Cab back in the day, back when ______ would have seemed a completely absurd prediction. Fill in the blank: headlining Bumbershoot, being nominated for two Grammys, rising to worldwide fame. We can now add "playing the Hollywood Bowl with the Los Angeles Philharmonic" to that list.

Nick Harmer's been there from the beginning, from Bellingham to billions of dollars (not really), and I talked to him last Wednesday about my first professional interview (it was with him in Spokane several years ago), the days when Death Cab sold tapes for $3.00, the "Death Cab for Cutie garage sale" he might advertise on Craigslist, the email-organic way the new album's coming together (it's gonna be a free jazz freakout with some hip-hop covers!), and how psyched he is to play two shows at Marymoor Park on 7/18 and 19. (He is psyched.)

After you're done with the interview, maybe holler at Harmer's blog. It's cool.

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Little known fact: You were the first person I ever interviewed as a professional journalist.

No way! Are you serious?

I went to Gonzaga [University], and I was broke, and playing a lot of Death Cab songs on my guitar, and I got a job at a place where you played right before the big "Transatlanticism" tour started specifically to help you with the [instrument/equipment] load-in.

Fantastic.

And then you came back a few months later, and I interviewed you for a publication called The Local Planet, which went out of business like two weeks later.

Wow. That's awesome, man. That's a small world, right there. Now you work for The Seattle Times. Congratulations.

Thanks, it's actually a dream come true.

That's great man, that's really great.

I think that same year, I saw you four times. Another time I saw you in Walla Walla for five bucks with the Thermals, back when they were still playing out of practice amps miked into the PA.

I remember that show well. There's a woman who promoted that show that I just ran into in Seattle, her name is Mary. I like running into people like that. From old shows and old things in the past. In fact, one thing that just happened recently, I was walking around downtown and this guy came up to me and he was like, "Hey, are you in Death Cab for Cutie?"

And I said, "Yeah."

And he said, "Man! You were one of my first shows ever in San Diego a long time ago."

And I was like, "Great!"

And he was like, "Yeah!"

And I was like, "Well, what have you been doing?"

And he was like, "I went to medical school and now I'm a doctor."

Oh wow.

Yeah, like holy shit: Here's someone who came to our show as a kid, and then went on to medical school, and now is a doctor, and I'm still playing bass in the same band. I can't even imagine. People have lived entire lives. You interviewed me a long time ago and now you're working for The Seattle Times as a music critic. I feel a little ... sometimes I'm like, "What have I been doing?" It's weird, you know?

[Note: I am a music writer, not a critic.]

You've been playing bass in a highly successful rock band. I guess there's worse things to be doing.

Definitely. I'm not complaining. It's just surreal because I think about it so macrocosmically most of the time. You know, one day feeds the next day. I don't step back and realize I've been doing it as long as I have. And time doesn't feel the same sometimes. I don't sit back and go, "Wow, I can feel the weight of, I guess eleven years now, of being in a band." It's only when I'm talking to someone that's, like, lived, and done a whole bunch of stuff in that amount of time as well when I'm like, "Wow! All that time I've been on the road! That's amazing!"

You were living!

Yeah. "You're not the same frozen in time San Diego kid." It's pretty funny.

Even when I was seeing you for five bucks, I remember everyone was talking about, "You know, we'll never be able to see this band for five bucks again." Does it feel like yesterday that you were playing for two dollars, or for free?

Yeah, it does. I can still remember that Walla Walla show. I can still remember playing for five bucks. I can still remember when we were selling tapes at our shows for three dollars. Tapes! I mean who makes tapes anymore? Weird, you know?

It's a strange sort of time warp. There are a lot of moments where I feel like it's all been one long, hazy weekend. And there's times when I think it's really been eleven years, and I can feel that time, I can feel the amount of miles that we've traveled, and all of that.

Was there a time when the time started passing especially quickly? When it started really getting away from you?

Yeah. Honestly, right around that "Transatlanticism" time is when the profile of the band started to ratchet up, and then into all of the major label negotiations, into "Plans," into "Narrow Stairs," all of that's been sort of one long pinch-yourself moment. Like, "Is this really happening? Like, really-really happening?" I still am a pretty superstitious person, I think, as much as I try not to be.

What do you mean?

All along the way, I've been really hesitant to admit that this is what I do for my career. I've always felt like as soon as I admit that, that it's over, or something. So it's kind of like, "Yeah, this is one big hobby that's gotten out of control." 'Cause I love playing music. I'd been doing it even if I wasn't in a band that was doing this well. It's such a part of who I am and a part of my DNA. If I wasn't in a successful band, I wouldn't just hang it up. So, because I'd just be doing it anyway, it's just a weird feeling.

It's only recently I've been able to say, "Yeah, I play bass for a living. That's what I do. I'm a bass player in Death Cab for Cutie," and hold my head high and make no apologies for that.

What feels like work, when you're playing shows? Or practicing, or recording?

To be honest, what feels like work is...

This conversation?

No, not at all. This kind of stuff is actually great, 'cause this is human connection, one-on-one. What feels like work for me are winter tours in Europe, and you want to be at home, and all you are is stuck on a bus with your friends, and everybody's sick with the flu or a cold, and it's cold and dreary, and you're absolutely miles away from home and anything familiar. There's a grind there that's different, psychologically, than anywhere else.

And again, it's not work in the sense that we're out doing manual labor all day long. I always feel a little bit bashful when I say there's a work aspect to being in a rock band, because most people that don't do it are like, "What? No way. Are you kidding me?"

I feel the same way when I tell people I write about music.

Right, yeah, exactly. Even when you're doing something you love, and something that has a lot of great payouts, and just fantastic rewards, every once in a while there's still those moments when you just gotta knuckle down. Just like everything, there's days when you just wanna call in sick to work. And when you're on tour, you can't call in sick to work. You gotta show up, and you gotta put on a brave face.

We have some tours overseas that are great, like Japan, and Australia is really fun and relaxing, but our European tours have always been really demanding and really psychologically taxing in some ways. And that's when the work part of what we do sets in the most.

So when are you going to be making new music? Are you already making new music?

Right now, I mean I leave tomorrow for this summer run of shows that we're doing.

You're home right now?

Yeah I'm in Seattle right now. We fly out tomorrow to San Diego, and we play Hollywood Bowl this weekend, and our last two shows of the summer will be at Marymoor Park on the 18th and 19th. And after that, we'll take a writing break. Hiatus through the summer and fall, and in the winter time hopefully get back into the studio and start recording again.

How does that work in the summer and fall? Where do you hang out to do that?

We all go to our respective writing caves. Ben will sit and write and send us files in various stages of completion, and we'll digest. I'll be coming up with stuff. Jason will be coming up with stuff, and we're kind of just passing ideas around a lot.

You all go to your bedrooms and get on your computers?

Just about, yeah. It's not like we're all sitting on Skype, but the way of recording nowadays, especially demo studios, I can take a laptop just about anywhere and record into my laptop, you know, put some files together really quick and fire 'em off to somebody. And a lot of that's just like, "Hey, here's a bass line I've been thinking about," you know, I don't get into the lyrics or the melody parts of things, it's kind of more like, "here's some ideas and parts of things I've been messing around with and I like," or Jason'll come up with a series of drum parts or drum loops and he'll send those off to Ben, who might cut 'em up and write a song to one of them. It's that sort of free exchange. It's almost like a free form journal writing exercise right now. It's all about spewing and vomiting rather than quality control right now. We'll get it all out of ourselves, whatever idea flies, so we don't even stop to talk about what's good or bad right now.

And then Mr. Gibbard does the synthesizing, or that's a group project as well?

Ben's writing the core of all the songs along the way. He does a lot of the synthesizing, Chris does some of that as well, but because most of the songs have to be cemented around a lyric and a melody, it's kind of up to Ben to take an idea and move it down the field a little further. Otherwise it'll just stay a part that'll get used some other time, some other place. And then, really, he just writes as many songs as he possibly can, or song ideas, or whatever it is, and then we get back in the studio and it's pre-production time. And that's when we get into the quality control and start asking ourselves, "What's good about this? Is this salvageable? Are there any ideas around this idea? We try to flesh stuff out or cut stuff and be like, "Ah, that's not really working for me." We get kind of brutal. And then we decide, "This is the bulk of songs we're actually going to attack in the studio and make into an album."

So it's too early right now to tell what any of that's going to sound like.

Yeah, it is. I have some general impressions and guesses, but everything's way too formative right now. I can say some general, obvious things...

That it'll sound like Death Cab?

Yeah. This isn't our free jazz freak out record, we're not doing anything weird.

All hip-hop covers.

Exactly. It's not gonna be that left field. But the stuff that I have heard, the rough sketches, are really exciting. And after a long time touring, it's so great to make new music. After Hollywood Bowl, we're going to go into a studio in L.A. just to cement some ideas that we already have. We'll see if anything comes out of that. Who knows.

Will it be nice to not have to take a bus to some undisclosed location after the Marymoor shows are done?

Yeah, we're all excited. We have a practice space in town where we've been amassing little bits of gear, and the day after the [second] Marymoor show we're just gonna all go back there and go through some stuff and get ready for a big Death Cab for Cutie garage sale. We have some extra keyboards and cases, random pieces of music gear.

Where does the garage sale happen, on eBay?

We might just put an add up on Craigslist and open up the doors of our practice space and say, "Stop by." We'll see if that happens or not.

But yeah, that's one of the best things about our last show being in Seattle is all of our gear's here, all of our friends are up here, all our crew's here to help us, and we get to all drive home after we're done. It'll be actually really fun to finish the first show at Marymoor, drive home, stay in my bed, and then wake up, drive to Marymoor Park, and do it again.

I'm gonna go to both shows. I can't wait.

Awesome, man.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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