After the tepid reception of Codes and Keys, Death Cab for Cutie's seventh studio album, the foursome decided some things needed changing. And change things did, in perhaps surprising ways: founding member Chris Walla excused himself from the group in the middle of the production of eighth album Kintsugi, although he finished the recording process as a contributor. Outside of the studio, tabloids covered frontman Ben Gibbard's divorce from indie superstar Zooey Deschanel, and Kintsugi's singles mine that territory well (“Was I in your way / When the cameras turned to face you? / No room in frame / For two,” Gibbard sings in “No Room in Frame,” breaking my heart every time.) That translated to Kintsugi, where unflinching honesty in the face of great change for the band was intentional and worked at, says bassist Nick Harmer, who we reached by phone on Tuesday. (Death Cab plays the Murat tonight.)
“Codes and Keys was a fairly transitional time for a lot of us in our personal lives. That record had a lot of guardedness and a lot of protection in it, not only from a production standpoint, but also from a lyrical standpoint. There was a level of putting of some separation, I felt like.
“When we started with Kintsugi, and given again where everyone was with their personal lives, things that had happened to us and were happening to us, and people around us and things like that. What really became important to us, especially when we were listening to the demos that Ben was turning in, was to really try and preserve a sense of immediacy and honesty in the music and in our impulses creatively. That meant that we were going Sometimes in the past we would talk ourselves out of making musical decisions because we felt like, 'Oh, maybe we've done that before.' But that still felt like the most honest expression, but we felt like maybe we were repeating ourselves, so let's not do that again, let's go in a different direction just because.
“[Producer] Rich Costley — I'll give him a lot of credit as a producer for helping us – really just allowed us to be honest about our musical impulses, our lyrical choices, our feelings, all of the things we were doing in the studio. When we would start to ask ourselves maybe the more heady questions of, 'Where does this stack up? Is this something we've done before?' He was just like, 'Don't worry about that stuff, just play what comes out of you. Be honest with your impulses and your instincts. I think that comes through. There's an emotional immediacy in this album. Certainly lyrically. Hopefully there's a lot of performances and musical choices and textures and atmospheres that support those choices and really fill the album out that way.
"The thing for me in recording Kintsugi was just not trying to pretend that a lot of the stuff that was happening to us and around us wasn't happening. Instead [we] just put it out there, for better or for worse, and just were honest about where everybody was at emotionally and otherwise."
Other bits and bobs from my interview with Harmer below.
On the band that he associates with growing up [to be fair, this question came after I told Harmer that Death Cab is inextricably tied with high school tears for me]:
"It's one of those bands that I've almost spent my entire life with, and that band is The Cure. I discovered them when I was in 7th grade, and basically from 7th grade until now, from 1987-8 until today, I still love The Cure. I will see them in concert when they come through. They just announced some new North American dates. They're just one of those bands that's been around my entire life of me being able to take ownership and chose the music that I love. They just sound like so many different phases of my life, but they specifically remind me of when I was discovering music and really connecting with it."
On remixing Yoko Ono's "Forgive Me My Love":
"Yoko was sort of casting out a wide net as far as doing some remixes and some re-imagining of songs for a reissue for her. To be fair, the bulk of that remix and the vision of that remix came from Jason McGerr, our drummer, who really got excited about adding some rhythmic components to it and was really exploring a lot of programming and remix tools that he's been into, kind of independently from the band and in his own musical journey. And so, honestly, it has the name Death Cab for Cutie Remix mainly because Ben and I were there I guess mainly for supervision, but I'll give all the credit to Jason for putting that together and making it as awesome as it is. He really had a vision for it from the very beginning, and I'm really happy how it turned out. He really did a great job."
On musical moments that feel great on stage:
"I feel really thankful and really fortunate that over the years there have been number of those songs for me. They've been one experience when we've been recording them in the studio, and we've been really excited about them in that form. And they take on a life of their own and really become a whole other thing live, and something that I can really connect to on a deeper level that I ever thought possible. One that really comes to mind is "I Will Possess Your Heart." That's a song that, really, live we allow ourselves off the leash, so to speak, so we can really explore the instrumental opening of that song before Ben starts singing. That always has a really fun feel to hear the band lock in and start exploring territory that way. I really like, off the new album, "Black Sun." It has such a really great pocket and good feel to it. By the time we get to the choruses, and there's a sort of synth-y sequence that's running underneath the chorus, there's something really exciting about the push and pull of that song that feels really, really great live. Those are two right away, but there are so many moments in the set that I'm kind of surprised even now that these songs have taken on the life and the energy they have live, versus on the record. I feel pretty lucky about that."
On reworking instrumentation with new additions Dave Depper and Zac Rae after Chris Walla's departure:
"We're already starting to think about the next album and their contributions to that as well. I wouldn't go as far as to say they're a permanent part of our band, but we're heading in that direction together. We're all figuring it out. Chemistry is really important to us, and so far the chemistry has been really, really amazing. We're feeling really lucky. We've kind of talked internally over the entire course of Death Cab for Cutie whether or not we would add a fifth person for the live experience. We've come close in the past, but we always realized that we were at kind of maximum capacity for recreating the songs on the albums live. There was always some level of discussion when it was just a four-piece with Chris was parts of the album we would bring to the live experience and what parts we would not try and recreate live. Oftentimes that meant we would leave out a piano part or a certain kind of melodic flourish or some kind of texture that we just didn't have the hands or the feet to recreate.
"But having a fifth person with Zac and another multi-instrumentalist like Dave as well means that we really could go back through our entire catalogue and faithfully recreate a lot of stuff a lot more accurately and a lot closer to the original musical expression of it on the album, which has been super fun and a way for us to hear things refreshed and updated in a way that this many years into touring is really exciting for Jason and Ben and I. With the new stuff, it's just really been coming together great. That's the only way I can express it. Zac and Dave are great players. There's a lot of room for them to not only perform parts that have already been recorded, but to find little moments of ownership and add their own touches as musicians to songs. Ultimately it all kind of comes together to make a more dynamic and more full-sounding Death Cab for Cutie show. I'm having a blast, and we're all feeling like we're sounding as good if not better than we've ever sounded live with these guys playing. It's really reinvigorated us, really reenergized us and really made us hopeful and excited for what's the come next."