Death Cab for Cutie’s Nick Harmer on Baseball, Red Rocks and Lid-less Toilets

Death Cab for Cutie is headlining the Velorama Colorado music festival and bike race on Saturday, August 12 in Denver’s RiNo neighborhood. The event runs Friday through Sunday with Wilco headlining on Friday and Old 97’s headlining on Sunday. Other celebrated bands such as the New Pornographers and the Jayhawks will also be performing, along with a selection of Colorado-based acts like Rob Drabkin and Tennis. (The Jayhawks backed Kinks legend Ray Davies on his excellent new solo record, Americana.)

While thinking about the festival and its incredible lineup of bands, I realized I possessed a largely-unpublished 2011 interview with Death Cab bassist, Nick Harmer that had never seen the light of day. I authored a piece on the band at the time for Boulder Weekly and only a very small amount of the interview went into the article. So, I’ve decided to publish the full interview in advance of the band’s Denver date this Saturday. There are few modern bands that match the elements of atmosphere and pop so well, both live and in the studio. The songs are deliciously packed with hooks that linger. (Don Valentine, who runs the blog “I Don’t Hear a Single” , would love them; he may already.)

So, make sure and see Death Cab for Cutie if they play in your area. Also, invest in their records, including their latest, the fantastic Kintsugi

And what does the future hold for the band? According to published sources, Death Cab is working on a record due out this year. Guitarist Chris Walla left the band quite some time ago and the group is currently working with two new members who have proven themselves. Fans rejoice.

I suppose we should get to the interview. A quick note: The piece is set up like a chapter in my book, Reel to Real by Real. If you enjoy what you read, please check out the book and also take a look at my other blog posts. Also, there were some sound issues with the interview recording, so I’ve indicated those instances.

Thank you for stopping by and enjoy the commentary and interview.

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I’m gratefully doomed when it comes to my taste in popular music. My judgment process of determining a good song versus a poorly written one often involves comparisons to the Beatles. Paul, John, George and Ringo are the judge and jury. I simply cannot help this critical assessment—my dad played the Beatles ‘White’ album all the time while I was growing up and I spent hours listening to that record on reel-to-reel tape. If my dad hadn’t played that double album over and over again, I may never have immersed myself in music as a fan, musician and music journalist. He also introduced me to greats like Eric Clapton and Chicago. I think I was the only junior high-aged kid listening to Derek & the Dominos’ Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs in our entire town. I got plenty of listening in as most things were at least 10 minutes away from our small Massachusetts town (Norfolk), so if we went to the hardware store, a restaurant or the grocery store, there was plenty of car stereo time.

(A brief aside: I did, however, sometimes walk the four miles into the center of our town with my friend Mike Jones [who sadly passed away years later]. He lived a mere four streets away in the same subdivision. The middle of town consisted of a Sunoco gas station, a library, a train station, a small grocery store called the Norfolk Food Mart, a pharmacy called – you guessed it — the Norfolk Pharmacy, a post office (maybe), an office building that had a computer software store in it (back during the days of the floppy disc and Apple IIc computers), and, yes, a sub shop. The sub shop was owned by a German couple. The older woman wore an apron and didn’t make any kind of eye contact. Once when Mike and I walked into the center of town, we wanted cheese steaks. In fact, that was the reason for our four-mile stroll. We entered the restaurant and ordered. Our stomachs were grumbling. We watched with expectancy as the woman started to prepare our sandwiches with gently folded pieces of delicious steaming, thinly-sliced steak topped with a thick layer of cheese and placed them in the large pizza oven. I was impressed by the size of the rolls. As the lady bent over to remove the completed subs from the oven, I exclaimed, “Nice buns!” without realizing the implications. Mike lost it; he buckled over with laughter and my face turned dark red as I quickly realized my poor choice of words. I don’t think the lady understood what was going on, which helped the situation greatly.)

My love of good music continued from my dad’s influence and time spent with him. There was a whole Christian metal phase that you can read about here. I also invested a lot of time in U2 and the Alarm, two bands that created lots of hook-heavy content with equal amounts of passion. In college and in the years following, I gravitated towards other mainstream ensembles that wrote catchy compositions like the Samples, Vigilantes of Love, Jellyfish, XTC, World Party, Squeeze, Crowded House and eventually Death Cab for Cutie. Chad Lindburg — my roommate for a good while and band mate in various bands — thought I might like Death Cab, and he was right. All it took was seeing the video for “The Sound of Settling.” Here was a band that wrote fantastic and interesting pop tunes. The lyrics were well thought-out and written differently that most modern fare, but the melodies, guitar lines, bass parts and artistic drumming were all music to my ears. It was — and still is — difficult for me to find modern rock bands that crank out great song after great song, but Death Cab did that exact thing. And they had tons of atmosphere to boot; something I highly prized in a band.

I had an opportunity to interview front man Ben Gibbard in 2010 for the Boulder Weekly. (The article was written under my pseudonym, Adam Trask.)  Gibbard had recorded a disc with Jay Farrar of Son Volt. He and I had a good conversation. His passion for Kerouac and for literature was evident, but I really wanted to ask him a bunch of Death Cab-centered questions that didn’t make sense due to the story’s scope. It was a frustrating position.

However, in 2011, Death Cab announced a date at Red Rocks in support of their new Codes and Keys album. I quickly emailed Catharine McNelly, then at Atlantic Records, and she graciously set up an interview time for me to interview bassist Nick Harmer. I knew a bit of the history between Gibbard and Harmer. They both were college roommates and Harmer had actually introduced Gibbard to Jack Kerouac’s work; this was enough to make me want to interview him. And, of course, he is an excellent bass player consistently playing creative, well thought-out bass parts. Harmer, it turns out, was as nice of a person as Gibbard had been and we had a great talk with plenty of humor involved.

Atlantic Records set me up with tickets for the Red Rocks show, so my friend Peter Gornell and I descended upon Red Rocks, purchased our $8 plastic cups of Coors Light and were mesmerized by the performance. Prior to the show, we played the game, “See if you can spot the youth pastors and their youth groups.” This was Peter’s suggestion. He added, “Well, you know that Death Cab is pretty youth-group safe.”  We were always playing goofy games like that.

Death Cab kicked things off with the eight-minute plus “I Will Possess Your Heart,” an interesting starting piece. Peter and I glanced at each other, surprised by our agreement that it wound up being a perfect starting song. And the guys didn’t let up throughout the set, delivering solid songs, energetic performances and skilled musicianship to an appreciative crowd. Red Rocks is definitely a great venue for the band—much better than Denver’s Fillmore where I had seen them twice.

The band played Red Rocks again in 2015 without Walla and with the addition of two additional musicians that have since joined the group. Again, it was an incredible show. My wife and I were taken in with the passionate and engaging performance.

How did you meet Ben? I know from talking with him you were roommates in college and you got him into Kerouac and some different things.

Yeah that’s the truth. We met in college at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington.  I think our earliest connection as friends came about — he was in a band in Bellingham at the time, kind of a popular band there called Pinwheel. I was booking concerts for the university at the time. I was always looking for local openers to play first in front of touring acts that were coming through. So, I booked his band Pinwheel a couple of times. We’d met that way and then we ended up becoming roommates and living together long before we actually were playing music together. Our friendship was forged through music and having similar interests, tastes and music; then eventually literature and film and everything else.

Did you guys initially form the nucleus of the band and then met Chris [Walla]? Is that how it worked?

Actually, Ben had written a bunch of songs by himself. All of the earliest Death Cab stuff [was] just a solo project for Ben outside of Pinwheel. He’d been writing songs on the side and just collecting them. Then Chris Walla moved into the house that he was living in at the time. I had moved out for a semester. During that time, Chris recorded those songs for Ben [so] Ben [had] a solo tape. Then he passed the tape around town. People started asking, “Well, is this a band? Are you going to play shows?” Then he started thinking about putting a band together. We had always talked about playing music together, but for whatever reason whatever projects we were in never really lined up; this one did. He asked me to play bass. Chris was playing guitar at the time and wanted to play guitar and keyboards. Chris had a friend named Nathan who was a drummer. We asked him to join. That was the first version of Death Cab with Nathan on drums; that’s pretty much how it started. It was kind of a solo project that blossomed into a full-band pretty quickly.

What was it like recording Codes and Keys? Every record you guys do is different. What was this one like for you?

It was a really inspiring process, actually. I think we’re in a pretty good mental health space right now and good personal space in all of our lives, so recording beyond any other album, it was something we were looking forward to. When we were in the studio, we never wanted to leave. When we booked the time to record, we had initially gone into this knowing that we were going to want to [Indecipherable. – Ed.] concerted bursts of time. So, we would do two weeks on — or concentrated bursts of time, excuse me, do like two weeks on and two weeks off, you know, three weeks on, ten days off. We were doing it in chunks and pieces [and] scheduling life around that as well.  I think, if anything, recording this album — I think it was a strange process because we would definitely let things gestate and we would throw a bunch of stuff at a song, record as many parts as we wanted and all the ideas that we had. Then we’d put it away for a while and not revisit it for a few weeks. I was always constantly unsure of what it is we were making because it was very rare that we would completely finish a song and then move on to the next one; we were always going back and forth and adding a bit [Undecipherable. – Ed.] here and then skipping two songs ahead and adding a bit there. It was hard to get a perspective on exactly what the album was sounding like, but I could hear that the process was really inspiring. I knew each song [that] was coming together was really great. So, I trusted early on, just gave myself over to the experience that an album was going to come out of this in some way or another.

We just kept recording. We didn’t sit down at the beginning of the recording sessions and say “What are we going to do with our seventh album?,” “What’s it going to be called?” and “What are the song…?” We went into the studio with a stack of [Ben’s songs] and started chipping away at them, recording them and having fun recording music. And eventually, through the process, about 11 or 12 of the songs grouped themselves together and we said, “You know what, that would be a really good album — this little nucleus of songs right there. Let’s just wrap these up together in a big package and call them the next album.” Then, we started coming up with titles and artwork and all the other stuff. But it was a fun process if not slightly, you know — it was a little strange because it was very non-linear. I guess that’s the best way of putting it.

Usually when you guys record it sounds — from past records — like you sit in a room and add your parts. Is that true? It seems like you took a completely different approach on this record.

A little bit.  The core of every — the first effort, the first approach, has been the same on every album which basically is: Ben writes a stack of demos, brings them to the band, we listen to them all and highlight our favorites. Then we all sit down compare our lists. So, normally what happens is he’ll send us — I think on this album, he sent us close to 30 demos. I just sit at home, and I listen to them on headphones. I listen to them in my truck when I’m driving around. I just kind of [Indecipherable. – Ed.] to spend time with them and figure out which ones I’m reacting to immediately and which ones I’m reacting to over time and make my list. And then eventually, we call each other, and we’re like “Hey, you know what, let’s get in the studio. Let’s start going through this stuff.” And that’s when we all bring our lists in and go through it. Early on there’s always half a dozen songs or more that all of us are on the same page about, that we’re like, “That’s one.” So, we always take that instinctually if there’s a demo that all four of us have put on our list as a song that we’re reacting to, that that’s definitely one we are going to record. We go down the lists like that. There’s some songs that I’ll have on my list and maybe Jason won’t [or] maybe Jason will have on his list and I won’t. It’s not arguing or anything like that, but we go back and forth about what we’re reacting to, what we’re not and we bring up our suggestions like, “Well, I like this song, but this is how I’m hearing it.” And we kind of mold [Indecipherable. – Ed.] the one’s that aren’t necessarily unanimous. And then from there, that’s when the layering and adding the parts and discussing around arrangement and all that kind of stuff come up. Until we get to that point, it’s pretty much the same every time. Ben writes a stack of demos and we go through them and try to be as honest with each other and ourselves as we can about which ones are really working and which one’s aren’t. And for the ones that aren’t, we are sometimes brutally honest but sometimes just to be as honest as we can about what’s not working about them. Sometimes it’s just a quick fix like “You know what’s not working about this song is blank,” and someone says “Well, how about we do it this way?” And then you’re like “That’s it! I can’t believe it!” I can think of a song on this album: “You’re a Tourist’ was one of those songs. When Ben brought the demo in, Jason and I were initially like, “Yeah, this is a really cool demo. Let’s really do this.” Chris was a little bit on the fence. He was like, “I’m not really sure if I like this.” Because Ben had built the original song around this loop that he wasn’t excited about and suddenly Chris just had a suggestion. He’s just like, “Let’s take the guitar solo and make that the…” He started moving pieces around in the song and as soon as he, you know,  we [were] scratching our heads like, “Well, I guess.” And then as soon as he presented his idea to us and we could hear it, we were all completely blown over. I went from liking the song and thinking it would be worth recording to loving the song, has to make the album, and let’s make it the first single (laughs), pretty quickly. It was really funny.

As a bass player, how do you come up with your parts? You’re very melodic. There’s the bridge in “Underneath the Sycamore,” that has that brilliant part—very McCartney-esque. It kind of walks up a little bit…

(laughs)

And then you pause. It makes that whole part of the song. When you’re driving around in your truck are you thinking of those parts then or do you wait until later when you’re all together?

I take notes along the way on everything. Some songs that come to us, Ben has a pretty specific bass line in mind already. The song, ‘Doors Unlocked and Open’ was written around the bass line that Ben wrote, so it’s a no-brainer that I would just play that, record that, that would be that part that becomes mine when we get into the studio. That doesn’t happen frequently, but it happens occasionally. Then on the rest of the stuff, I’m making notes in my brain and I really don’t really commit to a part. I definitely don’t commit to parts until I get in the room with Jason and he and I are playing together and I get a sense of what he’s doing rhythmically. It’s really important for me to leave space for things. I try to not be overly — I guess the better word is, I try to be pretty economical about my note choices. I like writing bass parts, but I don’t like writing giant bass fills and I don’t like a lot of variation over time because I feel like sometimes that’s distracting what’s happening melodically around it and so [I] step back a little bit in that way. I don’t ever really know how far to step back or how much space to fill up and so I’m in the room figuring everything out with everyone and then it sort of makes sense — a little bit of, “Okay, I hear what else is going on in this part. I want to stay out of the way of the guitar or I want to stay out of the way of Ben’s singing or I want to reinforce that or not.” It really becomes more like spackle, I guess (laughs). It’s like painting a wall; I am trying to fill in the cracks here and there and be noticeable without drawing too much attention.

Do you have a favorite song on the record?

I don’ —  it’s tough. I love “Doors Unlocked and Open.” That’s really fun to play live. [Indecipherable. – Ed.] having a good time with that. It’s such a wide album in terms of the song structures and the experiences and the moods of each song. If you take a song like, “Home is a Fire,” the real deconstructed, minimalist pop thing and then you have a song like “Stay Young, Go Dancing” at the end of the album that’s a real formal, traditional-arrangement song. All of those scratch different itches for me as a player [and] as a music fan, I guess too, so I connect to them in different ways, so it’s hard to pick a favorite. But I’m having a really good time with “Doors Unlocked and Open” live; I think that’s coming together really well. [It’s] always got a lot of good energy, so that’s fun.

You are playing Red Rocks and you’ve done that two or three times. What does that feel like doing that, being such a…

I love it.

Historical place?

Yeah, it’s such a historic place; it’s just gorgeous. I think the first time we played there, we were so intimidated by the history and the magnitude of the place. It just feels like — it’s a very unique venue in the way that it feels, just emotionally, spiritually in that space. Everything about it feels very uncommon and reverent in some ways. We were a little intimidated by that the first time we played there, but over time, we’ve become comfortable there and now embrace the thing that it is. It’s unlike any other venue we’ve ever played. We will play there as many times as we’re able (laughs) to be invited to play there.

Do you have a funny story from being in Death Cab, maybe from your time early on with Ben or more recently or maybe from the recording that just kind of stands out in your mind?

Not really. There’s not a lot of wild and crazy antics and stuff that happen around us. We tend, as a band and as people, to keep our heads low and stay out of the way of any of that sort of real sensationalist stuff. It’s so funny, people have asked that over time and I always wonder, “Man, maybe we should be going out of our way to sort of create and manufacture more of these kinds of wild stories or fun stories.” But it just doesn’t feel like us and it’s not who we are. I can tell you that nothing is more fun for Ben and me to get ready for a show on a show day than playing catch. We bring our baseball mitts out and we’ll play catch for an hour or hours while we just sit there and shoot the shit and throw the ball back and forth. That’s always a meditative, nice way to get into the physical space of playing and where you’re at. That’s something maybe a little uncommon that people don’t know that we travel with baseball mitts and we’re definitely down to play catch as much as possible (laughs).

Do you miss the more intimate places you used to be able to play when you were doing the club tours? Does it just feel different now that you’re playing much bigger venues?

Not really. A good show is a good show. It doesn’t really depend on how many people are there to see it. Each venue and each place is sort of unique and gives you something and also takes away something that the other one doesn’t have. So, it’s hard to pick a favorite any more than it’s hard to tell you that I miss anything. I’ve had as many great memorable shows in very small venues as I have in big ones. I think that’s just the landscape of who we are and where we’ve been, so I don’t miss one or the other. I don’t have any preference. No matter what venue we’re in or how many people are there to see us, we always want to try and deliver the best show that we can. That’s all that is in my mind when I’m thinking about a particular space or place. I’ve romanticized a lot of these smaller places that we played when we were in a van, just coming up and touring like crazy. We’ve gone back to a few of them since. All it takes is me going into the bathroom in some of these places that we played early on to realize I don’t miss the door-less stalls and the seat-less toilets and all of the other gross stuff that happens in a lot of these rock clubs (laughs). The trough the urinal trough—I don’t miss any of that stuff, but the stage [Indecipherable. – Ed.] and having that really close exchange with people right in front of you—that’s something I guess that we kind of miss, but I still see that every night; I still see that there are people right in front of us that I am reacting to right away. It’s always been the first people that are closest to you that you react to the most, so… I guess that’s hard. I don’t miss anything but I do miss stuff, if that makes any sense.

Now what do you miss most when you’re on the road? You’ve been doing this for a long time.

I miss home when I’m on the road. It’s funny, when we’re at home, we dream about being on the road and when we’re on the road we dream about being at home. When I’m on the road, the thing I miss the most is my routine at home. I miss my wife; I just miss my family. My mom and my brother live here in Seattle, so it’s nice to see them too. When you’re away from people for so long, it’s gets hard and [you] pine for your own bed and to be able to do your own laundry and fix yourself a meal when you’re hungry. It’s the simple stuff like that that I end up missing the most.

You’re still in Seattle?

I am. That’s correct.

And Ben is in LA, I’m guessing.

Ben’s in Los Angeles now. Yup.

Even though he wrote, “Why You’d Want to Live Here”? [It’s a not-so-nice song about Los Angeles. – Ed.]

That’s true. It is, but you know what? As he puts it and I totally agree: people change (laughs). If anyone was going to hold me over the fire for opinions and feelings that I had about things when I was his age when he wrote that song, I’d be, you know… You just evolve over time; that’s the good thing.

You can’t really be held to the “T” for things you wrote when you were in your early 20s.

Yeah, that was almost 11 years ago for Ben (laughs), so…

(C) 2017 Chris Callaway

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