With his taxi whizzing through New York City, dipping
around urban obstacles—including an innocent bicyclist who
was nearly hit—bassist Nick Harmer might have felt like he
was in his very own death-cab. However, he made it to his
destination unscathed, properly paid the driver and prepared
for his meeting—all this while talking on his cell-phone,
answering questions posed by this humble reporter. Harmer,
and the rest of Seattle’s Death Cab for Cutie, Ben Gibbard
(guitar/vocals), Chris Walla (guitar/keyboards), and Jason
McGerr (drums) were in the Big Apple to perform at the Siren
Festival on Coney Island.
Harmer and crew: Ben Gibbard, guitar/vocals; Chris Walla guitar/keyboards and Jason McGerr, drums; were in The Big Apple to perform at the Siren Festival on Coney Island. No doubt the Brooklyn neighborhood was lucky to have the affable four. Just as lucky as fans of the Seattle band will be when they perform during Bumbershoot. During the interview, Harmer graciously reminisced about the band’s inception and early days: from college rooming with bandleader Ben Gibbard to dealing with hecklers, but was even more excited about today’s quest and the death cab crusaders’ future projects—aided by his new-custom monochromatic “Gandalf the White” bass.
You’re playing the upcoming Bumbershoot festival; do you have any special plans for your stage show? Any pyrotechnics or anything?
Lasers, dancers, that kind of stuff. You know, just the
normal stuff that we use, plus the pyro.
And the usual grueling make-up process before the show?
Yeah, what can you do? Now that we’ve streamlined, we all
have three personal makeup assistants. It’s a lot easier to
get all that on… But really, my personal excitement for
Bumbershoot is going to be the debut of this crazy bass
guitar that I’ve been building this summer. I got really
obsessed on the last tour with a monochromatic theme. And so
I ended up building a bass that’s all white. Every last bit
of it is white. Its name is Gandalf the White.
Will Ben be doing his signature shuffle?
I don’t know, but maybe he’ll bust out with the Ben Gibbard
Backing up a bit, you roomed with Ben in college. Did you guys talk about music?
Yeah, that was sort of the basis of our relationship from
the very beginning. I was a promoter on campus and was
booking shows. Ben was in a band at the time, Pinwheel, that
I thought was pretty hot poop. So I booked his band and we
started talking and had a lot in common musically and
So why did you guys decide to make music?
We make music because we love listening to music. You know we’ve always been this geeky/nerdy band from day one. Which is great to find another person to geek out with and talk about stuff with. And then we just started applying some of that stuff and some of the feelings that we were having about music to our respected bands including Eureka Farm with Jason McGerr. When Ben left Pinwheel he wrote a bunch of songs on the side with Chris (Walla). I suggested he should play the stuff live and then they asked that I play with them.
And you guys eventually got together with Chris and Nathan Good, who left early on?
Yeah, Nathan left the band because it takes a certain
mentality and belief that things are going to work out. And
in the very beginning we weren’t making any money and all
having a hard time putting time into it. So Nathan parted
ways to work on his career. We were sort of bummed. But now
with Jason, he’s a great friend of ours and really one heck
of a drummer. I really feel like the addition of him in the
band has solidified our line up. I think we’ve just tapped
into that well, so I can’t wait to see what happens on the
next record. We already have so many crazy ideas.
In ’99 you guys played a show with sunny day real estate during which a heckler was antagonizing you. What would you like to say to that fan now?
You know I don’t even know what I’d say to that fan now. I’m sure that his intention was never to publicly embarrass us. I think that more of his intention was more to be noticed and recognized and be part of the show. So I don’t take it personally when people are heckling. I always just sort of feel bad for that person, and think that he or she must be really insecure in a crowd and must need some attention not gotten from other places in life. You know the only thing I’d like to say is: I hope he stopped heckling; maybe found some peace in his life.
So are you guys really emo?
All those classifications are just for writers to use. We
just do what we do and hopefully… I’ve always felt like
certainly we’ve never been really hip or trendy as people
and definitely I don’t think that the music we make can be
pinned. We really work hard to make our record without using
a lot of the conventions in what’s popular at any given
time. Certainly we’re all not going to start looking like
the Strokes, and making three-chord progression songs that
are very interesting with the Strokes, but certainly more of
the moment than anything.
Your name was inspired by the Bonzo Dog Band in the Beatles’ “Magical Mystery Tour.” Have you guys heard anything in reply from the remaining Beatles?
No, we haven’t reached that far yet. But one of the guys from the Bonzo Dog Band did a US tour and the crowd was yelling “play ‘death cab for cutie’” and he made the comment like: “Do you want me to play the song or do you want that band to play?” He wasn’t taking it as an insult; he just though it was really funny that someone would name a band off of such a ridiculous song title from a song written so many years ago…We definitely have a weird name and I’m not going to beat around that bush. I think all band names are weird. I mean radiohead is radiohead because of what they do. But man, if they weren’t and they were just some band that you knew in town, that’d be a weird name.
Like Nada Surf who went from a major to your label, Barsuk..
Yeah, Nada Surf: They’ve definitely come through a lot as a band and we have respect for we’re they’ve ended.
So how have you guys gone over in Europe?
Europe has been kind of a different battle for us. We don’t really have one big label that covers all of Europe. So we’re on a whole bunch of tiny labels all over the place. And it makes it a little more difficult for when we have to tour. It’s great for when we get there because they really know how to promote and push our record in each region. But it’s just very just sort of a scatterbrain approach to distributing a record and definitely touring on a record. Because Europe is small and when we tour through Europe we have to take six different copies for six different distribution areas. I mean I think we’re doing well there. It’s certainly not what we do in the States in record sales but it’s okay and I’m really proud for what we’ve done also given the fact that we haven’t toured there as much as we’ve toured in the States.
So how does the band produce music now?
What we’ve typically been doing is Ben ends up writing a gang of lyrics and the rest of us just dive in and do our own thing. You know Chris is obviously a producer so he’s recording a lot of other bands. And Jason and I are really sort of diving into our own respected crafts. Learning as much about our instruments as we can and also learning some other instruments at the same time and basically trying to figure out different recording programs that may or may not end up on the album.
When will you guys be recording again?
Probably February through June of next year. We’re going to
leave those months for all things studio and recording. We
really want to make sure that the next record is as good as
we can possibly make it. We don’t feel rushed to put it out
in any sort of frame time.
So what excites you about Bumbershoot?
If we’re not playing it, we’re definitely going to it. It’s
just such a great collection of bands. And I’m really
excited about seeing the Pixies. We play with the Pixies on
September 4 in Bend, Oregon, also with the Decemberists.
Death Cab for Cutie play Bumbershoot’s “Hometown Throwdown” with the Presidents of the United States of America and
United State of Electronica in Memorial Stadium, Friday
September 3, from 6:30-11pm.