Death Cab For Cutie

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Mar 1

With a Grammy-nominated new album, Death Cab For Cutie show no signs of decline 17 years on from their debut. Drummer Jason McGerr tells Douglas Parkes about their recent LP and what Kintsugi really means for the band One of the most successful indie acts of the early noughties, Death Cab For Cutie have come a long way from their modest origins. These days, Ben Gibbard’s confessional outlet are an arena-filling band, with platinum sales and interview questions that touch on the tabloidesque subject of Gibbard’s dissolved marriage to movie star Zooey Deschanel.

A surprisingly muscular live outfit, Death Cab have been playing for almost 17 years, making them one of the veterans of the modern indie scene. Despite the departure of founding member Chris Walla, the band are enjoying a late career renaissance. 2015’s Kintsugi was warmly received and nominated for best rock album at this year’s Grammy Awards. Time Out chats about to Jason McGerr about moving from the minor leagues to the big league and the sacrifices required.

What would you say is the biggest change in the band’s sound over the last near 20 years?

When you’re a band for more than five or 10 years – and we’re going on 18 – change is inevitable because you’re influenced by so many different artists. I think our sound today is still reminiscent, though. There’s a thread that runs through all our music, it‘s been a pretty natural progression. It’s just a much bigger, fuller, more produced sound these days, and I think the songs are a little more patient than they were.

This will be your first time in Hong Kong. What are your expectations?
We always try and go somewhere new when there’s an opportunity, so we’re all super excited. It’s kind of amazing, really. It would have been impossible for us to go to Hong Kong and Southeast Asia 15 ago and sell any tickets, because you couldn’t buy our records anywhere. That’s one way the music industry has changed for the better.

With Death Cab’s start as an indie outfit, what’s the biggest piece of advice you would offer to aspiring independent bands?

Be willing to sacrifice; play as much as possible; go on tour as much as possible. I don’t now how easy it is to play around Hong Kong, but we’d go over all over the States, we’d travel all over North America three times a year. I think those tours made us into a band who could make it in this industry. I feel bad for a band that never gets the chance to play music together. It’s about establishing roots as a group and learning how to play live. It’s one thing to do it in a small studio or a bedroom, but once you have to play on a stage, whether or not your fans come back next time depends on how well you can perform.

Very few indie bands achieve Death Cab’s level of success. Has it been gratifying?

I don’t know what is classified as ‘success’ these days. I’ve a friend in a band and he got 750,000 streams on Spotify for his first single, but that only equated to 700 sales of a physical album. And he still had to work his ass off for that. So I think he’s been successful, but if you talk to him he’ll tell you how he needs another job to get by. I feel like we were very fortunate to have started when we did and to have hung around this long. For me success is being able to go all over the world and play shows, because there are bands that have cult followings who don’t ever get played on the radio but who can still sell tickets to a gig. But whatever you’re doing [in music], if you can make a living from it, don’t question it.

What’s the reason behind Kintsugi as an album title?

Nick, [our bassist,] came across the term when he was reading random information online. It’s about how rather than discarding something, you highlight its damage. You don’t hide the past, you reveal what the problem was and fix it. Metaphorically speaking, we’ve all been through a lot in this band. There’s a lot of breakage and repair in the history of the band. It’s more about not trying to hide what’s happened in our personal lives and relationships, but highlighting it a little bit and continuing to explore it. That happens with all songs, which get demoed initially and then broken down and put back together.

A lot of the songs on the album speak melancholically of incompleteness. Is there an over­arching theme or narrative in the album?

No, not at all. We don’t usually think about album titles until the record is complete. It wasn’t until we were kicking around names for the album that Nick mentioned kintsugi again and we thought it was a great idea. And it works so well with the imagery, the album art work, the live concepts – it seemed [a term] that encompassed everything.

What are tracks on Kintsugi that you’re personally connected?

We did four songs initially with Rich Costley, marking the first time we’d worked with an outside producer. Those songs were Black Sun, Beverly Drive, No Room in Frame and Little Wanderer. To me those symbolise our search for a new sound. They sounded like old Death Cab songs, but we were moving the sound forward, too. There are a lot of songs that stand out. Beverly Drive is one all four of us played live on the floor in the studio, El Dorado is a super fun one to play live. It’s also the first time we’ve played all the songs off a record live. Normally, it’s four max.

What was it like working with Rich? What were some of the changes to the creative process?

He really challenged us to focus on singles. We’d think about what would be the first single, the second single. He asked us, “Why can’t every song be a single? Why can’t each song be that good?” He tried really hard to make sure everything still sounded like Death Cab and really tried to keep in tact everything we had built as band over our career. He challenged us nonstop. He wanted us to do the best we could. There were songs that ended up with three or four different versions before we decided on which one sounded best. There was no stone left unturned. It was stressful at times, but I don’t think we’d have been nominated for best rock album at the Grammies if we’d tried to make it ourselves.

Death Cab For Cutie Tue Mar 1, 8pm, MacPherson Stadium. Tickets: sold out.


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