Now almost a year since the release of their eighth studio album (the Grammy-nominated Kintsugi), Death Cab for Cutie have just wrapped up a series of overseas dates and are getting set to hit the road again. This time it’s with Metric for “Lights on the Horizon”, a cross-Canada tour that kicks off in Montreal on Saturday March 19 and heads to Toronto on March 23. I spoke with bass player Nick Harmer this week about the collaboration, the release they have planned for Record Store Day and their upcoming run of festival shows this summer…and about how the band has adjusted to playing live since the departure of longtime DCFC guitarist and founding member Chris Walla in 2014.
It’s been almost a year since Kintsugi. And after over 15 years together, you guys went through a major change with Chris’ departure. How did you adapt to that? How has this most recent tour been with the new lineup?
Where we’re sitting right now, I’d say that we adapted fairly well to the shift. I think we were a little apprehensive and slightly nervous about what the change was going to mean for us moving forward. But (and I think I can speak for all of us) we all feel very fortunate that we were able to connect with two musicians that are friends of ours as well as just really great players – Dave Depper and Zac Rae are their names – to fill the shoes and the duties that Chris was doing live. We’d talked about adding a fifth member while Chris was in the band off and on for a while, but for whatever reason it never quite materialized. With Chris’ departure it seemed like it would be a good time to rethink a lot of the live arrangements and a lot of the live presentations of songs. So it was kind of a natural progression for us to evolve into a five-piece. I’m really happy with how things have come together and how the tour’s been going.
I think in the beginning we were a little nervous – we had no doubt that we’d be able to find competent players to be able to perform the parts and the things we needed to have done. But it was always a question of chemistry and whether or not we were going to find people who would really fill that hard-to-describe chemical thing that just happens between musicians when they’re in a room creating. I’m as surprised as anyone that it has come as quickly and as powerfully as it has with Zac and Dave. And I’m very thankful that it has. I feel like it’s been a much-needed moment of reenergizing for us for sure.
Tell me about the release you have planned for Record Store Day.
That’s going to be a 7” of live performances by Ben, some solo stuff that he has done along the way while we’ve been doing promo for this record. He did a really great Guided By Voices cover and I think the B side’s going to be a version of “Black Sun” that he and Zac did together that’s really stripped back and minimal.
It’s amazing – going along and doing a lot of these interviews and radio promos with Ben, it’s always kind of a fun moment for me being in the band because I get to actually just sit down and watch him perform! And I’m always thankful when they’re recording it too, because I can remember along the way a lot of really meaningful performances of this stuff.
So it’s a little scaled back but certainly still something that we’re putting out as a Death Cab for Cutie release. I love when we can show that side of our band – especially supporting something like Record Store Day, which we’ve always been big supporters of over the years.
Festival season is coming and you have a number of dates lined up. You’re also playing with some heavy hitters – do you ever get “starstruck” yourselves? Who are you most looking forward to performing with this summer?
That’s a great question. It’s funny – I know exactly that feeling where you’re sort of dumbfounded and unable to control your own motor functions, you know? I think the first time – and, well, the only time – I met Paul McCartney I was starstruck by every measure. I could only manage to squeak an unintelligible sound out of my mouth and then sit down very quickly! So that was kind of odd and awkward. Granted, it happened in a very unmusical setting – I was actually getting on an airplane and he came up behind me and sort of bumped into me on his way to first class. Not intentionally, but just sort of brushed up and said “excuse me”. I turned around and it was Paul McCartney, the last person I would expect to see! So that added to the sort of “startstruckness”, just by how unexpected it was.
But generally, while I wouldn’t necessarily use that word, we do get really excited. It’s a special thing when you’re able to be in a room or meet someone that you have a lot of respect for creatively. It’s hard not to feel some sense of awe when that happens, you know? I just think that when you form such a strong connection to somebody’s work it’s hard not to put them on a bit of a pedestal as they’ve had such a big impact on your life. So yes, of course we can still get tongue-tied and dumbfounded in certain situations, I’d say for sure.
As far as the summer goes, it’s odd. One, I haven’t yet really sat down and digested everything that we have on our schedule so it’s hard for me to look ahead or think right now about who’s on the bill. Sometimes with the festival situations that we’re in, the lineups are amazing and on our day there might be an artist or an act that we’re really excited to play with. But a lot of the times, the way they’re structured, you don’t end up really seeing each other very often. The organizers do a really effective job of compartmentalizing the backstage area…and sometimes there are multiple stages so you’ll be on one all the way across the field from another. And it’s even hard for us to get over and see someone that we want to see. So as far as meeting people or even crossing paths with other acts, unless that happens organically backstage around, say, catering, or some central hub like that, you very rarely get a chance to bump into someone accidentally or casually.
Although sometimes it is really relaxed and cool. We’ve had some really good experiences in Europe at festivals like that. Just last summer we played a festival in Holland where afterwards we were all just sitting around on these chairs. Ride had played and I grew up a huge Ride fan, I just love them. We watched their show and then they came back and we were all hanging around and talking and watched the sun go down. It was one of those magical moments where I was like “Here I am just sitting in a non-descript field backstage in Holland and I’m talking with one of my favourite bands growing up”. I never thought I’d be in that position in my life.
So those kinds of things happen now and again – I’d say they’re definitely quite rare, but that makes them memorable when they do happen.
Let’s talk about the cross-Canada tour with Metric – how did that collaboration come about?
We always want to play as much as we can in Canada – sometimes it’s challenging for us to find a routing that makes sense on our own. So we’ll duck in and play a show and come back to the States, or we’ll try and wrap something on a US tour when we can.
But Metric had an idea for a run of Canadian dates and they approached us, saying “Hey, would you guys want to do this with us? There are a lot of markets on this tour that you haven’t played in Canada yet and we think it would be a good fit musically”. It was a good fit personally as well – we all have a lot of history together, and going way back. It just seemed like kind of a perfect thing. We were very thankful that they dreamt this up and thought to invite us! Sometimes these things take a long time to iron out and sometimes they come together so fast that you wonder why you hadn’t thought of it earlier. This was one of those times for us where it was like “This is awesome, why haven’t we done this before?” So I’m really looking forward to visiting a lot of Canadian cities that we haven’t yet been to on this Kintsugi cycle and sharing that music.
What are some of those cities?
We haven’t been back to Winnipeg on this run, we certainly haven’t been in Vancouver yet…we’ve been in Montreal, we’ve been in Toronto. But there’s St. Catharines, where we’ve never played I don’t think…we haven’t been back to Regina in a while, Edmonton, Calgary…so there are a lot of cities that we need to stop into! We have a meaningful routing and it makes a lot of sense for us to start in Montreal and go all the way to Vancouver where we’re then three hours from home. So it’s a pretty quick return back to Seattle.
I read a quote from Emily Haines that the name of the tour – “Lights on the Horizon” – refers to a desire to focus on what lies ahead, personally and creatively. I’m not going to ask you what lies ahead personally! But what’s next for your band creatively?
You know, it was perfect timing for both of us, just given where this tour fell in both of our album cycles, how the records were done and where they’ve been. I think both bands are in a position right now where we’re starting to wrap up one tour cycle and think ahead as to what comes next. For us, we want to make another album, very soon. We’re really excited about playing music with Zac and Dave and eager to get into the studio and see what that phase of working as a band feels like. See if we can yield some really productive material. So, as you know, we have a couple of longer tours this year and some festival dates along the way – but the light on our horizon is another studio album, and the first studio album that we’ll be making with some new players. We’re all very excited and eager and have a lot of positive energy for that next phase. It’s still a ways out…but that’s definitely a light on the horizon and what’s driving us.