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Death Cab for Cutie

Death Cab for Cutie

Wednesday 29th June, 2011 11:53AM

Emotive indie popsters Death Cab for Cutie have returned with Codes and Keys, their full length follow up to the emotionally fraught 2008 album Narrow Stairs. UTR caught up with bassist Nick Harmer to discuss the new album, how it differs from their previous work and how they want people to enjoy their tracks in 30 years time.

Where are you guys at the moment?

We're in Edmonton, Alberta in Canada.

You're on a tour, yeah?

Yeah we’ve got a show here tomorrow, Calgary on Wednesday and then we’re heading towards the Sasquach Festival in the States.

You're touring in support of the new album, Codes and Keys. Are you enjoying playing it live?

Yeah, I just can’t wait for it to get released, it comes out in a week and I can’t wait for people to own it and have it in their headphones so they can listen to it an know the material. But I’m having a great time performing it so far, the songs are sounding good live.

You went for a more production-oriented sound this time around? Are you finding it harder to play live?

It's certainly more challenging, but that makes it really fun. I know we’re always interested in setting goals and challenges for the band, and nothing we record is impossible so we can do a version of everything live. It’s always fun to try and unlock the secret of how to take a song that you’ve spent so much time in the studio making, and try to re-create it in a live setting so it’s compelling and people are going to enjoy it. We’re doing a pretty good job and the challenge is definitely welcome.

What make you decide to go for the more production heavy sound this time around?

Almost every album we make is a reaction to the one before it and certainly we recorded Narrow Stairs as a very straightforward record with minimum overdubs; all of us recording live to 24 tracks on analog tape in the studio and as a result it had a very old classic recording style – it’s how albums used to be made. This time we decided to use the future - lets record into a computer and use the studio for the instrument that it’s become.

Tell me a little bit about the collaborative production-songwriting process:

Our guitar player Chris Walla has produced all of our albums. We really look to him after we start to get the sense of the songs and the album we want to make. We look to him to guide this process and engineer and make it happen. Early on he really wanted to record into the logic program – into a computer – and he had bookmarked about four studios he thought would be really fun for us to be in and also really condusive for us getting a lot of work done. So we recorded in Los Angeles, San Fransisco, Washington and in Vancouver in Canada. Those different experiences and the instruments and technical gear that was making him excited as a producer is what made it all comes together. But as a producer he is acutely aware of everything we’ve accomplished in the past and where our comfort zones are and where we need to push into some uncomfortable territories to keep it interesting. So you know I value working with him a lot and it’s always a very good experience to have someone with so much history in the studio.

And you mentioned you recorded across four studios. You've always recorded in short bursts and then brought it all together as an album? Why do you find this works the best?

When you’re so involved in making something creative - whether it’s an album or a film or whatever - you can put the blinkers on and loose sense of what’s happening in the world outside and you then loose sense of what you’re making. You’re so focused on the little details that all you can see is the imperfections and the moments of doubt and insecurity when really they aren’t there.

For us, having those breaks in between sessions and moving studios really helps us keep a sense of momentum and doesn’t allow us to wallow in second guessing, asking questions like ‘Oh is this good?’ 'Is this better than when we did that?' When you know you’ve only got a limited amount of time you make the best of it, and then you book the next place and you make the best of that. During that process you’re able to look back and reflect; you can look at something that you recorded a month ago and maybe you didn’t think it was that good, but when you revisit it, it has had time to gestate and cook a little bit and suddenly it sounds great and you’re excited about it. Or it works the other way, too. Sometimes we feel really good about something and then some time goes by and we revisit it and go ‘Oh wow, I’m glad we came back to this, it’s definitely time to re-think it’. It forces us to have a sense of perspective.

You mentioned seeing the album as a bigger picture. If you were to describe Codes and Keys as a bigger picture how would you? Are there any themes? Anything you were particularly exploring, musically?

There’s a level of fiction and poetry in the lyrics that I think are going to mean different things to different people. I think the record is very balanced emotionally, compared to how we made the last album. The songs on Narrow Stairs – we’re all very proud of them – but it was a dark time, for both Ben as a songwriter and for all of us in the band. We were all growing and learning and trying to figure out what our career was and what it meant, and where we wanted to go and what the future was going to look like and there was a lot of insecurity on that level, thus the title Narrow Stairs. We felt like we were in a precarious position moving forward, or at least in that point of our career.

I feel this time round a lot of things have happened to us personally outside of the band that have brought some perspective and some hope into our lives and we’re feeling positive and happy. I think there are some little moments of that on this album that balance out some of the more bittersweet moments as well and I think if anything this record is just a confident, balanced album for us and it’s very demonstrative of where we all are in our lives in and outside of the band.

It almost seems like you’ve changed everything about the band. Would it be fair to say it’s a new chapter in the Death Cab for Cutie story?

Yeah I mean every album for us is a chapter in the metaphoric novel that is our career. This isn’t related to anything in the past but it’s rooted very squarely in where we’ve come from and where we’ve been as a band. I’m very proud of all of the albums we make, they’re all important to me in different ways, and they all express and capture a moment of where we were at in our lives when we made them. You know when people ask what our favourite album is I just say start with the first album and listen to them in order. Listen to Airplanes, listen to We Have The Facts to Transatlanticism and forward. As you move through the albums you get a good sense of where we’ve been as a band and where we’re going. This album, in every way, feels like a realization of what we did on our previous albums, and I like that.

And overall, do you think there’s a crux of Death Cab for Cutie? Something that you guys have always adhered to as musicians or as creatives that would define who you are?

Um, I’m not sure. We’ve always really tried to maintain the music around Ben’s (Gibbard's) voice. As long as Ben is singing and you can hear the words, whatever happens around that is always going to be related to Death Cab for Cutie in some way. The sky’s the limit as far as what we can and can’t do and I like that. I think we’re all very comfortable on our native instruments. I’m always going to love to play the bass guitar, but if the song needs a piano melody and I have an idea for one that’s welcomed in the band as well.

If there’s one thing we always talk about in the studio it's about making bands that will hopefully age well over time. That in 20 or 30 years from now when you listen to the albums they won’t sound so ‘of this time’ in some ways. The same way you can put on The Beatles' albums today – and I’m not comparing us to The Beatles at all so please don’t put that in – but there’s albums that were recorded 30 years ago that when I put them on today they just sound like good songs, and that can be any number of artists who have been able to capture the melodies and good presentation of pop songs. I think that’s the core of what we are as a band. We like writing songs, and we’re fans of melody and fans of harmony, and we’re hoping we end up making music that stands the test of time.

You guys have been in a band together for such a long time. The creative process must be pretty instrinsic? Do you come to the table with a similar idea of what you want for a song or album?

Yeah I mean it’s very subtle. We have an understanding with each other. I donno, if there’s one thing that we trust it’s all of our tastes and our gut feeling about things. Not every song we recorded every one of us is 100% excited about it - there’s some questions like ‘I don’t know, we’ll see how this goes’ – and through the process some songs make it and some songs don’t, but by the time the album comes out everyone feels 100% about everything that’s on there.

We never sit down as a band and plan an album, either. We never pre-plan themes like ‘what are we going to say on this album?’ ‘What’s it gonna mean?’ ‘What’s the art going to look like?’ It never comes together that way. Let’s just start recording songs, whatever song that Ben brings in that we’re all reacting to in demo form, let’s make that sound as awesome as we can. And then we move to the next one, and then we move to he next one. Eventually in the process we stop and ask ourselves ‘well, do we have enough to make an album?’ ‘Do any of these group together and make sense?’ And if they do then we’re done, and we make that album, and if they don’t then we keep writing songs until we feel like we’ve got a group of songs that want to hang out with each other, and then that becomes the album.

The themes that happen in the album make themselves apparent to us and we just usher it along a little bit and then we come up with a title and artwork and everything. Then it’s an expression after that, and then it makes sense. It’s always a fun moment when the album reveals itself to us, ‘cause we’re like ‘Oh that’s what we’re writing about, awesome!’

What do you want your fans to take away from the new album, Codes and Keys?

I hope people can find some time to listen to it. When we first finished this album I was on an airplane and I could sit down and put it on headphones and look out the window and watch the world go by and I connected to it that way, and maybe that’s what everyone needs to do. I don’t know what I hope people take away from it, I just hope people like it and enjoy it. I’m just very happy we’re done with it and it’s coming out and that people will get to make up their minds and react to it, and that’s the most I can hope for as a musician.

- Courtney Sanders