For a minute there back in 2014, it seemed like Death Cab for Cutie would never be the same. Guitarist and songwriter Chris Walla announced he would part ways with the band after spending 17 years as an integral part of the iconic indie rock staples. They released their final album with him, Kintsugi, in 2015 and hit the road touring behind it.
Now, the band’s current lineup—singer-guitarist Ben Gibbard, bassist Nick Harmer, drummer Jason McGerr, guitarist-keyboardist Dave Depper, and guitarist-keyboardist Zac Rae—has proven that not only is the band an equally creative entity now, but that they’re just as eager to continue making music that taps into an emotional corner of your heart that’s otherwise neglected. On this year’s Thank You for Today, Death Cab for Cutie try their hand at a more reflective and subtle style, testing out electropop and smoothing out synths until they opt for an emotion-driven sound that leans off Gibbard’s words for once.
“In some ways, this will sound cheesy, but I’m really thankful that this album exists,” says Harmer. “After conceiving the last record, Chris leaving the band, there was a question mark over what would be next. Would we be able to do this? Finding Zac and Dave during that tour cycle, building that relationship out into them joining the band permanently, and then going into the studio to make an album with them. There were a lot of nerves about if it would work. We were optimistic it would be great, but we were still entering a new thing. The fact that we got to work and things came together as well as they did is something I’m honestly proud of. This was the exact album we had to make as a band following everything that happened.”
To better understand Death Cab for Cutie now that they’re two decades deep into their career, we interviewed Nick Harmer for a round of Wheel of Tunes, a series where we ask musicians questions inspired by their song titles. With Thank You for Today as the prompt, his answers are happy and open-minded—attributes that will appear in Death Cab for Cutie’s songs when the band headlines the Wang Theatre both Sunday and Monday nights.
1) “I Dreamt We Spoke Again”
DIGBOSTON: Who is the one person you haven’t spoken to in years but would love to have a conversation with again?
HARMER: Wow, that’s a great question. This is fantastic. Well, you know I haven’t spoken to this person in a while. When I was in high school, I was in a band for a moment. We didn’t record or release anything. We were just a high school band practicing in garages, playing around town, making a big racket after school, and we were terrible. We were terrible as high school bands are. I haven’t spoken to the singer or the drummer of that band in a long time. Probably not since I’ve been in the studio with Ben [Gibbard]. I went off to college after we graduated and I haven’t talked to them since then. So it would be fun to talk to them about music and see what their musical journeys have been like. I don’t know if they’re even aware I stuck with it. So that would be a fun conversation to have, one about the early days of figuring out music.
2) “Summer Years”
DIGBOSTON: Looking back on this summer, what’s your favorite memory or experience you had?
HARMER: Oh wow. Another great question. This is fun. I wish more people did interviews like this [laughs]. Well, I had a really fun summer, and a lot of great things went down. I’m trying to sort out all of the fun experiences. One fun thing we did was play this festival in Europe called Meltdown Festival. We got a personal invite from Robert Smith from the Cure to play this festival. And you know, he’s that band. The Cure is one of my all-time favorite bands forever and ever and ever. They’re one of the reasons I started playing music in the first place. So that was a really special moment.
But there’s small moments along the way, too. I have a daughter who just turned 3. We had a blast this summer. She’s turning into such a cool person. So we did a lot of adventures that figured into it as well. It’s so hard to pick one! It really is! So many good moments from this summer. Like the swimming lessons we took. We would go swimming on Saturdays, and that was always so fun. I don’t know. Just seeing this person figure out how to navigate water. It sounds silly, but it was pretty special.
All the family stuff aside, getting the invitation to fly over to play Meltdown and the peripheral fun stuff connected with that was pretty special for us and one of those “pinch yourself” moments where you can’t believe life has developed like this.
3) “Gold Rush”
DIGBOSTON: If you could have anything of your choosing made in gold, what would you pick and why?
HARMER: Uhhh, what would I choose? No idea. Let me think about this. I wish I knew. I’m stumping myself because I wish I was a much more clever person who would come up with something that’s hilarious or poignant. It’s a great question. It would be so heavy, you know, so it would have to be an object that’s meaningless. I’m going to have to pass. It’s one of those things that I don’t think about often. Some people are all about that but I’m not. Actually, I think I should try to make a pair of solid gold sunglasses frames. I lose sunglasses all the time. So I feel like if they were made of solid gold, they would have this value to me suddenly where I wouldn’t lay them down and leave them places. I feel like I’m cursed with losing them. There needs to be something that makes them important. Maybe I should just spend more on sunglasses if I want to care about them more. Drugstore ones are just like, “Ah, I forgot them, I’ll just buy another.” Gold sunglasses would be funny and completely impractical, but at least I would be conscious of where I keep putting them. Even as an adult, I’m never going to figure out why I keep losing those things.
4) “Your Hurricane”
DIGBOSTON: Have you ever experienced a hurricane before?
HARMER: I have not. I was living in Japan as a kid when a typhoon hit, though. That’s obviously intense. We were inland, so it was a lot of storm. Nothing coastal or like that. We just had to prepare for a lot of rain and scary weather. I was very little, like in kindergarten. I lived in Japan for four years, from preschool on through to first grade or so. I remember everyone talking about the typhoon coming and how we would have to hunker down. Some of the images that you see from coastal cities and tragic flooding inland are horrible. Thankfully I’ve never experienced a hurricane or any major water even that did damage to us.
5) “When We Drive”
DIGBOSTON: Where is the last place you took a road trip to?
HARMER: Oh, that’s a great question too! If you don’t count touring, which we are definitely doing a lot of driving on now, the last road trip would be when we packed up our family and went to this town in Washington called Leavenworth. It’s not too far from Seattle, but with a young kid it was our first “Let’s go for a long drive and see how it goes” bit. So it was a family vacation for the weekend. We didn’t go on a quest to the Mojave desert or anything, but it was fun.
6) “Autumn Love”
DIGBOSTON: Out of all the cliched parts of autumn, what’s your favorite thing about the season or that happens during the season?
HARMER: It’s funny because fall is my favorite season of the year. Growing up in the pacific Northwest, we have a clear start to the fall. We saw leaves change along with evergreens, the temperatures get cold, and I love bundling up with layers and clothes. With years of public education and going back to school, it makes you feel like it’s time to get serious again. Summer fun is over. Go buy some pencils and notebooks and start writing. That programming just comes with fall. Fall, for me, it has that distinct seasonal change. It’s weird to visit warm places in the states where they don’t get distinct seasons. I get a little lost when it’s 85 degrees and everyone is outside in T-shirts and shorts. That’s not fall! You need to be wearing multiple layers with scarves and hats and boots. That’s the stuff I think of. I like the way the shadows get a little bit longer when the light changes. I’m sure a million people have said it, but fall always breaks my heart a little bit every year when it starts where I feel this weird ache and longing. Maybe it’s about nostalgia and looking back, or maybe it’s about the fact that it’s about to be dark and cold for a few months. It’s not heartbreaking or sad, but it’s this lump that I feel inside myself that happens and, gosh, I really like it. [laughs] It’s nice to let yourself get a little emotional and existential about everything. It’s quite nice. I’m sure if I was fluent in German, there would be some specific word about it. Other languages have all of these amazing, complex, specific words that describe intense feelings like these so well.
7) “Northern Lights”
DIGBOSTON: Have you ever seen the northern lights before?
HARMER: So I’m going to say that I have not seen them. One time in Seattle, though, I did. I’ve always dreamt of going to someplace far in the north, like northern Alaska or Greenland, and to do a proper northern lights viewing trip. It looks so fun. I’ve seen pictures of hotels where they have rooms with glass ceilings where you can lay on your bed looking upwards. I’ve always wanted to do something wild and fun like that to see them properly. But I did see them one time in Seattle, of all places. I didn’t even know what I was looking at! That’s the thing. It was late, maybe in 2005 or 2006. At the time, I had this little Honda scooter that I would ride around and I was scooting home one night late after a show. I was coming up over the water, stopped, and I looked over my shoulder and saw all of these crazy lights. I remember thinking, “Wow, what is that? It’s kinda weird!” Because I had no expectation of seeing the northern lights in Seattle, I thought it was weird city lights displayed on the clouds. Later that night, there was a news article about it and I was like, “Gah! No! I missed my moment!”
8) “You Moved Away”
DIGBOSTON: How far was the farthest difference you’ve ever lived from someone you loved?
HARMER: I lived in Providence, Rhode Island, for a year. Living on the East Coast was about as far away from my family as I got, as they are all concentrated on the West Coast, mostly in Seattle. Living over there was so long. Obviously, I travel for work all the time, but that was about as far away from loved ones as I had been. It was hard, but I made the effort to get home for the big holidays a lot. I could feel the distance a little bit. I really do take it for granted that my mom and brother live minutes away from me in Seattle and I get to see them fairly frequently. That year was the farthest I’ve ever lived away from a loved one.
DIGBOSTON: What’s one thing you always remember to bring on tour with you and one thing you always forget to bring?
HARMER: [laughs] Let’s see. One thing that I always remember to bring is a book. I’m constantly reading while on the road. It’s something we do a lot, where we’re all passing books around to one another. Like, “Hey, I just finished this. Do you want to read it next?” At some point, we might start a book club and finally get to sit down to talk about books. We haven’t all gotten on the same page enough to read them one by one. But yes, books I never forget as they help pass the time on flights and drives, all those empty hours in the day.
Something that I always forget are headphones. I leave them at home. So I usually have to go buy a pair. And I always lose sunglasses every tour. It’s disposable and I leave them so often, as previously discussed. So those two things.
10) “60 & Punk”
DIGBOSTON: When you enter your 60s, what do you aspire to be like?
HARMER: [laughs] You know, I don’t know. While entering my 60s, I really hope that I still get to play music with my friends. That’s something I’ve wanted to do for my entire life. I love playing music with the guys in the band. Nothing would make me happier. I feel like nobody would care what kind of music we’re playing when we’re in our 60s. But it would just be a dream come true. Just getting to know people on this level and get together and play would be a dream come true. There’s so much that gets in the way and prevents people from being able to continue that level of friendship and work, so if we can make it to that point, then I am hoping for that. It would mean we’ve made something extra special.
I’m also just hoping to be super chill. I wanna be one of those dudes who has no guilt in buying a La-Z-boy recliner and putting it directly in front of the TV and watch my favorite shows with my legs extended out like a grandpa’s chair. I think I could really allow myself to sit down and be a lump or goof for a day in one of those. That would be amazing, to be a really chill, old dude telling stories about how it used to be in the 1900s. It would be fun.