Interview // Death Cab for Cutie
Here’s my interview with Jason McGarr, drummer with US indie rockers Death Cab For Cutie, ahead of the band’s appearance at Forbidden Fruit on Sunday, June 3 – their first appearance in Ireland since 2008.
Originally published in the Irish Sun on June 25.
“We never want to have what we do in the studio dictate whether or not we can pull something off live,” mumbles Death Cab For Cutie drummer Jason McGerr across a grainy transatlantic phone line.
“This tour we’re doing right now, we’ve an orchestra for all the string arrangements on the album, for instance on ‘Stay Young, Go Dancing.’
“It’s an eight-piece orchestra so we will represent those tracks in their entirety, so when the audience hear the song ‘Codes and Keys,’ they’re hearing more or less what’s on the record.”
It’s a fitting way to speak to the drummer, as McGerr’s first full recording with the Bellingham, Washington, USA group was 2003’s Transatlanticism, their breakthrough record in the States before their major label debut Plans established them as a worldwide act of note.
“Transatlanticism was a really fun rock record for us, and pretty adventurous because it was a new group. I had known the guys, and we’d been friends, and we’d written music together in the past, but Transatlanticism was the first time the four of us could get together and feel that chemistry.
“That’s what happens when you get together with a group of people and you get a spark that’s so evident you kind of hold your breath. So I always look on Transatlanticism as an ‘inhale’ and Plans as a sort of ‘exhale’.
“Plans was much more introspective and relaxed – by that time it was ‘the band’ and we were signed to a major label and we could just relax and enjoy it, and it was our best-selling album.”
The title Transatlanticism itself is a subtle reference to the band’s pond-straddling influences that range from the maudlin, Morrissey-like hue that colours frontman Ben Gibbard’s lyrics to Chris Walla’s lush alternative pop textures that reference the best of Bowie.
Though much has changed for the band in the intervening years, Walla’s arrangements have never faltered in terms of their depth or intricacy, and for 2011’s Codes and Keys the band decided to move away from the traditional rock set-up and explore more synth-based sounds.
“Chris didn’t want the four of us to get in a room and just pick up our usual instruments and write songs. He wanted there to be a bit more of an obstacle and have everybody sort of hang songs on sounds and rhythms and feels that were drawing us a little closer to thinking outside of our boxes.
“We’d have a vocal – a scratch vocal –then guitar would go down and I’d play drums over it. Then the drums would be set to some synth keyboard which would modulate and turn into the melody or the bass line or something else. Then the guitars would go away and I’d put everything else on, and then bring the guitars back in to put a sort of ‘colour’ or texture on top.”
“A lot of songs – ‘Monday Morning’ is a good example – are driven by keys. Other songs were traditionally written but untraditionally recorded. It was a fun way to make this record come together.
“The previous album, Narrow Stairs, was just guitar, bass, drums, keys, whatever. Live vocals in the studio, blow through the songs live to tape and do it with minimal takes and cutting it together. We tend to do something a little bit different every time we record.”
The change in style also shines through in the mood of the album, which is noticeably more upbeat in comparison with the dour, introspective Narrow Stairs. Much of this is down to the band members being in a better place personally, most obviously songwriter Gibbard, who is enjoying a much more positive frame of mind since his marriage to actress Zooey Deschanel.
“Narrow Stairs was a pretty dark record overall – thematically, lyrically and tonally – and this time we didn’t want to be quite so dark. Narrow Stairs was written quickly, during a very dark time in our lives. Codes and Keys is more hopeful and open. There’s more an economy of emotion and space, to leave room for each other.
“The album is not only hopeful – psychologically hopeful – but in terms of approach, like a ‘leave our options open’ sort of thing, to make sure there is enough space for people to paint through the notes, to hear texture between the snare drum and the bass drum.
“After all the time off – we took almost a year and a half off between Narrow Stairs and Codes and Keys –we sat and decided to take a new approach. Codes and Keys was, again, kind of an ‘exhale’ and a step backwards – not backwards, but a step towards reflecting over what we’ve been doing for the last eight or nine years.
“Ben said, let’s really go after it in terms of using all of our resources, travel all over the place recording in different studios and using different mixing engineers to see what’s possible.
“I think of it in terms of a house: Transatlanticism is an outdoors record, and Plans is like the study, and Narrow Stairs was done in the bedroom late at night. Codes and Keys was more like: ‘let’s build a laboratory and see what we can come up with.’”
The band’s appearance on the main stage at Forbidden Fruit (behind another notable British influence, New Order) will be their first in Ireland for almost four years, when they played the now-defunct Ambassador Theatre.
“When we’re doing our own shows, we can play 23 or 24 songs a night, but in a festival setting you don’t have all day to spend soundchecking and getting everything right. We’ve got to show up and play and make it work for everybody.
“What we’re going to do is look at the last time we played Dublin and what the songs we played were and try and not do the exact same thing. Festivals are always a fun experience, but it’s a condensed version.”
Death Cab For Cutie play Forbidden Fruit in Dublin on Sunday, June 3.