On a rainy afternoon in July Contactmusic.com caught up with Death Cab For Cutie's frontman/songwriter Ben Gibbard and bassist Nick Harmer. Later in the day the band would play to a packed Brixton Academy as the last date on their current UK tour in support of their 7th record.
Contactmusic.com - Let's talk about new album Codes And Keys. What was the seed of the idea that got you back into the studio to record new material?
Ben Gibbard - We toured Narrow Stairs for 15 months or so. Then, as with every record since Transatlanticism, we went our separate ways and this time said; "okay, we'll talk about getting back into the studio in June or July of 2010". Similarly as with the past couple of records, I write as much as I can and treat writing like a day job. Chris was contributing songs as well, so then we just went into the studio with that material and started from there.
CM - Chris (Walla, guitarist/producer) has talked about recording Codes And Keys and said; "we've never pulled the thread out of the whole sweater and then made a new sweater out of it. Not like this." Nick, did your role change, as the band were recording in a number of different studios and different instrumentation was being used? How did you find the process?
Nick Harmer - Actually I feel great about it, it was a natural evolution of how we got to this point of making these decisions in the studio. We didn't just sit down and decide that we need to make a record in this way. Every choice we make, whether it's; different studios, recording into a computer this time, changing instrumentation, are all lessons we've learnt from choices in the past. Recording in different studios is a reaction to how it felt to make Plans where we holed up in a barn for four weeks and kind of lost our minds. Suddenly we realised that we needed to change the environment next time. So to me, it wasn't just like: "let's shake up the foundations of this band". The process used on Codes And Keys is a result of wisdom and growing older, knowing what we need and the mistakes that we've made in the past. It didn't feel radical or like I needed to readjust fundamentally to whom I was in the band.
Ben Gibbard - There's just absolutely no need to stay in the same studio for two months.
Nick Harmer - In almost every way this felt more comfortable and familiar than making any other record that we've made. It was a confident, fun time in the studio with the rest of the guys. Looking back I don't want to put a spin on it, that it was a laid back, easy time. We were working really hard and we had a lot to accomplish when we were there, but it felt very healthy. I think we all reacted to the preservation of that.
CM - It goes back to as far as perhaps Stability or Transatlaticism, but there's a lot of space for the lyrics to breathe on Codes And Keys. Obviously the instrumentation is slightly different too as there are fewer guitars, can you explain why you wanted to go in that direction?
Ben Gibbard - As I look back on some of the older records, there are a lot of words and lyrics. At the time I prided myself on trying to be verbose and in my finer moments I was eloquently telling stories. The older that I get and the more music I listen to the more attracted I am to the sound of people's voices and how they sing as the focus in a piece of music. Also the economy of lyrics, I feel like I've been talking a lot about Randy Newman recently. But it's because, although I do dislike some things about that music, there's also a real lesson to be learnt in how he writes lyrics to the melody. The way that they're very economical and to the point. We were talking in the studio about how a handful of albums ago I would spend the whole verse just setting up the song, this is what's happening in the song, etc. I feel if there's one thing I've been trying to do more recently, it's just trying to get right to the point. It's far more challenging to insert these poignant turns of phrase when you're using fewer syllables and words. I wouldn't go so far as to say that I've gotten to where I want to be, but I certainly feel like I'm pointing in the right direction for what I want from my song writing.
CM - Codes And Keys is less dark than Narrow Stairs, although there is an element of feeling trapped. There's a great lyric in the title track about "flying in circles inside a jar". But then on the other hand you have 'Doors Unlocked And Open' which is more hopeful even if you don't know what's through the door. What's your interpretation of those themes?
Ben Gibbard - In those examples that you've given, they balance each other out. Everybody has found himself or herself in a situation when they feel like they're arguing about something, but just spinning their wheels or are just circling inside a jar, and aren't getting anywhere. But then 2 songs later there's a lyric about living free with doors unlocked and open and having total communication. For whatever multiple reasons there were times in my life where I was drawn to darkness as my sole source of inspiration. I felt a little bit ashamed or insecure about trying to write about the moments of joy that exist in life as well. So much in my life has changed since Narrow Stairs, so naturally that's going to come out to a certain extent. But also being locked in a dungeon would be more hopeful than rewriting Narrow Stairs (laughs). I enjoyed the process of making that record and I'm proud of the songs, but at the same time I think I knew deep inside of myself, regardless of how my life was about to change, that I don't want to make another record like this. I think we've closed the book on this. That's not to say that darkness shouldn't exist to balance out the light, but you can't wallow in darkness all of the time.
CM - Although Chris (Walla, guitarist/producer) has produced Codes And Keys, this is the first of your records that he hasn't mixed. Instead you used Alan Moulder. How was it working with him?
Nick Harmer - It was fantastic, we've always deferred to Chris in that particular role in the band as producer and historically as our main mixer. He's invited other people along the way to have a go at remixing some stuff for us, even on Narrow Stairs.
Ben Gibbard - Every once in a while there's one song that doesn't get done properly and we open it up to other people.
Nick Harmer - As a producer this time, he recognised early on that we were making an album that would benefit from someone with a skillset like Alan's. He threw that out to us at one point and said: "I'm thinking about asking Alan Moulder to mix this album, what do you think?" Our natural inclination was to say firstly, it's up to you, but that we'd also love it because we're big fans of his work. I give a lot of credit to Chris to have the foresight to see the kind of album that was starting to take shape and know that Alan would really be a good asset in that way. He came over here (The UK) and was with Alan while they were mixing. As far as my participation within that, I'd wake up in the morning at home and would get an e-mail with a mix, which we could listen to and evaluate. It was exciting because I was able to hear the album for the first time during that process, which was really fun.
CM - That instantaneous approach must have been really useful to hear what was going on during the early mixes.
Ben Gibbard - Yeah, I can't speak for everybody, but I was excited about Alan's involvement in the record, because we'd never taken on the expense of having such a high-class mixer involved in one of our records. There was the fear that this was costing us a lot of money, what if he just didn't get it (the new material)? What if this is the wrong thing to do? I was thinking 2 moves ahead down this one particular road. Then we got the first mix of 'Portable Television' and we're like: "Okay, we've got it! No problem!" (laughs) It was the first time we'd ever brought somebody in, in such a large capacity in the band. Chris (Walla, guitarist/producer) has made all of our records; we've played all the instruments that we can physically play. We've always been so hands on and have been able to talk to Chris about the mixes that he's been doing, whether there's something that's missing or that we're not hearing. We didn't know how that process was going to be with Alan, but he turned out to be totally lovely and he brought an element to the record that we wouldn't have had otherwise.
CM - You supported the Foo Fighters at Milton Keynes on the 2nd of July.
Ben Gibbard - That was a really fun show. It was more nerve-wracking when we were playing it, because there were so many people and we were in the position of having to kind of convert people. But it was really inspiring to see the Foo's. They rolled out the red carpet, not only for us, but for everyone that was there on their behalf. We commented to each other that when a band gets that big, that's the right way to do it, you invite everybody along.
CM - 65,000 people is a big crowd compared to the regular sized audiences that you'd normally play to.
Ben Gibbard - I mean, it's like a club show (laughs), I'm joking, you could fit probably 3 times the number of people we played to with our name at the top of the marquee at the Hollywood Bowl into that Foo's show, that's how big it was. We needed an orchestra to get that 20,000 at the Hollywood Bowl too.
CM - Well from halfway back at Milton Keynes Bowl 'I Will Possess Your Heart' sounded massive through those speakers, especially the bass.
Ben Gibbard - Oh did it really? That's good to hear, because on stage we only have little monitors and it sounds a lot smaller.
Nick Harmer - We'll pass that accolade onto our soundman.
CM - So how did that Foo's show come about? Nick I know that you played with Nate (Mendel, Foo Fighters' bass player) on a Juno record, back in 2001, Alan Moulder has worked with Dave Grohl, what's the connection?
Nick Harmer - I think those are maybe a dash of the reason why we played. I think the connective tissue to that band is through a bunch of different sources. I feel like we made our strongest connection to them when we both played the Bridge School Benefit that Neil Young puts on in California every year. They were on our year and we kind of hung out with them then.
Ben Gibbard - And Dave had been really complimentary to our records and the band.
Nick Harmer - There's some connective stuff there. Obviously Nate being from Seattle. Jason (McGerr, drummer) knowing Taylor (Hawkins, Foo Fighters' drummer) too, because I think all drummers are secretly best friends. (laughs) This is a total aside, but we were playing a show in Minneapolis at this place called First Avenue and Jason said backstage: "hey totally weird, my friend is in town too, he's the drummer for Usher across the street." We said: "how are you best friends with this guy?" Jason said: "hey we're drummers, we talk about drums a lot." I thought ok, of course you do, why wouldn't you? But yeah, so he knows Taylor and like Ben said, that's how that all came together I think.
CM - Finally, you're about to return to the States to play some shows there with Frightened Rabbit, who also supported you on the Narrow Stairs tour.
Ben Gibbard - I can't wait, we had kind of a weird European tour with them 3 years ago, and we had 14 shows in 15 days. They were really great, but it was a long tour and I just thought that I'd love to get another chance to tour with them. They're great people and a great band.
4 hours later Ben and Nick walked out on stage at Brixton Academy along with their bandmates Chris and Jason. A triumphant show started with a thundering rendition of 'I Will Possess Your Heart' and closed with an epic version of 'Transatlanticism'. Along the way a generous selection of material from across the bands career was accompanied by a surprise cover version. "We owe a lot to British music that influenced us", Gibbard tells the crowd before launching into Ride's 'Twisterella'. There's sure to have been a few old Ride records finding their way to the top of the must listen to pile after that one.