Death Cab for Cutie 'Re-Energized' for First Tour With New Lineup

Death Cab for Cutie
Gabriel Olsen/Getty Images for CBS Radio Inc.

Nick Harmer, Ben Gibbard, and Jason McGerr of Death Cab for Cutie pose backstage at the KROQ Weenie Roast Y Fiesta 2015 at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre on May 16, 2015 in Irvine, California.  

Talk to any band and they will tell you there is a flip-side when a band member leaves -- namely, a renewed energy that comes into the fold with new members. Death Cab for Cutie’s Nick Harmer tells Billboard that is, indeed, the case as the band preps to go out on tour for the first time without longtime guitarist Chris Walla, who departed before the release of the band’s recent Kitsugi album.

“We get to experience for the first time again with the new guys and the new players, certainly playing with Zac [Rae] and Dave [Depper] -- those guys are amazing. That definitely re-energized us in a way that I think is really exciting,” Harmer told Billboard when we caught up with him backstage at KROQ’s Weenie Roast in Irvine, California.

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Harmer spoke with us about their connective tissue to Muse, the difference between radio station shows and their own gigs, and what superhero he always wanted to be.

Is this a reunion for you guys with bands and friends?

Honestly, that’s the carrot at the end of it for me. The show itself is always challenging because you don’t really get to do your show, it’s a short set, it’s a hectic day for crew and everybody. The thing that makes it worthwhile for everybody on a spiritual level is just getting to see friends and crew people we don’t get a chance to run into because we’re always working and traveling. So that kind of replenishes my soul in this a lot and it makes it worth it.

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Who are you excited to catch up with tonight?

The guys in Muse. We just did a record with Rich Costey, who’s done a lot of work with them over the years and just because of this connective tissue to them there’s been a thing. So that will be kind of cool. We’ve got some crew guys that are working on Florence, and AWOLNation, I was just talking with Isaac, their drummer, who I’ve known since he was a tri-cities kid playing in bands years ago. It’s just kind of weird how you run into people that come in and out of your life in a strange way.

How does this differ from when you get to do your own gig?

That’s our show. We get to really hand-pick a deeper set list and really make our set more of a journey. When you show up here, there’s kind of an expectation for high energy, high octane. You don’t want to put the whole crowd to sleep, so we don’t really dip too far down into our ballads and stuff like that that we would on our own show.

Does it feel like you are winning over an audience with this since this is not exclusively your crowd?

They’re listening to the radio, KROQ is doing right by everybody on this bill. Everyone that’s here probably knows at least a song or two from every band playing, just because they’re on KROQ. So I’m not sure how much winning over is happening. To me it’s more of a celebration, we’re all listening to same stuff and that’s kind of a community thing. For me, we’re all here to celebrate the songs that are on the radio right now and the bands that are active and working.

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How will these new songs evolve on a nightly basis?

We are not a band that’s cut out of that kind of jam-bandy, “Let’s experiment and let arrangements open up live.” We do our best to recreate our albums pretty much bar for bar in a live setting. Some songs, just by the nature of live performance, take on maybe a little more emotional weight or more ferocity in the way we attack our instruments or something like that. But really the songs stay as true to the material that people are experiencing as we possibly can. That’s not to say that we take some liberties now and again, but we haven’t played the new album long enough yet to know where those moments are in the new material. There are certainly songs we think, “Well, this one is going to be just a burner live.” Then we play it and people couldn’t care less. Then there are songs when, for whatever reason we try to play it and it really connects with an audience and wins us over in a way we weren’t expecting. So that happens a lot, that’s kind of cool. We get to a point where we can play a song like “Everything’s A Ceiling,” which I really like on the album. But for us it was always kind of an album track and live it’s really connecting, people really like it. So that’s suddenly gonna be a little more permanent in our set list than maybe we would’ve known coming out of the studio.

So are there songs from past albums you are looking forward to revisiting as well?

A little bit of our challenge on this run particularly is we have two new players playing on stage with us, so we don’t have the sort of fluency to come on stage and within a sound check be able to pull any song right in the middle of it. It takes us a day or so to get everybody up to speed, so some of the really obscure deep album cuts we’re not going after. But we play representative songs from everything we’ve released. So there’s not a record or EP we don’t touch on for one or two songs. Again, eight albums in, three EPs in that’s a lot. We could play much longer than two hours if we had the time. We’re not Bruce Springsteen so I don’t think we can get away with it.

Are there particular songs that stand out when you’re playing them with Zac and Dave?

I think they are playing the hell out of “Transatlanticism,” which has been a closer for us for a long time. That sounds really great. I feel like “The New Year” we have three electric guitars going out, it sounds huge and big and it’s a wall of chaos in the best way. So there are certain things we’ve never had, a fifth player on stage to fill out a lot of those parts and frequencies so having just that many people with hands-on instruments has added new depth and a layer to our live performance, it’s exciting.

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When not touring in summer what are the activities?

I just saw the Avengers last night, it was okay. I champion all super hero movies to exist because I grew up as a comic book kid and I think the world is better when those stories are out in the world. I’ll just say I’m much more excited about Mad Max, that is eclipsing my enthusiasm for summer blockbusters right now.

What one comic book would you have lived in growing up?

If there’s one world it would be the X-Men world and Wolverine was my guy. I worshipped those stories and the pathology around his particular power set a lot. So I would say if I could live in the Uncanny X-Men, if I could attend Professor X’s school for gifted mutants that’s where I’d want to go. I’m drawn to the immortality stories, I like longevity stories because they really trump the human experience. I find it fascinating.