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Interviews, Music

Interview: Death Cab For Cutie Talks “Thank You For Today”, Sampling Yoko Ono, and Working With Outside Producers

By: Curtis Sindrey –

Death Cab For Cutie.

Indie Rock icons Death Cab for Cutie are back with their upcoming ninth studio album, Thank You for Today, which arrives on August 17th.

Thank You for Today marks the first Death Cab for Cutie release to see long time bandmates Gibbard, Nick Harmer, and Jason McGerr joined in the studio by new members Dave Depper (Menomena, Fruit Bats, Corin Tucker, Ray Lamontagne) and Zac Rae (My Brightest Diamond, Fiona Apple, Lana Del Rey, Gnarls Barkley). 

In a new interview, bassist Nick Harmer discusses the making of Thank You for Today , sampling Yoko Ono for the new track “Gold Rush”, working with outside producers, and more!

With the album title, Thank You for Today, what does that mean to you?

Well, it’s kind of a phrase that we just started saying to each other at the end of each day while we were tracking. At first, we kind of said it, I think, a little bit, sarcastically. But, you know, it took on a really poignant meaning for us as the sessions went on, recording the record. And, it really became a nice way to end the day, no matter if we were having a good day, or a bad day, or a mediocre day. It was a nice kind of sentiment, I think, for us to end the day on it.

For me, I’ve always really liked it [Thank You for Today] while we were recording, and I really like it as a title, because I feel it was a bit of a Rorschach test. It’s very adaptable to whatever mood I might be feeling at a particular time. If I’m feeling really hopeful, it feels like it could be really full of promise and hope and some joy. There’s also some resignation in it. And there can be some sadness if I’m having a down day. I like that it kind of morphs a little bit to how ever I’m feeling and it can be a bit of a mirror, a little reflective that way.

So, the artwork, much like the last record, is very minimalistic. How did that come about?

Well, we worked with a design company here in Seattle called Hum Creative. They actually did the last record as well. They [Hum Creative] ask us a bunch of questions in the beginning, you know, just process questions about how we made the record and what the songs mean to us and those kinds of things. And through a process of distilling down our answers and our feelings about things, they present different options for us. This was a direction that really spoke to all of us, and we all felt really excited about. It kind of seemed, much like the title, a bit of a mirror to whomever is interacting with it. It can be sort of hopeful. It can be kind of sad. It can kind of be neutral, and I think that we really like that. It [the artwork] sort of reflects a little bit of the [album] content as well.

This is the first record to feature Dave and Zac (touring members since 2015). What was it like to finally have them working in the studio with your guys?

It was great! I mean, we’d been on the road with them for almost two years doing the Kintsugi Tour. I think you learn a lot about people’s personalities and whether or not you’re going to gel with them while you’re kind of locked in a room together. We were feeling very optimistic and hopeful that it was going to go well, but still hadn’t, you know, gone in to start making a record. It was just really invigorating and really inspiring to play music with Zac and Dave. They have lots of great ideas. They have great equipment! (laughs) They are just really good collaborators and good creative minds. It filled out our process in recording in a way that was really exciting. And I’m really happy that they’re permanent members of the band and this is who we get to make music with going forward. It’s exciting!

With “Gold Rush”, you sampled Yoko Ono (“Mind Train”), and, as a band, you guys aren’t necessarily known to sample. Why did this song demand that?

Oh! When Ben is writing songs for the album and writing demos, he kind of pulls from lots of different places just for inspiration. Like a sketch pad to get ideas down. He found this loop in that Yoko Ono song, “Mind Train”, and that became kind of a rhythmic loop that he was writing to. I don’t know if in the demo we thought that [the loop] was going to be a permanent thing, but we really liked the way it sounded and the way that it felt in the song. And, the structure of the song around it really seemed to support using a sample.

Of course, we still had to get permission from Yoko Ono to use that. So, I think we were a little bit uncertain whether or not we were actually going to be able to use a sample, based off of whether or not we’d get permission from her. Thankfully, when we wrote to her and asked, she was excited about the song and she gave us permission to use the sample. That was really helpful for us because we really got used to the demo sounding and feeling the way it did with the sample in it.

So then, it became an exercise of how we add to the sample. How do we support it? How do we play along with it and kind of flesh it out sonically and otherwise? I really am quite proud and quite happy how we merged the sample base of it and there’s still a live band kind of over the top of it. It feels really good to play live and I think it’s kind of unique on the record. Like you said, we haven’t really dabbled too much in sampling in the past, and it was fun to find a place that felt appropriate to do that.

Death Cab for Cutie will release their ninth album, Thank You for Today, on August 17th.

Death Cab for Cutie will release their ninth album, Thank You for Today, on August 17th.

This is your second record with Rich Costey as producer. What did he bring to the table this time around?

You know, the main thing he adds is a really good all-round perspective. An objective perspective. He made Kintsugi with us when Chris Walla was in the band. Obviously, Chris Walla has left.

He [Rich Costey] made Thank You for Today with Zac and Dave, and we really looked to him along the way to basically say, “are we on track?”, “is this still sounding like Death Cab?”, “does it still feel like our band?”. There was a lot of perspective that he brought in, being a producer over two versions of the line-up of the band. I think we definitely built a big friendship and trust with him making Kintsugi, and it really carried through with Thank You for Today. I think it [working with Rich], in a lot of ways, allowed us to take even more risk than we did last time. And certainly, we were always very confident that Rich was going to keep us on track if we were ever getting lost in the woods. I give him all the credit in the world for the way this album ended up sounding. He really helped push us and encourage us when we needed encouragement, and turned us around and gave us high-fives when things were sounding great. We’re really happy that we were able to make a record with him again.

So, how would you describe your experience working with an outside producer like Rich, versus when Chris was producing records?

I actually think that it was healthier for our band to work with an outside producer! (laughs) Chris made a lot of really great records and we had an amazing time. Obviously, he is an incredible producer and made a lot of good choices and crafted a lot of great sounds for us over the records he made with us. But, there was always something in the studio where, you know, sometimes it can get a little intense while we’re making decisions. It’s nice to have somebody that you can kind of get mad at and then they’re not in the band later so you don’t have to go through the world with them and brave that. (laughs)

And, I’m not saying that we never got mad at Chris or Chris never got mad at us, but, there was always that, “he’s got his producer hat on, but eventually he’s going to put his guitar hat on, and we’re going to have to go be a band”. So, there was a level of civility that happened making those records that I think was good for us.

But, it was really nice to work with an outside producer like Rich, because Rich could say things to us and not worry about pissing us off and making us angry and vice versa. I really like that. And you know, we’re not a band that fights and throws things. It’s not like a big drama thing, but it’s nice when you’re all really invested in something, creatively, to be able to really dig in and say what you feel and communicate that clearly and not worry about the sort of ramifications of it later. Working with Rich allowed us to be really clear and honest, and because of that, our trust and friendship is even stronger. That’s kind of a unique thing. I don’t know if we’ll work with Rich again, but who knows? Maybe we will. We definitely have a good foundation of communication with him that I think is important when you’re in the studio mindset, for sure.

Going back to using samples and more electronic elements in your songs these last couple of records, when creating songs with those kinds of elements do you think about how it will translate to a live setting?

Yeah, we thought about that a lot. I think when we’re in the studio and we’re approaching songs from the ground-up, the big thing that we always talk about is everybody finding a part. It can get really easy, especially in computer-based recording, to keep adding little ideas and little snippets here and there and not make a cohesive part. We would stop ourselves all the time and be like, “what are you playing from the start of the song to the end of the song?”. And if the answer is fifty different things, then we’ve got to work something out! (laughs)

So, we would really work hard at having a structural foundation of, “these are five guys playing music on five instruments”. And of course, we would add textures and layers and things like that over the top of it to fill things out and increase the mood or highlight a section, but we were always talking about “how are we going to perform this?”, “how is this going to come together?”, “who is going to play what?”, and we were kind of keeping an eye on that being a necessary expression of the music. So, maybe it would be fun someday to make an album that is unplayable live! (laughs) But, I don’t know. Right now, it’s really important for us to have the songs work with five of us playing at the same time as much as they are on the record with all the layers and textures that we have.

I think that the stuff today probably has the highest density of sounds and parts, but I’m really proud of how much work we’ve put into rehearsal and figuring out who’s playing what and doing what and crafting the sound. We’ve put a lot of effort into really expanding what our band is capable of live, and I’m happy about it.

Do you have any particular song on the record that you would consider to be your favorite?

Dang! That’s a good question! Have you heard the album yet?

I had a run through of it yesterday.

Ok, cool. Let’s see… some of my favorites are “Summer Years”, the second song on the album. I like “I Dreamt We Spoke Again”, that’s the first track on the record. Those two, kind of one, two in a row, I’m really satisfied with.

I like the song called “Near/Far”, that’s really close to the end of the album. That was a really fun kind of surprise song that we weren’t sure would make the album or not. And then Rich sent a mix of it. We had actually kind of resigned ourselves, thinking that it wasn’t going to be on the album. And then Rich sent the mix and it was so exciting! We were like, “this is cool! We’ve got to put this on the record!” Now, it’s turned into one of my favorites. So yeah! I’d say those three are front-runners. But it’s weird, as time goes on and as we play things, some of my initial feelings of excitement change once we start playing in front of audiences and kind of see their reactions. But, those are some of my favorite [songs] to track and make, so hopefully, they’ll do well live as well.

I like “Gold Rush” because it has that little bit of slide guitar in it.

Yeah totally! It does! When Dave does that live, it’s really cool! Yeah, I like “Gold Rush” as well. That’s one of those songs we’ve been able to play live in front of people already. It’s fun. It’s got a head-bobbing thing and it’s fun to start playing it and people kind of get into the groove of it early on.

I just want the album to come out! (laughs) This is always the toughest part of making a record. Just finishing it, kind of talking about it, and we’re about a month and a half away, maybe six weeks away from it being out. I want everyone to have it right now so they can hear it and we can start touring and playing it because we finished this record a little while ago. It’s kind of just bursting at the seams, and I’m excited about it. I really feel that all of the songs from start to finish have a really unique character to them. I’m hoping, fans of our band that have been listening will find equal parts of sort of classic us and equal parts of where we’re going as a band.

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