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Q&A: Death Cab for Cutie Unpack Chris Walla’s Departure and New Album ‘Kintsugi’

Bassist Nick Harmer: "Let’s make this the best exit that we can"

Earlier this week, Death Cab for Cutie returned with Kintsugi, the band’s eighth album and first since 2011’s Codes and Keys. That intervening four-year span came with growing pains both personal and professional: Frontman Ben Gibbard’s marriage to actress Zooey Deschanel ended in divorce and Death Cab parted ways with founding guitarist Chris Walla, who left the group in September 2014 in pursuit of “the unknown.”

Though he remained a member throughout the recording of Kintsugi, Walla did not assume his usual role of in-house producer. Instead, for the first time in its 18-year lifespan, DCFC turned to an outsider: Rich Costey, whose previous credits include work with Muse, CHVRCHES, and TV on the Radio. The resulting 11-track set — which takes its name from a Japanese art form in which broken ceramics are reassembled with gold — bears many of the band’s hallmarks (wounded introspection, Gibbard’s childlike voice) but undoubtedly finds Death Cab in a transitional period.

SPIN sat down with the now-trio — Gibbard, bassist Nick Harmer, and drummer Jason McGerr — in late January at Atlantic Records’ Manhattan headquarters to discuss the writing and recording of Kintsugi, Walla’s departure, and the importance of frontloading albums. Find it all in the Q&A below, which has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Obviously, this is a transitional time for Death Cab, what with Chris’ departure. Can I ask: With any record, how early do you notice a narrative being set?

Harmer: The narrative, for us, starts when Ben turns in 30 demos to the rest of the band, for us to start combing through. Songs just start to group together thematically and narratively, and then you start to be like, “Well, maybe this is the type of record we’re going to make this time.” In this particular case, we started the record with Chris at the helm, and he passed it off to Rich Costey.

We started as a four piece, and halfway into the record, Chris and the three of us decided that this was going to be his last record with us. That was something that we didn’t anticipate that we had to adapt to and let impact the process. There are stories around our band and there is certainly a narrative that emerges in every album cycle, but I don’t think we’ve ever sat down and pre-meditated that or planned our talking points of our hits or anything.

Gibbard: Oh, we’ve never done that. But also, I think sometimes a narrative can come out of a single word. I remember during Narrow Stairs, Chris did an interview, I don’t remember where, but he used the word “bloody” to refer to the record. So that was the only piece of information people had for like three months, and then that became either “they claim this record is bloody, and it’s not” or “this is the bloodiest record.” We’ve never sat around and been like, “what’s the story of this record?”

The songs for this record span early 2012 to early 2014, so there is a lot of stuff going on in my life between those two years. It becomes a matter of “How do you take all of these small narratives and put them into an album that’s going to have some kind of through-line?” A record is not enough time to tell the story of anybody’s life over two years, not just mine. A lot of the times, we don’t find out what the narrative of the album is until we’re talking to someone like yourself.

The record gets off to a very lively start with “Black Sun” and “The Ghosts of Beverly Drive.” That was obviously a conscious decision, but what was behind that sequencing choice?

Gibbard: Rich opened our eyes to a lot of things. Not only is he an incredibly talented producer, he’s also just a really thoughtful dude. It’s been our MO over the years to start quiet and build up, and he was just like, “Frontload that shit, man. Seriously, the way people are listening to records now is most kids are streaming these records, and if they’re not into it, they’re going to bump it ahead. Like, ‘I’m bored, I’m bored, I’m moving ahead.’”

Then he was like, “Think of all of your favorite records, and why they’re your favorite records.” As I went through the list of my own, I was like, “Oh my god, they’re all frontloaded.” Something I noticed was, as a kid — and I’m not saying anything against The Joshua Tree — I listened to the first half of Joshua Tree over and over and over again, and I rarely made it to the second side because I was so into the first half. That’s not necessarily the rationale you want for your record, but at the same time, I think of The Joshua Tree as a fucking amazing record because I listened to the first half incessantly.

You guys said in an interview with Stereogum that because Chris had been your producer for so long, that band had its own language, and that a lot of things were unspoken in the recording process. But Rich didn’t have that baggage, and he forced you to talk about things more. Is there any one thing that you can think of that’s on the new record that you know you would have talked yourselves out of?

Gibbard: “Hold No Guns.” We were having a conversation later in the album – this is final mixes. Chris was like, “I don’t think we should put ‘Hold No Guns’ on the record. We have a record that has songs with just one guitar, and so we shouldn’t do that again.” Rich was like, “Look, we’re making this record to be the best record it can be for this record, and because you had a song on a record ten years ago that’s just a guitar and vocal is not a reason to not have one on this record.”

This would have been one of those times where we wouldn’t have gotten the breadth of the record that we needed if we were to have just gone with something else there. The only thing [Rich] gave a shit about was us sounding like us and that we not make decisions — what he saw as bad decisions — based on not wanting to repeat ourselves. We needed that.

Did politeness ever get in the way of creating?

Gibbard: I remember one time my mom and dad were having an argument on something, and my dad was right. Very clear right and wrong, and my dad was backing off on it. Later I was like, “Dad, why did you back down on that thing? You were right about the thing.” He said, “Sometimes, you just have to know when to pick your battles.” That is very much in play when you have a producer who’s a member of the band.

You’ve also said that you felt like you needed a bit of a wake-up call after Codes and Keys. Do you feel like there’s a very clear distinction between that record and your latest?

Gibbard: There are a lot of moments on Codes and Keys that I’m proud of. But I think we get to see how good the record is when we go play the songs live. Every record that we’ve made, there’s been a moment where people are getting into the new songs, they start to hear them, and then the songs become part of the mosaic. I think there are a lot fewer moments on Codes and Keys that fall into that category than I initially perceived that there would be. I have a lot of theories [as to] why that are probably best left off the record, but I think that we really benefitted this time from having Rich look at all the songs and be like, “These songs sound like you guys. These songs are who you guys are.”

There aren’t a lot of words on [Codes and Keys]. At the time, I was really taken with a Randy Newman-type minimalism. It’s incredible how evocative he is with so little language. I’d found up to that point, in a lot of my writing, I was really trying to jam stuff in. For writing lyrics for Codes and Keys, it was like, “I want it to be right to the point. I don’t want to be flowery, I don’t want to be overly evocative.” But that’s one thing that really draws people to the band. They want these stories, they want these kind of flowery sentences at times, and they want these evocative strings of images. It wasn’t like after Codes and Keys, I was like, “All right guys, sorry. I’ll get back to what I’m [best at]…” I just found myself having some very evocative things to write about, and really wanting to unpack them and get down to minutiae, which is not where I was when I was writing Codes and Keys. I felt like when I was writing Codes and Keys, I wanted people out of my life.

Was it tough to get back to the headspace of your usual writing?

Gibbard: No, not at all. I’m not going to open it up for full discussion, of course, but I have always been very open and earnest about some things in my life, some things that are not directly in my life, but they’re twirling around me at the time.

I made two decisions when I left Los Angeles and moved back to Seattle [in 2011], and one was this… I had found myself living a somewhat fearful life in Los Angeles because of my situation and people trying to get at people that I loved. There were a lot of fences and walls existing in my life, literally and figuratively, and that was really not indicative of the kind of person that I’d always been. So, when I moved back to Seattle, the first thing I said was, “I will never live in fear again.”

And secondly, I’m not going to write any differently than I ever have for fear of people connecting a series of dots. More times than not, they will be incorrect, but they’re going to connect these dots the way they feel they want to see them. It would be incredibly cowardly of me, after inviting people into my life for all of these years, to all of a sudden when shit is not going well for me, be like, “No, you know what? Everybody take a step back.” That’s not how it works.

I’m going to continue doing my work the way I’ve always done it, and I will gladly — maybe not gladly — prepare to take whatever kind of ridicule or think pieces about my life and why these songs exist, and who they’re about, and everything else. That’s the social contract I signed with people who are fans of this band. I’m not going to pull that contract and tear it up now for fear of people taking a cheap shot. People have been taking cheap shots at me forever.

Harmer: [Ben has] always written from a place of authenticity. My favorite songs that Ben has written over the years are the ones that come from a real place. I don’t mean non-fiction, and I don’t mean fiction — they just come from an impulse that is a tangible one inside of himself. Immediately, it connects on almost a dream level, in a way. There’s a cinematic quality that happens in my mind when I hear something that really lands. An album is just a journal of a life moving through time and we have eight of those now.

At this point, you guys have a fairly deep back catalog. How do you decide which older songs to dust off when you’re on tour? Is it as simple as picking whichever ones you’re relating to the most at that given time?

Gibbard: Over the course of a 20 to 25 song set, we give ourselves some moments to indulge a deep cut that maybe three percent of the crowd might be like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe they played ‘The Face that Launched A Thousand Shits.’” Not a lot of people are saying that, but for the most part, I believe you sign a social contract with people when you go on tour. It’s like, look, we have eight albums, we’re not going to get out and play eleven new songs and then three old ones and walk off stage. We’re so fucking blessed that we have songs people still want to hear 15 years later.

You have to play towards the middle if you want the majority of people going home and feeling like they got their money’s worth. That’s what we are, at the end of the day: We’re entertainers. When you go on tour, you’re going to have to entertain. When you’re making a record, you’re an artist.

To get back to the making of the new record: Obviously Chris’s departure had a big impact on the album’s production, but did it actually inform the songwriting? Or were most of the songs set by the time you know that he was leaving the band?

Harmer: I think that his departure was more about not continuing with us on tour. So he didn’t depart for anything on the album, he didn’t depart from making suggestions or coming up with great ideas. He knew, and we all knew, that this was going to be his last moment with us, and we agreed [that] if this is the last one, rather than make it fraught with tension and arguments and negative energy… that’s not why he’s leaving. There’s no animosity.

It was more about, “Let’s make this the best exit that we can and let’s make it a celebration of your time in this band, and really honor the fact that we’ve been together in the band for this long.” So, in that way, his input was no less than it’s ever been. He never checked out of the process, but he was not quite as involved as he was in the past couple [of albums], by virtue of him not being producer.

Gibbard: Yeah, I think that it’s really a testament to his professionalism that he saw this record all the way through. There are moments on here that are some of his best moments in the band. He’s fucking really talented, and as he moves forward, I think we’re going to see his name all over records, and he’s going to be doing the thing that we’ve — kind of inadvertently — kept him from doing all these years.

Is it odd to have him involved with the record all the way through, and then to have to do promotion without him? Is there a phantom limb sort of feeling? 

Harmer: It hasn’t felt that way for me —

McGerr: Probably because we finished a while ago. There’s been a lot of of time, and we’ve had to do a bunch of set up and talk about the tour… If this interview was happening right after we just said our goodbye in the studio and played our last show [together], it might’ve been a little bit different.

Gibbard: [Chris is] a producer, and that’s where he shines the brightest. He always had some very interesting things to say and had perspectives that I think were valuable, but at this point, we end up talking about songs and lyrics. The production is obviously a large part of that, but it was a talking point for people who were interested in production. It feels odd, but I feel like he’s made his statements on this record and on his time in the band, and he wants to be… I wouldn’t say left alone, but he’s obviously not really talking about the record — not because he’s unhappy with it or anything. He just wants to do some other stuff. In some ways, he gets off easy, not having to do all of the press.