By Chris Illich
After 18 years of making music with the same core group, Death Cab for Cutie are at a crossroads. Their guitarist/multi-instrumentalist and producer Chris Walla quit the band during the production of their eighth album Kintsugi in 2015.
Walla was an integral part of the group. He produced their seven albums up to Kintsugi and was a co-founder of the band with Nick Harmer and Ben Gibbard.
“Nothing will be the same,” said Harmer over the phone. “I think that Chris helped us make a lot of great records and we were really happy with our relationship with him and his work in the recording studio. But, when we started working on Kintsugi there were a lot of moments that Chris wasn’t really identifying with as much as the rest of us.”
Kintsugi was recorded with Rich Costey (credits include Sigur Ros, Muse and Foster the People), and it was their first time recording without Walla at the helm.
“Rich just wanted to record the best songs that we could give him. That was refreshing. Plus, he brought all the other things that he was good at, like the way he can sculpt and manipulate sounds kind of triggered some things,” said Harmer.
After Walla’s departure, Death Cab for Cutie were then forced to figure out how they were going to fill the void left by Walla on the stage.
“We knew we weren’t going to find just one person to replace Chris. Chris brought a lot to the band live, he was always juggling guitar and keyboards and other thing. Even up until Chris had left, we were all talking about bringing in a fifth person on stage to pick up some more parts and to add depth and texture to the live show, but we were reluctant because we had been going as a four-piece for so long […] but now there’s no history that we’re trying to recreate.”
The band started out in 1997 when Harmer, Walla and Gibbard were all friends in college. Harmer explained that they just decided to record some of Gibbard’s songs for an album and then the pieces fell in to place one after another.
They released their debut album Something About Airplanes in 1998 and followed that album with We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes (2000) and The Photo Album (2001).
But, during the early 2000’s there was a shift in popular music. All the Pacific Northwest ‘indie’ bands were starting to surge (think Decemberists , Modest Mouse and the Shins) and the early 2000’s ‘emo’ scene was starting to expand into the mainstream as well. Death Cab for Cutie got caught somewhere in between this shift when Transalanticism was released in 2003. It was released to both critical and mainstream success.
“I think we were in the middle of it. We just became a part of what was happening in music in general and thankfully a lot of our friends and a lot of people that we knew in our peer group were getting a lot of attention. It was really exciting to be part of a movement. It was just a natural shift that happened in music culture and what was happening with this sound of music that people were paying attention to. We were just in the right place in the right time,” said Harmer.
“It didn’t feel like things were suddenly out of control. At this point we had been on the road living in a van for almost four or five years, just kind of scraping by. People were starting to come out to our shows and we had more opportunities come our way.”
Following the success of Transatlanticism the band signed to Atlantic Records and released their fifth album Plans (2005) which featured the hit singles “Soul Meets Body”, “Crooked Teeth” and “I Will Follow You Into The Dark”.
“Things were coming our way and we were just excited for the opportunity. As I look back at that time, it was a really exciting time and we were full of a lot of energy and big ideas and we were really thankful for all the attention that was coming our way,” he said.
Fast-forward to 2016 and Death Cab for Cutie are one of rock’s premiere bands. Each of their major label albums (Plans, Narrow Stairs (2008), Codes and Keys (2011) and Kintsugi) have been nominated for Grammy Awards in some way or form, and they are currently about to head out on a cross-Canada stadium tour with Metric.
“It’s become all that I know, and in some ways that’s what’s kept me in it. I’d like to think that I’d be making music with these guys whether or not anyone was paying attention or not,” said Harmer. “I feel like we connect creatively and I’ve always been fulfilled making music with them.”
Death Cab for Cutie performs at the Meridian Centre on March 22. Tickets are available at the Box Office or through ticketmaster.ca