30 November 2015


Death Cab for Cutie's drummer Jason McGerr on the meticulous making of Kintsugi, Chris Walla’s departure and what music means to him.

Death Cab for Cutie at Brixton Academy - Photo by Eleonora C. Collini

“Kintsugi”, the Japanese art of repairing shattered pottery, couldn’t be a more appropriate title for the eighth studio album of indie-rockers Death Cab for Cutie, a metaphor for a band in transition after all the trials and tribulations they have been through over the last few years.

Following nearly two decades of touring, a major label deal, marriage, divorce and relocation, the Washington state four-piece is now down to a core of three full-time members after founding guitarist/producer Chris Walla left the band last year during the making of the new record. 

In spite of everything, the result is an album more concise and harmonious than its predecessor, a well-accomplished fusion of the electronic sonorities of the band’s more recent work with the warmth and accessibility of their earlier output. 

I caught up with drummer Jason McGerr to discuss the meticulous making of Kintsugi, Walla’s departure as well as what visual artist he would compare Death Cab’s sound to and what music means to him. 

Kintsugi was the first Death Cab for Cutie record to feature an outside producer. What impact did Rich Costey have on the record and how did his approach differ from Chris’? 
Every producer has their way of working. We chose Costey because of the bands he had worked with. He is very selective, he works on three or four projects a year, maybe even less. Not being a bandmember and not having to join us and play those songs, his opinion was different from everyone else in the band and we listened to everything he had to say. Chris was in the band and therefore had a totally different approach, similar to when you are in a relationship and after a while you stop saying something whether it is out of fear or just a common way of working. All I can say is that Costey is a hard-ass in the best possible way, that is an easy way to put it. Not being a bandmate he could look at you and say “Hey you can do better”. Chris did a fantastic job of starting this band catalogue and making seven records, but when we began working on Kintsugi, it was actually his suggestion to get an outsider producer, because he didn’t want to be the hard-ass anymore, he didn’t want to be the one making Ben work super hard on the vocals, the one to deal with multiple drum kits to get the rhythm right and so on. We just needed a co-ordinator, someone that could help us see things differently. 

How did the interplay between you, Ben and Nick on stage have changed since Chris left the band?
Chris was always the wild card on stage, he often played unpredictable things, would take a left turn and do things other people I have worked with haven’t done, and I miss that kind of thing. But touring is difficult, all the travelling, the planes, the trains, being gone for six or seven months a year is a lot of work for everybody, and it came a time for Chris that he just decided he wanted to make a change, and we all respected that. Now we have two new touring members, Dave Depper and Zac Rae, who have been truly excellent, and very enthusiastic to be on the road with this band, which has added excitement and fun, and made the songs fuller. They have been able to take all the songs on the catalogue and play them in a way that we hadn’t heard before. We miss Chris, we think about him constantly, but at the same time we have been having fun bringing on the road these new super dynamic additions.

And what impact do you think Chris departure had on Death Cab fans?
I don’t know. I am not talking to the fans about that sort of things, I am not reading twitter or the message board, but we saw a lot of “We miss you Chris”, though no one has said anything to us directly. I am sure that after seven records Chris’ work is in the highest regard, and that is the way it should be, but when a band has been around for so long this kind of things is inevitable. There are bands that have not been together for as long as we have and had not just one, but two members leaving, like Paramore for example. As I said I think about Chris all the time, but I am super happy for him right now.

“You are a Tourist”, from your previous album Codes and Keys, was your first (and so far only) number 1 hit. Did you feel any kind of commercial pressure when writing this record?
No, as all our records had two or three singles that went very well both in the US and overseas. Even if “You are a Tourist” was number 1 single, that didn’t come out of the blue, it is not that we had never had a song that would be played on the radio a lot before, and at that point we had been a band for fourteen years. It is like when we got a major label deal, as by that time we had already had four records out and we had been a band for five years. Some bands become popular overnight and sign a deal before even going on a major tour, and that is a different type of shocking situation, whereas we gained success slowly and not all of the sudden.

With Chris’ departure and Ben’s divorce, the making of Kintsugi must have been in a way more difficult than your previous albums. Is there anything on it you personally would have loved to be different or are you completely happy with the result?
I wouldn’t change anything as that all happened in the studio already. I think I re-recorded every song three, maybe four times. There was Ben demos, a couple of songs we did with Chris in his studio, but decided to redo since we had a new producer, then version one of the first four weeks of recording with Costey, and then after coming back from a short break we did all those things again. Like on Monday we would start a song, by Thursday I would finish my part and the other would finish their parts too, then I would come back on the following Monday and Costey would say “I don’t think we got it, we need to do it again”, and that happened repeatedly. If I could show you all the options, all the different versions and variations of the songs, you would probably laugh. Maybe it had to do with the fact that we were working with an outside producer for the first time, so we were nervous and wanted to do the right thing, and so did Costey, because he didn’t want to be the first producer working with the band and screw it up. Both parts worked very hard to come up with the best possible version, so there is nothing I wish we had done differently, because we have done all that, we exhausted all the options and resources, and we came up with what we thought was the best record we could make. And the songs will continue evolving on the road, like they have already done, but not to the point where I wish we would go back to the studio doing it this way now.

The new album was named after a Japanese art form in which broken ceramics are reassembled with gold. If Death Cab for Cutie were a visual artist of any century who would they be?
Musically, M.C. Escher because in his art you see different things depending on how you look, what you focus on and what your perspective is, and I would like to think that our music has a similar visual stimulation in terms of sound. We are considered indie rockers, but I would like people to listen to our music repeatedly to be able to hear differently. I know most of Escher work is black and white and I’d like to think that we are more colourful than that, but he is the first artist that popped into my mind, as the depth in his work is in a way comparable to what we do. I am not trying to say that we have optical illusions in our music, but I think there is a certain similarity.

What is music to you: art, therapy or a means to deliver people a certain message?
All of the above. Music for me is where I put all of the things that are in my head, it channels everything I am thinking about or experiencing, the feeling of missing home or the excitement of playing in different places. All that comes to my hands and my feet. When you walk out to the white noise of the crowd cheering, which is the equivalent of having a train rushed-by on a platform, you just get sent in the tails of this cathartic breeze, and I almost can’t believe there is this deep connection with the audience. I believe that if was not into it, if I was not fully rooted in what I am doing as a musician, our music wouldn’t communicate to so many people. Nor it would work in the studio, as when you are capturing a performance committed to an album, if you don’t believe in what you are doing no one else would either.

What is your fondest memory of being in the band? Was there a particular time you recall the band being at its happiest?
There are constantly happy days replaced by happy days, I don’t think there is just one memory of any incredible funny moment. The thing is that sometimes what it is all about is in fact brutal, like the tours when we have been out for twenty-one days, playing twenty-one shows in seventeen different countries, taking ferries, planes and trains, having sleepless nights, and it is funny that is actually what you take with you, the scars and the pain you laugh about after you have made it through. There is a retrospect of happiness there, but being on really good stages in legendary venues, those are always happy moments. I was very happy when we came back from our previous tour, realising we could carry on making music, knowing we could be in the studio making a record with an outside producer. And back to when we made Transatlanticism, my first record with the band, that might have actually be my happiest moment ever. Having the chemistry with a group of people I could play music with, which I knew would last for a very long time, being in Chris studio and standing in the control room listening back to the song “We looked like Giants”, that was such a happy moment as there was a real potency and a sense of destiny to it. I have nothing to complain about, this is an outstanding way to make a living, and I don’t know of many people being as truly passionate about their job, so there is a lot of happiness.

Do you still teach at the Seattle Drum School?
Not at the Seattle Drum School as I don’t live there anymore, but I still teach occasionally when it is the right situation and it is often a lot of kids as I am just better with beginners, because music players are usually very reluctant. But I still study myself. There are good teachers all over the world, in Scotland, Germany, and if there is a really great player I want to sit down and play with, or if there are certain situations when I am on tour like meeting someone at a festival that plays in a band or happening to stop by a music school or store, I will take a lesson myself. I think being a student and teaching are part of the same educational development

Do you still own Two Sticks Audio, the recording studio you opened in 2007?
No, I sold the commercial recording studio and I just have a home studio now, because I was just gone too much and when I wasn’t on the road I would just rather spend time with my family than in the studio. So it only lasted three and an half years.

Originally published on London in Stereo

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