The Royal Festival Hall is a maze. Not the type of green-hedged treat that you’d spend a random summer Sunday rolling around while visiting a cheese factory – but a multi-layered structure that unveils something different at each floor. From gift shops, to lonely bars, to random security checkpoints and room after room, it can feel like anything could be hiding at any corner.
Floors down, just when you wonder how much can really be left – Death Cab For Cutie are preparing for their second show back, tucked away from the bursting hot London summer with a nestled confidence. For long-standing bassist Nick Harmer and fresh guitarist Dave Depper, it feels like a pivotal moment – a band with an undeniable legacy opening up and becoming something invigoratingly new. Over 20 years into a career, it’s not something every band goes through.
“You know what?” starts Nick. “It feels great at the moment. Everyone is really excited, there’s a great positive momentum in the band and we’re very proud of this album.”
That album, ‘Thank You For Today’ feels like the natural beginning of the next chapter of Death Cab For Cutie, doing so with one of their most ‘Death Cab’ sounding albums in years.
“I don’t want to use the term ‘return to form’, but there is a real through-line of us doing what we’re good at and cementing a lot of the mirror elements we’re exploring around a skeleton that feels very authentic,” notes Nick. That statement rings out loud and clear across its ten tracks. “There was a lot of emphasis on making a warm record, an inviting record and welcoming people back.”
The Death Cab sitting and chatting in one of the Hall’s air-conned rooms is a band refreshed, born out of a period of transition that for a lot of bands, could have meant the end. ‘Kintsugi’, their last record released in 2015 was a final stop for guitarist Chris Walla – a record distinct in its own skin, with an unfiltered chill that spun into a rewarding trip.
Touring that record with Dave and fellow newbie Zac Rae, it was a turning point for a band that laid a line in the sand, asking themselves what happens next and surrounding themselves in a new energy and direction. More than anything, Dave and Zac were the reassurance they needed that what comes next could be the most exciting path yet.
“It was wonderful from the beginning,” recalls Dave, a smile beaming across his face. “I was close friends with these guys before, so touring with them first was kinda a dream come true. These are songs I’ve loved for a decade, and now I’m playing them.”
More than ever, this is an album that feels distinctively new, with two new perspectives adding their own thoughts into the mix.
“Zak and Dave have a unique perspective over our entire history as a band,” says Nick. “They were instrumental at times in suggesting how we could make things more interesting or just saying, ‘Hey, that sounds great – it sounds just like you, you shouldn’t mess with that’.
“We’re never going to be that band who go into the studio and makes a free jazz-doom album, but we never want to go so far away from what we’re good at that we become unrecognisable. I think we’ve found that with this – and I give a lot of credit to Dave and Zak for helping us stay in a difficult but sweet spot to be in.”
“It was a fun democratic process voting on tracks and basically help in assembling my own dream Death Cab record out of them,” adds Dave. “The album has more touchstones to old Death Cab than definitely the last few, with a modern approach to them.”
Full of enthusiasm, making ‘Thank You For Today’ wasn’t the type of process full of head-butting moments of frustration, but actually, a rich and exciting time where creating together in a new environment felt like a refreshing moment for a band becoming something new. They’ll admit that there was more pre-production working together on the album than any other since ‘Transatlanticism’, and it’s something you hear throughout – tracks that effortlessly blend and feel immediately like a classic record from one of this generation’s most vibrant and affecting bands.
From the shimmering ‘Summer Years’ (“it took my breath away as soon as I heard it, it ended up being one of the last songs we recorded and mixed and I was terrified that we were going to screw it up,” recalls Dave) to the hypnotic glow of ‘Gold Rush’, the pull-push of ‘I Dreamt We Spoke Again’, the joyful release of ‘Autumn Love’ and the playful pairing of ‘Northern Lights’ and ‘Near/Far’ – it’s the sound of a band free and doing what they do best.
“‘You Moved Away’ is another favourite,” elaborates Dave. “It came together in this really fun way where me, Zak and Nick were throwing billions of synthesisers at it. There was this day that Ben had spent six hours recording this really hard guitar part, he was punching the wall in frustration because it was so hard. He left, and that night I thought, what would it be like if we got rid of his guitar?”
“He came back in the next day and was like, ‘Yeah that’s the good decision’.”
The way stories bounce around, the sheer happiness that flows between Nick and Dave – that happiness and hope for the future is exactly what makes ‘Thank You For Today’ the vital record Death Cab For Cutie needed to make. Reintroducing themselves and adding another classic bow to their already unstoppable legacy, this isn’t a band taking it easy and resting on their laurels – this is a band wanting to grow and push at everything they’ve worked on so far, making something even better in the process.
“These guys are my brothers, we’re a family,” states Nick. “My ambition beyond this moment is being able to continue travelling around the world, playing music with these guys, have good adventures and continue to write good music. That sounds very simple, but I’m very excited about where we go next.”
“I want my bandmates to be healthy; I want us to live healthy lives together and be doing this for another 20 years to come. That to me is the biggest goal, to find a good balance between this and my life.”
For Dave? “Pretty similar… these guys got to play Saturday Night Live before I joined the band so if we can do it one more time so that I can do it…” he cracks.
Later that night, they play a spellbinding set that pulls across their illustrious career. As tears flow, Ben Gibbard serenades a packed room with the sort of wonder that can only come with being one of the most important songwriters of recent times. Death Cab For Cutie have already created their home in thousands of people’s lives, still having fun and packing the sort of next chapter that’ll have us glued from here on out. ‘Thank You For Today’? Just wait to see what tomorrow is bringing…
Taken from the August issue of Dork. Order a copy below. Death Cab For Cutie’s album ‘Thank You For Today’ is out 17th August.
Words: Jamie Muir