We spoke with the bass guitarist of Death Cab For Cutie — Nicholas (Nick) Harmer.
If, like us, you grew up with the melodies of 90's and early 2000's indie rock bands that can now bring waves of memories of college dorms and nostalgic youth, you're not alone. Loyal listeners of Bellingham-born Death Cab For Cutie have followed the band's over 20 years (and counting) journey since its inception in 1997 when then roommates Ben Gibbard (lead singer) and Nicholas (Nick) Harmer (bass guitarist) experimented in the confines of their college dorm. There's something so powerful and authentic about its tunes that have guided emotional breakthroughs, set the scenes for warm summers, and first romances. But despite the band's immense global success, its humble roots remain prominent in its albums, which continue to explore the indie-rock genre at different stages of life. Nick speaks to us on the Seattle music scene, Japan's impressive vinyl stores, and decades-long inspirations.
This is the uncut conversation from our artist profile feature on Nick Harmer coming out this Fall in print.
Interview by Faye Bradley and Sarah Wei. Raw interview transcribed by Cherie Cheung.
Paradigm Haus: You’ve been with Death Cab for Cutie since 1997 – the beginning. How have you evolved as a person and how has your music guided you through different stages in life?
Nick Harmer: Ben and I were really good friends and roommates before we were ever in a band together. Playing music and now 20 something odd years on, into a career together. What he's always done as a songwriter — and we've always tried to do as a band — is to write music that feels honest about where we're at in our lives. Not get hung up and try to appeal to a certain audience, but more write songs that capture our feelings about whatever life stage we are in.
In a lot of ways, our music has evolved with our age and our life experiences as we've moved along. When I listen back to our earliest stuff all the way through to our most recent songs, I hear that they're like us, sort of evolving as people and how our life has changed and moved along.
Music has always been an extension of ourselves. As we've moved through our different life stages, we've all wanted our music and our art to reflect whatever we're personally going through. And hopefully, people can relate to that or not. Sometimes people are like, “Oh, I don't know if I really like this new stuff that they're writing.” And ten years later when they finally catch up to that life stage, they go, “Oh my gosh, this totally makes sense to me,”. So, that's cool.
PH: How do you balance your commercial success now with your personal relationships with Ben and the band, especially considering it's been such a long time?
NH: We've always been good at changing hats. When we put on our business hats and talk about business, it's very matter of fact. Whether it's a business relationship or a romantic relationship, it always comes down to good communication. For better or worse, what we've always tried to do in the band is communicate about where we're at, what we're feeling, what we need, and keep that dialogue as open as possible. It's not a perfect science. When you're involved in music together in a collaborative way, there are lots of things around personalities, egos and everything that you get involved with.
We were really good at being able to know and compartmentalize our relationships. It's okay that those things sometimes don't ever cross over. We are constantly navigating, and it's always been an extension of anything which is just one foot in front of the other when we started the band. We didn't have any goals. But we only knew that we wanted to do the next thing in front of us. We would accomplish that and set a new goal.
To me, the commercial success that has come along has always been secondary and was never the goal. Some people start projects and they think, “well, this isn't successful commercially. It wasn't worth doing, so let's just stop doing it and give up.” And I have met a lot of musicians along the way that were in bands who really didn't connect or go anywhere. They just stopped playing music entirely because they never had commercial success. And I'm like, “Why? Did you start playing music just for commercial success?”.
So, the shortest answer is just good communication. We get caught up in making sure that everything is clear and we're on the same page as much as possible about things. Also, there is a level of not overthinking things and follow our instincts. Now, that has worked out really well for us.
PH: What do your little victories look like now compared to when you first started?
NH: It's funny that the same little victory still feels the same. It always starts and stops in our band with the song that we're working on. There will always be something so satisfying about finally finishing a song together, or we hear a demo from Ben where immediately we're like, “This connects to us!” It is never not exciting when you finish bringing something new into the world and you can sit back and go, “I really think this is a good song.” The rest of it that happens after that is all just toppings on the ice cream sundae.
It's still fun to play shows, to go to new countries, and to do all these other things. If the music isn't there and exciting, then the rest of it doesn't really matter as much either. I keep coming back to every time I finish a song or we finish a song, I look at Ben and I can see him 20 years ago when we were living in this tiny apartment in Bellingham.
We were first starting out and I was hearing some of his earliest songs for the first time. I remember how I’d be blown away and said, “Ben, those are really great, let's play music!” It's crazy that this many years on, I still have that feeling. I can see him as the 20/22-year-old college student that I was friends with from the very beginning. But the littlest victory is still playing music and writing the songs. We've been writing a lot during the pandemic, even though we haven't been able to get into a room as a band. We've been writing over Zoom and Dropbox.
Even though I'm not in the same room as my bandmates, there's something really fun about finishing a song at the end of the week. We can listen back to our text threads together, and see the excitement. We still feel that victory or that joy, but I don't even get to look at these people. Hopefully, we'll get a chance to get in a room and play music soon enough. It's fun to say these little victories can still translate even though we're not in the same room anymore.
PH: Behind where you find inspirations, what has been the creative process when you're not able to meet up with your band?
NH: That's a good question! A lot of the songs start and stop with Ben as a songwriter, lyrically. That's always going to be a focus of the music that we make, wherever Ben is able to find his inspiration which admittedly is very limited in a pandemic. You're not able to get out and hear stories, talk with friends, and gather up all the kind of input that you would normally need to process your writing. I know he's been trying to do versions of that, just reading and exposing himself to 'others.' Lots of others, whether it’s art and creativity, or film. We’re constantly ingesting tons of content in lieu of being able to be with other people.
We've tried to change things up this time by doing a 'Round Robin' style of writing. Did you ever play a game when you were young, called The Telephone?
For example, one person says something, and they say the next. By the time it gets to the end, it is completely different than what the first person said. We're doing a version of that musically.
There are five of us in the band and we rotate through each day of the week, where one person starts on their instrument, with a new song. So, I'll say I start on Monday, I'll write a baseline with no other instrumentation, no drums, no guitars, nothing.
And I would upload it to Dropbox. Then it's the next guy's day on Tuesday. They download it and say it's the drummer, and Jason will play drums. The rule is to react and to play what you get sent, and you can change it any way you want. We all kind of react to it and pass it along. By Friday, we have a finished song, and no one knows what it's going to be except for the person who's working on it last. It's been fun to listen to how things shift and change, and what is motivating people.
We're all in our individual bubbles, so we make creative choices completely in a vacuum. Sometimes it works really well, and sometimes it is a disaster.
Our inspiration is coming mainly from listening to each other and trusting this weird process that we've invented. To me, it's like a weird version of a birthday party, where on Friday you get this present that you didn't even know you wanted. It's always fun and you're always happy to get it. I wouldn't say all of the records that we're writing come together that way, but a lot of the records have come together that way. It will be an interesting one to record. And I wonder how it's all going to come together when we finally get a chance to record because it's a little different from how we would normally write and work, but it's been inspiring for sure.
We've adapted, taken that limitation and tried to make it a strength. When we finally record these songs, we’ll see if people who know our band either say, “These are good songs, you guys really were onto something”, or, “Go back to the old way, please don't ever do that again.” We'll see.
PH: That's really creative. How have you adapted your creative process, since having a few different band members throughout Death Cab's life?
NH: Thankfully our creative process from the beginning has been fairly the same. The songs start with a demo from Ben. But I wouldn't say it always started with him because there have been songs along the way that have been written together, in parts and pieces. If he never comes up with memorable lyrics or a melody that feels compelling, the song never goes anywhere. That's the final checkpoint in any of the stuff that we've done as a band and he is the primary songwriter in the band.
From the very beginning, all of the members of the band who've been with us, our only job is to figure out in which ways our instruments can support his lyrics and the songs that he's demo-ed out. He’ll bring songs to us in various stages of completion. Sometimes, it's just a guitar and a vocal, and we're coming up with everything around it. We all adapt to whatever information we're given from his initial burst of creativity. It’s all about support after that.
I guess it's more about how new people adapt to the way that we've been writing forever. As long as they come into the band and realize that they're in a supporting role, and figure out ways to process that information, they'll do just fine. Anytime it's ever been weird is if somebody comes in and thinks, “I got to write my songs too.” We're like, “no, that's not this band.”
Thankfully we've never had any tension or stress around any of that stuff because most people understand that it comes from the top down creatively. So, we haven't really had to adapt very much to how we work. It's mainly how do we adapt as a unit with personalities and working out the internal chemistry that new people and new ideas bring in. I wouldn't say that is not a challenge, but that has been more of the work than figuring out how to write and make music together. That process has always remained fairly intact, as far as I'm concerned.
PH: What are the most important values to your band?
NH: It's always been really important to us to not get hung up in some arbitrary definition of success. A value for us has always been being honest and authentic about what we are feeling and what kind of music we want to make.
We are trying to stay as true if we can, to the music that's coming out to us. And not feeling that we need to change to reach a bigger audience, to sell more records or tickets. I think that there is a lot of pressure when you get into the public and performance aspects of being in a band, where you start asking yourself lots of questions about, “Do we look right?”
Some people get caught up in that, but we've just never had that. We've always said, “You know what? It's about the work, and it's about the music.” If that's good, we like it and we're proud of it, then that'll have to be enough. And if there are only 50 people in the whole wide world (hopefully more), we're not going to change anything about ourselves. It feels disingenuous to who we are, to try and guess at what someone might like. So, a value for us has been to keep our heads down and do the work. We are a very even band.
We've got good communication. I remember there were some journalists that we met a long time ago and they were like, “Gosh, it's really hard to write about you guys because there's really nothing to write about. What's the story? You guys are well-adjusted, nice guys that like to write music together. There's no drama and fighting, so what's the angle?”
And now, I think the angle is straight-up longevity. We've been able to do all of that and make it last. All of the things that tear bands apart after their second album or five years into their careers, or any of that stuff, we've been lucky to be able to escape from that for the most part.
We've lost some members along the way, and we'v