Interview by Sarah Wei and Faye Bradley
Nick Harmer is an original member and the bassist for 25 Years with Alt-Rock Band Death Cab for Cutie. With nine studio albums under its belt since its debut in 1997, he reminds us that a love for music can withstand generations and the industrialization of the industry. The band which at this point needs little introduction came out of Bellingham, Washington starting from the college friendship and dorm rooms of lead singer Ben Gibbard and Harmer.
A cultural canon for the Orange County surfers in California to suburban kids around the world, their most commercially successful album at the time, “Transatlanticism” in 2003 was a pioneer for the indie-rock sounds of the early 2000s. A backdrop to coming of age stories of first loves, breakups, and growing up.
Harmer cites that even in his memories, music has acted as a tool to remember the different eras of his life: growing up in Seattle, Tokyo vinyl shopping, touring to crowds of twenty or thousands, and making it through Hollywood parties.
Like many of us, music has played a key role in the evolution of our personal histories, and to quote Harmer, “in a lot of ways, our music has kind of evolved with our age and our life experiences as we've moved along… Music has always been an extension of ourselves.”
A band that has made it through the death of record stores, an era of college radio, high school mixtapes to now TikTok Top 40s, it is their value for good communication and authenticity that has held them together.
“We all really value each other's friendships and the time we spend together. We love going on adventures and playing music together. It's our community.”
When you think of friendship and the relationships we hold, you can relate to the lives of Harmer and Gibbard, sitting backstage after a concert putting on R.E.M. records, discussing their favorites of all time, and playing records together.
“I can't imagine spending my life doing that with anyone other than the other four guys in the band that I'm with...If that seems fun to you, then hang out with Death Cab for Cutie, because that's what we do.”
Even in the commercial success, to Harmer “the band is still very much intact from how it was in the very beginning”. Getting caught up in commercial success has not changed their creative process. Harmer tells us “the band started as Ben in a room recording a bunch of songs into a dictaphone by himself. And that's the core of it from here until the end.”
When breaking down the process, it starts top down – lyrics or samples from leader Ben Gibbard, before rifts and edits from Nick to the other members. “If he [Ben] never comes up with memorable lyrics or a melody that feels compelling, the song never goes anywhere.”
As a band that came up in an era of touring – they’ve lived the Almost Famous life – with bus tours across America playing in front of crowds of 50 if they were lucky. The come-up to recognition has been slow and methodical for them, and in many ways how they ‘planned’ it. When it comes to the pressure, becoming recognized by the public, and performance aspects, Death Cab has always said, “You know what? It's about the work, and it's about the music.”
For many bands in the 90s, the only way to make money was on tour. Today, bands start with an online following and miss the five-year start Death Cab had without cell phones. There is no chance to navigate, adjust and learn in the same way. To Harmer, this was a major advantage.
“Each time we played, there'd be a few more people. It felt really manageable for us to have our career move in this slow crescendo… Even though only a few more people each time were showing up or buying our records, we were headed in some good direction.”
To support emerging artists, Harmer hires from a crew of local people, brings local bands on national tours, and gives credit to new music. He says, ‘we want to share our knowledge… And [we are] always available for phone calls, talking to people about our experiences, and just trying to share the advice that we have earned over the years.”
As Death Cab’s career has grown, fostering a ‘good and healthy’ music scene is key. This includes not only bands and musicians but graphic designers, photographers, and a pool of creatives to draw from.
This article is from our artist profile feature on Nick Harmer available to read in print. Get your limited edition copy here.