Nick Harmer plays bass (as well as keyboards, guitar and backing vocals) in the hugely popular alternative rock band Death Cab for Cutie. To date, Death Cab has released seven studio albums, five EPs and one demo. Their first LP, Something About Airplanes, was released in August of 1998. Their big break, the album Transatlanticism, was released in October 2003, with songs appearing in the soundtracks of the films Wedding Crashers and Mean Creek and the television shows The O.C., Six Feet Under, CSI: Miami, and Californication. The album Plans was released in August 2005 and was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Alternative Album, received Gold Status in 2006 after charting on Billboard for forty-seven consecutive weeks, and was certified platinum by the RIAA in May, 2008. Their most recent album, Codes and Keys, was released on May 31, 2011. Writing of the band’s live performance style, The Chicago Tribune noted that they play songs “as if they were meditations, travelogues and hallucinations.”
The Days of Yore spoke with Harmer over the phone from his home in Seattle. He was gracious, funny, and delightfully easy to talk to.
You were born on an army base in Germany. Did you stay there for a long time?
My father was an officer in the army, he was a Lieutenant Colonel when he retired, and we moved around a lot because of that. I was born in Germany and was there for maybe two years, at most. From there we skipped around. We lived in Japan, in Kansas, just lots of places before we finally settled in the Northwest where I went to high school and, after that, to college.
When you moved back to the States you lived in Puyallup, in Washington State. I read somewhere that you thought Puyallup was an oppressive environment to grow up in. Why?
I knew a lot of people who were dreaming of getting out of there. And the options for fun and exploring things were very limited. Puyallup is probably most known for being the town in the state of Washington that churns out big football players. And I had no interest in football. [Laughs.]
It is very much a small town – small town values, small town stuff. I guess the oppression, or the repression anyway, was that you really had to work hard to come up with things to do that were different and fun. This was a time before you could hop online and track down like-minded folks and make friends.
I found myself in this small group of friends, going to Seattle to go record shopping. I was in bands all throughout high school so I was playing in people’s garages all over town, wherever we could make noise. But then always getting shut down because of noise. We could never have concerts.
Were you always interested in music?
My parents were always putting on music, so music was a part of our home life. But early, early on I got really interested in learning how to play. I wanted to know how to make so many of the sounds that I was hearing on albums.
One of my favorite songs when I as in fourth grade was “Shout”, by Tears For Fears. There’s this synch solo in the middle of that song that I loved. I didn’t really know anything about synthesizing when I was that young, so I thought that someone was playing a flute solo. So I marched off to school and told my band teacher that I wanted to learn how to play the flute because I wanted to learn how to play that passage. The teacher said that she didn’t have any room for a flute player, but she needed a clarinet player. So I played clarinet until about eighth grade.
Wow, you really got sucked in!
I did! Seventh or eighth grade was when there were a couple of local punk bands that would play and once in a while I saw one band called The Yellow Pages that I just thought was the coolest band of all time. I realized pretty quickly that playing clarinet was not the way I wanted to express myself, and guitar was. So I put the clarinet down and started playing guitar. I played electric guitar in bands throughout high school. We were in high school when the Seattle music scene exploded.
And all of a sudden you weren’t so far off the map anymore.
Exactly. That was a game changer for me. Suddenly I realized that people could make a living doing this, they could do this with their lives! You can be from Seattle and be in a big band and do stuff—who knew?! I didn’t think that was possible.
I didn’t decide at that point that that was what I wanted to do with my life, but it suddenly legitimized all of my garage band dreaming. It sort of turned a time waster into a legitimate hobby! [Laughs.]
Did your family see it the same way?
My mom was always supportive. My dad always sort of ignored it, thought it was just one of those things that I did. He eventually came back around, but not until Death Cab started doing a lot better. Then he could finally understand. But I’m not going to throw my dad under the bus by any stretch – both my parents have always been supportive. It’s just that my mom always encouraged me to explore my artistic and creative sides a lot more. I thank her for that, for sure.
But, again, there were not a lot of options of places to play, or things to do anywhere, really, until the Seattle stuff started happening. And then bands like Seaweed came up, and they were from Tacoma, the next biggest city close to us. That was, like, unheard of – that a band from Tacoma could get a record deal? And play shows? Oh wow! It was getting close to home. So that was pretty exciting.
You went to college in Washington State as well. Did you still play music?
I did play music in college. I played guitar for a little while. And then…I’ve told this story and it sounds like I’m making it up and I need to try to tell it with the least amount of embellishment possible. Because it’s the truth. So: I was living off campus, I was trying to play guitar in a band, and it wasn’t really working out. One night, I had a dream that I had it all wrong. In my dream, these guys were telling me that I was wrong, I was totally wrong. I needed to not play guitar, I should be playing bass guitar. I woke up in the morning thinking this really weird dream had said that these guitar parts I’d been writing could be more interesting bass lines than they were guitar parts.
So, I went with my friend Todd— we were in Portland, Oregon— and I sold my guitar amp and my guitars and bought a bass amp and a bass. And I said, “I am going to be a bass player!” I took it home, started playing it, and I hated it! I thought, “I’ve made the totally wrong decision.” So I just put the bass guitar in its case and threw it under the bed and that was it. I just kind of put it out of my mind. And then worked to save money for another guitar. But I still kept the bass.
And it all kind of comes back around. Because while I was in college, I was still playing in bands on the side but mainly I was involved in the administrative side of music. I booked concerts for the campus, I was doing arts promotion around concerts and lectures, I worked as the program director for the college radio station, and was a DJ there at the same time. I was thinking more that I would be involved in music on the business side than the actual playing side. In fact, that is how I met Ben [Gibbard], who is the singer in Death Cab. I booked his college band at the campus a couple of times and when they came to play we sort of struck up a friendship. Then we ended up becoming roommates and friends well before we were ever playing music together.
You and Ben were roommates in college?
Yes. He was still in his band, called Pinwheel, and I started playing in this band called Eureka Farm, with our drummer now, Jason [McGerr], and this other guy, Arman. When we first started, Ben was our drummer and Arman and I were both playing guitar. But I was playing a guitar through a processor that made it kind of generate a low octave note, so it sounded more like a bass…
You were still avoiding the bas, but you couldn’t quite do it!
[Laughs.] It’s funny. Because we went to record a bunch of stuff in a recording studio, and when it came time for me to record my part on this guitar through the octave pedal thing, we figured out that it didn’t work. The guitar just wasn’t that cool sounding. And I remember that I said, “Well, I have this old bass at home, let me go get it.” I went home and brought it back to the studio and recorded all those lines on the bass and it sounded great. At that point it just clicked. As soon as we started recording with it, I was like, “This is right, this is totally right.” And then I never looked back.
I still have guitars and strum on guitars. But I am very much a failed guitar player that loves playing the bass.
You were roommates and jamming together, but how did Death Cab become Death Cab in the very beginning?
In the very beginning, I was roommates with Ben. I played for a brief moment in this band with him called Eureka Farm. Ben was doing double duty at the time – he was in Eureka Farm and in his band, Pinwheel. And then he quit Eureka Farm because he just wanted to focus on Pinwheel. And then Jason McGerr came in and he was our drummer [in Eureka Farm] and we made one album with him for Loosegroove Records, which was a record label that Stone Gossard from Pearl Jam had in Seattle for a while. He put out a first Eureka Farm album.
Ben was playing with Pinwheel at the time, but he had written a bunch of songs as a solo project. I moved out of the house and Ben and I were living separately for a year – that is when Chris Walla came to town and was Ben’s roommate. And Chris had some recording gear and Ben had some solo songs, so they recorded this tape called Death Cab for Cutie. That was the first thing that was passed around. And we were all like, “This is amazing man, this is great.” Everyone kept asking Ben if he was going to put a band together and play any of these songs live. And he said, “Sure.” Right about that time, I had grown frustrated with Eureka Farm. Those guys had moved to Seattle during my final year of college and they were putting a lot of pressure on me to leave Bellingham and drop out of school, move down to Seattle with them. But I didn’t really want to do that; I really wanted to finish college. So I said, “I guess you guys have to find another bass player.” They moved to Seattle and I stayed and finished school and I was out of a band.
Ben came to me and said, “Hey, we’ve always talked about playing music together, we’re friends, I’m putting together this band thing, do you want to play bass on it?” And I said, “Absolutely.” And that was the formation of Death Cab, instantly.
Good thing you didn’t go off to Seattle and quit school…
Yeah! Years later, our drummer in Death Cab wasn’t working out. And Jason had long been out of Eureka farm and there was an opening to invite him back and play music with us, so he joined us right before we made Transatlanticism, he made Transatlanticism with us all the way on. I’ve played music with Jason and everyone in the band for a long time. We go back as friends much longer than we go back as a band— and we still go back as a band fourteen years.
You’d played together for a while in different constellations. Did you have a shared aesthetic right away or was that something you had to work out?
We did actually! It’s really strange…I don’t know how to explain it. I’ve played in so many bands and every band I’ve been in on some levels didn’t work. It was always kind of difficult getting people on the same page aesthetically or… there was almost some level of disconnect, fundamentally, with every other band that I’ve ever tried to be in. And something about playing in Death Cab, right away, just clicked. Almost within the first bars of us playing the first song at the very first practice, I remember that we all kind of looked up at each other, and every single one of us felt it. We were like, “This is different. This is way cool! This is really going to work somehow.”
We just kind of rode – and we are still kind of riding – the feeling of what happens when these four guys pick up their instruments and just start playing them together. We’ve been lucky. We’ve been working hard too, but it does feel like luck that I was able to find these guys to play music with.
First there was the dream that led you to sell your guitar and buy the bass, and then things with the band just clicked. You seem like a pretty intuitive person.
Sometimes you just kind of have to be. Life has told me over and over again through the lessons I’ve learned that you really have to trust your gut. It hasn’t been flawless, sometimes you go with your gut and it’s not that great. But more often than not, my instincts, my intuition around situations, has been clear. I just need to be in a place where I can hear it and listen to it. If there has ever been a problem, it’s mostly been because I’ve pushed it aside.
Making music is such a strange thing to do. On some level it feels really straightforward and mechanical, but so much of it is just about a magic, and an unexplained thing that happens.
You formed the band, you liked playing music together. But you probably had to have other jobs to support yourself in the beginning, right?
In college, I would spend the summers as a garbage man for the city. I shouldn’t say garbage man – I worked in the recycling and compost department. I would ride on the back of garbage trucks and pick up people’s lawn clippings all summer long and take them to the dump, or do the recycling stuff as well. That was hard work, manual labor stuff. But it was fun. It paid great. At the end of the summer, I would have enough for school, to live off of, and a little extra to spend on music gear. I did that in the summers and during the school year I was booking concerts or working for the radio station on campus, and that paid a little bit.
Right after school ended and the band started— it pretty much started in my final year— we were broke. That was all there was to it! [Laughs.] There wasn’t a lot of glory for a few years. There was a lot of strained…I wouldn’t say strained relationships with friends, more with family…You know, you want your loved ones to succeed and go off in the world and be able to take care of themselves, and then they finish school and they’re suddenly playing in a rock band? Sleeping on floors? My family was a little worried about me for a while.
That must have amplified any doubts you had on your own.
Right at the end of school, even as exciting as the band was, I was still thinking, “I don’t know…trying to chase a dream like this, is it worth it? What am I doing? Should I get a job?” There are all these big life questions in front of you and I had taken the GREs and put a lot of applications together because I wanted to go to graduate programs in literature and I was thinking that maybe I’d become a professor someday, that seemed right.
I had this mentor in college who I would speak to about life and he was advising me in my application process to grad school. I went to him and said, “I’m really nervous about the future, I don’t know what to do. Should I be in a band or follow this grad school thing?” And he said, “Well, you’ve got two options in front of you. You can spend the rest of your twenties with your friends, driving around in a van, or you can spend the rest of your twenties in a library with your nose in a book. Which one seems more appealing to you?”
[Laughs.] Seems like he had an idea of what you should do if he put it that way…
Maybe yeah, when he did put it that way! I think he was just trying not to sugarcoat the grad school experience for me. But at the same time I don’t think he realized that was what I needed to hear in order to say, “Driving around with my friends in a van sounds pretty exciting right now, I’ll do that.” I committed to that. And two or three years into doing that, we were touring a lot. The profile of the band was steadily growing, we were playing slightly bigger shows all the time. But we would still come home and have jobs.
What kinds of jobs did you have?
They were all pretty crappy jobs – I shouldn’t say that, they were all just minimum wage stuff. A couple of friends of mine owned a record store in Seattle called Sonic Boom and they were awesome enough to let me have my job when I came back from tours. Touring is a huge challenge. As opposed to if I was working on my novel, I could have a nine to five and then we working on my novel at dawn or late or whatever. The fact that we would always have to leave during these big chunks of time— we either had to find employers who were cool with us doing that, and would hold our positions until we got back, which is a pretty tall order for most businesses, or, we would just have to find crap jobs where it didn’t matter when we quit. Thankfully, at Sonic Boom they were okay with me sort of coming and going, which was awesome. That definitely kept me afloat.
The last job we had, both Ben and I worked at a nonprofit here in Seattle. We were working in the shipping department. It was an educational project that made anti-violence, anti-bullying curriculum for teachers to teach kids in elementary schools. We just worked in the shipping department boxing things up, but because they went through lean and boom times, they were okay with us leaving and then hiring us back.
But nothing really exciting, or romantic, or sexy as jobs. It was a struggle. We were all just doing what we could do in-between tours to pay the rent. It was tough. It wasn’t until maybe five years of being a band that we were able to quit our day jobs and just live on the tour money between tours. Even then, it still took a while for us to build up to where I could identify it as a career and say, “This is how I make my living.”
Did you have any point during those first five years when you thought, “Crap, forget about this. I should do something else.”
Absolutely. I think that is a normal response. You have that doubt and then you push through the doubt. There’s that real palpable sense that you are just hanging on the edge of a cliff, where you just think, “Any minute now, I’m going to run out of strength, or something environmental is going to knock me off the edge of this thing.” At the same time, there is no place else to go. You are right on the edge there.
It’s hard to look back and think what I would be doing if I wasn’t doing this, ‘cause I’ve really always wanted to do this. And I’ve never really wanted to do anything else.
That’s probably why you ended up doing it. Because you wanted it so much.
Otherwise, it’s a long time to stick it out.
[Laughs.] It is a long time.
It’s tough, following a dream, being broke, while your friends who did other things are living stable lives with more external markers of success.
Yes. I graduated from college in 1997, so that was also the tech boom, that was when the internet bubble was going on. My mom would send me these clips like, “Here’s a story about a couple of twenty-two year olds who came up with a great idea and now they own an island!” And I was like, “I’m twenty-two, and I’m flat broke. I’ve got big ideas and big dreams, but I’m nowhere close to buying my family a fleet of BMWs.” You know? There were a lot of those stories going around! I remember thinking a lot about that. It added to the pressure. Like, “What are you doing with your ideas? People are making millions off their ideas right now! How come you’re not figuring that out?” I was faced with a lot of challenges, I guess, to hold on to my little piece of the dream. My mom was sending me these articles all the time. She was doing it to lift me up, but at the same time it….
It wasn’t what you needed to hear.
[Laughs.] No, it’s not what I needed to hear!
Even to this day, we’ve accomplished so much, but the doubt just always lingers in the corner. In any kind of profession. Probably just in life. Certainly I feel it in conversations with musicians and people involved in what I do. When you are making a living on things coming out of your own mind, you feel this constant stress of having to keep moving and having to keep doing stuff and always doubting whether or not the thing you just did is worth anything, and whether or not the next thing is going to be worth anything when you make it….
I am not at the point now where I feel like I have to pull a plug on everything and go to law school or something. I’ve sort of crossed over that point of no return. But there is still a lot of concern and conversation about staying relevant, working at what you do and trying to make it better each time. You don’t want to stagnate.
Where did you live during those early band years?
We were living in Seattle, small apartments dotted around. But mostly we lived on the road. I would say I was away from Seattle more than I was at home during that time. There was a time when I was on the road for over 200 days in one year. Again, if we stopped, it just meant we had to have a job! [Laughs.]
That was stressful in some ways. Yes, you’re living your dream but you’re still living in a van. I remember when we finally had enough money to get a hotel room and not have to night drive. But, again, there were four of us in one hotel room. Being in your mid-twenties, there was a romance about it, but there were also just a lot of practical things. Like: I’m getting sick of these people, and when can we get off the road so I can go home and have a break from this?
Any time we were on the road, we were kind of dreaming of being at home. And when we were at home we were always dreaming of being on the road. There was never a peace. It was just about finding a balance between real life and creative band life. Which we didn’t have in the beginning at all – it was all band, all the time.
How do you learn to find a balance? I guess in the beginning it has to be all band all the time?
Exactly. There needs to be a time when bands are practicing every day. We were all living in the same house! And we were playing music, and then we all went into a van to go on tour….I mean, we were spending so much time together. That was absolutely necessary in the beginning.
It’s like any small business, really. You start a business and you put in every minute of your free time into that business. You’re constantly talking about it, working on it. And that’s usually what happens for the first two or three years, it’s the single focus of your life. And then, hopefully, all of that energy creates the momentum that allows things to take on a little more of a life of its own. That’s what happened.
After a while, we were at a point where we could hire a manager to take over some of the responsibilities that I would spend all of my off time doing. And then just being a little more practical about saying, “Hey guys, I need a break.” Knowing when it’s time to take a step away.
You asked, how do you learn to find the balance, but really it’s just time. We never had a program or a map, there certainly wasn’t a handbook. We would just watch a lot of music documentaries and learn about other bands…
Really, you did?
Oh yeah! We still do. To see how inter-band dynamics work out. We read stories about other bands and you pick up some really good ideas, but you also pick up warning signs.
It’s like the band is a marriage, and you did preemptive marriage counseling.
[Laughs.] Yes! In so many ways, it is like a marriage. How do you find balance? Through communication. I use the same terms to describe relationships that I do my life in the band. It all holds, for sure.
When did you begin to feel that things were changing? That you were really starting to go somewhere?
There was never a moment, a lighting bolt, that made me feel like: “Now I see, now it’s possible.” I mean, in some ways, I still don’t feel like it’s possible. In some ways I still feel like we’re living kind of tour to tour, album to album. But I have enough of a sense of where we’ve been, of what we’ve accomplished. I mean, I have done more in this band than I ever even dreamed was possible I would ever do in music, ever. So, there’s that.
We’ve always been a slow and steady, gradual in some way. And I’ve always liked that, to be honest. It has always been sort of manageable— every step of the way around success we’ve been able to get our heads wrapped around – where we are at, what we need, what’s working and what’s not working – before the next thing is sort of thrust on us.
Now, with over a decade together as a band, how have your work habits changed? How has the lifestyle changed?
Obviously there are a lot of cosmetic changes to our lives— we don’t all live in the same house any longer. We are able to hire a full crew of people who work for us and do a great job keeping our shows running smoothly. There are a lot of extra hands on deck.
But when you get down to it, we are still just four guys trying to figure out how to pay the rent. And I think we’ll always be that way. We always feel like we’re a little bit on the fringe. I know we’ve been successful, but we’ve never had the same spotlight on us as some other bands in our genre have had. And I think that is okay. I think the best way to put it is that the people we are have remained intact from when we met as a band to playing music today.
Do you have any advice for young musicians?
So much of starting a band has changed with the internet and technology, I wouldn’t even know how to advise all that stuff. The only advice that I give to young bands that I feel like holds is: Get in a van and go on tour. You’ll figure it out real quick. Whether or not it’s a lifestyle that you love and can’t wait to do or if you just want to go for a little while and then aren’t interested any longer, or you go out and you hate it. Touring, it’s a physical and emotional exercise. It really challenges all those facets of a person. It really does demand a lot of the people in that arrangement. So, go to figure out what you’re made of in that situation as a band, and as an individual.
People can make music in all kinds of new and innovative ways, they can market their music in new ways, but there will never be a substitution for living on top of each other in a van and barreling down the road. And trying, night after night, to play music for people who may not even be interested in what you are playing.
Is there anything you would tell your younger self, something that you think Young Nick should have known?
I would try to be more reassuring and supportive about sticking to your guns. Tell him to not be so worried about everything. Have a little more fun. Coming out of college, I was always so worried about everything. What was the future going to hold? I was always very angsty about that kind of stuff and that added to a lot of my doubt about whether or not I should be doing this or something else.
So, I would tell my younger self, or anybody young: Trust your instincts and trust your gut. I feel like if there was anything I needed to hear when I was young, it was someone telling me: Doubts are natural, doubts are normal. Stick to your guns.
Interview by Astri von Arbin Ahlander
Images courtesy of the artist