Death Cab For Cutie: Staying In Shape For The Road (Interview)

Death Cab For Cutie will be making their way to New Zealand in February for their second show in Wellington and first-ever show in Auckland. The band has gone through a few changes since they were last here, losing founding guitarist Chris Walla and releasing their 8th album Kintsugi. The 13th Floor’s Marty Duda spoke to drummer Jason McGerr just as the band was about to embark on a trip to Europe. He asked how things have changed witthin the group since Chris left and how Jason personally prepares for a grueling tour.

Click here to listen to the interview with Death Cab For Cutie’s Jason McGerr:

Or read a transcription of the interview here:

MD: Is there anything you do to prepare yourself like when you’re ready to take off to Europe right now?

JM: Let’s see, I try to get in all the things that are on the list, the “to do” list, so that I don’t have to field phone calls from home about something failing or breaking or whatever. Honestly, that’s adult shit there. I practice a lot, I try and get my hands and feet in shape, and I really just try and spend the majority of my time with my family, who I haven’t seen for long periods of time. It’s a busy time of year for everybody.

MD: You mentioned that you practice and keep in shape; I would think that since you’ve been on the road so much you would naturally be in shape. I’m curious, how does it ebb and flow as far as that goes?

JM: I wish I could say that because I’ve been playing drums for 30 years that I just never have to practice or put any time into it, but that’s like saying that a marathon runner could do a marathon just once a month and not run in between. The amount of stamina and dexterity that you need to be a drummer, I think, both with hands and feet is something that goes away really quick if you don’t stay on top of it. There’s always a level of inspiration that’s there, and that never goes away, and time and feel, that never goes away, but the actual physical part of drumming, I think more than probably any other instrument, is something that will go away real quick if you don’t keep up.

MD: I think people forget that it’s such a physical thing to do because you see so many drummers and they seem to be dealing with it just fine but, yeah, it must be a rough thing to keep up on. Do you do like major drum solos and stuff?


JM: (laughs) No, I don’t. I’ve never been a fan of drum solos. I love to watch a drum solo. I went to go see a jazz trio last night and they were all really good players, they were on tour from, maybe, New York, and I was just in awe of their technicality but 40 minutes in I was exhausted because I was like, I just never wanna…I can’t…no…that’s not me…I can’t do that, I can’t take solos. I would much rather have a great melody and a great song and rehearsed parts and play those parts and watch an audience have a physical reaction…to be able to dance, to be able to be involved, clap hands, stomp feet, whatever it is. And to me, that doesn’t happen so much in drum solos unless it’s like In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.

MD: Exactly! I grew up in the ‘70s seeing bands and it seemed like it was mandatory to have at least one 15 minute drum solo at every show. It was like, “Oh no, here it comes!”

JM: I always joke that that will be my sort of white flag, my departure from the band, it will be just a non-stop drum solo in the middle of the set…just solo over the top of every song and see how long it takes before I get kicked out.

MD: You mentioned departing the band and obviously you guys have been on the road quite a bit…this is the first time since the departure of Chris Walla…you’ve got two other guys filling in, what is the difference, how has it changed the dynamic on stage?

JM: I miss Chris a lot, you know we’re dear friends and you know, he just decided to make a change. And you know, life’s short, he’d been in the band for 17 years and we all proudly supported his line to make a change. That phase of Death Cab will always be…you know, you won’t be able to take a show that we do tomorrow and compare it to something we did with Chris, they’re just two different things. Dave and Zac are great. They are excellent musicians, they’re super-positive, they really want to be on the road and they’re bringing things to the band that Ben and Nick and I haven’t heard before. We’re able to play songs from that catalogue much fuller and potentially better than we have in the past because of the extra set of hands. So it used to be if there was a piano, an acoustic and electric guitar part in a song, Chris would have to choose whether he was going to play piano or acoustic guitar or whatever. So, now that we can fill out the sound the live shows have been really amazing. They felt and sounded really good. We’ve heard back from management and crew who were really excited about what we were doing and like I just said, the positive energy of having two people on stage who really want to be out there is sort of like a new thing, like showing up at a new school. And nothing against Chris because, like I said, those are some of my greatest memories, the four of us really slogging it out in the early days. But I think that the new shows are something that everyone really has to see, especially if they’ve seen the band in the past and think that that’s it.

MD: I just saw another band, Dawes, I don’t know if you’re familiar with them, and they had their keyboard player…he left the band in the middle of a tour and they were stuck with…they had a touring guitarist, his name is Duane Betts, who is Dickey Betts’ son, and you could tell that the band was out of their comfort zone a little bit because they were in this situation, but it made for an amazing show.

JM: I can attest to the fact that like even if you feel uncomfortable on stage, having to band aid something or try something new against your will, I don’t think that the audience perspective is, you know, feeling like It’s not working. That’s a tough thing to remember. Early on we put a lot of time and a lot of rehearsing in before we played our first show, but when I look back at how much fun that first show was compared to where we’re at now, six months into touring, it’s like night and day. We are so comfortable on stage and so confident. I hope that Dave and Zac are going to be a part of us making the next record as well.

MD: I think it was March of 2012 when the band was in New Zealand for the first time and I think you only played Wellington then so up in Auckland we haven’t had a chance to see you. I’m wondering if you remember much of your trip in New Zealand and, for a lot of people who didn’t get a chance to see you because you only played Wellington, what can they expect from you?

JM: Yeah, we played there. I think the night we got in I went to see Bon Iver in the same venue and we played the venue the next night. Ben went for a run up in the hills and loved it, I loved being down on the waterfront. You know, I’m excited to be there a little bit longer this time because it was in and out. We showed up late afternoon and left the morning after the show so my memories are just wonderful people, great audience and excellent food. I’m looking forward to spending a little more time so I have more to report. In fact, the guy who did the interview about 20 minutes ago gave me all kinds of shit for being eight albums into a Death Cab career and only having played once in New Zealand.

MD: That’s fair enough.

JM: We do have to make up for some lost time.

MD: You mentioned the food in Wellington was good, how important is the food on the road? Is that how you measure the city that you’re in, by the quality of the chow?

JM: It’s massive. I’m not saying if we go somewhere and we have terrible breakfast, lunch and dinner, that we’re never gonna come back and play, but when you travel as much as we do, when you’re in eight countries in 21 days and 17 planes and time changes all over, like having a good meal that makes you feel strong and worthy is paramount, it really is. So when you go somewhere where the seafood is fresh and things are readily available, it is something that the band looks forward to.

MD: You mentioned your latest album, which is your eighth, it came out in the beginning of the year, in March, that’s a long time for the songs to kind of gestate and be worked on live. What is the status of them, have they changed much? Are you working on new material?

20150329_death-cab-for-cutie-kintsugi_91JM: If you’re a person who, like, has listened to the album a ton, with headphones, I think if you came to see the live show you would hear some changes. But if you’ve heard a song on the radio only, you might hear a fuller sound live than you heard on the radio just because of the five of us on stage. We’re not a jam band. If you’re gonna recognize big changes in arrangements or sound or presentation, it’s gonna be from something that dates back more than 10 years. Like some of the songs from Transatlanticism or Plans have definitely evolved quite a bit, but that’s just over time. That’s the way we are, that’s the band we are. We’re not fiddling with it…”Ok, let’s turn this thing inside out and come up with a vamp and an intro that different and an outro that segues into another song”. It’s just never been who we are. And if it happens naturally, anyway, rather than trying to orchestrate it, I think it’s more convincing to an audience.

MD: Right. With that in mind, you consider the version that’s done in the studio the way it should be. Do you spend a lot of time on those arrangements?

JM: We do. I feel like we do, I mean, if a person digs enough usually with every album we release four or five demos of songs that are on the record, and if you hear where those demos started versus what the final album version was, they really travel a great distance. I think there’s a demo of No Room In Frame out there somewhere, which is the first song on Kintsugi, and it’s an acoustic little traveling song. It is nowhere near what the album version ended up being. I can guarantee you there were three or four versions before the album version in between there. So, I feel like…it’s like interior design or something, a few times and look at it under different lighting before you decide what the final product is.

MD: I assume that you, as a band member and as the drummer, that’s where you get to put most of your input in when the record’s being made.

JM: Definitely. I demo a lot of stuff with Ben, he’s the principle songwriter. But, I mean, there are a lot of songs like Black Sun and Ingénue and, I’m trying to think of what else, there’s some things that started as my idea and Ben wrote over top of it. Of course the lyrics and melody were his but you never know what’s going to spark some of these ideas.

Click here for more info about NZ concert dates and tickets for Death Cab For Cutie.