The Japanese art of kintsugi, from which the eighth and most recent studio album by the indie rock band Death Cab for Cutie gets its name, is the process of repairing broken pottery with metallic adhesive — usually silver or gold — in a way that reforms the pottery’s original structure while also highlighting its history of brokenness. At its root, it’s a highly philosophical art form, one that encourages the embrace of past trauma as a fundamental part of identity.
As the thematic undercurrent of Death Cab for Cutie’s last album, the concept is fitting. It reflects the personal struggles of lead singer Ben Gibbard — who underwent a divorce from actress Zooey Deschanel prior to writing the album — as well as the band’s own reinvention. Kintsugi is the final album to feature guitarist Chris Walla, who had been with the band since 1997; he was subsequently replaced by Dave Depper and Zac Rae, marking the biggest change in the band’s creative lineup to date.
Now, two years on from Kintsugi, the band has a new understanding of itself, says bassist Nick Harmer — as a band reassessing material from such acclaimed releases as 2003’s Transatlanticism and 2005’s Plans, as well as a band discovering its new identity as it begins work on a new studio album.
Death Cab for Cutie will perform at Sloss Furnaces on Friday, May 5 — their second time visiting the venue in a year, following their headlining set at last year’s Sloss Music and Arts Festival. Recently, Harmer spoke with Weld about what audiences can expect from the show — and how the band’s new chemistry is impacting its upcoming album.
Weld: It’s been just over two years since Kintsugi was released. Since then, you’ve toured behind the album and played its songs live hundreds of times. How has that changed your perspective on the record?
Nick Harmer: There are always a couple of songs that you automatically know are going to fit in really well with the back catalog and that you can already envision fairly clearly how they’re going to go over live. Those typically are also songs that people here on the radio. It’s the album’s tracks that aren’t really singles [but] that we still want to play and weave into our sets that I always have a big question mark about, how people are going to react to them in a live setting versus on the album.
I think we have a tendency to think that our uptempo songs and the songs that have “rock” energy, for lack of a better way of describing it — We think, “Oh, those are going to go over really well.” There’s always this kind of lingering doubt about some of the slower songs, or a little bit of the more introspective material, how that’s going to connect once we’re playing in rooms in front of people. It’s always nice for us to play songs like that and be reminded that those songs work really well too, and that people get really excited about that side of our band as well.
Half our brains are always worried about, “Are people excited about what we’re doing? Are they bored? It’s always really refreshing to play songs that wouldn’t necessarily jump off the record … that happen to be just as popular as some of the songs that are singles and that are on the radio. Songs like “No Room in Frame” or “Everything’s a Ceiling” — those songs really worked well for us, and I was really happy that they got a life in the live set as well, and not just forever living as the recorded version on the album.
Weld: That’s reflected in the structure of Kintsugi as well, where the more radio-friendly songs dominate the first side of the album, and the back half is the quieter material.
Harmer: Yeah, exactly. Usually, our sets are sort of similar. We have so much energy when we walk out onstage that it’s a challenge for us to settle down and play things that are a little bit more brooding and slower-tempoed, so we typically frontload our sets with a lot of bombast and energy because we have that internally. [Laughs] We like to come out and explode, and then settle down a little bit after we burn off off that initial excitement.
Weld: So much of Kintsugi is about being able to rebuild and start anew. After losing a founding member with guitarist Chris Walla’s departure in 2014, Death Cab have gained two new members, Dave Depper and Zac Rae. How has the band’s new dynamic developed throughout this tour?
Harmer: In our particular case, it broke us down to a point where we really felt like we had something to prove again. It’s not like we were taking it for granted; we’ve always wanted to put our best foot forward. But there’s this new sense of wanting things to work and being excited and having the new energy with the new players together and feeling this thing just take on a new level of excitement and intrigue for us that, 20 years into a career of playing music, was very unexpected for us and something that we really embraced. It feels like we’re — I wouldn’t say a new band — but it feels like a shot in the arm somehow.
That has carried over into our new creative process, where we’re writing new material together. We’re starting in this year on making another album, and just having Dave and Zac be new additions to the band and bring all of their energy has really made Ben and Jason and I step up as well. There’s just a whole exchange of mutual excitement and energy looking to the future. We’re not done with an album, but we’re certainly demoing and writing a lot right now, and we’re very excited about what’s to come.
Weld: In addition to the impact they’re having on the band’s new material, are Dave and Zac having an impact on how you approach your older material as they learn how to play it and integrate it into your live set?
Harmer: Absolutely. We’d been a four-piece for so long, and because we never added anyone to the live performances, there was always stuff on the record — little bits and bobs, and even little melodies in parts that, because we didn’t have the extra hands or feet, we decided to not try and perform live. We would just leave out that guitar part, or ignore that guitar solo because somebody was playing a necessary keyboard part, or whatever it was. We were always trying our best to recreate the material from the record, but there was always something left behind.
When we’re in the studio, we let our musical brains run all over the place, and we just capture all the ideas we want to have. Very rarely do we stop and ask ourselves, “How are we going to perform this?” We just recorded, we love it, it sounds great, and then we reengineer it live and figure out like, “Who’s going to do what in this song live?” Having a fifth player, and having those guys go back through [the catalog], they were able to pick out pieces and little countermelodies and add textural stuff that we’ve been missing live for years, because we just didn’t have the extra body to attempt it. In some cases they had to write parts to have something to do in songs that they didn’t [otherwise] have anything to do in.
Suddenly, the songs were filling out, and to me, being around for both versions [of the lineup], the band is so much more full now, sonically. I think we’re doing a much better job at capturing all the musical information and ideas in the back catalog that in the past we’d had to sort of pick apart.
Weld: You’ve mentioned that the band is working on new material. Has a sonic direction emerged yet for the new album?
Harmer: To be honest, it’s just too early to even tell. I’m really not trying to dodge your question or give you some sort of weird, mysterious answer that’s supposed to pique interest or anything. I really don’t know. It’s very early in the process. We are not only trying to figure out what we’re trying to write about and how we’re going to write it, but we’re also exploring how this new lineup works chemically in the studio.
We’re curious right now as players to see how far we can push things and how weird we can get and have it still sound like our band. But we are also very aware of what we’re good at, and we’re at this point now where we’re like, “Why resist our natural temptations to present a song in a certain way because it feels familiar or comfortable for us?” I think that’ll be something that we challenge ourselves with constantly for the remainder of the time that we’re a band together. It’ll be that push-and-pull between our comfort zone of just what naturally comes out of us as musicians when we all play together, and then that tendency of, “Let’s not repeat ourselves and try to do something new for us.” But I think it’s too early to tell how that’s going to impact this next album. I really don’t know if this is going to sound like classic Death Cab in a throwback way or if it’s going to be a crazy left turn. …
Somebody said to me a long time ago, and I really took it to heart, “It’s less like chemistry and more like farming.” We’re in the process of planting a bunch of seeds in a field right now, and I don’t even know what plants are going to grow yet — or even if they are going to grow! [Laughs] I’m very optimistic about how things are going to roll out, but I don’t quite know what form that’s going to take yet.
Death Cab for Cutie will perform at Sloss Furnaces on Friday, May 5. Julien Baker will open. For more information, visit deathcabforcutie.com/tour.