Death Cab for Cutie is a band that’s really close to my heart. I don’t remember how I first came across their music, but it was 2007 and “Your Heart Is an Empty Room” off Plans was the anthem of my preteen years. I didn’t know what the term “angst” meant, but staring longingly out the backseat window of my parent’s Volvo listening to “Bixby Canyon Bridge” on my orange iPod Nano was a regular occurrence. I grew up in Seattle, near the birthplace of Death Cab and they regularly played shows around the city. They were my first concert, and I’ve talked about this particular show countless times over the years.
Death Cab for Cutie is still a band that Seattle cherishes, especially with the decline of the music scene. When people think about Seattle, most of the time they picture flannel sweaters and Kurt Cobain. Although there is definitely still an excess of flannel sweaters, the tech boom (thanks Amazon) has made the city nearly unrecognizable in the past five years. Rent prices have surpassed those of San Fransicso and Seattle’s music identity has waned. Iconic bars and restaurants continuously get torn down and converted into luxury condos. The city seems to be in a constant flux of demolition and construction.
Many have had trouble coping with this identity loss, which is why there was huge backlash in June when it was announced that historic music venue The Showbox would be closed and converted into an apartment building. Thankfully, many musicians and concerned citizens united to protect The Showbox. Death Cab for Cutie’s front man Ben Gibbard was the face of this movement. Gibbard reached out to over 170 musicians including as Pearl Jam, Conor Oberst, Dave Matthews, and Dinosaur Jr to sign a petition to stop demolition. In August, Gibbard went in front of City Council and was able to get The Showbox listed as a historical site in a unanimous decision, effectively saving the Showbox.
I was able to catch up with Death Cab for Cutie’s guitarist, Dave Depper, on the phone to talk about all these changes Seattle has seen recently, as well as their new album Thank You for Today.
Carolyn D: Hey Dave, how’s it going? I understand you have really busy schedule, so I appreciate you taking the time to chat!
Dave D: Good! I appreciate you taking an interest in the band.
Carolyn D: Definitely! Actually, I grew up in Seattle and Death Cab for Cutie was my first concert I ever went to. I still have the t-shirt.
DD: Oh, That’s amazing, where was that at?
CD: Marymoor Park in 2007.
DD: Oh man, old school. That was the Plans tour, right?
CD: It was! So, Thank You For Today came out just over a month ago. How has the response been so far?
DD: We’ve all felt pretty great about it. Reviews have been really nice, and fans seem really engaged with it. We felt like we made a good one, and we’re happy to see that most people agree. It felt good making it, and we were all confident that we had done right by the band at the end. The new songs have been going really well live so far.
CD: This is your first album that you helped write and record with DCFC. Talk about the process of writing this album. Has it been different than other bands that you’ve been with in the past?
DD: It’s been similar in some ways and different in some ways. I mean, this band clearly, song-writing wise, is very driven by Ben Gibbard’s songwriting vision. And I’ve definitely been in bands with that type of arrangement before. He for the most part writes the songs and sends them around to us. We would listen to it and give him feedback. We’d vote on them or give him feedback and say if we’d love one or if one wasn’t working as much. I will say that I’ve never been part of a band where the main songwriter is so prolific. Ben wrote so many songs for this record. He was really focused on picking out the best ones. His work ethic is amazing. There was a very exciting period where we’d all get an email from Ben every day with a new song attached. Sometimes twice a day, but certainly once a week, for months. As someone who’s loved DCFC for a long time, that’s fucking cool. It was pretty special. I contributed a little songwriting to the song Gold Rush, which some chordal and melodic changes to the bridge, but Ben pretty much wrote that song on his own other than that.
CD: Cool! I was actually going to ask you about that song Gold Rush, in particular. Just being from Seattle I definitely relate a lot. I live in Chicago for school and I visit Seattle probably once every six to eight months and I definitely resonate to the part of the song where Ben talks about feeling like a stranger, just because it’s so different every time I go home. It’s shocking to see that just in the short amount of time, six to eight months, so much as changed already. I know that you didn’t grow up in Seattle, but you have lived in Portland. Have you experienced similar changes?
DD: I didn’t grow up in Seattle, but I lived in Portland for 15 years, and it’s a song that resonates deeply with me as well. While I live there, I’m often gone for a really long time. Even now, I’m going to be gone for the next six months at least and I feel like every time I come home, it looks totally different. This spot that I had a memorable first date, or break-up, has been torn down and replaced by condos. My favorite bar from when I was 25, where I had a job interview that changed my life. Just things like that. They’re all gone. That’s really what the song is about. What do you do once those places are gone? Does that memory mean the same thing to you? Can it still live on despite the fact that it’s physical presence has been excised?
CD: Yeah definitely, and I feel like having all these places where you hold memory to, once it’s gone, the memory almost changes. Especially since you don’t have that constant reminder when you walk by, “Oh, this is where that girl broke-up with me,” you know?
DD: *laughs* yes. Luckily most women break up with me in public spaces.
CD: Well, at least it’s not over text, right?
DD: Is it though???
CD: True. Not as public. So, speaking of things being torn down and turned into condos, I know that Ben really spearheaded the Save the Showbox campaign, but did you have any part in that and can you talk about watching that whole process happen?
DD: Yeah, I have less of a dog in the fight, being less of a Seattleite. But I have played the Showbox many times and have been to many memorable shows at the Showbox. It’s been pretty inspiring to see Ben care so much and to take some real action with Seattle City Council. So I can’t take any credit for that movement or getting it going, but I’m very proud to be getting his back on that one. It’s just so sad what is happening to Seattle at this completely unsustainable rate. The Showbox just hurts so bad compared to so much of what’s going on. Portland has those spots too and I’m equally sad about them.
CD: Maybe you can spearhead some saving of places in Portland.
DD: I would like to, there’s certainly no shortage of them right now.
CD: You mentioned earlier that you were a DCFC fan before joining the band. Do you have favorite albums or songs in particular by them?
DD: My favorite album, I announced it online and there was kind of a controversial response. But my favorite is Narrow Stairs. I don’t know because it’s tied to a particular time in my life where that album had a lot of meaning to me. I really adore that record. I really love playing songs from it. In terms of actual songs, Transatlanticism feels like a dream every time we play it. At this point, I’ve been in the band for four years. I’m used to it. I’m used to this way of life. But every single time we play that song, it’s just magic for me. I cannot believe that I’m playing that guitar riff and I cannot believe that I get to just go into this trance-like state for eight or nine minutes and see people crying in front row listening to it as well. That’s my favorite for sure.
CD: That’s awesome. So I know you’ve only been in the band for four years, but do you think that your listenership demographic has changed throughout the years? Do you notice different kinds of people are coming to your shows or do you think that it’s a solid fan base that’s been there since the beginning?
DD: When I joined the band, I really had no idea what the demographic was going to be like at the shows. Is it going to be aging indie rockers like me? Am I just going to be looking back at a crowd full of 35-45 year olds? The answer was no. Those people are there but there are still teenagers and people in their early 20’s and older people too. This band is in this really amazing spot of continuing to have radio success without turning completely into a legacy act yet. We’re all very self aware and know that there is some aspect of a legacy band label creeping in, but can still play new songs from our new albums and have people greet them warmly. We’ll still hear ourselves on the radio and there’s still these fans being picked up whose relationship with DCFC started with “Kintsugi” and that’s an amazing spot for a band 20 years in to be.
CD: That’s good to hear. I know that you’ve been in music for a long time. What advice would you give to young people who are just starting out in music?
DD: We were all talking about this the other night actually. Something that I wish that I had known when I was going to school and doing music is I just didn’t know what working in music meant. I only had a vague idea. I didn’t have any idea of the variety of jobs in the music industry. I thought that just once a band had gotten to a certain size, it had a roadie or two, or maybe lots of roadies. You just played in a band until you got there. I didn’t know the various levels of working at a record label or a PR firm. So I wish I had been more educated about the sort of music industry ecosystem and understood how all those jobs interacted with each other, and done some of them in addition to being a musician. I feel like I know a lot of people who really want to get into music and don’t really know where to start. I would say just find out about these jobs. Try them. See if you could be an intern or a volunteer. Just be a merch grunt, and learn at the feet of people that are doing this kind of thing. Something will probably resonate with you, and it might not be the kind of job you knew existed. In terms of being in an actual band, I’ve always said that no matter how good you are, there’s always going to be someone better than you. Be the person that other people want to ride in a van with for ten hours a day. Be good at what you do, but also just work at being a good human being. If it’s between you and somebody else with a good skillset, and they’re just a cooler hang, they’re going to get a gig. So be the person you want to hang out with.
CD: That’s great advice, thank you so much Dave!
DD: Definitely, hope to see you in Chicago!