Death Cab for Cutie
Ten years have passed since Death Cab for Cutie released their seminal work, Transatlanticism. An album that would help define a generation’s sound, was created without any thought or concern for that definition. It was just an album put out by four friends who had found themselves creatively in the right place at the right time. When drummer Jason McGerr joined Ben Gibbard, Chris Walla and Nick Harmer, just prior to the making of Transatlanticism, Death Cab for Cutie was complete and ready to create the music they always wanted to.
The early days
It’s been well documented Death Cab got their start in Bellingham, but the seeds of what would become the Transatlanticism line up – the first with Jason McGerr on drums – were sown years prior. In late 1995/early 1996, Ben Gibbard, Nick Harmer and Arman Bohn began playing music under the moniker Shed, with Ben on drums (at the time Ben was also in Pinwheel). After recording a demo, Ben left and was replaced by Jason. A couple of name changes and recordings later, the trio went by the name Eureka Farm. At the time, Arman and Jason had moved to Seattle with Nick remaining in Bellingham to finish school. Eureka Farm had recorded an album that would be released on Loosegroove Records, a label owned by Stone Gossard (Pearl Jam).
Frustrated by Nick’s unwillingness to move to Seattle and kick things into high gear with Eureka Farm, Nick was shown the door, to which he joined Death Cab for Cutie the next day. Jason and Arman moved back to Bellingham, added Chuck Keller on bass and Dave Snyder on keys/sax. Suddenly Bellingham had two of the best bands that would ever call the town home.
Within a couple of years, both Eureka Farm and Death Cab for Cutie made their way to Seattle, where Eureka Farm released the seminal record The View, while Death Cab’s popularity continued to grow with each passing month, including landing on the cover of The Rocket, a legendary Seattle music magazine.
As the decade came to a close, so did Eureka Farm, but Death Cab continued, now with new drummer Michael Surher.
At the time, Jason became one of, if not the leading drum instructor in Seattle, giving lessons upwards of six days a week with, at its peak, 60 students. He was so well respected, other drummers – world-renowned drummers like Matt Cameron (Soundgarden) and Bill Rieflin (Ministry/REM) – came in for lessons. Musically, he and Chuck Keller had gotten together to form a space country band called NEO. Life was great, teaching students was very rewarding, but he had a feeling in his gut he needed more. NEO was a good band, but would need a lot of work and sacrifice to make successful and there was always Death Cab. After seeing them at Bumbershoot in 2002, he thought about how good it’d be to be in that band. “I felt like I would be a better match for the band,” Jason remembers, “and I could push the band to be a better band.”
In September of 2002, Nick and Jason found themselves playing music together again, this time as the rhythm section for Juno. The band would rehearse at the Seattle Drum School and after practice, Jason and Nick would hang out and talk. “We were loosely flirting,” Jason said, “we were talking about our wishes to do more.” He added, “It was nice to rekindle the friendship with Nick – he’s one of the hardest working human beings I’ve ever met.”
One night, Jason felt it was time to say what he had been thinking and feeling – he wanted the band to use him for their new record. “I remember being terrified,” he said, not wanting to come across as sounding egotistical. “But I did believe I could help the band be a better band, a better live band.” Jason knew their current drummer, Michael Schorr, but he also knew it wasn’t the right fit. “I knew that, ultimately, the band wasn’t completely satisfied,” Jason stated. “Just before they were about to make another record.”
Within a couple of days, the four friends who had been buddies back in Bellingham were sitting together having lunch and talking about the possibility of Jason joining. They ultimately decided it was worth trying out and on Oct. 2, 2002, Jason had his first practice with Ben, Chris and Nick. Prior to the first practice, Jason sat down and wrote out every single drum part of every song – filling a three ring binder. At the first practice, the foursome clicked and the line up that would create Transatlanticism – an album NPR would call one of the 50 most important of the decade and Rolling Stone listed as the 57th of the decade – was born.
“Career wise, this was something that my gut was telling me this was something I needed to do.” But, turning his back on education career wasn’t a decision Jason took lightly. “Making the record was a total leap of faith,” he said.
With the new line up in place, Death Cab went into the studio in November, going into Chris’ Hall of Justice in downtown Seattle. The 11 songs on the album were already written, but with the addition of Jason, they went back and reworked them – some, like “New Year,” with dramatically different results. The recording, which took approximately six weeks, was scattered over the next five months. In their final U.S. tour using a van, Death Cab went to SxSW and back, stopping to record at John Vanderslice’s Tiny Telephone studio in San Francisco to record Transatlanticism and “Expo ’86.” They returned home to finish the record.
Reflecting back on that time, Jason said there wasn’t any thought that the record would take off the way it did – the band was just enjoying their newfound creative surge. It was as simple as, “this is fun, let’s roll with it,” he said. “Put out a record, go on tour. It wasn’t any different.”
The band was also too focused on playing together to get caught up in any of the hype. “They’d been a band since ’98. Four and a half/five years of touring,” he said. “Once the record was done and we were out on tour, I was preoccupied with doing the best I could and fitting in with this band,” while Ben, Nick and Chris were focused on playing with a new person. At the same time, there was a connection – the band was finally as it was supposed to be. “That was the first time I was in a band that made sense to me,” said Jason. “I understood chemistry,” adding, “I understand why it’s possible to succeed in a band when it feels like this.”
On Oct. 7, 2003, Transatlantacism was released by Barsuk Records. From the start, the band garnered very positive reviews as publications such as Spin, Uncut, All Music, Alternative Press and countless others talked about the album’s beauty, sound, and maturity. Their songs were being licensed for television and movies, and the band was getting recognition on national television shows like The O.C. (where they performed) and Craig Kilborn (their major network debut). Simply, Death Cab for Cutie were everywhere you looked and everywhere you turned. They had become an “it” band.
But while this all felt outside of their cocoon, they continued to focus on music and touring. As they moved forward, their touring schedule ramped up with offers to play more expensive continental touring in Europe, the UK, and Japan. Venues at home got bigger as well with people lining up earlier and earlier to get in. The touring cycle ended with three sold out shows at the Showbox in early May of 2004 – it was then when it really hit Jason how big the band had become.
From there, the band took a little time off before working on their major label debut, Plans. Another album that garnered rave reviews, Jason looks at Transatlanticism as the inhale and Plans as the exhale. The end of the Plans cycle is “a total blur,” he added.
The momentum of Transatlanticism opened even more doors for the band, including a spot on Conan O’Brien and being musical guests on Saturday Night Live. As the band celebrates the 10-year anniversary of the album, Barsuk is releasing the demos for the album. While the songs are beautiful and haunting, hearing them juxtaposed with the recording after Jason joined, it’s revealing how much more depth was added to their sound and songwriting. Death Cab was good, REALLY good before Jason, but adding him made them simply great. He was the missing piece that brought them to a true band – four members pushing each other creatively for a greater good. The demos are the before and the album is the after.
Back in the studio
Recently, Death Cab has returned to the studio, working on their eighth album. Back at the Hall of Justice for the first time since Transatlanticism (the building was recently remodeled from the ground up, by Chris) the foursome find themselves all in the Northwest, something that has not happened since 2005. All members are in Seattle, except for Jason who lives in Bellingham with his wife and two children.
Though the writing process is in its early stages, Jason is thrilled with the results so far. “I stand by my word that this is the best material Ben has ever written. This has to be the best thing we’ve ever done and we’re going into it with the most positive attitude we’ve ever had. Ben has a big story to tell and he’s telling it as a mature person who can speak about life.” He also notes the album is going to be very honest and have a Northwest feel to it. “We’re really going to come across as confident and historic, not old or dated,” stated Jason, “I think there will be a thread that you could pull from record one,” adding, “It comes full circle to the fearlessness we felt with Trans.”
“It’s an absolute joy and pleasure to hang out with three of my best friends. Marriage, divorce, childbirth. Through all of that we’ve maintained our friendship”
For more about Death Cab for Cutie, visit deathcabforcutie.com. For demo information, visit Barsuk.com.