Before he started touring with the band in 2013, guitarist Dave Depper, who played in a few indie rock bands himself, knew the guys in Death Cab for Cutie. He and frontman Ben Gibbard had actually even become running partners.
So when the group needed a couple of extra players for its tour in support of Kintsugi, Depper threw his name in the hat.
“Nothing came of it, but a few months later, Ben called and told me that Chris [Walla] had quit the band and even though I had applied for the multi-instrumentalist position, he asked me if I would mind being the guitarist instead,” says Depper via phone from Mexico City, where the band had just played a festival. Death Cab for Cutie performs at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 4, at the Agora Theatre
The band’s new album, Thank You for Today
, represents the first recording to feature Depper, who says it was “fun, hard, intimidating, frustrating and rewarding all at once.” That the band retains its signature sound is a testament to how well Depper and keyboardist-guitarist Zac Rae, who also appears on a studio release for the first time, fit into the band.
“Zac and I were big fans of the band before we were in the band,” says Depper. “We don’t want to be the guys to turn it into Maroon 5, no shade on them. We want to the band to sound like Death Cab moving gently forward into whatever new era we’re in. We want to make sure the connective tissue is still there. Once we got into the groove [in the studio], it was fun, and things just worked. I’m really proud of the record we made, and it’s really a product of the people who made it. No one really dominated it. [Singer-guitarist] Ben [Gibbard] dominates it because he’s the voice of the band, and he writes the songs, but sonically everyone has equal say. We came out the other side with something we really believe in, and we can’t wait to get back into the studio and do it again.”
Produced by Rich Costey (Fiona Apple, Franz Ferdinand, Muse), who had just opened a new mixing studio in Santa Monica, the album finds the band again amping up the sonic textures of its mid-tempo tunes. The demo for the first single, “Gold Rush,” featured a Yoko Ono sample, and Depper says the group decided to keep it on the final version of the track because it worked so well.
“Ben [Gibbard] often will take a sample from another song and use it to write to,” says Depper. “He doesn’t like to sit down with an acoustic guitar and come up with something out of thin air. He likes to have a beat or some kind of rhythm to work with. In the studio, we remove the sample and come up with something cooler and figure out what to do in its place. The sample he used on ‘Gold Rush’ seemed integral. We played along with the sample, and Jason [McGerr] played the drum beat, and I doubled the slide guitar. It sounds like this huge super band kind of thing.”
One of the more aggressive tunes on the disc, “Northern Lights,” finds Gibbard singing over a melody that features shimmering guitars and occasional piano.
“That track was a funny one,” says Depper. “It was one of the first ones Ben [Gibbard] wrote for the record. It seemed like such a classic Death Cab song, and we just had to record it, and that would be it. It ended up being such a motherfucker of a song. We recorded it five different times. Sometimes, it felt too fast and sometimes too slow. The drums just didn’t sound right. The guitars needed to be different. It drove us crazy. Every couple of weeks, we’d try recording ‘Northern Lights’ again, which is weird because it was complete sounding as a demo. It’s always the ones you take for granted that become difficult. In the end, I’m thrilled with where it came out. We got there, but it was a crazy journey.”
Though the band’s history stretches back more than 20 years, the group continues to pick up new young fans with each record. Depper says the band’s appeal stems, in part, from Gibbard’s lyrics.
“The band hasn’t turned into this legacy act where people just scream for the old songs,” he says. “There are consistently teenagers and twentysomethings singing along to every word of ‘Gold Rush.’ It’s amazing. It speaks to his mastery of conveying universal themes. His stuff is filled with the fire of youth and that sort of wide-eyed romanticism, but it’s not tied to any age. Even as he gets older and writes about things that are more relevant to where’s he at, he’s looking back nostalgically. I think a young person can see that relates to where they are at. Beyond that, I can’t analyze it any further, but I sure am happy to be in a band with that guy.”