Indie Rockers Death Cab for Cutie Expand Their Sound in Wake of Lineup Change

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click to enlarge Indie Rockers Death Cab for Cutie Expand Their Sound in Wake of Lineup Change
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Indie rock heroes Death Cab For Cutie, whose co-headlining summer tour with CHVRCHES comes through Jacob’s Pavilion on June 7, have found themselves in a pretty comfortable spot after the release of their Grammy-nominated 2015 record Kintsugi and the departure of original member Chris Walla in late 2014. Extensive touring over the past year or so with new members Dave Depper and Zac Rae has done wonders for the band’s chemistry and confidence in what longtime fans might call the post-Walla era — and according to bassist Nick Harmer, that’s exactly what they needed.

“I think we were a little apprehensive in the beginning of how it was gonna roll out,” Harmer said. “I mean, we always knew we could find competent players to perform the parts that Chris had played over the years, but what was more important for us to have a good musical experience was to find players that we connected with personally.” That kind of chemistry is essential to the well-being of a band like Death Cab who, their three different drummers aside, hadn’t experienced any lineup changes since their inception as a full band in 1997.

Not only do Depper and Rae serve to replace Walla, but with five total members instead of four the band has been able to do certain things that weren’t previously possible live.

“We were listening to parts and thinking ‘Ah, we can do that little key melody now,’” Harmer said. “With a fifth voice on stage, we’re able to recreate and fill out the sonic spectrum even more so, and that’s really dynamic.” Fans that have been coming to shows for years will immediately recognize the difference, and even hear moments from recorded material that the band didn’t have enough pairs of hands to squeeze into a live set.

Moments like those are especially abundant on Kintsugi, possibly the band’s most instrumentally dense effort to date and the last to bear Walla’s creative influence. Layers of dreamy synth, keys and guitar can be detected in the background throughout the album, adding a more produced and atmospheric feeling to the Death Cab formula.

It almost lends itself to having more members to ensure everything is dutifully recreated live, especially ones that can play both keyboards and guitar as Depper and Rae do. Songs like “The Ghosts Of Beverly Drive” and lead single “Black Sun” are full of intricate moments of programmed noise, the instrumentation perfectly locking itself into place to create the right sounds at the right time. While later releases certainly ramped up to this sort of sonic direction, if fans of earlier hit records like Plans and Transatlanticism haven’t noticed much of a difference yet, they surely will once they see the live show.

“[There is] the immediate sense that people will come to shows and notice how much fuller our band sounds,” Harmer says. “It allows us to take things in certain directions I think we haven’t in the past. I think they’ll really be impressed by that. It certainly hits our ears and we’re really excited about it.”

New takes on old favorites may turn out to be a major theme of Death Cab’s upcoming tour, as the band is leaning towards pulling songs out of their back catalog that haven’t been revisited for a long time — while simultaneously giving them the five-member treatment.

“We’re looking at these shows, because it’s kind of at the end of the tour cycle, as a way to kind of dig deep into the catalog and present some stuff that we haven’t been playing much on this Kintsugi cycle at all,” Harmer said. According to him, the band has always tried to cater setlists according to what was played the last time they were in a certain city. For example: Death Cab haven’t been to our neck of the woods in northern Ohio since 2012, so expect them to pack their Cleveland set full of newer songs fans here haven’t had a chance to see played live.

Given the freedom the band has with what the set lists and the obvious flow of ideas between new members, can show-goers expect to hear any new material this summer? Harmer says it’s definitely under consideration at the moment, but expectations should be low.

“We’ve been thinking about at least trying it at a certain point … we’ve got new guys and a new thing, we might as well try something new,” he said. “It’s kind of a gut shot moment for us, whether we’re going to do it or not.”

However, as far as heading back into the studio with Depper and Rae goes, Harmer is cautiously optimistic. The band has been touring as a five-piece for almost 18 months now, and the flow of creative energy between members has had plenty of time to establish itself. From a fan’s perspective, it really only seems like a matter of time.

“The studio’s kind of a weird thing, and an interesting environment that we have yet to get into with both those guys,” Harmer says. “We’re still a little ways away from entering that process, but I know we’re really excited about heading that way when the time comes.”

Still, despite any kinks that may need to be worked out in terms of the in-studio dynamic, whatever emerges is sure to sound familiar to longtime listeners. Harmer is confident that whatever chief songwriter Ben Gibbard presents to the rest of the band will be true Death Cab through and through, despite whatever the new members may bring to the table.

“We’ve been pretty cautious over the years to keep ourselves out of musical culdesacs, and I feel like the songwriting starts first,” he says. “As long as [Gibbard] has a lot of excitement and really is believing in his songs in the beginning, then when it comes to the band I think we can really bring them in line to hold up to what we’ve done as a band in the past.”

Whenever the new material finally surfaces — if it upholds the direction in which Kintsugi was headed, fans will likely be in for something special once the time comes. In the meantime, though, they have an extensive string of shows to enjoy this summer.

Death Cab for Cutie, CHVRCHES, Pure Bathing Culture, 7 p.m. Tuesday, June 7, Jacobs Pavilion at Nautica, 2014 Sycamore St., 216-622-6558. Tickets: $25-$39.50,
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