April 17, 2012


Fuse Q&A: Nick Harmer on Death Cab for Cutie's "Big Brady Bunch" Orchestral Tour

Danny Clinch
Danny Clinch

In anticipation of Fuse's live stream of Death Cab for Cutie's orchestra-backed concert in Chicago this evening, we spoke with bassist Nick Harmer and learned why the indie band decided to turn a two-song collaboration on their last album into an entire tour backed by San Francisco's Magik*Magik Orchestra. 

Harmer also talked about how Minnesotan slowcore band Low (one of the tour's openers) was a "foundational" band for himself and Ben Gibbard, and he offered a few words on Death Cab's mysterious pre-show rituals. 

So why did you decide to do a tour backed by an orchestra?

Nick Harmer: When we recorded [2011's Codes and Keys], there were two songs on it ["Codes and Keys" and "Stay Young, Go Dancing"] where we felt it would be a great idea to introduce the texture of string part. We made a connection with Minna Choi in San Francisco who's an arranger and composer, and she fronts the Magik*Magik Orchestra, a modular orchestra that can change from a quartet to an octet to a full symphonic extravaganza. Whatever the needs are, she can accommodate. That planted the seed. As the year went on and we toured behind the album, we tossed the idea around of how to make another North American tour special for us—as much as anything—but also for the fans. This came up, we talked to her about it, she got excited and it came together pretty quickly after that. We started talking about it last fall, but it takes a while to write arrangements and get everything in place.

Does the Magik*Magik Orchestra back you guys up during the whole set? 

NH: She's written string arrangements for the entire main set and three songs of the encore as well. They're basically playing the entire show although we break it down into an acoustic set at one point. They've written string arrangements for new songs, for old songs, for songs that have never had strings before. It's working spectacularly well; we're beyond excited. I don't think we were aware of how well our music can be complemented by strings, how much space there is in our songs for strings to fit in. We didn't know it would be this amazing. I'm blown away.

It must be a lot harder trying to play off of an orchestra. Was there a ton of rehearsing?

NH: It did take some rehearsing. Thankfully, we are not a band that has a lot of open-ended arrangements—we don't jam through songs indefinitely or change things that radically. Our arrangements are pretty locked, so as long as we stay to the script on our end, it becomes easy for the orchestra to play with us. They're not looking for cues like, "Is this going on for another 16 bars or what?" We did rehearse with the orchestra for three solid days before the tour started, and those were long 8-10 hour days. But I anticipated it being a lot more work, but thankfully they're such professionals. Once we got our arrangements it locked together pretty fast.

I assume you'll be taking different tour buses, but how much will you be interacting with the orchestra offstage?

NH: A lot. That's always been the way we toured. There are bands that are very removed from the workings of the crew, but we're very close with our crew and [the orchestra]. First and foremost, the reason the tour even got suggested was that when we hung out with [the Magik*Magik Orchestra] while making the album and we all got along so well. Once personal stuff is not an issue, everything else is great. We all hang out but we have to be on separate buses. They're kind of our new adopted family: They're tight with each other, we're tight with our crew, so it's a big Brady Bunch kind of feel.

How did you choose your openers Low and Youth Lagoon?

NH: It's always been a dream of ours to play with Low; they are one of our favorite bands of all time. In fact, Ben and I—when we were just college roommates—we went to see Low play. They were a foundational band for all of us musically. It was one of those things where you'd meet friends, like, "Oh you like Low? I love Low, let's hang out!" So we'd always wanted to play with them, and it just seemed like the perfect time since this tour is a little more subdued. We're not playing up the rock side; we're playing up the pretty side of our band and they definitely complement that. It's beyond an honor to be playing with them. And Youth Lagoon, well, it's so funny, when we pick openers, we write emails to each other, like "What do you think about openers?" We always pick them ourselves—it's never assigned to us—so we all put together a group email and Youth Lagoon were on the top of everyone's list. And what are the odds of that? It worked out perfectly.

What else are you listening to these days?

NH: The new Damien Jurado record Maraqopa is fantastic. I can't stop listening to that; I've been reacting to that a lot. I love the new Low album, I'm trying to think of new stuff… most of the things I'm listening to I feel like the world is already listening to. I like the Sleigh Bells album, but everyone is listening to Sleigh Bells right now. Hmm, this is going to sound kind of weird, but I really like ambient music—more blissed-out, open ambient stuff—and one of my favorite partnerships in that field is a duo called Stars of the Lid. Half of them released a project called A Winged Victory for the Sullen. It's gorgeous; it's the perfect soundtrack for those days when you want to be quiet and meditative. A Place to Bury Strangers have a great new EP, I've been getting back into them.

Are there any pre-show rituals the band does before going onstage?

NH: We have our own pre-show rituals, but they're our private pre-show rituals. It's not like a big huddle, and we're not superstitious, but we have some rituals we do before we play. They're small, quiet and they're ours. We try to do them for the four of us to set our minds right. That'll be one of those things I don't think anyone will ever see. I'm making it sound like it could be amazing and magical, but it's probably not as interesting as anyone would think from the outside looking in.

Any new Death Cab music on the horizon?

NH: We're talking and planning, but right now the orchestra tour is our big challenge and the focus of our music and energy. There will definitely be new music, but nothing in the immediate future.