By Patrick Wall
Photos by Ryan Russell & Danny Clinch
Over the past six years, the boys of Death Cab for Cutie have accomplished more than they ever dreamed. Now on tour promoting their seventh studio album, Codes and Keys, drummer Jason McGerr spoke with Origivation about the recording process unlike any other.
During the mixing process of Codes and Keys, the latest album by Death Cab for Cutie, drummer Jason McGerr spent his mornings in his home studio, eagerly awaiting the finished songs to arrive from London. His band mate and producer Chris Walla had gone overseas to mix the unfinished songs with legendary producer Alan Moulder. But despite having played on all the tracks, McGerr wasn’t sure he even remembered how to play the songs.
For McGerr and the other members of the iconic indie quartet, recording Codes and Keys was an experience unlike any they had undertaken together. While the band ordinarily recorded albums all at once, this time around they opted to record in several two-week sessions before packing up, taking three weeks off, and starting the process all over again.
“We did this [in] maybe six different studios between the months of June and late November of 2010,” McGerr said, “and so each time we would load into the studio [and] we’d do four or five songs … and we’d pack everything up and put it away and move to the next place.”
“We never had a moment to stop and listen as a band, [to] sit in the control room and play back the stuff we did that week, or that two weeks. So it wasn’t until that November [of 2010] that I started to hear the things I had recorded in June.”
Walla has long been in charge of production for the band, and while there were moments McGerr said he was nervous about the direction the band was taking, he trusted and had confidence in the other guys. “Walla captains the ship. He’s the production captain. He’s the recording captain; he has a vision and we trust that he has a vision for the songs,” McGerr said.
“Recording Codes and Keys, record number seven, there were clearly moments when I couldn’t see the forest through the trees. At the end of every day, I realized that, ‘well, we’ve made it this far and we’re totally going to work this out.’ So there’s a confidence that comes with all the growth and change, I think, and hopefully I will say the same thing next time around.”
So what did he think after he heard the songs?
“I was super proud. I was pretty overwhelmed, actually.” he said. “When I was sitting at my home studio behind great speakers, listening to these songs fully realized, mixed by one of the greatest engineers in the world, in my opinion, it really felt like we got the gold-star treatment for everything through the entire record.”
And his pride is well justified. While Codes and Keys is less guitar-focused than some of their previous material, Death Cab has created a more upbeat album than ever before and the most sonically interesting album since 2003’s Transatlanticism.
Front man Ben Gibbard has often stated that each album is a snapshot of that moment in his life, and this album is no exception. He recently stopped drinking and married indie queen and She & Him front woman Zooey Deschanel.
But the good news isn’t limited strictly to Gibbard. Several of the band members, McGerr included, have started families, which is largely why the band chose to record Codes the way they did.
McGerr sees similarities between his budding family and his band.
“Being a baby to learning to crawl, to learning to walk to developing language skills to all of a sudden being able to have a conversation with your kid, and to watch that change happen almost overnight, I feel like that’s what happened with the band,” McGerr said.
“It’s still something you don’t realize is happening. It’s maturity, it’s a growth. Maybe [Death Cab’s] language skills I’m talking about is our ability to communicate in terms of production and as songwriters and presentation as a live band.”
Codes and Keys may be the band’s seventh album, but it’s McGerr’s fourth. He joined the band prior to the recording of Transatlanticism, an album which marked a significant shift for the group. Death Cab for Cutie went from a lo-fi face in the crowd to a more legitimate and hard-working band.
“Maybe I can take some credit for being the right kind of glue for the band to be able to handle the amount of work that it takes to be successful,” he said after laughing when I asked if he was the reason the band took off after Transatlanticism. “When I did join the band in October of 2002, there was a different thing. It was a shift in the music and the energy, both in the studio and live, but there was also a ‘wow, this is a brand new band again and we’re thirsty and ready for a full season.’
Death Cab for Cutie would spend the next five years straight either on tour or in the studio. According to McGerr, the band had about two months off between writing and recording Transatlanticism in 2003 and Plans two years later. Then they spent another three years on the road and recording Narrow Stairs.
And with each record came greater success: while Transatlanticism peaked at number 97 on the Billboard charts, Plans debuted at number four and Narrow Stairs was the band’s first album to debut at number one. Throughout that time, the band penned hits like “I Will Follow You Into the Dark,” “I Will Possess Your Heart” and “Soul Meets Body,” which peaked at number five on the U.S. Modern Rock Billboard chart.
This kind of success gave the band the kind of confidence they needed to grow creatively. “If you look back on the Drive Well, Sleep Carefully [documentary, which chronicled the band’s 2005 tour in support of Transatlanticism,] there’s a few comments where we feel like we’ve achieved more than we ever thought we would achieve and more. And I like that,” McGerr explained. “[I]t’s not a super conscious effort to evolve, but it’s been that way since the band began. So it doesn’t seem forced, it doesn’t seem anything but the right path. It gives us a lot more confidence to make a move forward each time we record a record.”
The band has come a long way since 2005, and Codes and Keys may be the clearest confirmation of this yet. As the group gets older, wiser and maybe even more family-oriented, the band’s content changes, but the quintessential feeling of Death Cab for Cutie remains.