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Death Cab’s Nick Harmer on lessons learned over 20 years of ‘Transatlanticism’

Death Cab for Cutie bassist Nick Harmer (center) with his bandmates.
Axel Kabundji
Death Cab For Cutie; Facebook
Death Cab for Cutie bassist Nick Harmer (center) with his bandmates.

Anniversaries are a big deal to humans. They’re a way to mark the significance of the passing of time while celebrating accomplishments and accolades (as well as memories and bonds formed). So it only made sense last year when Death Cab for Cutie decided to recognize the 20th anniversary of their fourth album, Transatlanticism — in many ways, the band’s turning point.

The 2003 release is what blew them up and endeared them to fans, launching them on tour after tour and influencing their next records as a cornerstone of lyrical quality and sound. Death Cab revived this integral musical moment by giving Transatlanticism its full bouquet of flowers, resharing it with new and old fans alike in a way that lets everyone savor the memories of the first time they heard the record and reconnect with the emotions that it made them feel.

The celebratory tour recognizing two decades of Transatlanticism comes to Milwaukee’s Miller High Life Theatre next Monday, sweetening the deal by trotting out another seminal indie record released that same year: Death Cab leader Ben Gibbard’s “little side project” called The Postal Service (with Jimmy Tamborello on the bleeps and bloops).

The instantaneous success of that project’s album, Give Up, happened right around the time Transatlanticism released. Safe to say, Gibbard found himself in an unusual spot most musicians couldn’t even fathom: two hit records dropping within months of each other.

I spoke with Death Cab For Cutie bassist Nick Harmer before the band hit Milwaukee about that lightning in a bottle, all the nostalgia surrounding and what life as an indie rockstar felt like in ’03 — going from playing to 10 people at Cactus Club to touring with Modest Mouse, Bright Eyes and beyond.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Death Cab for Cutie and The Postal Service are going to be stopping in Milwaukee on May 6 at the Miller High Life Theatre, playing Transatlanticism and Give Up to celebrate those albums’ 20-year anniversaries. This tour started in the fall of 2023, is that right? 

Death Cab's Nick Harmer
Death Cab for Cutie; Facebook
Death Cab's Nick Harmer

Correct. Yeah, we were on the road at the actual 20-year anniversary mark in October.

That feels really celebratory to me. 

It was, yeah. We were actually in Seattle when we hit that mark, too, which [added] an exponential emotional power to the moment.

What was 2003 like for you? Rewind back to that time when this album was being pieced together and released. You were touring, but where were you in your life? And musically speaking, what was all going on? 

You know, 2003 was a really important time for us and for me and the band. It was a real turning point I think in some ways. We had just finished a pretty gnarly tour cycle around our record called The Photo Album. We had a lot of internal stuff going on. We were just kind of burned out, I'll just say.

I think in the end, when we really reflect back at that time, what we realized what had happened is up through The Photo Album and the tour that came after making The Photo Album, we told ourselves over and over again that if we stopped what we were doing, if we'd taken a break from touring or taken a break and put some distance in between records or something, that people would stop caring and we would lose all this momentum that we had been working so hard to build.

And I think we had this sort of burnout moment where we hated it, and we were at odds with each other and not really sure what was going to happen. Then we just said, “Let's take a break.”

I think that was not “take a break from the band,” but “let's just slow down and not play some shows and not put a record out because we feel like we have to be on tour. Let's give Ben some space to process years of emotions and things that had been building up. Let's give ourselves some space to find a drummer that would really complete the lineup to the band.”

We found Jason [McGerr], and Ben had some time to reflect and really process so much, so he was able to write a whole record with Jimmy Tamborello for The Postal Service called Give Up, and an entire record of stuff for us as well that became Transatlanticism. That was a real prolific time for Ben because we just had some space.

And we finally just looked at each other and said, “This band is important to us. We love what we're doing. We love the music that we're making.” It was a redoubling of our commitment to that. And with that commitment came the realization that we just needed to be kinder to ourselves and take a little bit of a more considered pace to how we were approaching it.

I think the proof for us that that was the right step to take was the fact that Ben put out two amazing records in one year and that Transatlanticism really was at that point, the culmination of everything that we'd been building to as a band.

So I think that was a real validating kind of moment, like, “It's OK for us to not grip the steering wheel so tightly and let's just have a little bit of fun and realize that we like what we're doing here.” That came through in the record, and it's been something that we've carried with us since then and everything that we've approached.

If you're approaching a 20-year anniversary and you're ready to revisit these songs and celebrate them again, obviously they have a profound meaning to you. 


Death Cab for Cutie near the beginning of the tour celebrating the 20th anniversary of "Transatlanticism."
Death Cab for Cutie; Facebook
Death Cab for Cutie near the beginning of the tour celebrating the 20th anniversary of "Transatlanticism."

Going back to when this album first released when it was still fresh, do you have some memorable moments of places you played, bands that you toured with during that time? What are the things that really stand out the most to you? 

I think the thing that really stood out or continues to stand out the most for me is just how kind of galvanized we felt as a band. There was just a real sense of all-for-one, one-for-all. And I credit a lot of that to Jason McGerr joining the band. He was such a necessary kind of cornerstone of the foundation that his presence in the band was just really solidifying. He just brought this sense of, “OK, we're going to really do this.

And not to say that we had dreams that we were even going to do it beyond the record that we just made; I don't think that we were ever and still aren't the kind of band that set real lofty goals for where we wanted to be and what we wanted to accomplish or any of this stuff.

I think it was really small and kind of modest steps, [but] I remember that the shows were starting to grow. And I could feel the attention of a lot of the culture in the world, whether it was radio stations or media or press or whatever, starting to pay attention to not only bands like us, not only our band, but also just bands that we knew in various scenes around the country.

You had this sort of sense that there was a kind of a cultural shift happening musically that was gaining some real steam across the country, and that was really exciting. It was really fun to see some of our friends and our favorite bands also start to really achieve new levels of success and for things to really pivot in a good way to really interesting music that was being made at that time. It was fun to be a part of that, you know?

Death Cab's appearance on Fox's "The O.C." two years after the release of "Transatlanticism."
Death Cab for Cutie; Facebook
Death Cab's appearance on Fox's "The O.C." two years after the release of "Transatlanticism."

Do you remember some of those artists you were excited to see also being uplifted at that time? 

To us, the “godheads” of the era were Modest Mouse, bands like American Analog Set from Austin, Explosions in the Sky from Austin, Spoon from Austin. We had Rilo Kiley from Omaha. Well, they were from L.A., but Saddle Creek, their label, was based in Omaha, with Bright Eyes and Pedro the Lion. There were a lot of bands that we had been touring with small, and suddenly we were really starting to connect on big levels — The Dismemberment Plan, who we did a tour with just before Transatlanticism.

That was just a super powerful tour for us. And I think to see these bands and these things really start to grow across the whole country was just so exciting, so super exciting. It's one of the benefits of being a band as long as we’ve been a band is that a lot of these friendships are still intact, and we get to see people as we come through. It's been so much fun to be able to play these two records and go and visit a lot of our friends.

I actually don't have much of a memory of Milwaukee from the Transatlanticism tour, but I'll never forget the very first time we ever played in Milwaukee. We played this place called the Cactus Club.

There are two women who lived in Milwaukee that had somehow found a copy of our first record, Something About Airplanes — this woman named Janelle and a woman named Carly. They basically lobbied this bar and lobbied us to come and make a stop on tour. And we played in Milwaukee to like 10 people at the most. I think maybe eight of those people were there just on a night having a drink, but it was amazing.

We ended up meeting a band called Camden that was there. And, through them, bands like Promise Ring and Braid and some of these other more Milwaukee-based bands that, for us, became interesting people that we knew and could look forward to seeing when we came through town. That was just all part of the scene, you know?

Cactus Club is still alive and kicking. … Camden just did an anniversary thing a couple of years ago. Those guys are still writing music. Dramatic Lovers is [BJ’s] new project. You're taking me back. It's so great. I love that. 

By the time Transatlanticism had been released in the fall of 2003, the Postal Service's Give Up was like eight months old already, so it kind of became this really big hit. Was that a distraction from the just-released Death Cab album, or did that give your album a little bit of a boost? 

Death Cab for Cutie; Facebook

A little bit of both? I think that it was mostly a boost. As a band, we had always — all of us — been interested in lots of side projects and doing other things along the way. We kind of moonlighted in other things, and so in some ways The Postal Service was just an extension of all of us doing other little side projects.

The fact that it went huge was amazing for everyone because, yes, it brought a whole bunch more attention to Ben as a songwriter and certainly by extension then onto our band. [It was] a little bit of a distraction because I think it was really kind of hard to message to people at the time that The Postal Service was kind of this one-off side thing that Ben was doing, and it wasn't the same band.

So we would be right in the middle of one of our sets, and people would start yelling out for Postal Service songs, and you'd be like, “Well, on one hand, I forgive you because it's Ben singing, and so you think it's the same thing.” But, on the other side, it's like, “We don't know how to play Postal Service songs. We're not The Postal Service.”

So there's a whole other flip side to that where it was sometimes a bit of a distraction at the time, but it never overshadowed anything. Ben's commitment and his line the whole time was always just, “Death Cab’s my thing, and The Postal Service was something that I had fun with and made with Jimmy.” He’s been pretty clear. He said, “We're not going to make another record.” It was just a one-time strike of lightning.

It’s been fun to bring these two records together, certainly for this tour. For so long, we tried to keep the streams from crossing, and now we realize, “Well, let's let the streams cross and really let everyone celebrate this moment that happened in 2003. “

As a bandmate [of Ben], I'm really proud of the record we made together. As a friend, I'm very proud of what he did that year. He made two records that really had a massive impact on culture, and I can't think of another contemporary songwriter that has made two records so distinct from one another musically but also had such a strong connection in the world in the same calendar year. It's a real unique feat and something I'm really proud of [for] Ben.

So this tour is a really cool way to kind of celebrate him and give him some extra shine that I think he deserves.

Death Cab's Ben Gibbard (center) and Nick Harmer (right) with hardcore punk legend Ian MacKaye in front of the Dischord House.
Death Cab for Cutie; Facebook
Death Cab's Ben Gibbard (center) and Nick Harmer (right) with hardcore punk legend Ian MacKaye in front of the Dischord House.

Oh, absolutely. He’s in such a unique position. I don't know many musicians who can do what he's doing right now.

It's very unique. Like you said, I can't think of another analog of that really. I know people have had side projects that are extensions musically of something that they've done or solo work. That's not exactly it.

Postal Service and Death Cab were just such different entities sonically and otherwise, but yet in the core emotionally, they're very much the same because they came out of the same heart and the same mind. There's a lot of connective DNA there, for sure. That’s why it works. That’s why I think this tour is symbiotically a really fun thing to be a part of.

I can only imagine. It’s something very special. You’ve definitely got to savor it. I know it sounds funny to advise you to do that, and I'm sure you are, but …

We are savoring it by continuing into this year doing it. Initially, we were like, “We're just going to do the fall tour,” and then immediately people were so interested in it.

The feedback was so positive and great that we realized that we're not going to be able to play all of the cities and places that we even want to play on one tour. We have to keep this going, but we also have to be careful that we're not wallowing in nostalgia and making it seem like we're kind of trying to wring out, like a washcloth full of old accolades or something.

We’re trying to find that really sweet spot from, like you said, acknowledging it and really being able to celebrate it, but then also realizing that we have to stop at some point. You can go too far with the trip down nostalgia lane. I think we're doing just the right amount of work this year to do that.

I think a lot of your fans probably would disagree. They want you to “wring that washcloth out” a little more. They're probably like, “Yes, please add more dates.” ’Cause I didn't make the first time you came through town. So I wouldn't think about it that way at all. 

Thank you. Yeah, I don't know. We have struggled with finding that line, and I think we're in the sweet spot right now. We’re also trying to, in the middle of all of this, actively write and collect ideas for the next Death Cab LP. We’re looking ahead to the next proper tour. So it's kind of funny to have two hats on at the same time. We're looking deep into the future but also looking deep in the past for the old Death Cab. It's a fun place to be in right now.

What kind of era of nostalgia is that going to bring to your new songs?

We don't know, but that's the thing that's so fun about making records is you don't really know what state you're going to be in when you finally hit “record” for real.

So much of it is informed by the state of the world. So much of it will be informed by, like you said, these tours and this experience. It’s left a mark on us. And I don't know exactly how that's going to show up in future creative output, but I'm sure some of it will be processed out in some way. I know it will.

I want to go back to dusting off these songs for the first time after 20 years. I'm sure you included these songs throughout many setlists and tours, but you're doing the album from front to back. Especially with just releasing 2022's Asphalt Meadows, how does that feel? I mean, these songs never were buried, but I'm sure the focus was always on what's next.

It feels amazing. And I think the thing that has been interesting is that when we do a Death Cab proper tour, it's a two-hour show, and we change the set lists every night. We're always trying to rotate in new and old stuff and keep things interesting for people that may have seen us, even on the last tour cycle.

I think all of us were like, “I wonder what it's going to be like to play an album's set list in order of the album from start to finish, same set, so there's no mystery of what song is coming next?” If you know the record, then you know what song's happening. And we thought, “Man, that might be a little bit strange.”

Because you can feel that sense of anticipation in a normal set, [like], “What are they going to play next?” And then you start in with it, and everyone goes crazy because they recognize the opening bars of the song that they're excited to hear.

But I think this tour has been really fun because everyone does know what's happening. The record in and of itself is a journey. And for us to go on that journey with a person who appreciates the record and really connects, it’s brought a whole other level of emotional dimension to it.

So we would just pick and choose songs here and there during a Death Cab headlining show, and “Transatlanticism” for years has been our finale. Now it happens in the middle of the set. It's in the middle of the record. And we were like, “How is it going to feel to take the song that we have told ourselves is the ultimate finale / catharsis in a song of a set? How's it going to feel to play that in the middle of a set?” And it works because of the songs around it.

I think that, to me, that was a really fun thing to realize — that all of these songs can live on their own, but they also live together as a story from start to finish. To be able to share that longer story of them all really was a fun revelation to have. I've said this in other interviews, but it's as close to getting into a time machine as I'll ever be able to do; it's just a wild thing, you know?

One final question for you: You're notably touring with an 88Nine favorite — Wisconsin natives, now Chicago residents Slow Pulp. Did you all choose to bring Slow Pulp aboard on this last leg of this big tour? 

We definitely did, yeah. We have played a few shows with Slow Pulp now, and they’re just such fantastic folks, and I can't think of a more fun way to celebrate something looking back 20 years than with a band that's just on fire right now. It’s a great mix, and I'm really excited to have their particular energy and personalities on the tour. Yeah. It's going to be so fun.

88Nine Music Director / On-Air Talent | Radio Milwaukee