Death Cab for Cutie's Jason McGerr talks 'Codes and Keys'


Child television stars are often portrayed as "growing up in the limelight," but it's obvious that actors aren't the only entertainers that have been forced to mature before the masses. Death Cab for Cutie is one of indie rock's most intimately emotional bands. Over the past decade, with the success of their platinum album Plans in 2005 and Narrow Stairs in 2008, the band has continued to progress into darker and more complex narrative terrain.

[jump] May 31 marks the release of Death Cab for Cutie's seventh studio album, Codes & Keys. As DCFC's drummer Jason McGerr describes it, "There are a lot of themes on this record that have to do with home." Which is a very prevalent theme in their touted single "You Are a Tourist," but it doesn't seem to stop there; the entire album is a cathartic tale of travel, whether it be from an airplane to a vacation destination, or moving 3000 miles away from your hometown.

Gimme Noise had the chance to briefly speak with Jason McGerr of Death Cab for Cutie prior to their show at First Avenue tomorrow night.

Gimme Noise: Let's talk about lyrics. What inspired the lyrics on this new album?

Because I'm not the lyricists, I don't feel as comfortable talking about where they come from, because they did not come from me. But there are a lot of themes on this record that have to do with home. The fact that we travel as much as we do, and we have for the past 10-12 years, and spent as much time away from home, you really start to wonder about questions like not only where home is, but what home is. I think ultimately what we decide, or Ben decided, is that home is wherever you decide it is, wherever you are at that moment in time. It may be the house that you buy in the city that you grew up in, or a city that you once thought you'd never live. Or it may just be what's underneath your feet, under your vision. What you can touch and feel, i.e. my wife, my kids. At the same time, home might be a tour bus you've been on for six months straight.

The other tie-in is the Codes & Keys title of the record. We all have the interface with a certain amount of numbers and codes to access our home. Like the pound sign, the picture of the record... We use that every day to receive our messages, or type that code to wake up our sleepy computers, or to enter the gate or door, or apartment, or anything. Like there's not just a physical key, there's a key commander, a key code. Basically to get into that home that I'm speaking of, everyone has to use that code or key to get into that place -- an emotional code or a key, or a physical one. So semantically I think it has a lot to do with the overall theme of the lyrics.

I've heard people describe your new album as being a lot more open, emotionally. Leaving every essence uncovered within the songs. Do you feel this to be the case?

I guess in a way, we are who we are as people at this point. There is no changing our sound, or the way that we play or the way that we write, or even our public lives. It's not an overly played or overly produced record. We tried to make it less Ben and more everybody in the band. We've all gone through more changes I think as individuals, it's more personalized since the last record. Whether it's becoming parents, or being married, I don't know just having recorded six or seven records now -- having this be record seven. I think there's probably another way of describing this record as, well there's not just a bunch of bloody parts, there's not just a bunch of "blah, here is what's going on in my personal life."

Sometimes in a person's life we all have these moments of clarity where we all astonish ourselves with the things that can come out of your mouth, the things you can say. Maybe just being straight-up messy, but you are both proud, or depressed, or surprised by all those things that you can say and do. And I feel like we've somehow found a way to communicate all of those sounds and things and emotions. Every time we sat down to record a song for this record, if there was a song that was attempted that didn't come across that way, it didn't make the album. Ben wrote more songs than he's ever written for an album, for Codes & Keys. It allowed us to put those songs together and make a whole of the album. So it's not to be too cryptic or philosophical about it, but I really do feel it's an honest and confident record. It resonates with people.

2003 through 2005 spanned probably the most exhilarating time periods for you guys. Can you explain to me what it felt like to be Death Cab for Cutie during that time?

I'll give you an answer, but something I was reminded of the other day -- I was flipping through a really good pictorial/story of what was happening at that time. Her name is Autumn de Wilde, she's a photographer, and she recently just had a Death Cab for Cutie book published. We met her early in 2003 during the Transatlanticism tour.

In the fall of 2002 we started writing Transatlanticism. There was a definite -- not only a spark, but there was the smell of smoke. Like not only was there something that was happening in the band, but it was long-awaited. I think that Transatlanticism as an album is a testament to that. Before it came out, the band sold 50,000-60,000 albums; when Transatlanticism happened there was a little more of a cultural change that happened with the band in terms of the recognition that we were getting. 2003-2005 I didn't sleep a whole lot, because there was so much demand. Transatlanticism seems like that tour; we had two months off before we began recording Plans. We signed to a major label; more things could not have happened between the courses of those two to three years. We were releasing Transatlanticism to the end of the Plans album. And to dive back into that book I was talking about, Autumn de Wilde happened to be there to catch pictures of the first show we played in 2003, all the way to the recording of Plans, and then one of the last shows of the Plans tour. So yeah, it was a very exciting time, but honestly I feel like I'm blind, and I don't think I would truly be able to reflect until I go back and think about some of those moments, and re-read some press, and look at some more of those pictures. Life just moves to fast anyway, and when you're gone eight to nine months out of the year you really, really don't get a chance to look out the window and see what's going on. All I know is that we did well enough to do record number seven.

Do you ever return home to your home state in Washington and think, "Man this place is small"?

[Laughing] I'm actually driving from that town right now. I moved back there with my wife and two kids not too long ago, because we have a lot of family in that town still. Yeah, it's small town -- we spent the last 10 years in Seattle, and then moved back to Bellingham where the band started. I grew up there, it's a great place to raise kids, and schools are great, family help is unprecedented. So for as much as I'm gone all of that stuff really gives me peace of mind. So, we may not be there forever, we may feel the halls close in. We may need the big city yet again. And selfishly speaking, I still get to go out and spend a lot of time in big grand cities. So it's okay to live a little more simple life in a smaller town. I love to do everything I need to do in an hour instead of four hours. It's convenient; it's a beautiful place to live. But like I said, I feel like I could be just as happy where I've created a home in any city.

DEATH CAB FOR CUTIE play with the Lonely Forest on SATURDAY, MAY 21, at FIRST AVENUE. 18+. 6 p.m. Sold out.