Death Cab for Cutie were fresh off of a successful European tour — and banging their heads against the studio wall. Their frontman, Ben Gibbard, had written a new song, “Blue Bloods” — a delicate ballad about dealing with interlopers in a public relationship — and the band spent the entire day trying on new arrangements, but nothing seemed to work. That is, until one of their youngest, newest members spoke up.
“It’s this very pretty sort of small song,” Depper tells TIDAL. “But it seemed like it needed breaking open somehow.” His idea: get in a room with the rhythm section and rip a noisy, fuzzy psych-rock guitar part that gave the mannered indie band teeth.
“Blue Bloods” wasn’t catching fire before, but thanks to Depper, they had it in three takes. “Everyone was like, ‘Yeah, that’s how that song should sound,’” he says with a tint of humility in his voice. “And no one was more surprised than me.”
Now, Death Cab for Cutie fans can witness the latest chapter in their evolving legacy. Today (September 6), the band released The Blue EP, a follow-up to last year’s Thank You for Today featuring five diverse new songs.
A Portland, Oregon-based multi-instrumentalist who lent his talents to acts like Mirah, the Fruit Bats and Menomena, Depper was approached to join Death Cab for Cutie in 2015 when co-founding guitarist Chris Walla amicably exited the band after recording that year’s Kintsugi. Given that Death Cab were an indie institution that just lost a key member, Depper’s was a slightly unenviable position to be in — the unfamiliar guy in the stead of a fan favorite, picking out notes pre-written for him.
But on 2018’s Thank You for Today, he went from being a touring member to an active force in their writing process, even landing a co-write on the single “Gold Rush” with Gibbard (and a credited Yoko Ono, as per its sample.)
The Blue EP finds this new configuration stretching further; its five songs seem to tease five possible new directions for the band. This has much to do with Depper growing bolder, more confident, working as a collaborator and not a hired gun.
“It felt very different for me, psychologically,” he says of the new EP’s sessions. “It just felt like I was allowed to allow myself as much as I wished to, and it felt wonderful. I think the results speak for themselves.”
Read on for a conversation with Depper about his beginnings in the band, his development into a co-writer for Death Cab for Cutie and why boldness is the operating principle for the long-running band’s future.
Death Cab for Cutie were already an institution when you came along. How did it feel to join the band?
It was quite intimidating. When I initially got approached about it, I didn’t hesitate to say yes, but I had several months of being very nervous about preparing to do it.
Luckily, it was kind of a two-part induction process, because I spent the first year and a half to two years just being a touring guitarist and, for the most part, playing parts that already existed or embellishing them.
I didn’t really bear the responsibility of coming up with my own parts of the arrangements or representing the band in interviews or press routes — just instantly being the new guy or the replacement for the legendary Chris Walla or anything like that.
What about when you all hit the studio together?
That was a difficult transition as well, but if that had happened at the same time with the full weight of joining the band all at once, it would have been a much different proposition.
Once recording came around, we had this multi-year relationship as a touring band, and all of a sudden, we had to figure out how this new lineup worked in the studio — what communication was like, what rules there were and weren’t when it came to commenting on arrangements or songwriting, or suggesting parts.
But pretty quickly in the process, things really gelled, and it feels great. I can’t wait to get into the studio again with them.
How have you grown in the band since then?
I think just in my confidence, and accepting that I belong here instead of crushing impostor syndrome weighing down on me every second of the day.
There’s a difference between Thank You for Today and going into the studio with Peter Katis to record a couple of new songs for this EP we’re talking about. It felt very different for me, psychologically.
With Thank You for Today, there was a lot of being very polite, being very respectful and maybe not being as bold as any of us wanted to be. I think eventually we got there, but there was a lot of rewriting [the] rulebook.
With the new songs, it just felt like there weren’t any rules and we were five people who were free to do whatever they wanted without really paying attention to the legacy of the band, without the pressure of releasing a new record that needed to assure people that Death Cab hadn’t fallen off a cliff, things like that.
It just felt like I was allowed to allow myself as much as I wished to, and it felt wonderful. I think the results speak for themselves.
Did you feel like you were deferring to Ben? The producers?
If Ben brought in a song and I didn’t necessarily love the bridge or the guitar part that he had come up with, did I feel confident enough to express that? Did I feel like it would be my role to express that? This is a guy who has made a handful of absolutely classic records that have been very successful. Who am I to tell this guy that I’m not particularly happy with any aspect of what he’s doing?
And I think, in the reverse way, I was a new addition to the band. I play differently than those guys were necessarily used to. And maybe they felt reluctant to express that to me out of hurting my feelings, or something like that.
All of this was kind of imaginary on both sides of the debate. It became clear the second time around that we didn’t need to have these worries at all. Everyone was free to express themselves, and instead of ruminating on what the other person might be thinking or what they should or shouldn’t be playing, it came out. Any disagreements were resolved in 10-second, three-sentence discussions.
You have a co-writing credit on The Blue EP. Was there a moment where you felt you could take the next step and contribute more ideas?
Yeah, ‘To the Ground’ is the co-write credit on The Blue EP and ‘Gold Rush’ is a co-write I have on Thank You for Today.
They were both very similar situations, in that I loved the songs, they had these kind of relentless, repetitive grooves to both of them, but by a couple minutes into each song, I felt like it was doing the same thing over and over again, to a degree that made me tune out a little bit to the song.
So, on ‘To the Ground,’ I wrote this totally new bridge chordally, and it was this instrumental thing that ended up becoming the intro and something toward the end. On ‘Gold Rush,’ I took an existing verse of his and just changed the chords and melody around.
In both cases, I was pleasantly surprised that Ben didn’t immediately chop my head off. Instead, he was like, ‘Yeah! Let’s try that out!’ and everyone seemed to think it worked. Those were two great moments in confidence-building for [me], the young new guitarist of Death Cab.
You guys tweeted that the five songs on The Blue EP ‘share a similar conception but five different births.’ How so?
Conceptually, the songs all date from a similar period of time in songwriting for Ben. They were kind of all rusty songs that were written around the time of the Thank You for Today songs.
There are three different ways they were delivered to the world. There’s the two new tracks, ‘Kids in ‘99’ and ‘Blue Bloods,’ which we did with a producer we had never worked with before, Peter Katis.
There’s ‘To the Ground’ and ‘Before the Bombs,’ which were recorded during the sessions for Thank You for Today and didn’t make that record for a couple of different reasons.
And ‘Man in Blue,’ which we recorded ourselves in the lead-up to recording Thank You for Today in sort of a group demoing session where we were trying out a lot of different songs for that record.
The recording we did for [‘Man in Blue’] in the pre-production phase just seemed really perfect and special and like something we couldn’t recreate by going into the studio and trying to re-do it. So we tried to save that recording for the right occasion, and this is it.
What do you think is next for Death Cab, the more you grow into the band?
If anything, boldness is what we’re striving toward. Being unafraid to express ourselves in whatever context we are now as a band. Not being shackled by expectations of what we should sound like. We were curious about what the reactions to these songs would be, because they’re a bit different-sounding.
They’ve been received so positively that it’s really validated our feeling that the way forward is just boldness and taking things in a more extreme direction, whatever that might be.
Do you think Thank You for Today could have taken a bolder direction?
I am super proud of Thank You for Today. We love that record. I think it’s the record we needed to make. We needed to make a record that sonically had one foot in the future while not alienating people that love the band’s past sound. We were very careful to put a lot of Death Cab-ish signifiers in the arrangements and things.
I’m sure things will continue to sound like Death Cab for Cutie, but I think we’re more willing to put both feet forward in the service of exploring new sonic territory. That seems to be what people want and that’s what’s nourishing us right now.
Do you think there will be more room for Gibbard/Depper co-writes in the future?
We’ll see about that. I think there’s room for a lot of co-writes for everybody. The paths of communication are so open and the general feeling in the band is so positive right now that no ideas are off of the table.
Give me one more instance where you raised your voice and made a Death Cab for Cutie song different than it was before.
A couple of weeks before we recorded The Blue EP, we were on tour in Europe, and we had a day off in Hamburg. Ben, Nick and I went off to see the band Low, who were touring their Double Negative record, which is my favorite record of last year.
And Alan Sparhawk had the most unbelievable rich, warm yet evil guitar tone the whole time. This all-encompassing sound that just went into your chest. It levitated the crowd the whole time, is the only way I can describe it.
After the show, we hung out with them a bit, and I was like, ‘Man, I’m super sorry to geek out, Alan, but I’ve got to know what your signal chain was like, because that was an insane guitar sound.’ And he was like, ‘OK.’
I was astonished to find out he was playing out of a teeny 12-inch Fender tweed amp with, like, three pedals in front of it. It was all in the way he was hitting it and the way it was miked, and it just flipped my lid right over on itself.
A couple of weeks later, we were in the studio, and ‘Blue Bloods’ came up. We kind of worked on it for a whole day, sort of banging our heads against the wall, and none of the arrangements really stuck.
The next day, we went in with a fresh set of ears and fingers, and I don’t remember whose idea it was to slow it down to whatever tempo it ended up at, but it’s an incredibly slow song. It’s maybe the slowest Death Cab song yet.
Jason and Nick started playing the song extremely slowly in the next room. I noticed Peter Katis had, if not the same amp, an extremely similar amp. Just a tiny tweed amp. I said, ‘Hold on a sec. Let me set this up.’ And I recreated Alan’s signal chain as closely as I could.
I said, ‘Listen, everybody. I don’t know if this is going to work, but I’m just going to play the craziest psychedelic guitar over this the whole time.’ And everybody kind of looked at me skeptically, like, ‘What?’ It’s this very pretty, sort of small song. But it seemed like it needed breaking open somehow.
I got in a room with Jason and Nick, just the three of us, and just wailed on it the whole time. We did it three times. The third take is the unedited version you’re hearing on the record. Everyone was like, ‘Yeah, that’s how that song should sound.’ And no one was more surprised than me.