30 October 2019

Death Cab For Cutie Will Keep Providing The Sads


Many years ago, someone on the internet had a thought: Kevin Bacon was connected to everyone in the movie industry by six degrees of separation or less. Tom Hanks was in Apollo 13 with Bacon, which meant one degree of separation. Millie Bobby Brown was in Godzilla: King of the Monsters with Kyle Chandler, who was in The Vanishing of Sidney Hall with Nathan Lane who was in He Said, She Said with Kevin Bacon: three degrees of separation. You get the idea.

I put it to Dave Depper, the guitarist and keyboardist of Death Cab For Cutie, that he is the Bacon of the music world. Before joining Death Cab as a permanent member, he played with Laura Gibson, The Decemberists and everyone in between.

He laughs at the idea and tells me I’m late to the game: “I think if you google Dave Depper band shirt, there was a Portland magazine that did something like that. I don’t think it connected me to everyone, but there was a galaxy map of everyone I’ve played with in America, at least. But we could expand that out to the whole music industry, hopefully. I don’t know how I’m connected to like, U2, necessarily…but we could get to other people.”

Forget U2. How is Dave Depper related to say, Ocean Alley, this year’s Triple J Hottest 100 winners? Well, he has played with The Decemberists, whose newest album was mixed by John Congleton. Congleton has also worked with Kimbra, who played Woodford last year with The Cat Empire. And the Cat Empire toured with Ocean Alley last year. Done.

Credit: Eliot Lee Hazel

Bacon aside, Dave Depper doesn’t leave as wide a footprint across the internet as say, Ben Gibbard, who was married to Zooey Deschanel for a time. I know Gibbard likes running ultramarathons and his religious affiliations. But Depper flies under the radar. When I ask what he would want people to know about him, he is very modest: “Something I want people to know about me…I try to always be kind, I guess, is the most important thing that I live by.”

Depper joined the touring band in 2014 for the Kintsugi world tour, replacing founding member Chris Walla, or as he puts it, “more or less filling the void left by Chris.” Still, he says, the band was open to new ideas. “There were obviously certain parts in songs that needed to be covered, and I couldn’t just turn the guitar riffs from ‘Transatlanticism’ into a weird synthesiser part or something you know, that part should sound like that part sounds.

“But I was just really surprised at how much freedom they gave me to craft my own sound and sort of play parts that might not have been there before, that sort of thing. So it was a fun balance of playing these iconic guitar parts I already loved and was a fan of, and being able to add my own personality to it when it was appropriate. And it was a lot of fun, from the beginning.”

Depper joined the band as a full member, alongside pianist Zac Rae, before the making of Thank You For Today, released last year. In the studio, it was clear their input was as welcome as the other members.

“It was pretty intimidating at first to get into the studio with those guys. At the time they’d made eight records, millions-selling, Grammy-nominated records. Who am I to tell them to change things up? But we got there. And I’m really proud of the record we made.

I felt invested in it and part of it from day one. It was still hard to believe for a while. But…I hit the ground running, I’ll say that.”

Credit: Eliot Lee Hazel

Death Cab for Cutie’s Thank You For Today tour this year marks the first time they’ve visited Australia since 2014 with Kintsugi. Depper’s main takeaways from Australia were the cold weather, and hugging a koala for $20, “like any sucker American,” he laughs. He is blown away, but not super thrilled, to find out that koalas famously have chlamydia. (“Koalas have chlamydia?! And it’s transferable to humans?!”)

Depper recounted his koala encounter in a Talkhouse article in which he eloquently detailed the strangeness of returning home from touring. He tells me how he keeps himself sane on the road: regular exercise, working on new music, drinking less alcohol, and for a while in Europe, watching The Great British Bake-Off.

“Have you heard of it? Okay, I got totally obsessed with that on this last leg, especially driving through the idle green fields of the UK. I’d lay in my bunk and watch that. You know, you just cannot be in a bad mood and watch that show.”

You’d be forgiven for thinking everything above sounds pretty wholesome and well-adjusted for a band that plays such melancholy music. For emo kids like me who have grown up on angsty music from self-destructive artists, it can be strange watching their idols grow up and find some measure of happiness.

Depper has complex thoughts over the inevitable development and growth of bands that found fame in sadness. “I don’t know if I’m necessarily qualified to answer this, but I do know that in my own songwriting, I have a hard time writing about happy things, they just seem trite and not worth doing sometimes. And a lot of music I listen to, it’s more satisfying to listen to sad music for whatever reason.

“But I also think that it’s totally a crock to expect musicians to have to suffer for their art. People say things like, “oh man, I wish this band were sad again” or things like that, and I really wanna tell people off about that kind of point of view, like screw you! That’s so selfish of you to expect people to suffer for their art.

“I think the challenge though, is as songwriters, to access those feelings or to figure out how to get them from somewhere else. I mean certainly there’s enough sadness to go around right now, and I think it’s going to seep in to just about anything, that my peers or I do. I don’t know, I don’t feel like I’m amping this that well, but I do agree there’s something compelling about melancholy and it’s very comforting if you’re sad to listen to sad music. So, I don’t have any doubts that Death Cab will continue to provide the sads in the years to come.”

Death Cab For Cutie play the Canberra Theatre Centre on Saturday 9 March. Tickets start from $79+bf.

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