Forgive Death Cab for Cutie if they don't act like a rock band. They're nice boys. They have supportive parents. They're doing this their way.
Frontman Ben Gibbard looks like a guy you might've seen a few places-in the back room of a house party, standing in line at McDonald's (it wasn't him; he's an on-again, off-again vegan), anywhere but behind a microphone crooning his oddly constructed songs.
The slightly built Chris Walla might as well be in his bedroom with headphones on, strumming his guitar to a song only he can hear. Nicholas Harmer is the lone holdout to old-school rock; he plays his bass as if trying to stomp an imaginary mud hole dry. New drummer Jason McGerr can't be expected to move too much, trapped as he is behind the oversized kit of the technically proficient. Besides, he's just happy to be here.
"All I know," McGerr says, "is I'm having fun right now. I'm far more in the moment and the past is the past and we're right here and now."
Here-the moment-is New York City's Bowery Ballroom on a Monday night in late October. More a seatless theater than a club, the Ballroom is sold out for the second night in a row. Clear across the country from their home base of Seattle (by way of nearby Bellingham, Wash.), Death Cab for Cutie is filling music venues throughout the eastern U.S. in support of the recently released Transatlanticism, their second successive album to reach out and touch College Music Journal's No. 1 slot.
Not surprisingly, the audience is predominately under-30. Women sway rather than sing along to Gibbard's sometimes more-than-you-want-to-know, confessional lyrics. The occasional testosterone case enacts climactic air guitar during intermittent prog-rock numbers like Transatlanticism's leadoff, "New Year."
Everyone is having a fine time. Life is good. And as the latest in a long line of Death Cab drummers (think John Warner in the Elizabeth Taylor marriage cycle), McGerr is necessarily optimistic.
"It's like a very fresh, young thing that is bursting with energy," McGerr tells me before the show, "and we feel like with Transatlanticism we've just begun to tap in to what we can do. I can't even begin to tell you how good it feels to be making music with Death Cab for Cutie."
As is the case with every member of Death Cab, the band is another notch on McGerr's belt. Walla is a much sought-after producer ("he's living in the studio every day that we're not on the road," the drummer says). Gibbard has found success in The Postal Service. Nick Harmer, the businessman of the group, has been working as a studio musician and sporadic road manager. McGerr, a former member of Eureka Farm and longtime teacher at Seattle Drum School of Music, just finished playing on the first solo album by former Dismemberment Plan vocalist, Travis Morrison.
But, he says, "Death Cab has always been the priority and, as a matter of fact, at this level of intensity that we're approaching, there's not going to be really any time for side projects. I mean, Postal Service is on full hiatus, indefinite hold. Chris had a couple of albums planned right after we got off this tour, but I think he's canceled them both. We're really trying to focus everything right now on the band. It's total focus. Right now, it's Death Cab time."
But isn't it hard to be the new guy? To be the drummer in a band where one member's writing all the songs?
"When you reach a certain level of success, the drummer's the guy that has the least amount of pressure, so it's kind of a trade off," McGerr says. "I've known these guys forever, always admired where Death Cab for Cutie has been coming from, and where they're headed. I like the whole vibe. I like the catalog. I was a fan before I played in the band.
"I knew the material before the band asked me to play with them. I went the extra mile to make sure I had every detail right. Because I'm a teacher I can transcribe music fairly well, so I have complete charts of every drum part played on every Death Cab record.
"I admire what the other drummers before me have put down, and part of my education is to really get inside another player's head and learn their parts. And it's great to slip on someone else's skin."
"Most people don't even want to talk to drummers," he adds, "so it's no big deal to me."Death Cab for Cutie performs with Nada Surf at The Scene, 8 p.m. on Nov. 16. $12-$14. 858.505.9111