When I try to conjure what my life will be like in 50 years, one optimistic scenario finds me still reasonably cool (for an octogenarian) and surrounded by an attentive little crowd.
“Grandma/Auntie/Strange Lady at the nursing home,” they'll say. “Tell us about your indie-rock days.”
I'll act demure at first, but they'll implore, and soon enough I'll haul out the buttons, the Polaroids and the stacks of yellowed newspaper clippings. I'll tell them about the half-empty Modest Mouse shows I attended, eons before “Float On,” and the small, sold-out White Stripes gig where everyone knew they were witnessing the Next. Big. Thing.
I'll tell them about standing next to Elliott Smith at The Casbah just months before he died and dancing after-hours with The Shins in the back bar of 'Canes. I'll wax nostalgic about the bands I interviewed, the fun experiences I had and the incredible people I met.
You see, indie rock defined me during my 20s. It was my life. But years passed and at some point—I can't say exactly when—I stopped thinking of myself as an indie-rock girl.
Maybe it's because I hit my 30s and “girl” began to sound like a grotesque exaggeration. Or maybe it's because what I'd thought of as my music started appearing in McDonald's commercials, WB teen soap operas and the music aisles at Target.
No band stirs up more conflicted feelings for me than Death Cab for Cutie. Eight years ago, a vinyl copy of their second album (We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes) took up residence on my turntable for months on end.
In those early days, I proudly wore a DCFC pin on my lapel whenever I saw the band play small gigs up and down the West Coast. Years later, in 2006, Death Cab played the Embarcadero in the wake of the platinum-selling Plans and I watched from backstage as thousands of moon-eyed fans sang along to every word. I was stoked for the Seattle foursome—knowing they deserved the adoration—but I also felt like I'd lost something.
I tell this to bassist Nick Harmer during a recent interview, months after the band's second major-label album, Narrow Stairs, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. (He's the guy on the far left in the photo above.) Harmer says he can relate.
“I was a kid growing up in the Northwest,” he explains. “I saw all of my own little private bands become international superstars, seemingly overnight. Nirvana comes to mind immediately, and Mudhoney, and all the bands around Seattle that I thought were my thing.
“It's a double-edged sword, though,” Harmer continues. “Even when they were my own private band, I loved them so much and wanted the whole world to discover how awesome they were…. And then the world did find out and I got mad.”
Harmer admits to being annoyed when his favorite artists were embraced by the masses and he consciously put distance between himself and those suddenly famous bands—at least at the time.
“I'm 33 now, and I still really like Nirvana” Harmer says. “I never really stopped liking them just because they became one of the biggest bands in the world.”
Mainstream popularity isn't always a fluke or fabrication. But there's more to it than that, something deeper and more poignant than those rare occasions when quality is embraced by large quantities. In fact, it doesn't really have anything to do with what “your” band has gained. It's about what unconsciously, but inevitably, slips away when your identity no longer hinges on every note they play.
“The feeling that you were talking about happens to a lot of people when they're younger,” he observes. “When you get older you just realize it's not so important to be defined by the things that you read and watch and listen to and wear.”
Harmer and I are the same age. We have a few mutual acquaintances and we've chatted backstage at shows. I interviewed him once at Street Scene and we laughed like dorks the entire time. Ten years ago, somewhere in Seattle, he was living a life that was probably not unlike mine—except now he happens to be in a band that made it huge.
But something that most 33-year-olds can relate to, whether they're rock stars or not, is that priorities change.
Marriage and mortgages replace guitar picks and set lists. Careers and children become more important than catching the opener or staying for the encore. I still love music, but I don't have the time or energy to go to shows every night anymore.
If Narrow Stairs reveals a more mature Death Cab for Cutie, both musically and lyrically, it's probably because the band members are simply getting older. I ask Harmer if he feels like a grown-up now that he's in his 30s.
“It seems like the late 20s or early 30s is the onset of adulthood for many people,” he says. “Or it feels like that to me, anyway. But I'm a very late bloomer with everything in my life.”
Maybe I am, too. I realize after we hang up that what I'd experienced at the Embarcadero show really had nothing to do with Death Cab for Cutie. It was just the sobering revelation that my youth was officially gone.
Standing there backstage, I was no longer an indie-rock girl sinking into a sweaty crowd, wide-eyed and wondrous. I was an adult watching from the wings as a band I'd followed from the get-go suddenly had what felt like the whole world cheering them on. But captured in that moment was the ultimate validation—a reaffirmation of something I'd known all along—and another great story to tell someday. Death Cab For Cutie performs Friday, June 20, with Rogue Wave at the SDSU Open Air Theatre. 619-594-6947. www.deathcabforcutie.com.