Northeast Underground

Feels like home: a conversation with Death Cab For Cutie drummer Jason McGerr

Death Cab For Cutie (Photo courtesy of Atlantic Records)There’s an old joke that goes as follows, “What do you call a drummer who breaks up with his girlfriend?” The answer: Homeless.

While Death Cab For Cutie drummer Jason McGerr is far from homeless, he is, after all, still a drummer. And this Friday he pulls his kit into Western Massachusetts with the rest of his group to perform at the Mountain Park Amphitheater in Holyoke.

“Amphitheaters, sheds, stuff like that – I just love being outside under the stars seeing a big crazy rock show in that environment versus indoors,” he said during a recent phone interview.

Calling in a from Roanoke, Va. where he and group frontman Ben Gibbard had recently returned from hiking up a hillside in 95 degree heat (and nearly passed out in the process), McGerr is looking forward to playing in a cooler setting. Sadly though, the stop in the Pioneer Valley is Death Cab For Cutie’s only scheduled appearance in New England this year. So fans clamoring to see the indie rockers in action better not miss it.

“Boston is usually our only Massachusetts stop,” says McGerr. “I love Portland, Maine. I wish we were spending more time in New England in general. But when you’re routing a tour you go to as many places as you can. If there was a way to tackle every little small town in every state we would totally do it.”

Still, for those lucky enough to grab a ticket, the band promises a show as varied as its own unique discography. Though some in the crowd may not know every number, McGerr thinks everyone will find something that draws their interest or at least puts a smile on their face.

He says, “It depends on how big of a fan you are, how far you’ve been following the band, and how many records you own in our catalogue. Because every night we tend to play stuff from way back when in the beginning, and of course we lean on more of the newer records like Narrow Stairs, Codes and Keys, and Plans. There is usually something from every record, at least one song or a few songs, and when time is permitted and it’s our own show, or if it’s a gracious headlining slot, we tend to play anywhere from 20 to 25 songs a night.”

“I think fans can at least expect to hear a few of the songs they really want to hear,” he adds. “But it’s hard when you have seven records and a few EP’s to design a perfect set list for everybody.”

According to McGerr, crowds have really been reacting well to the material from band’s last release Codes and Keys, even though the album has been out for over a year. First single “You Are A Tourist” is probably the cut even casual listeners might recognize due to its airplay on the radio. But it’s a pair of older tracks that McGerr enjoys playing live the most.

Watch the video for “You Are A Tourist” the first single from Death Cab For Cutie’s album “Codes and Keys” here:

“I think one of the crowd favorites is a song from Transatlanticism called ‘We Looked Like Giants.’ That’s the song where Ben and I have a little drum battle between each other. That’s what you hear on the song, and it’s a fun, big, crowd-pleasing event. And it’s been a lot of fun for us as well,” he says.

“There’s also a song called ‘Amputations’ from the very first record Something About Airplanes,” he continues. “We haven’t played it in years, and we just recently started pulling it back out. That might show up in the set list depending on how much time we have and how much we have to fit in the ones people know the most. But that [song] has been a whole lot of fun. And for me, I wasn’t part of that first record. So it’s always fun to put a different hat on and try and be in the mind of somebody else and play it my way, play the things that resonated with me when I first heard the band.”

Speaking of hearing other members of the band play separately, McGerr says he wasn’t surprised by the recent announcement regarding the release of Ben Gibbard’s upcoming solo album Former Lives, which will be released this October.

He says, “We knew. [Ben] had written a lot of songs for the last record and not all of them were Death Cab songs. It would be a shame to never let those songs see the light of day, so the majority of that stuff is what made up his record and there’s also other stuff he’s had from years past. It’s a good record. I’m looking forward to seeing the world’s reaction to it.”

As for how Gibbard’s solo venture is going to impact Death Cab For Cutie’s immediate future, McGerr maintains that some time spent apart from the band has been integral to the group’s success and has allowed its members a sense of freedom and longevity that others don’t always achieve.

“We always take breaks in between records, anywhere from six months to a year before we start working. Ben will tour on his solo record a little. And Chris [Walla] will probably have bands lined up, ready to record that I don’t even know about. I have projects that I’ll be doing and same with Nick [Harmer],” he says. “Part of the reason why the band has been as successful as it’s been, and to have this longevity is because it’s not the only thing that we do. It’s important to go and play with other people, learn, and bring things back to camp. Every time we go and do something or every time Chris goes and records another band, he learns a thing or two and brings it back, and it might be something that we try. Or, everyone has a little solo venture, they go out and do some work and realize how important it is to stick together and remain Death Cab, to fuel the next thing that we do.”

Finally, when asked if he ever feels like the new guy due to his status as Death Cab For Cutie’s fourth drummer despite the fact that he’s played with the band for almost a decade, McGerr lays to rest that old joke about homeless drummers and offers two possible reasons for his continued tenure with the group.

He says, “It’s been a long time and it feels like home. I can’t imagine any other combination of chemistry. Either that or I’m just so intimidating that they can’t make a change. I’m bigger than everybody else.”

Death Cab For Cutie with openers Surfer Blood, July 20, 7 p.m., $35, Mountain Park Amphitheater, Route 5, Holyoke, (413) 586-8686, http://www.iheg.com/mountain_park_main.asp.

For more information on Death Cab For Cutie or to see more tour dates please visit www.deathcabforcutie.com.

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