Death Cab For Cutie Discuss Obama On The Eve Of The Inauguration

"I never thought I’d see anything like it in my life. I have to be honest that I was that jaded and sceptical," Nick Harmer of Death Cab tells Tom Milway

Tuesday November 4th 2008 marked the long-anticipated United States presidential election of 2008, and unless you’ve been trapped beneath the proverbial rock for the past month, you’ll be well aware that this historic day saw Democrat Barack Obama claim victory. As not only the first African American to be elected president in U.S. history, Obama’s victory came at a time when the ailing confidence of the country in Republican George Bush, and his hold over the White House during the previous eight years, had ebbed to such dramatic lows that the realisation of ‘change’ finally arriving, resulted in scenes of intense jubilation across, not just an entire nation, but the entire world.

“We did it!”

Nick Harmer, bass player for Death Cab For Cutie, is eager to discuss this topic that I have earlier briefed the bands publicist over. He greets me with warmth and proves to be incisive, educated and articulate. Upon sitting down we learn that we had both by strange chance spent Election Day 2008 in the same Californian city of San Francisco. Recounting his own experience of the day Nick recalls: "I actually made kind of a day of it. I voted absentee so there wasn’t any worry of me getting to a polling station or having to wait in line or those things that can take up the better part of the day. I remember going out for breakfast and I was having some coffee just kinda looking out the window and I was first struck just by the amount of pride in the political process I could see filtering through things like ‘I Voted’ stickers and people wearing their Obama shirts, things like that. It seemed like, if I didn’t know better, they were groups of people all walking to a concert and they were all wearing the bands T-shirt." Left surprised at what he was witnessing he backtracks onto the overall subject of American politics, pauses and confesses: "I’ve become pretty cynical over the past eight years and very sceptical of good things being at the core of our political process any longer and I’d be the first to admit, certainly, very surprised at my fellow countrymen of San Francisco and everywhere else. I remember seeing these two guys with acoustic guitars serenading a line of people waiting to vote, just hanging out playing songs for people. Then at another polling station I saw a guy pulling a cooler full of ice and cold drinks, passing out juice boxes to people, just trying to keep them in line so they wouldn’t get bored. I was really struck by that and it was really encouraging."

I just woke up that morning and was like ‘I know Obama’s going to win’. There were a lot of my friends who were like ‘I dunno it’s anyone’s game’ but I didn’t think so. I’d seen enough. I was just convinced that night would be a celebration. So I went out with some friends to, of all places The Edinburgh Castle! It was funny that I was in a Scottish named bar on American election night and for all intense purposes it looked like I was in the middle of an English pub someplace. But, again, it was like a rock show in there, a huge screen showing all the election results and people were cheering and yelling and it was packed, everyone was buying one another drinks – it was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before." That evening ‘change’ had most definitely arrived to San Francisco and it was evident throughout the entire Bay Area from Oakland’s Broadway to the city’s eastern Castro district that hope had come at last.

On the campaign trail

As long time proponents for ‘change’ Death Cab For Cutie’s participation in the political arena grew unconsciously at first, born from strong views and an aversion to exist as just mute entertainers. "We were feeling so passionate about being involved in politics, or at least in the political discourse on some level that finally we just found ourselves at this weird boiling point. Then we made the conscious decision to really throw our hat in the ring and really do what we can," says Nick. This informed their first direct involvement in the arena of politics which came when taking part in 2004’s Vote For Change tour alongside many high-profile contemporaries including Bruce Springsteen, R.E.M, Pearl Jam and Bright Eyes. "Its interesting in the States because there are some really specific campaign finance laws that prevent us, as a band, from actively campaigning for a specific candidate. We can never say ‘Death Cab for Cutie supports Barack Obama’ – its illegal and we could actually be sued for that. We can say ‘I’m Nick Harmer and I’m in Death Cab For Cutie and I support Barack Obama’ because I’m an individual so I’m allowed to speak my own mind. It’s when you start getting into that collective sort of comment, because we’re a business. If you’ve ever been paid for a gig you’re a business. So that is something you have to walk a really fine line on, and it’s been a little bit difficult. We’ve done these things, we’ve been involved in political organizations and statements that people hopefully can read between the lines about. The Vote For Change tour in 2004 wasn’t a ‘Vote For John Kerry tour’ but certainly since he was the best candidate to go against Bush, there was this implied thing."

Whilst the Vote For Change tour was generally successful in attracting audiences and generating media attention, not to mention raising approximately $10 million for the (now defunct) ‘get-out-and-vote’ political action group America Coming Together, it ultimately failed in its purpose of swaying the vote in battleground states. So come 2008, following a performance at the Democratic National Conference, the band changed tack and opted to influence young unregistered voters – those that actually could sway the vote in 2008 – and offered the college campus that registered the highest number of new voters a prize in the form of a free Death Cab for Cutie concert to be held at their University as part of the Super College Bowl voter registration drive. Nick reflects fondly: "I was really happy that we were involved in [the Ultimate College Bowl], getting young students involved and getting them registered to vote… We just thought at the time that if ten people registered, then alright, we’ve done something good. But it turned out, when the numbers came back, that 150,000 people registered to vote! I don’t know how much of that was the carrot of a free show from us dangling in front of people, I doubt that significantly, I don’t think we have that kind of sway as a band but I liked being a part of whatever movement that was that got people registered, and I do think it did make a difference this time." During the lead-up to election day the bands guitarist and long-term producer Chris Walla, who had already released a solo effort heavily rooted in political overture; Field Manual, even went out campaigning door-to-door for Obama and later blogged about it for Rolling Stone magazine to spread the message further. "I’ve always wanted to stay as non-partisan as possible," says Nick.

"I don’t want to get marred down in that anti-republican situation. To be honest I’m more of a third party kind of person through-and-through because I actually feel like there is a limited voice in our democracy. But that became a secondary cause to getting ‘Mr Evil’ out of the office – its like [laughs] by any means necessary get that done and then we’ll talk about how we open it up."

Becoming involved in the world of politics has long been a dicey endeavour in the world of rock & roll. Whilst Death Cab For Cutie have kept political content solely separate from their music, political overture increased during interview in 2004 and anti-Bush comments made on stage during the Vote For Change tour opened the band up to inevitable backlash. "There were pockets of States throughout the US where fans would write us letters afterwards saying ‘I think its totally inappropriate’. We got people who sent us records back or people who made big statements about how they were burning their CDs and never going to buy anything else [by the band]. People would say ‘You have no right to be political you are just an entertainer’," says Harmer taking note of the long running argument put forth when politics and entertainment become embroiled. "It’s a weird line for me. I agree sometimes there have been entertainers, who have bastardised or taken advantage of it for their own gain in some way, but at the same time, we’re all individuals, we’re all active citizens. I don’t understand why certain jobs preclude you from having any political opinion or being able to express that." Working on the same basis Harmer questions how church ministers and pastors, who received criticism during the 2004 election for politically guiding their huge congregations, are able to state ‘Our church supports this candidate’ – "How could you say that? It’s got nothing to do with religion!" he points out incredulously.

"But what really surprised me was that we did get emails from people who were genuinely surprised that we were liberals, they’d write ‘I had no idea you guys felt this way. If I would have known I would never have supported your band’ and I was like at what point did you get the idea that we were conservative!? How did you get the wrong idea about this band and who we are and where we stand politically? I mean the nature of almost being in a rock band goes against the more conservative elements of society, so it just surprised me," states Harmer, at odds with the separation that the public place on entertainment figures from normal, cerebral life. "We were left scratching our heads, like, did we ever give you the impression that we were really conservative, Christian, republican kids somehow?"

Obama the rock star

The indisputable star power that Senator Obama displayed during his ascent to the White House in 2008 hadn’t been witnessed since John F. Kennedy. From the fanatical support across America to the incredible scenes in Berlin during his visit in July – Obama’s specialty was establishing high-voltage connections with people. None more so than his plethora of high-profile followers from Oprah to Murdoch and almost every indie-rock musician in between. "People said in the past, in 2004, John Kerry needed all the help from musicians, entertainers and everyone to make him more of a star, but in this case everyone attached themselves to the star. Obama’s a bigger rock star than we’ll ever be", enthuses Harmer. "He’s a bigger rock star than pretty much any band member I’ve ever met. So if you’re going out and saying ‘I support Obama’ its like [laughs] it’s you and everyone else!"

"It was clear this time that the youth in general rallied around Obama", notes Harmer as he reflects on the 2008 campaign leading up to November 4th. "Actually, for the first time ever, when we’ve travelled around the world with Obama pins on our backpacks, or Ben has an Obama sticker on his guitar, people will stop me in other countries and say ‘Obama!’. If we were in Japan or something, they would know that sign. Just that he could be that, [pauses] that he could bring the world together in such a way – and not just America and all the fractured stuff that’s happening there – is amazing."

But it was whilst attending the 2008 Democratic National Convention in August that the magic of Obama was put into real perspective for Harmer. "I was sat there next to an older woman that had seen John F. Kennedy speak and she turned to me at one point when they were showing some clips of Obama before he gave his acceptance speech [having beaten Hillary Clinton for Presidential Nominee] that night and she said to me: “You know what, I’m saying this without any hyperbole at all but honestly Obama is even more charismatic and a better public speaker than John F. Kennedy”. When you think about iconic political figures who have really galvanised the nation and changed things, and people that others look to; he’s one of them. And to have somebody who lived through that to be able to compare it hands down as far more compelling that kinda took my breath away. Because I look back at the past and think ‘oh man, the leaders of the past, they just don’t make them like they used to’ but here I am living history – its so interesting."

And in closing Harmer recalls that night in San Francisco once again, and with a smile admits: "I’m proud to not have to wear the Canadian flag on my backpack again, that I can put the American flag back on. I mean we’re not out of the woods yet but it’s a good step forward."

Death Cab For Cutie’s latest album Narrow Stairs is out now

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