If you judged them by their photos, Death Cab For Cutie would not fare well.

Their glum expressions, colourless faces and monochromatic clothes make them look more like morticians than an alt-rock force to be reckoned with.

Add their music into the equation - intense odes to emotions propelled by singer Ben Gibbard's teary-eyed lyrics - and they seem like joyless cellar-dwellers who would only emerge into sunlight by force.

But Nick Harmer, the Washington group's bassist, says it's just their music that's like that.


"We're fairly outgoing people. If you and I were at a pub we could have some pints and laugh all night. But if we started writing songs things would get serious pretty quick," he says.

"Once we put our guitars on and start expressing ourselves muscially, and we start thinking about the things that concern us emotionally and what we want to represent in our music, we can get moody and kinda dark."

Much of that, admits Harmer, is down to Gibbard, the band's front man who pens songs called things like Black Sun and I Will Follow You Into the Dark and has become something of an indie pin-up (He married whimsy queen Zooey Deschanel in 2008, but they separated in 2011 and divorced in 2012). In one of Death Cab's most well known songs, I Will Possess Your Heart, Gibbard details how he sweetly tries stalking a girl - "You gotta spend some time with me," he mopes outside her window - until she falls in love with him.

When recording, Harmer says the band tries to write music that supports Gibbards' lyrics.

"We like to hang out in the corners where there are a little more shadows," he says. "Those areas seem more genuine and more authentic to us."

They've been hanging out there for almost two decades now, making eight albums that steer well clear of new rock trends and exist in their own dimly lit bubble.

But Death Cab's most recent record, last year's acclaimed Kintsugi, hit some speed wobbles when guitarist and co-founder Chris Walla announced he would be leaving the group once the album was finished.

It could have made for some awkward moments, but if you're looking for tabloid headlines, Harmer says there isn't any dirt behind the split.


"People want there to be lots of drama, but honestly (there's none). There's always a point where you get lost in the woods in the middle of the project where you're not sure and you lose your footing and you can't tell the forest for the trees. In that moment when we were in the forest, Chris let us know that he wasn't going to be in the band moving forward.

"He just wasn't feeling being on tour any longer, and after 17 years of touring the way we tour, I can respect that. We have an aggressive and uncompromising schedule, and as you get older priorities can shift ... It wasn't a question of if he'd leave, but when. There wasn't any animosity or drama that affected the album."

That means two new members have been added to Death Cab's touring line-up, with Dave Depper on guitars and Zac Rae on keyboards, joining Gibbard, Harmer and drummer Jason McGerr.

While it's just their second New Zealand appearance this week, their last in Wellington in 2012, Harmer promises to make up for it with a set encompassing all of Death Cab's best - read: ultra emotional - material.

All those feels that come out in the music doesn't mean Death Cab have scary fans, says Harmer.

"People that like our band and our music are like us. They've had some moments in their life that they would consider high points, and some moments of heartbreak and sorrow.

They're introspective and reflective people and like to think about the past as much as the future. They're really nice."

Who: Death Cab For Cutie
Where and when: Playing at Auckland's St James on Tuesday (SUBS: FEB 23)
Also: New album Kintsugi, out now

- nzherald.co.nz