Luring bands like Death Cab for Cutie is the reason for the creation of the 80/35 Music Festival.
The Seattle alternative rockers pass through Des Moines on interstates 35 and 80 multiple times a year, but if they stop it’s just to refill their tour bus. The band is too big for the Val Air Ballroom, but not big enough for Wells Fargo Arena, so it has never played a show in Des Moines.
But that all changes Saturday.
“We tend to play a little larger venues and get out to the coasts to service as many people as we can,” Death Cab drummer Jason McGerr said during a phone interview. “A lot of the smaller stops don’t happen as much anymore. That’s why we chose to do this festival, to play a place we don’t get to typically.”
McGerr is the newest member of Death Cab for Cutie, though he has been performing with the band for nearly 10 years.
His connections with other members of Death Cab go back further, though.
McGerr was previously in the Washington rock group Eureka Farm with Death Cab bassist Nick Harmer. Like in Death Cab, he wasn’t the original drummer for Eureka Farm. The person who filled that roll before him was Ben Gibbard, frontman for DCFC.
When Death Cab for Cutie was looking for a new drummer, McGerr reached out to Harmer. His timing was good, with Death Cab’s 2003 breakthrough “Transatlanticism” being the first album McGerr worked on.
“Nick left Eureka Farm to join Death Cab, and clearly he had made the right decision,” McGerr said. “We stayed in touch, and sometimes our bands would play shows together. I basically asked Nick at one point ‘Why don’t we try playing music together again?’
“It was something I wanted to do for a while, but I didn’t have the courage. I finally got in a room with them, and had this feeling of ‘What, this is what a band is supposed to feel like.’ I knew that if I wasn’t prepared I would be left behind. So I worked hard to make sure they weren’t going to be looking for another drummer.”
Four records and three EPs later, McGerr seems to have cemented his place with the group.
Oddly enough, the drums weren’t McGerr’s first choice of instrument. He wanted to play saxophone in middle school, but by the time he got to class they were all taken.
“A friend of mine in the drum section said ‘Come play drums. We can hang out in the back and the band director never notices when we talk. It’s easy!’ The rest is history.”
Death Cab for Cutie’s seventh album, “Codes and Keys,” received a Grammy nomination last year for best alternative music album. It was recorded differently than past Death Cab efforts, with the band doing work in eight different studios for shorter stretches of time. The different locations and shorter sessions were designed to accommodate family time, and with band members living in four different cities, it gave each musician time closer to home.
“We’ve learned over the years that different studio environments influence albums in different ways,” McGerr said. “Sometimes you’ll be in a studio where you never see sunlight; it will be like a dungeon or a lab. In those places you tend to work really hard and focus on the material. That was the case with Sound City, just outside LA.
“But Warehouse in Vancouver has these walls of windows that make you want to go outside, walk around and have a long lunch. The songs we recorded there had a more lighthearted approach.”
For “Codes and Keys” McGerr described his approach as minimalist, saying his goal was to try to get away with playing drums with one stick. He wanted lots of spaces, to give more resonance around the notes .
The album also features more songs that are keyboard based instead of guitar. McGerr said as a result more songs on “Codes and Keys” are driven by drums than any past Death Cab album.
“Each song on the album is like its own mini album,” McGerr said. “It all works a little different live, but for the most part it’s all about simplicity. Less is more.”
See Death Cab for Cutie:
9 p.m. Saturday at the Wellmark Blue Cross Blue Shield Main Stage.