Outside of recording, touring, reading Kerouac, and the like, the guys in Death Cab For Cutie no longer spend their days embroiled in manual labor … but not too long ago, they did. For this special installment of Quit Your Day Job, the band’s rhythm section — bassist Nick Harmer and drummer Jason McGerr — share memorable maggot and injury-filled workaday war stories. This isn’t mere “bad day at the graphic design lab” stuff: Nick was employed as a sanitation worker in Tacoma, Washington and before mentoring Smoosh, teaching drums, or opening his own studio (Two Sticks Audio), Jason pieced together steel buildings, among other things, as a construction worker.
STEREOGUM: Can you talk about some of your past jobs?
JASON MCGERR: I’ve worked a lot of different jobs. Everything from selling fly fishing tackle and ammunition (which everybody should have to do at least once in order to better understand why we need more gun safety laws), to driving bulldozers and backhoes to level land for developments. I’ve erected steel buildings for pulp mills and water treatment plants, and I’m sure I’ve spent enough time in music retail to have lost some hearing to consistently bad versions of “Eruption” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. It’s a fact that the majority of the people who try out instruments in music stores have no talent whatsoever. There was one particular day and job however that will always stick with me as the day I fully committed to being a musician.
I enjoy building things and have an aptitude for mechanical reasoning, so much that it takes away from the times I should be practicing. About 15 years ago, my dad was a contractor who offered a lot of different work for me right after high school. I liked working for him and it paid really well but that often meant I had to travel and even live out of a hotel for weeks at a time. Our crew had been contracted to erect a steel building 3 hours away from home in the dead of winter in one of the smallest towns I’ve ever seen. We would drive south from Bellingham, toward Mount St. Helens every Monday morning at 4 a.m., check into the Pony Soldier hotel and be on the job by 7:30. There was heavy snow on the ground and beneath that a layer of crusted mud. The amount of clothing needed to stay dry and warm would restrict your movements and you had to wear gloves that offered more warmth than protection, but also had enough dexterity for tools and small parts.
Constructing a steel building is similar to framing a house, or putting together a giant Erector set. The biggest difference is that the shit’s really heavy and the way black iron and steel gets cut, more often than not, leaves jagged and sharp edges at the ends of every beam. But really, it’s a simple frame with a sheet metal roof and siding that can be thrown together pretty fast and lasts forever when done right.
One particularly cold afternoon, towards the end of the day, I pulled a black iron beam from beneath the snow with frozen hands and a tired body and fastened it to the foundation of the building. Once I secured the beam to the concrete, I walked back over to the buried pile of cold steel for another piece. After a few more trips back and forth, as I hung my head down to look at the muddy footprints in the snow, I saw a series a large red dots on either side of my path. It looked like blood but I didn’t know why or where it had come from. I stopped and saw that no one else was working in my area. Then I noticed a big drop of blood fall from my right hand and pit the snow. I raised my arm and rotated my hand to see what had happened. My gloves were black so there didn’t appear to be anything wrong, but then I noticed the wool had been torn on my palm.
When I pulled the glove off it was soaked with blood. My hand was so frozen that I hadn’t felt the 2 inch gash happen, even though it was splayed out and the deep tissue showed. I stood for a moment as if to rest and wondered if I should do anything about it. It didn’t really hurt but it looked pretty bad. Then I thought about it some more. These are the same hands that hold drumsticks. They’re the same hands that have to drive home every weekend and have band practice. And they’re the only set of hands I’ve got. “What the fuck am I doing?” I said to myself. How had I been so blind to forget about the thing that was the most important to me? Why had I chosen a line of work that was potentially detrimental to my livelihood? At that moment, I felt everything had to change.
I went back to my hotel, cleaned and bandaged my hand, then started driving home. The only thing running through my mind was the vow I was now willing to take, to do whatever I had to to make music for a living. I made a stop in Seattle at my favorite music store and asked the drum shop if they needed any help. The manager on site gave me an interview that day. I sat in his office, with chaffed and blacked overalls, bearded face, and a seeping bandage, claiming I could start work the next day. A few weeks later I moved to Seattle. I was 19 at the time.
My tenure at that music store only lasted about a year, but I had acquired a lot of musician friends and a handful of drum students and began making the transition to teaching at a music school. This meant that I would at least be holding sticks everyday, which was better than a sharp piece of iron.
These days in the Death Cab For Cutie camp, whenever someone’s being foolish, we refer to it as “Screwing around in shop class”. I still screw around in shop class, but I’m much more cautious, and I always, always check in with my hands.
STEREOGUM: You went on to teach drumming, too, right? Can you give us the details about that job?
JM: Before joining Death Cab in October of 2002, I was a full time Private Instructor for 10 years at the Seattle Drum School of Music. The institution itself has been around for 20 years and began in a single 144 square foot room by a gentleman named Steve Smith (not to be confused with the drummer from Journey, which is common). Nowadays, the original school occupies it’s entire 8200 square foot building, and even had to open a second branch in south Seattle (Georgetown). There are nearly 500 students enrolled at SDS studying drums, percussion, guitar, piano, bass, and saxophone. There are jazz ensembles, rock bands, summer camps, music theory and recording classes, and even year long certificate program that covers a little bit of everything.
Ok, enough of the sales pitch and on to the real description. The school is no Julliard. It’s current mascot is a three-legged cat, the owner and Grand Poobah of the place can often be seen wearing a t-shirt that says “I yell because I care,” and one of my favorite drum instructors can be identified in a foam dome, torn flannel shirt and pajama bottoms. All of the teachers are tremendous players though and teaching is what they care about most. Unlike other collegiate schools, SDS has a come as you are, open invitation to all ages and levels of ability. It’s a very loose place with a giant heart but entirely professional and conducive to learning everything you need for as long as you want to study your instrument.
My Teaching at the school casually began in 1994. I was 19 and had a handful of students and needed a place to teach other than my house. While working part time at a music store, more or less to mine drum students from prospective drum set buyers, I was spending a few days a week teaching privately at the school. Before too long, my strategy lead to having enough students to warrant full time teaching, or four to five days a week. My clientele grew steadily and in a few years I had 60 students and six days a week booked and I quit taking on new students. The majority of them were kids between 10 and 15 years old. I loved working with the kids because they just looked forward to recreation outside of schoolwork, rather than quiz me everyday about band politics or how to get a record deal.
It’s amazing how much more of a student I became when I was teaching that much. Going over really basic fundamentals everyday for hours on end. It was like simple stretching that eventually allowed for total flexibility. Consider that my job was to get someone to do achieve a goal every time they sat down. Or, to feel comfortable and inspired, even embarrassed, no matter what their abilities may be. Sometimes a kid would come in just want to talk for a half hour before picking up the sticks and I’d be totally cool with that. Again, this was more or less the attitude at the school and the reason I did what I did for so long.
At the end of the day, there were no tests, only the sense of pride and the gratitude of being a mentor. I wish I had more time to teach, especially since kids these days don’t get the attention they need from our public school music programs and funding isn’t what it used to be.
I guess for now, you could say I’m on sabbatical.
[Jason and his fully recovered hands at Coachella 2008]
NICK HARMER: One of the best jobs I had while was working my way through college and trying to save for music gear was working for the City of Tacoma refuse Department. Yes, I was a garbage man. Of sorts. During the summers of 1993, 1994, and 1995 I worked for the city’s recycling and composting program and while that technically is not garbage, trust me, some of the things I had to “recycle” might as well have been smell-wise. I was responsible for picking up yard waste mostly, occasionally I would work cans and bottles, but mostly I would pick up bags of leaves and grass and composting greenery and toss it into the back of a garbage truck. Yes, it did stink, yes, it was dirty and yes, it was some serious physical labor. But I have to be honest, it was also fun. I rode around on the back of that converted garbage truck in my city issued orange jumpsuit, talking shit with my co-worker, seeing the back alleys and streets of Tacoma, Washington and indulging in that strange satisfaction that a hard day’s work can only bring.
STEREOGUM: Ever see anyone lose grip and fall off the truck? Or ever hear tale?
NH: I personally never witnessed someone losing their grip and falling off a truck, especially while the truck was moving. I have heard of it happening, but it is a rare occurrence to be sure. I did however, on more than one occasion, try and get crafty by jumping off the truck while it was still rolling to a stop and subsequently trip and fall and tumble up a curb. I never got hurt, just bruised my pride.
STEREOGUM: You mentioned that you learned “disco rice” is a term for maggots. Any idea how “disco rice” got its name? And why didn’t you ever name a band “disco rice”?
NH: I really have no idea how maggots ended up being called disco rice. I think the nickname is completely perfect but where it originated I really can’t say. And yes, you are so right, I should name a band Disco Rice. It sounds way better than Testicular Dancer.
STEREOGUM: What else did you learn on the job?
NH: I learned the grammatical flexibility of just about every profanity you could imagine, and I learned how to shut up and get the job done. Strangely, as I sit and here and think about it, all of those have been essential skills for touring in a rock band too. Weird.
Some people are curious when they find out I worked for the refuse department if I have any gross stories. One of the most disgusting things I can remember involved a dog. Every so often the workers on the back of the trucks got assigned a day of repair and maintenance. These days were full of all sorts of tasks, like repairing city issued garbage bins, delivering new garbage bins to new customers, and picking up special garbage pick ups that were either too large or for some reason got missed. One day we got a call to go pick up a “missed” can that someone called and said was stinking up the alley. We knew we had found the right place when we pulled up because of the insane stench that was pouring out of the garbage can. When I opened the lid and looked in, at the very bottom was a dog. Sometimes, people threw their dogs away when they died. It didn’t happen a lot, but here and there you would come across one. The dog was all wet and sweaty looking and I remember looking at it and seeing its legs moving. I thought that maybe it was still alive, hurt but still hanging on. So I picked up this stick and kind of poked it to make sure and right at the point where my stick touched the skin, the skin broke ever so slightly and the entire belly of the dog erupted and turned inside out with maggots. Let me tell you, there was one hell of a disco inside that dog. I don’t really want to go into details, but let’s just say there were way more than a few handfuls and they were all dancing. There are many versions of that story that I experienced along the way while working for the city, but that one still takes the cake in sheer terms of surprise and gore.
STEREOGUM: Has working recycling/compost duty made you more aware of what you toss in your own recycling? Like, no maggot-filled dogs, for instance.
NH: Definitely. I pay a great deal of attention to recycling all I can and making sure I do it right. A lot of people get halfway, they get their bottles and jars to the curb but the metal lids are still on them or they’re still full of food stuff. Their cardboard isn’t broken down, things like that. I like making it easy for my recycling dude because I know what he has to deal with on his end if I don’t. I mean, if I don’t take the time to remove the metal lids on my spaghetti sauce jars, he has to, and that just adds to his already long day. There are four people to get in good with in life: the drivers who pick up your garbage and recycling, and your Fed Ex and UPS delivery persons. If you take a little extra time and show them you care and are thankful, they’ll go a little extra for you and one day help you out in a pinch. When I worked for the city, on really hot days, every so often a customer would leave a bag of ice with some sodas in it right on top of their garbage can, or bring me and my co-worker some lemonade and I’ll tell you, we didn’t forget those customers. They might have an extra can or something that would normally be either not picked up or charged extra for, but we wouldn’t blink an eye at returning the favor and take their extra stuff for free. I still do that for my drivers now and let me tell you, if nothing else, it’s just good karma, but more often than not, they’ll pick up an extra can of garbage for me or leave my packages without a signature and save me a trip to the substation.
STEREOGUM: Do you ever feel nostalgic when you drive past garbage trucks? Or, maybe, a slight desire to drop it all to return to those carefree days?
NH: There is a part of me that misses the simplicity of it all for sure. The lines between work and personal time are incredibly blurry doing what I currently do for a living and when things get extremely hectic or political or my days go long into the night, I do wish I could get back to the days of go to work, finish work, go home and not think about work. There is a real tangible satisfaction at the end of a long day of physical labor that I miss from time to time, a sense that I really earned that beer, you know? But I wouldn’t trade in where I am at for where I was at all. I am thankful I had the opportunity and I learned the life lessons I needed to learn from those summers but I am in a different place now for sure. Plus, I really don’t think I’m physically strong enough to hack it anymore, eight hours of lifting heavy sacks of wet grass from the ground to chest height is brutal.
[Nick was kind enough to send along this photo of himself during his sanitation years. As he said, "I'm the dude standing almost dead center in the middle of the group of people standing with a white tee-shirt on, arms folded across my chest, orange jumpsuit tied around my waist. longish hair, no hat on." We learned how to use PhotoShop so we could make him even easier for you to spot.]