Behind The Music Of Death Cab For Cutie's Pianist

Behind The Sene: Season 1 Episode 2

Zac Rae, the pianist for Death Cab for Cutie, is also a songwriter and producer, having collaborated with Childish Gambino, John Legend, Dua Lipa, Miley Cyrus and Michael Buble to name a few. He shares his approach with Sene on how he creates music and styles his performances.


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Zac has been a lot of things in his career - a composer for films, producer, songwriter and, most recently, the pianist for Death Cab for Cutie - but first and foremost a musician. He’s been on tour the past half year for DCFC’s most recent album release Thank You For Today, and on a warm Tuesday in his studio based in Burbank, we had the privilege to sit down with Zac before he sets out for another tour that will take him through Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and the US.


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Where do you live in LA?

I live in Silver Lake which is a neighborhood where a lot of musicians and filmmakers and creatives live in. It’s very nice because I can just walk out of my house and go to a coffee shop and run into other people I know who play in other bands or work on records or film music. A lot of my day is spent alone in a studio so it’s nice that I can live a place where I can run into other people day to day.

How do you start your creative process?

Typically if I’m working by myself, I try and find a source of inspiration of whatever i’m doing that day, whether it’s a piece of equipment or instrument that inspires the spark for an idea. Sometimes, it’s as simple as sitting at the piano for half an hour and letting my fingers wander to find the core of a fresh idea.

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Where do you pull your inspiration from?

I think a lot of different things can be a source of inspiration. Certainly, listening to other music can inspire directions, although you never just want to copy something. I try and find other places to be inspired by whether it’s old movies or books or being in a physical space in an outdoor location. I look for something that triggers a mood or a feeling and that can be a place that leads to something.

zac rae death cab for cutie pianist custom bespoke tailored suit made in los angeles

How did you dress when you first started your career?

I always had this sense that one should dress well. I think a lot of the musicians that inspire me are musicians that were inspired by the classic jazz era, like Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, or Leonard Cohen. When I was young I didn’t have a lot of money, but I bought most of my suits and shirts in thrift shops. The first time I had a suit made for me was in my 20’s. I think my tastes were a little more eccentric during that phase; I had one suit made that made me look like the Riddler. I’ve been able to step it up a little bit since then.

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What do you wear for your performances?

These days I generally wear suits. I don’t really enjoy performing, even at a smaller scale, in a t-shirt or jeans, it just really doesn’t feel right to me. It’s usually at the very least a jacket, collared shirt, and probably a tie. I’m often at the back of the stage playing keyboards and I’m behind this wall of synthesizers, so, it’s a little vain, but it’s nice to have something where people can see you.

zac rae death cab for cutie pianist custom bespoke tailored suit made in los angeles

Which music icons inspire how you dress?

The most obvious inspiration I have for dress is Thelonious Monk. I don’t even think it was conscious, I saw photographs of him and thought “that guy’s the coolest”. A few years ago I was able to do a tiny bit of work on a Leonard Cohen record. He was a guy who was never out of a nice suit and a nice hat. A very good fashion role model of how to be classy.


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Tell us about how your career got started.

When I was in high school, I started considering the possibility of a career in music. I went on to go to music school for a few years, and then I ended up leaving school before I finished my degree because I was so busy playing in bands and working on records. The year after I left music school, I started touring; I was 21. I always thought “oh this’ll all fizzle out and I’ll go back to school”, but here I am.

zac rae death cab for cutie pianist custom bespoke tailored suit made in los angeles

What advice do you have for younger musicians?

For everyone who’s starting off in their career, you have to really love music. It is a full-time job and a half. Especially given the way the industry is, you have to really, really want to do it. I see a lot of young bands and musicians arriving who are incredibly talented and are doing great work.  I think a certain fictionalized version of it from movies and TV might make people think it’s going to be a certain way, and it’s very rarely like that.

What do you cherish the most about doing music full-time?

I’m incredibly lucky to be able to have a full-time career as a musician and be able to play in a band with my friends, travel the world, and perform concerts to thousands of people. I also love all of the opportunities to work on different kinds of projects in the studio between recording different records to doing an abstract soundscape for a film. You’re always solving a 3-D problem in real time trying to find new parts or sounds that fit into what’s already existing, creating arrangements on the fly. It’s a really, really fun challenge that never gets old.

zac rae death cab for cutie pianist custom bespoke tailored suit made in los angeles

What does the future hold for you?

I’m very excited to keep working with the band and see where that goes. We’re already talking about the next chapters beyond the new record we released just last year. I’m really excited to see where that will go. There’s a lot of projects I’m always juggling and have them go out in the world and exist. Finding the next thing beyond that…you never know what’s going to happen tomorrow.


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