Dave Depper is doing his best to keep himself together. He flew back from London the previous night, and his jet lag is colliding with this godforsaken Portland heat wave. A few days prior, he was onstage at Glastonbury, the biggest music festival in the world, playing guitar for Death Cab for Cutie. Now, he's drinking an iced coffee at Extracto on Northeast Killingsworth, waiting to go float on the Sandy River. It's a change of pace to give anyone whiplash.

"While we're playing, Patti Smith brings out the Dalai Lama," he says, recalling the Glastonbury set, "yet there's still 16,000 people watching us."

That's what Depper's life is like now, ever since he joined the ranks of the beloved Seattle emo heroes last year. It's the surreal cherry atop the tower of holy-shit moments that have been piling up since the 34-year-old settled in Portland a decade ago and committed to the itinerant lifestyle of an in-demand session musician. He's gone from playing King Crimson covers in high school to talking shop with Robert Fripp, from worshiping R.E.M. to drinking tequila in Mexico with Peter Buck, and with this most recent "dream gig of dream gigs," from touring in cramped vans to having his own guitar tech.

But the nature of being a career sideman is that most gigs are temporary, even the dream ones. After experiencing the comforts of major-labeldom, can he ever go back?


WW: How did you end up in the orbit of Ben Gibbard? 

Dave Depper: We were both pretty into long-distance running, actually. He'd started dating a good friend of mine, so he was in Portland a lot, and we decided to go running whenever he was in town. We'd run anywhere from 12 to 18 miles together. When you're running that long, you get to know someone really well. One of those times I kind of said, "I don't know if you are doing anything, but if you ever want to add a multi-instrumentalist kind of guy, consider my name in the hat." I guess he took it more seriously than I thought.

You must've felt some pressure, replacing Chris Walla.

It was a lot of pressure. That's a beloved band that's been around 17 years, and people were heartbroken that he left. I came into it knowing I'd have all eyes on me, being the guy who's standing with the guitar in his old spot. I worked harder on that than anything. Months and months of eating and sleeping Death Cab.

What was your first show with them like?

It was at the Crocodile [in Seattle], a surprise announcement a few days before. I was so absolutely nervous for the show, but I knew we'd rehearsed the living hell out of everything. The first song was "I Will Possess Your Heart," which is basically an eight-minute-long psychedelic guitar solo, and about halfway through I felt complete euphoria, and the nervousness melted away. I mean, that club was filled for 500 of their most dedicated fans, and everyone's like, "What's this band going to sound like now?" And I can tell there was this huge sigh of relief, like, "This sounds like Death Cab for Cutie."

What have been some of the “holy shit” moments so far? 

I think the most amazing thing for me, and always will be, was playing Letterman. We were a Letterman family growing up. Nothing I can ever do from now on will impress my parents as much as doing that.

Now that you've toured with such a huge band, is getting back in a van possible? 

To answer that, I need only look to Peter Buck, who absolutely tours in a van still. I'm appreciating every second I have doing the bus thing, but I'm doing my absolute best not to be spoiled by it. Touring on a bus is really convenient for a lot of reasons, but still, touring is hard, and it really takes a lot out of you. I remember, on the first couple European tours I did, stopping at a random place in, like, Belgium and seeing what kind of weird-ass potato-chip flavors they have. That doesn't happen on a bus. So just for that, I'd do it again. 

Willamette Week: You came to Portland in 2003 and didn't know anyone. How did you end up finding your way into the music scene?

Dave Depper: The story of how I got into the music scene here is very specific and has to do with one person. The short version is, about nine months after moving here, I hadn't touched a guitar in a year. I had just put it behind me. I was interested in just fiddling around with doing some recording and I needed a keyboard. I was looking around on craigslist, and there was a guy selling a Farfisa organ. The guy turned out to be Chad Crouch, who runs Hush Records. I met up with him, and we hit it off. While we were meeting, he mentioned the bassist in his band, Blanket Music, had moved away or gone to school or something. He asked if I played bass, and without thinking I said yes. I didn't own a bass, I didn't play bass. I bought a bass on Craigslist a couple days later, learned all the songs, came over and got the gig. I played with them for a while, and after a couple months we were recording a record at Type Foundry. Adam Selzer, who runs Type Foundry, mentioned his band needed a bass player. I joined that band [Norfolk and Western], they took me on my first tours, and I met everyone I know through them.

What were those first tours like?

It was a six- or seven-day West Coast tour. It's still one of my favorite memories of my whole life. It was a totally ramshackle, sleep-on-floors situation, and I instantly knew I needed to do that the rest of my life. There were seven of us in a van. No money was made by anybody. We were all just getting totally wasted after the shows. But it was so freeing telling my job I wasn't going to be home for two weeks. It was just this amazing experience. But I still never thought it was going to be any sort of career, and I still didn't think that until not that long ago. It was just, "Whatever I can do to keep this in my life, I'm going to do it."

You've made a name for yourself as a session player rather than as a songwriter or solo artist. Are you comfortable with that?

I've never desired to be the guy in the middle with all the lights on. I like being the right-hand man in the band. The few experiences I've had with being the center of attention have been fun, but it's too much pressure. I enjoy letting someone else have that pressure and be able to make them sound and look good. I have music I make on my own that I've been working on that I plan on releasing, but I never considered wanting to make it as a solo artist specifically. The Ram thing I did purely for fun. I was in several bands I was really going for it with, like Loch Lomond, the Village Green and Norfolk and Western, and that was at the time when I wanted, more than anything, to be in a band that I helped build from the ground up and have some measure of success with them, and it didn't really happen for them. All of them did amazing things, but after those things ran their course, what was left for me was being this session guy, and that was absolutely a prime consolation prize.

What are some gigs that stand out to you?

I've loved everything I've done in equal measure, for different reasons, just from what I've been able to learn about the people I'm with—if I'm replacing someone, learning what they did and kind of sucking in that information and adding it into my brain. Like, playing in Menomena was an incredible experience—basically getting handed Brent Knopf's brain and his computer world was so difficult and so complicated but so rewarding. At the same time, I was playing keyboards and lead guitar in the Fruit Bats and being in a jammy live band. Going between those bands is really schizophrenic, but in a real great way.

How did you end up in the orbit of Ben Gibbard? 

We were both pretty into long distance running, actually. There was a housewarming party where we ran into each other three, four years ago. He'd started dating a good friend of mine, so he was in Portland a lot, and we decided to go running whenever he was in town. We'd run anywhere from 12 to 18 miles together. When you're running that long, you get to know someone really well. One of those times I kind of said, “I don't know if you are doing anything, but if you ever want to add a multi-instrumentalist kind of guy, consider my name in the hat.” I guess he took it more seriously than I thought. 

You've basically replaced Chris Walla, who was a significant part of the band creatively.  That's got to be some pressure. 

I was shocked out of my mind when I was asked to do it. You could have anybody in the world, and they're like, "Well, we'd like you." But it was a lot of pressure. That's a beloved band that's been around 17 years, and people were heartbroken that he left. I came into it knowing I'd have all eyes on me, being the guy who's standing with the guitar in his old spot, and I didn't want to let the band or the fans down. I worked harder on that than anything. Months and months of eating and sleeping Death Cab.

What was your first show with them like?

It was at the Crocodile [in Seattle], a surprise announce a few days before. I was so absolutely nervous for the show, but I knew we'd rehearsed the living hell out of everything. The first song was "I Will Possess Your Heart," which is basically an eight minute long psychedelic guitar solo, and about halfway through I felt complete euphoria, and the nervousness melted away. I mean, that club was filled for 500 of their most dedicated fans, and everyone's like, what's this band going to sound like now? And I can tell there was this huge sigh of relief, like, “This sounds like Death Cab for Cutie.” 

Was it at all overwhelming to step into this band with a big major label machine behind it?

Luckily, I'd had some experience with it touring with Ray [LaMontagne] all last year, so that prepped me for the general feeling of what that's like. It's great. There are people who worry about everything for me. I just need to show up and do my job. That means I need to do my job very well, of course. But it's an organization made up of very specialized people who are the best at what they do. It's kind of cool to watch the machine work. I just show up, I need to know the songs and play them well, but it's amazing having a guitar tech, and having my guitar with new strings on it and my pedals set the same way as it was the day before. 

What have been some of the “holy shit” moments so far? 

I think the most amazing thing for me, and always will be, playing Letterman. We were a Letterman family growing up. Nothing I can ever do from now on will impress my parents as much as doing that.

I also saw on Facebook that you met Noel Gallagher recently.

We were in Germany, at the Southside Festival, wherever that is. I was a total Brit-pop fanatic as a teenager. Brit-pop and prog-rock were my twin towers of music obsessiveness. I saw we were playing the same day as him, and his name was on the green-room door, and all of a sudden he was walking around, and I was like, "I need to do this." But I was also terrified, like, it's Noel Gallagher. Is he going to punch my lights out if I look at him? I went over to him, and he was so nice, and so friendly. He exuded this really warm vibe, and was cracking everyone up. I asked if I could take a photo with him, and it was instantly the Noel Gallagher scowl for the photo. Then we get done and it's right back to smiling.

Now that you've experienced the major label machine, can you go back to touring in a van? 

To answer that I need only look to Peter Buck, who absolutely tours in a van still. I'm appreciating every second I have doing the bus thing, but I'm doing my absolute best not to be spoiled by it. The thing about Death Cab and the whole organization, they're obviously the same guys they were when they were touring in a van. There's no rock star pretense about them, there's no snobbishness. Being around that makes it very easy to be thankful and grateful to have that opportunity. And I'd be slightly reluctant to do some of the tours I did in my 20s, but I don't know if that's necessarily the fact I'm in a major label band and touring with a bus. I'm 34 years old. I will absolutely do any kind of tour, as long as I believe in it and it's what I want to do. But getting older, it takes its toll. Touring on a bus is really convenient for a lot of reasons, but still, touring is hard, and it really takes a lot out of you. 

And there a few things I absolutely miss about van touring. With a bus, you get in, go to sleep, wake up and you're in the next town. In the van, when you're traveling six, seven hours watching the scenery go by, you form these relationships with people because of that. And you stop in gas stations. I remember, on the first couple European tours I did, stopping at a random place in, like, Belgium and seeing what kind of weird-ass potato chip flavors they have. That doesn't happen on a bus. So just for that, I'd do it again.

SEE IT: Death Cab for Cutie plays McMenamins Edgefield, 2126 SW Halsey St., Troutdale, with Built to Spill, on Wednesday, July 8. 6:30 pm. Sold out. All ages.