Tuesday, May 06, 2008
Interview: Death Cab for Cutie
This feature appears in Wireless Bollinger.
Seattle was the birthplace of grunge in the 1990s, spawning a slew of angst-ridden bands who achieved world-wide renown. Half a decade later, another form of emotional catharsis emerged from nearby Bellingham, WA, in the form of the idiosyncratically dubbed Death Cab for Cutie.
Grunge died a sad death, but Death Cab has been one of the Evergreen State’s most successful exports. The group includes singer and guitarist Ben Gibbard, guitarist and producer Chris Walla, bassist Nick Harmer and drummer Jason McGerr.
“It’s never going to be a scene with a capital ‘S’ like it was in the nineties,” says Nick Harmer of his home. However, he notes that it contains “lots of bands, support and community around music, but no cohesive sound.”
A lack of cohesion is one of Death Cab’s trademarks – and that’s a compliment. Each of the band’s first five albums shifted styles, from the lo-fi noise of earlier works to 2003’s spacious Transatlanticism.
The band evolves again on new album Narrow Stairs, their sixth studio LP and second on major label Atlantic. It’s the follow up to Plans, which placed at #4 on the Billboard chart and confirmed the band’s status as commercial darlings, capable of filling up venues as massive as Madison Square Garden.
But even with masses of rabid fans scrutinizing Death Cab’s every move, bassist Harmer describes the creation of Narrow Stairs as relatively pressure-free.
“There’s a lot less worry and doubt involved because we weathered the successful moments of transition. Now we’re in a nice zone,” says Harmer. “We were more apprehensive and anxious about there being a lot of change during Plans. We weren’t sure what the future held.”
In retrospect, it’s been a very successful few years for the band. However, they haven’t changed the creative process, which still centers on frontman Gibbard. He initially wrote and demoed the songs on the album. In August 2007, the quartet sat down with 30 tracks, and talked about them. They recorded from October to January in four studios across the West Coast.
While Plans was pieced together digitally, with instruments recorded separately, Narrow Stairs was organic. Harmer describes the process as “self-imposed limitations,” as the band recorded on 24 track analog tape, while playing together simultaneously.
The first glimpse of the album emerged in the form of the eight-and-a-half-minute single, ‘I Will Possess Your Heart.’ Although a shortened radio edit emerged, the band made a distinct impression with the song, which features a long, bass-driven instrumental. It’s a far cry from previous singles, such as the breezy ‘Sound of Settling’ or ‘Soul Meets Body.’
“We felt that that song was a really nice first peek at what Narrow Stairs was all about as an album,” says Harmer. “It captures the sonics and the spirit of the album for sure. We hoped there would be a mystery.”
It’s a conscious effort to introduce uncertainty for a band that’s become very well known. Death Cab shared the stage with Prince, Portishead and Kraftwerk at this year’s Coachella Festival, and co-headlined a tour with Franz Ferdinand in 2006. Their music has been featured on The O.C. and Six Feet Under.
Chris Walla recently released a solo album, and he has produced artists such as the Decemberists and Tegan and Sara, as well as engineering Death Cab’s own music. Ben Gibbard has become an indie icon in his own right, with much credit owed to the Postal Service, his electro-pop project with Jimmy Tamborello.
Harmer credits side projects as a source of the band’s longevity – it has now existed for over a decade. “Having the freedom to explore other avenues has prevented us from being stagnant,” says Harmer, while also stating that Death Cab is always the main focus.
On their 2005 tour documentary, Sleep Well, Drive Carefully, the band credits another source for their success – the internet – and Harmer echoes the sentiment.
“The internet is an inevitable and important tool to use in the making and marketing of music,” says Harmer. “Artists and labels need to embrace that and not fight it. There’s insecurity and uncertainty if everyone is buying their music online.”
While Harmer admits that he grew up in a different era, where record stores were the norm instead of iTunes, he says he’s willing to accept the changes in the industry. However, there is a limit to his tolerance.
“I’ve drawn the line that if you’re the person that uses the internet to take everything and not give anything back, that sucks,” says Harmer. “If you don’t make an effort to support some way, that’s really sad.”
It’s uncertain what impact Narrow Stairs will have on Death Cab’s career. Preliminary reactions have varied: MTV has called the album “unquestionably the best thing they’ve ever done,” while others have been turned off by the band’s unwieldy first single. In some ways, the band is at a similar point to the industry that they’re a part of.
“The music industry is in a very strange place, no one knows what’s going to happen next,” says Harmer, but he remains certain of one thing: “I think there will always be music and bands that make music. I’m optimistic.”
And why not? He has a lot to be optimistic about.
Death Cab plays McCarren Pool on June 10th.
MP3: Death Cab for Cutie - 405 (Acoustic)
MP3: Death Cab for Cutie - Prove My Hypotheses
MySpace: Death Cab for Cutie
Official Site: Death Cab for Cutie