Death Cab for Cutie, a Seattle-based band that formed in 1997, has released three albums for Barsuk Records: Something About Airplanes (1999), We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes (2000) and last month’s The Photo Album. In the past four and a half years, the band has already been heralded as the next Built to Spill or Modest Mouse. With such a rapid trajectory toward success, it is hard to imagine that these rock stars can not be rock stars. Death Cab, however, is one of those rare bands that manages to pull it off. While on tour for their latest record, members Ben Gibbard (guitar/vocals), Nick Harmer (bass) and Mike Schorr (drums) discussed with The Voice the experience of being indie darlings.
From the onset, all three were quick to emphasize that they are just regular people who enjoy playing music and were fortunate enough to have fans that like what they do. They have no aspirations for taking over the world or becoming the biggest rock stars the planet has ever known, and they have always just gone with the flow, playing the music they like to play. Speaking of Death Cab’s focus and direction as a band, Harmer said, “It’s never been like we’re sitting at home and we’re like, ‘Our last record was pretty good, we gotta think of something to blow their socks off the next time. What do people like? What’s the sound?’”
Instead, they follow a tried-and-true formula: Gibbard writes the songs and brings them to the band. Sometimes they are letter-perfect, sometimes they need tweaking. The lyrics are always written to match the completed melodic lines, with the goal of making them as vivid as possible without being pretentious. Gibbard noted literary inspirations such beat writers Jack Kerouac and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Again, Harmer stressed the simplicity of the song-writing process: “We’ve never seen any cause to be like, ‘It’d be really great to take a lot of mescaline and go into the woods or the studio for six months and see what happens.’”
Specifically, Gibbard talked about “Why You’d Want to Live Here,” a popular track off The Photo Album, which has garnered some controversy with its lyrics sharply critical of Los Angeles. In response to fingers pointed at said derisiveness, Gibbard explained: “The song is not meant to be a direct attack on the people who live in Los Angeles. It’s more from the perspective of an analysis of Los Angeles as a kinda over-fed, over-populated cultural bunker. But at the same time, it’s also in many ways a love song, it’s about trying to come up with all the reasons why someone should move to Los Angeles.” If there is one thing certain in life, it is that indie bands can frame any subject, from trash talking about West Coast cities to trash talking about pretty sunsets, within a love song context.
Since a relatively fast-paced rise to indie stardom, Death Cab has enjoyed such perks as headlining their own tours at relatively larger venues, better national record distribution and functioning sound equipment. When the band came to D.C. last year, they played the Metro Cafe; this year, they have upgraded to the significantly larger Black Cat.
However, it has not in any way affected their creative energy or dynamic as a band. If anything, the more professional musical setting in which they now have the opportunity to record has been a a major boon. Said Gibbard, noting the most significant changes that have accompanied the band’s higher profile, “More than anything it’s nice to have a designated recording space … Every record that we did up to [The Photo Album] was like you’re recording in somebody’s living space … We recorded in our house, in Chris’ bedroom, so it’s like you spend 12 hours working on the record, then you go to sleep five feet away from the board, then you get up the next morning, and you don’t leave the house … It was nice because then Michael and I could ride to the recording studio and when the session is over, we could ride home.”
Death Cab also recently made its first music video, a baptism marking their place as bona fide rock stars. For the band, this video was part one of a four-part concept that the band just thought would be fun to do. Emphasizing the spontaneity of making the video, Harmer notes, “The video was for ‘I Was A Kaleidoscope,’ which apparently isn’t really even the single on the album.” So much for the music video as part of a concerted MTV marketing strategy guaranteeing overnight million-dollar success.
Luckily for Death Cab’s fans, this inflation in prestige has not been accompanied by inflation in ego. For them, playing in larger venues is a sign of success, but the members of the band were quick to mention the greater responsibilities of having to fill up the space and please a bigger crowd. As such, they are constantly trying to improve their respective guitar, vocal, and bass skills. It is also refreshing to hear 25-year-olds speak of how they are willing to take on the role as “older brother” for their opening band and label-mates, The Prom. Harmer said, “It’s really nice to take them out to places we’ve been before. It just keeps it really fresh that way, to be like, ‘Here we are again at Columbus, Ohio [in monotone],’ and they’re all like, ‘Columbus, Ohio!’ It kinda keeps you from getting the doldrums.”
Of course, after every show, Death Cab still does what every respectable ‘80s hair-metal band would do. Said Harmer, “We just go home now.” How’s that for rock stardom?