There’s something about Seattle, Washington and the surrounding area that breeds angsty musical prowress like nowhere else. The city has given birth to artists such as Nirvana, Modest Mouse, Eddie Vedder, Band of Horses, the Head and the Heart, and many others. And it was 17 years ago that out of this creative power house arose Death Cab for Cutie, the moderately popular indie rock band comparable with the Shins or the Decembrists. Many of you may have sang I Will Follow You into the Dark by a campfire at summer camp, or heard their musical stamp in one of the Twilight films. Their songs cover a wide range of moods and themes from love and loss to age and family, with lyrics that can be completely incomprehensible or surprisingly perceptive.
Death Cab and each of its members are very prolific. Frontman Ben Gibbard started the side project The Postal Service, wrote and performed the soundtrack to the movie Big Sur with Jay Farrar, has worked with many artists including Feist, Styrofoam, and Andrew Kenny, and recently released a new solo album called “Former Lives”. Chris Walla has been producer and mixer for many different bands, (including Ra Ra Riot, Tegan and Sara, and the Decembrists) while also producing his own solo work, Field Manual. Jason McGerr has drummed for other artists too and teaches drum lessons in Seattle when not touring, and Nick Harmer is, well, the bassist. All the while Death Cab produced 7 completed studio albums, along with many EPs and a band movie, attracting ardent and adoring fans who smile and cry along with them.
And now, after all of their time working independently and together, connected by the name of Death Cab, Chris Walla is officially leaving the band for good. Part producer, mixer, writer and instrumentalist for the band, although Chris doesn’t write the lyrics he makes Death Cab’s sound what it is. On his own, when Ben plays his songs acoustic he strums along to the same half dozen chords, as a simple beat to add to his lovely melodies and lyrics, like this one. But when he produces his solo songs they lose their intimacy and feeling. Walla’s input produces songs that become unique and epic, like Transatlanticism or I Will Possess Your Heart. When he’s no longer there, will Nick, Jason and Ben be able to keep their spirit alive? Will the band break up completely? Or will they peter out slowly, half-assing their music and going their separate ways while having the label of Death Cab over the three of them? We’ll find out sometime at the beginning of 2015, with the release of their 8th studio album.
I took the news of Walla’s departure from the band hard. I listened to my first Death Cab song in the car with my Dad on my way home from soccer practice many years ago. It was Soul Meets Body, and I’m sure he’s long forgotten that he introduced me to my favorite band. I used to cry to 20th Century Towers while walking around a track in High School. I translated the entirety of Talking Bird into Mandarin Chinese and sang it to my teacher. I once danced with a boy in oppressive summer heat to Grapevine Fires when my world seemed to be ending. I heard Marching Bands of Manhattan played live at my first concert ever while glancing behind my shoulder at the Manhattan Skyline, acutely aware of how great it was to be alive.
Death Cab is home for me, and I’m scared that this home will become merely a memory. But maybe I should have more confidence, belief that my friends at Death Cab will make it through and thrive, whether on their own or with each other. Chris Walla himself seems to have a good idea of how to move on, from a post he wrote on a Seattle based blog called the Stranger: “Moving forward, my plans are simply to continue making music, producing records, and erring on the side of benevolence and beauty whenever possible. Darkness may find me, but I shall never choose it.”
Good music never dies, so if the darkness ever finds me I know my home will never be far away.
Photo: camknows, David Lee and WBEZ via Flickr