Clash is used to seeing its favourite acts burn out before their time – it’s part and parcel of the fast-moving nature of the music industry – but rarely do we witness the gradual rise of a band across years, not months.
Death Cab For Cutie began in Washington State, in 1997, as the solo project of Ben Gibbard, then a member of the group Pinwheel. A cassette release, ‘You Can Play These Songs With Chords’, proved a surprise success and Gibbard expanded the band to incorporate Chris Walla (guitar), Nick Harmer (bass) and Nathan Good (drums).
Good was soon replaced by Michael Schorr, who in turn was replaced by Jason McGerr in 2003. McGerr’s first work for the band was on their fourth album, ‘Transatlanticism’; the record became the band’s most successful to date, and tracks from it appeared on high-profile television shows such as The O.C., Six Feet Under and Californication. Things were taking a turn for the commercially successful.
A jump from their indie roots to the major label of Atlantic in 2004 was done with some trepidation, but eventually the mechanics of the new set up became embraced. ‘Plans’ eclipsed the success of its predecessor in 2005, and the band’s sixth LP, ‘Narrow Stairs’ was released earlier this year to accolades aplenty, some suggesting it was a contender for album of the year. Fans voted with their hard-earned, propelling the album to number one on the stateside Billboard chart.
Walla told journalists that the band’s latest contained “a lot of blood”; it is certainly the band’s most heavy-of-atmosphere release yet, building an enveloping mood to levels previously beyond reach. Though hardly their most accessible album, ‘Narrow Stairs’ hasn’t shaken any admirers from following the band’s fortunes, and when Clash catches up with Walla and McGerr in London, it’s backstage at Brixton Academy before a headline show. A far cry from the band’s first few London shows at considerably smaller venues, when it was Fierce Panda looking after their interests and 2001’s ‘The Photo Album’ was on rotation on my personal stereo...
I’ve got to say that, way back when, I never would have foreseen Death Cab For Cutie playing a rammed-full Brixton Academy, and having number one albums… Not because you’re not good, but more because ‘my music’ rarely succeeds commercially.
Walla: Well, neither did we! (Now looking at the cover stars of the latest Clash magazine, The Killers) If we wear pants like these can we be on the cover of Clash, too?
Quite possibly… maybe…
W: Wow… But yeah, we’ve kept our goals at a level where we’re not looking to over achieve… or under achieve… and we’ve never stopped. All of our goals have been small – to play a show in this city, to play a show out of state.
McGerr: Just to string a series of shows together.
W: We’ve had to redefine what our goals are – is it a goal of ours to meet the Dalai Lama…? Oh wait, we already did that! I don’t know… it’s been a really interesting year. This IS world domination.
So you’ve always been able to keep your feet on the ground?
W: I think it’s all about little goals. It’s nice to be validated for the work that you do, but it’s also important to remember it’s still an adventure for us, with every day full of new experiences. Every day is different to the previous day. Those are the things that hold the band together. I think we’re chasing quality. There’s a little bit of Icarus in us…
Given what happened to Icarus, I hope there’s not too much…
W: (Laughs) I mean that sort of trying to make this as good as it can be with the four of us, and the amount of people that have reacted to this record is fantastic, and it helps to support us.
McG: We’re all really happy with this record, more so than the previous two – we felt that when we were writing it. It wasn’t like we were working on record six, and we didn’t know where to go – if anything it was more clear where we needed to go. There’s the Death Cab that tours and puts on shows, and there’s the Death Cab that has a great time making records. And it was a great confirmation… It is nice to do something after all these years that resonates with people.
I don’t suppose many bands starting out today get the time you guys did to develop at your own pace…
W: It seems like more and more information travels faster – I think we were fortunate to be more or less ignored for the first few years of our existence.
McG: You don’t have a chance when you go from playing a handful of shows to signing a major-label deal to being on the radio and television… It’s crazy, and this all happens before you realise what your band is, and what you’re capable of, and what your comfort zone is. We were basically given tools to build a house, and then it went at a nice steady pace.
So the making of ‘Narrow Stairs’ was relaxed? You could work without label pressure?
W: We basically got to work at our own pace and follow our own path. The push for ‘Plans’ was really long, and it sort of started before the record came out; like it had dovetailed with The O.C., when we were looking to move on.
McG: There was a structure in the studio – we didn’t set out to record with an open-ended time frame, we had a plan, when we wanted to have the record done by. The label was good to us. With Chris producing and everyone involved in the band’s affairs, there’s a level of trust we have. There was no knock on the door from anyone, looking to hear tracks.
And that level of interference, something new bands often endure, was something you were a straight-up no to…
W: When we signed, that was a non-starter. That was part of the reason we ended up doing the major label thing when we did, because it’s the classic saying: There’s no better time to get a job when you’ve got a job. We had a viable career, things were going well with (original label) Barsuk. We were feeling really fulfilled. Whatever we did going from Barsuk, we had to keep the same internal working agreement that we’ve always had, so it needed to be worth it and that’s what we hung out for.
You talk about being on The O.C. as if it was something of a setback, but really it must have been a happy accident, given the audience it opened you up to?
W: It was absolutely a happy accident, but at the time it was totally confusing. At the time that happened we’d been a band for five, nearly six years, and it’s strange to have… It’s really strange for that to be your whole story.
(There’s a break as the band’s merch guy comes in, and we talk t-shirts and the like before getting onto the topic of hit US show The Wire. Walla is a big fan – “it’s a great jetlag show, if you’re up at 5am,” he says. I mention that the powers that be in Baltimore aren’t entirely pleased with how their city’s being presented to the world’s public, before asking after how the environment of the Pacific North West affects Death Cab’s music…)
W: It rains a lot, and the other thing about it is that you can play in Seattle and Portland, but if you want to play in any other big city, you have to either cross the border into Canada, which has been a massive pain in the ass since 9/11… It’s a super pain in the ass. It’s crazy. It’s really clamped down. But after Seattle and Portland, you’ve either got to travel hours to Salt Lake City, or like a little more than ten hours to San Francisco. You’re really isolated in the northwest, and I think that’s why the scene has come to be so specific, and in-bred. Even bands that don’t have a lot in common musically, there’s a kinship.
Even with such diversity, there’s a community spirit?
W: There is a community spirit. All of the bands that are live in Seattle have crossed paths. They will lend out their microphones and guitars, and studios will be shared. It doesn’t seem to matter what the type of music is, everyone knows everybody else.
McG: People book shows who also play in bands… there can be as many as four bands who share a space and gear. When you look back at the whole explosion in the 1990s, that’s how it started – people built recording studios and started clubs, putting the money back into the community.
W: A lot of it’s not publicised, but there’s a lot that goes on, where money is put back into the community and not just spent on drugs.
There was a show on television here the other night, presented by Stephen Fry, that said about a big drug problem in Seattle. Is that the case?
McG: The drug problem is probably no worse than any other city of a comparable size.
W: The biggest problem in the States right now, more in the suburbs than the cities, is meth. Meth is really bad in Portland, where I live.
Because of a lack of things for young people to do?
I think that’s a lot of it, a lack of things for people to do, but it’s really weird – that shit is so easy, relatively, to cook. You don’t have to rely on importation, and you can be quite self-sufficient. In Portland, where I live, it’s the big thing.
McG: Just south of Portland, on interstate 5, it’s like the meth capital of the United States. But back to Seattle – it’s not so much of a problem.
Has the Seattle environment played a part in the ‘heaviness’ of ‘Narrow Stairs’?
W: It’s got more of a gravity to it. I think there were parts of ‘Plans’ that were heavier, but I think by and large this record is overall a bit heavier.
And when you step out onto the stage, do you get the feeling that people have followed you throughout your career, as much as they have hopped on with the last album or two?
W: There are people who were at the first handful of shows we did, but there seems like there’s quite a few people who’ve been with us since ‘The Photo Album’.
Has your ability to stay together, and progress, had anything to do with the monitoring of other acts who either succeed or fail?
W: Oh, yeah. We’re the most analytical band on the planet. But there’s always some band that you can look to for an example of what to do or what not to do, both in business and personal terms, as much as musical terms. We are fans of bands as much for how they preserve their career as the music they make, and that comes from touring with bands and watching how they both unfold and pull together. Just living by the examples of everyone around us – watching what people do. There are a lot of ways to… I dunno… I forget who said it, but Nick started saying it: The trickiest part of being in a band is staying in a band. I think that’s really true.
It must be important to spend time apart, as well as together…
McG: Death Cab time is very important to us, but the downtime when we’re not on tour or recording is also very respected quiet time. We are fully aware of when we need to get back together, and we spend time getting to know each other again. We don’t spend an hour rehearsing, we’ll spend days or weeks at a time. And some of that time is us just talking, revisiting what it’s like to hang out with each other. Like any relationship with any person, there’s a balance to be found – one of the reasons we’ve been able to do this for so long is because we respect each other’s time away. It’s totally okay to sit in silence, it’s totally okay to travel by train alone for some time to see the countryside. Everyone has their value, and their ability… and everyone can veto anything.
And what’s next for the band, after today?
McG: We’re done for the year in this part of the world – although we’ve some thank-yous to extend at home, radio spots and the like. We’ll be wrapped up by December 15, but we’ve been on the go since April. There’s more next year. We don’t know exactly what’s going to happen, but we might head back into the studio. We’d like to sooner rather than later.
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‘Narrow Stairs’ is out now via Atlantic. Find Death Cab For Cutie on MySpace HERE. That’ll be just the 18 million profile views, then…
Watch the video for the band's new single 'No Sunlight' HERE.