In 1997, when [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Death Cab For Cutie[/lastfm] started first perfecting what would become their quintessential lo-fi dream-pop sound in their “living rooms in Bellingham,” it was at the height of the prog-rock era. However, if you wanted to impress a raven-haired indie/emo girl on the pre-Myspace social networking site, Make-Out Club, Death Cab was always that go-to indie band that would get you a second date.
[pullquote quote=”When we started this band fourteen years ago in a living room in Bellingham, you never think you’re going to be doing anything, let alone fourteen years late.”]Fourteen years (and seven albums) later, not much has changed. Death Cab For Cutie is still making the gentle, glittery indie-pop punctuated with literate, melancholic lyrics that makes girls swoon, except these days the band isn’t playing to an audience of one.
Last week, Death Cab played two dates at the iconic Greek Theatre. Kevin & Bean had a chance to bring them out of their green tour bus and into the studio to talk about their “world domination,” the music writing process, if lead singer (and lucky hubby of the beautiful actress/singer [lastfm link_type=””]Zooey Deschanel[/lastfm]) [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Ben Gibbard[/lastfm] really still hates Los Angeles, and what would happen if the Mariners went to the World Series.
Gibbard and guitarist/keyboardist [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Chris Walla[/lastfm] also played a stripped-down acoustic version of two of their popular songs “Stay Young, Go Dancing” from their newest album Codes And Keys and an oldie–“Soul Meets Body” from 2005’s Plans.
“When we started this band fourteen years ago in a living room in Bellingham, you never think you’re going to be doing anything, let alone fourteen years later,” began Ben Gibbard, lead singer and multi-instrumentalist of Death Cab For Cutie.
[pullquote quote=”I started to feel with the amount of traveling that we do or the amount of time away from home that over the years I lost touch with some things that I think that if my life were different I maybe wouldn’t have.” credit=”Ben Gibbard”]In can be argued that Death Cab For Cutie was one of the iconic bands at that gave an international identity to the “indie” music genre. While many “alternative” bands associated with more assertive sounds were affiliated with independent labels or didn’t go “mainstream,” bands like Death Cab For Cutie and [lastfm link_type=””]Bright Eyes[/lastfm] cemented the softer sound of “indie rock” into the cultural lexicon, especially after the massive wave of popularity from these kinds of bands in the late ’90s and early ’00s.
But, as many popular bands would attest, it didn’t begin without a struggle. Gibbard explains how their smallest show was to a crowd of two, but not really even that:
“Two people…I think in Sacramento. Old Ironsides. One of them playing saw with us that evening. So, him and his friend. I guess that’s really an audience of one. Because he watched half the show and actually had to play the other half of the show.
“It’s pretty crazy to put on an event and have literally no one show up.”
Having to go through these dry periods is par for the course for up-and-coming bands, which is perhaps the reason why Death Cab For Cutie has asked relatively unknown Scottish indie rock band, Frightened Rabbit to go on tour with them for a second spin:
“We toured with them in Europe three years ago and it was a horrific winter tour in Europe that was fourteen shows in fifteen days. We were in a bus, thankfully for us, but they were in a van trying to catch up to us and they were great sports about it and that was probably one of the most harrowing trips that we made on the last record.”
“So I think when we were looking at people to people to…tour with in the states, we all enjoyed their company and loved them as people and we love their band; it just made sense that we would kind of do a round two with them.”
While one may idealize the touring life of a musician, tours can be both grueling and isolating–which is a big part of the lyrical story behind Death Cab’s song “You Are A Tourist” from Codes And Keys. Gibbard elaborated:
“I think that line is certainly more reflective in the sense that I live in Los Angeles now. I don’t live in Seattle anymore. And I love Seattle–the north west will always be where my roots are and where I’m from; I will love it ’til the day I die.”
“But, I think that at a certain point for me, you know, I started to feel with the amount of traveling that we do or the amount of time away from [pullquote quote=”Life kind of hit the pause button and you’re walking back in and picking back up.” credit=”Ben Gibbard”]home that over the years I lost touch with some things that I think that if my life were different I maybe wouldn’t have…I’ll always feel like I belong there, so I think that the line is somewhat of an embellishment.”
“But it’s certainly rooted in a feeling, you know, when you spend a lot of time away from your family, the people that you love, and then you come back after a couple of months and somebody had a kid, someone else got married…you come back and you assume…life kind of hit the pause button and you’re walking back in and picking back up and as you get older you realize that’s not how it works.”
Getting older has also given Gibbard a new perspective on living in Los Angeles–a city he lambasted over a decade ago in a song called “Why You’d Want To Live Here.”
[pullquote quote=”I love it actually. Counter to things I said in the past and maybe on record.” credit=”Ben Gibbard on Los Angeles”]”I love it actually. Counter to things I said in the past and maybe on record…I think the thing I learned about Los Angeles that you can only learn if you live here is that this is actually ten little cities and also that, you know, my perspective on a lot of things has changed since the year 2000.”
“And I think as you grow older, you’re allowed to have things open up to you that were not open at first. “
Similarly to the way Gibbard has changed his perspective on Los Angeles, Walla said that the band tries to stay open when they are making music, never throwing a good idea or also trying not to emulate old ones:
“I think really our own back catalog is kind of what we’re working against. We want to make new things and make music that’s new for us and I think before we went in to make ‘Codes & Keys,’ we’d already made six records before that, you know, you naturally have six records of things that you’re not going to do again. Therein lies the challenge…”
“We don’t end up throwing them out. I think that we end up trying to zoom out and figure out what it is about those ideas that we didn’t like and try to figure out how to re-approach them. If it’s a good idea, it’s a good idea.
[pullquote quote=”I think a lot of the songs could have easily been captured if we just wanted to make them sound acoustic rock, but that’s not something that we’re not necessarily interested in.”]”It doesn’t matter whose idea it is…If it’s a good idea because it’s exactly, literally down to the lyrics of something we’ve already done then it’s not going to happen.”
“Ben’s demos came in pretty piano based or acoustic-guitar based. And with the last record, we went in and basically just put up mics and tracked it as live as we possibly could. Sort of very much like what we were doing on stage.”
“And to get away from having that same thing happen again, we just tried to back away from that process and try to create a harmonic foundation that was basically made for an acoustic piano or a strumming guitar, so that was kind of the impulse.”
“I think a lot of the songs could have easily been captured if we just wanted to make them sound acoustic rock, but that’s not something that we’re not necessarily interested in.”
Gibbard explained that the lyrical process wasn’t as intimate as one would think. He derives inspiration more from general human stories than his own life experiences.
“They always relate to real things but I think that as a songwriter I think when you use first person people make this assumption that everything that they are singing is something that happened to them.”
“And that’s a weird sort of authority or trust that we give singers…that’s not always true. I think that a lot of my songs are the amalgamation of a lot of different story lines, some of which have happened to me, some of which have happened to other people that I know and you kind of create outcomes that make the most sense for the song.”
“I always found it interesting that songwriters are the only type of writers where if you’ re using first person that that thing happened to the person singing it. And that’s not always true.”
One personal subject Gibbard might be too stressed out to write about: his endearing childhood love for the unsuccessful baseball team, the Seattle Mariners.
“I’ve tried to get into other teams; I’ve loved the Mariners since I was five. And I’m stuck with this team that sucks most of the time.”
“I think if the Mariners were ever to make it to the world series I would have to hole up in a hotel somewhere by myself because I would be going insane. The stress of something like that would be so all-encompassing, I would make a preëmptive strike and kick myself out of the house.”