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Death Cab for Cutie

Seizing the Narrative

Apr 02, 2008 Death Cab for Cutie Photography by Steven Dewall Bookmark and Share

A by-product of lazy journalism and human nature’s innate craving for narrative, an artist won’t go far without a good story. By now, the narratives are well worn into our collective imaginations, cut-and-paste templates that allow us to place every artist in a category that keeps us from having to examine the actual art being made. There’s the lonely auteur, spending all his time alone piecing together his latest opus in the privacy of his basement or bedroom. There’s the “next big thing” buzz band, riding a wave of hype that becomes more important than the music they make. And then there’s the band with a hard-earned indie rock pedigree that is making the integrity-risking move of jumping to a major label, a move that is greeted with suspicion by anyone from the keeping-it-real old guard that equates corporate involvement as a contaminant that endangers any honest expression. In 2006, Death Cab for Cutie learned that having a story that’s too good to ignore can drown out all other subplots.

“Years ago, we were on tour with The Dismemberment Plan, and you’d pick up a weekly, and there were all these stories about how they’d been on a major label and now they weren’t and they were successful” recalls Death Cab vocalist and songwriter Ben Gibbard. “And, admittedly, it made me a little jealous, and I said, ‘God, you guys are getting a lot of press on this tour.’ And [Dismemberment Plan vocalist] Travis Morrison looked me dead in the eyes and said, ‘Well, Ben, we’ve got a story. You guys don’t.’ And it was true. Their story was ‘Band on a major label gets dropped and goes on to be indie rock phenoms.’ Last record, our story was ‘Longtime indie band signs to major. Will it change their sound?’ Every time you would do interviews, you knew that was coming up, and it meant that every writer was writing the same story about the band. In a way, I’m glad that we’re in a place where we’ve taken the power back, so to speak.”

With Narrow Stairs, their sixth, they do exactly that, issuing an album that is at once their most unpredictable, unkempt, and unprecedented release in their catalog. There are prog rock instrumental passages (“I Will Possess Your Heart”) and nasty reverb-laced insults (“Talking Bird”). There are darkly conflicted sentiments hidden under breezy pop melodies (“No Sunlight”) and natural disasters that offer unexpected hope (“Grapevine Fires”). There are textural clashes and abrasively percussive explosions (“Bixby Canyon Bridge”) mixed with bittersweet ballads (“Your New Twin Sized Bed”). In short, it’s a pronounced counterpoint to 2005’s comparably carefree Plans, the carefully executed pop album that made the band the poster boys for a new wave of indie bands that were breaking into the Billboard Top 10. Right on cue, there were detractors who said that the band had made an album that was too perfect for its own good, one that was too easy for people with bad music tastes to like. But you can only make your first major label album once, and Narrow Stairs is not an album that allows for easy one-sentence sound bites. It’s an album with no story.

“I think the biggest concept about this album is that there was no concept for it,” says guitarist and producer Chris Walla. Still, that’s a statement with a caveat, because there were guidelines in place. For one, this album would be recorded on tape instead of digital, with the band holing up in the same Tiny Telephone studio in San Francisco where they recorded 2003’s landmark Transatlantic-ism. Second, this album would be recorded largely live in the studio, the meticulous studio tinkering of Plans replaced with an approach that emphasized broad stroke spontaneity over tight focus details. And third, no takes were to be stopped, no matter the circumstances. It’s this final rule that produced some of Narrow Stairs’ most memorable moments.

“It doesn’t matter if your guitar is out of tune and you’re fucking up or you’ve dropped a stick—make it happen,” Walla says, recounting the album’s strategy. “Especially in the case of ‘I Will Possess Your Heart,’ I tripped over Nick’s bass dyad and unplugged the thing, and it made a big explosion in the record at a minute and thirteen seconds. For a nine-minute song, that’s the kind of thing where everyone looks at each other and is like ‘What are you doing?’ And Jason [McGerr, drummer] missed his cue at the point where the singing starts, and he does this weird and awesome fade out, just to try and make it work. You can’t plan any of that shit.”

Indicative of their anything-that-works mindset, the track riddled with mistakes was also chosen for their first single. Having proven their commercial mettle with Plans, they had earned the right to succeed or fail on their own terms. “I really think that if we hadn’t sold as many records as we did with Plans, there was no way we could have gone to Atlantic and said, ‘Yeah, the single’s eight minutes long.’ They would never go for that,” Gibbard says. “For the first time in a long time, since this band became something bigger than the four of us traveling around in a van, I’m really in a situation where I’m content with a record. For the first time I’m really not concerned with what people are going to think about it. I haven’t read a review in a long time, and I don’t go read message boards or blog postings, but if someone came up to me and said, ‘I fucking hate this record!’ I’d be like, ‘That’s fine. I appreciate the fact that you’re able to express your opinion, but I disagree with you, and I think this record is great.’”

Just as their increased commercial viability insured that they’d be allowed to follow their creative instincts, the intensive 15 months of touring and promotion that accompanied their success left Gibbard and his bandmates a leaner and tighter machine. Their youthful audacity having hardened into maturity through experience, Walla was ready to capture the sound of the band interacting in real time. Confident enough to allow their mistakes and triumphs to live together on the same album, Narrow Stairs would be the sound of Death Cab behind the curtain.

“In a way, we’ve always been capable of doing that, but I haven’t always felt that I was capable of doing that,” Walla admits. “In record producer terms for myself, I have a lot more confidence in the idea that record producing is more than making sure that there isn’t a lot of tape hiss. It was really liberating to not get totally bogged down about every last sound and every detail and be more global about how it feels. I talk about it like I think it sounds shitty and I’m trying to hedge my bets, and I don’t think that’s true,” he laughs. “I really like how it sounds. I know it sounds really different than anything that’s on the radio or anything that I’ve worked on. We’d had quite a substantial break, but [playing live] has gotten to be so much more of our experience than recording that it did feel like [we were] trying to get some of that into the record. It was something that I’d never tried to do with this band before.”

That’s a far cry from Plans, a record where the band literally lived in a snowbound Massachusetts studio for a month, and Walla was still making 11th hour changes to the mix months after the album was supposedly finished. Free of the cut-and-paste powers of digital recording, Walla decided to catch as much spontaneous energy as possible, ensuring his bandmates that each had complete veto power over anything in the mix. Definitive details, such as Nick Harmer’s bass line in the epic “I Will Possess Your Heart,” were finalized the same day they were written. Where they had stayed close to Gibbard’s demo blueprints for Plans, the band ripped apart and reassembled most of his newest batch, with only the driving “Cath…” and the ethereal stutter of “Pity and Fear” surviving in their original form. For a producer who knows exactly how to change every detail after the fact, to leave sonic strings untied is nothing short of a brave shift of pace.

“It starts to seem weird if you choose not to do that stuff, and I definitely felt that a few times during this record, like, ‘Guys, this really just sounds like four guys in a room. It doesn’t sound like records that people are making now,’” Walla recounts. “By not forcing the hand of anyone in the band or any instrument or sound or part, [I was] just really leaving things alone. I tried to make sure things were in tune, but there’s a lot of shit that isn’t even in tune at a lot of points. But I didn’t feel the need to protect this record. I feel like I must have gotten through a bunch of control issues or something. It’s not as though I didn’t care for it or that I didn’t worry about it and lose sleep over different parts of it, but it was more a matter of me having a much better sense of what I was losing sleep over. I thought it was a problem I knew how to solve.”

Matching the visceral tone of the performances, Gibbard dives deep into the unintended consequences of a life spent balancing art and intimacy, finding that life never takes a time out for you to go out and make a living. “It’s one thing to be an artist that’s able to go home and sleep in your own bed every night. It’s another thing to miss birthdays and doctor’s visits and children growing up—all these things now that my friends that have kids are experiencing,” Gibbard explains. “I ran up against some really rough experiences over the last 15 months of touring, where I had some of the most incredible professional highs and lowest personal lows in my life. It’s an interesting juxtaposition to have everything going perfectly with the band and have things in my personal life crumbling into rubble. It’s a very precarious balance, and I’m just hoping that as we all go into this next cycle that we’ll be able to establish a better balance than we did last time. Because we didn’t do a very good job last time of balancing our lives at home and our ambitions as a band, and I think I can say—without incriminating anyone—that that goes across the board for all of us.”

Whatever the case, the balance they lacked in their personal and professional lives resulted in the most varied and multifaceted release in their catalog. Even so, Narrow Stairs could be a treacherous climb for some listeners, as its rewards are buried deeper within the sonic and thematic subtext of songs that wriggle away right before you’ve fully examined them. But it’s also a remarkably adventurous release, one that should be definitive proof that Death Cab has no interest in pandering to record label execs or radio programmers. If Plans was presented with no rough edges remaining, Narrow Stairs is a gloriously splintered set, an album that snags you a different way each time you pass over its jagged edges.

“I’m not saying that we blew up and ‘changed the game,’” Gibbard says directly. “We didn’t go Bitches Brew on anybody. But given the fact that because Plans sold twice as much as our previously most successful record and now eight times more than any record after that, for a lot of people, this will be the second Death Cab record that they’ve ever heard. I find myself thinking about it in that context. But I’m really at a place with the record where I could see why someone would really like it, and I could see why someone could really dislike it. And that’s really exciting about it,” he says, sounding confident that he has made an album whose story can’t be told by simply plugging his name into an old manuscript. “That said, I’m going to take some advice that Dave Eggers gave me and not read any of the reviews.”


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July 19th 2010

Indicative of their anything-that-works mindset, the track riddled with mistakes was also chosen for their first single. Having proven their commercial mettle with Plans, they had earned the right to succeed or fail on their own terms.
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