Throwback Thursday: Death Cab For Cutie Interview from 2002 | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Throwback Thursday: Death Cab For Cutie Interview from 2002

Laughing Indoors with Death Cab For Cutie

Aug 14, 2014 Winter 2002 - The Divine Comedy Photography by Wendy Lynch Redfern Bookmark and Share

For Throwback Thursdays we are posting classic interviews from the Under the Radar print archives to our website. Under the Radar used to keep its print articles exclusive to the print magazine and so there are a lot of older articles that aren’t to be found on our website. For this Throwback Thursday we revisit our 2002 article on Death Cab For Cutie. It was our first interview with the band and appeared all the way back in issue #2 of the magazine. We are posting it in honor of yesterday’s announcement that guitarist Chris Walla is leaving the band. Death Cab For Cutie were one of the bands we knew we had to interview when we started Under the Radar. The interview was conducted in honor of the band’s third full-length album, 2001’s The Photo Album, and 2002’s The Stability EP. The lineup at the time was Walla, singer Benjamin Gibbard, bassist Nick Harmer, and drummer Michael Schorr (current drummer Jason McGerr took over in 2003 in time for their next album, Transatlanticism). Under the Radar’s co-publisher and co-founder Wendy Lynch Redfern did a photo shoot with the band at the El Rey Theater in Los Angeles around the time of their soundcheck. Walla was happy enough with the article that he wrote us a letter to thank us, which we ran in the following issue. Later Walla would write a regular column for us for many years titled “Chris Walla Explains It All.” Read on as Benjamin Gibbard and Chris Walla discusses never taking a sick day, avoiding day jobs, the emo tag, their early recordings, and hints of The Postal Service.

Death Cab For Cutie are the nicest bunch of guys in all of indie-domreally. (And let’s get “the big secret” out of the way up front: They take their name from a Bonzo Dog Band tune that was featured in The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour TV movie back before most of us were born.)

The band’s burgeoning reputation for being all-around sweethearts holds up under the toughest of circumstances, including the impending pre-show meltdown commencing inside the El Rey Theatre. The venue, in L.A.‘s Miracle Mile district, is an early stop on Death Cab’s recent (and cleverly named) “Death and Dismemberment” tour with co-headliners The Dismemberment Plan.

They haven’t eaten for hours, singer/guitarist Benjamin Gibbard’s suffering from a nasty case of the fluand to top it all off, the band’s soundcheck is on hold while the El Rey’s audio wizards attempt to tame the misbehaving soundboard by slowly reducing it to a tangle of wiring. A day like this would bring out the worst in anybody, but Death Cab For Cutie are remarkably even-tempered, gamely sitting for two separate photo shoots and signing autographs for whoever asks.

After all, it beats working day jobs. Not that Death Cab For Cutie are afraid of hard work. The bandfierce proponents of the DIY approachhaven’t taken a sick day since forming in 1997 in Bellingham, Washington, a picturesque town in the northern reaches of the state best known for Western Washington University (which counts Gibbard and bassist Nicholas Harmer among its alumni).

“We don’t run [Barsuk, their label], we don’t book our tours…but outside of that, we take care of every other last aspect,” Gibbard tells me, after he’s had a chance to ingest some friesand antibiotics. “Chris [Walla, guitarist/keyboardist] usually does all the T-shirt designs, and we pick them up and roll them ourselves and get the van ready to tour. It’s not a difficult equation: You put out records, you play shows, you bring stuff to sell, and, hopefully, at the end of the day, you can have enough money in your pocket to [avoid] a day job.”

After five years, three studio albums and two EPsincluding the recently-released Stability EPthe band have begun to reap the rewards of their singular dedication.

“We’ve been able to make a living at this for almost the last two years,” Gibbbard states. “It doesn’t seem like there’ll be a point in the near future where we’ll have to go back to jobs, as long as we continue putting out records and playing shows.”

The band’s solvency, and the continued creative output it enables, is excellent news for their ever-growing fan base, which has avidly followed Death Cab For Cutie’s astonishingly swift maturation. It all started with 1997’s You Can Play These Songs With Chords, a cassette-only release on the Bellingham-based Elsinor label, produced by Gibbard and Walla at homeaka “The Hall Of Justice.” (The Hall has since relocated to a Seattle studio legendary for midwifing the birth of the grunge movement, and Walla has produced and engineered each subsequent Death Cab For Cutie release.)

“I was playing in random bands around Bellingham and I had a bunch of songs that I’d four-tracked under the name Death Cab For Cutie,” Gibbard recounts. “And Chris had just purchased a bunch of recording equipment, so he offered to record and produce the songs.”

“Ben was playing in Pinwheel,” Walla explains, “and he was also playing [drums] in a band with Nick, called Shed. I don’t think he really wanted to be doing anything elsebut I had a bunch of songs that I needed help with and we actually put something together where we were playing all my songs. As Ben started to come up with songs that weren’t really fitting into Pinwheel, gears shifted…[after] I bought my eight-track, we started work on what ended up being You Can Play These Songs With Chords.”

That eight-track recordera late-‘70s Tascam 80-8 reel-to-reelwould continue to play a major part in the band’s career: Walla produced and recorded 1998’s devastatingly beautiful Something About Airplanes (co-released by Elsinor and Barsuk) using the vintage equipment. This record (which marked the band’s official debut as a four-piece featuring Gibbard, Walla, Harmer, and original drummer Nathan Good) is as pure a piece of guitar-pop as is possible to produce. Walla’s production nimbly captures the fragile emotional framework of Gibbard’s songwriting and the band’s subtly complex musical interplay on tracks like “Champagne From a Paper Cup” and the achingly gorgeous “Sleep Spent.”

“It takes a little bit of tweaking and a lot of experimenting to get [that] sound,” Walla admits. “When I went to recording school, they had an 80-8 that was stuck in a closet. I started pulling out the eight-track at school and rolling it into one of the classrooms when nobody was in there and just started screwing around with it. So when it came time to make Something About Airplanes, it all fell into place. It was really tiring to make, but it was really fun.”

Good’s untimely departure from the band made the recording of their sophomore effort for Barsuk, 2000’s We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes, an exercise in shining through adverse conditions, with Gibbard relying on his past drumming experience to pick up the slack.

“When [Nathan] left…it was obvious that we needed to put a lot more time and effort into what we were doing if we wanted to make it work,” Walla states. “We needed to [do] all the grunt work that indie rock bands have to do if they want to get anywhere. And he really wanted to finish school and have a more predictable sort of life for himself. We had some differences of opinion about ita couple times we were really mad at one anotherbut I think he did the right thing for himself, and we’re all still friends.”

Though arduous, the growing pains the band endured while recording We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes did not stop them from producing another superior album. Their musical sophistication reaches ever greater heights, and Gibbard’s story-songs about the costs of life and love in the post-collegiate diaspora (see “Lowell, MA” and “No Joy in Mudville”) are informed with a startlingly mature weariness. To his credit, the 25-year-old Gibbard doesn’t make much of his ageor of the sensitivity he exposes in his writing, which has led many to label Death Cab For Cutie an “emo” band.

“If there’s any particular element of my personality or upbringing that’s given me that ability [to write with such maturity]...I can’t put my finger on it,” he states. He laughingly admits to being “a sensitive person. But it’s a matter of how much you play into that. I don’t like to play into the characters in the songs, or try to put forth this idea that that is the embodiment of me in every last lyric, because there’s a lot of fiction injected into a lot of songs.”

“I feel like we get [the emo tag] less and less these days,” Gibbard adds. “My take on it is you don’t get to really say what people call your music…once you make it, it’s out there.”

“People are writing about your bandI mean, how cool is that?” Walla chuckles. “Does it really matter what anybody calls you? Sure, we’re an emo band, but we’re also a rock band. We’re also a twee band. We’re also an indie pop band. It doesn’t really matter to me at all.”

Regrouping after We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes, Death Cab For Cutie added drummer Michael Schorr (formerly of Uncle Roscoe) to the fold, and promptly kicked out an amazing coda: The Forbidden Love EP, released by Barsuk in 2000. Among the disc’s many highlights: The Casiotone-esque drum textures on the wistful “Photobooth,” and a transcendent acoustic version of the album track “405.”

The band’s next, and most recent, long-playing release, The Photo Album (2001, Barsuk), shows Death Cab to be in fine form; every aspect of the LP is in perfect focus (pun quite possibly intended). Gibbard’s lyrics and vocals range from intimate and poetic yearning (“We Laugh Indoors,” “Steadier Footing”) to sardonic, rational rage (“Styrofoam Plates,” “Why’d You Want to Live Here”).

“In the past, I’ve always tried to cloak stuff and dance around the meanings in the lyrics,” Gibbard reveals. “I’m starting to come around to more straightforward lyric writing; I’ve been trying to do more of a Raymond Chandler thing, just keep it really simple…. I’d hope that I’m starting to move into some lyrical direction that’s not a single subject over and over again.”

Keeping pace with Gibbard’s evolving songcraft, the band’s playing is purposeful and accomplished, pitting angular rhythms against warm and jangling texturessuch as when the neon glow of an electric piano is perfectly balanced by frenetic guitar stabs on “Blacking Out the Friction.” Gibbard claims that the band’s incessant touring is at least partially responsible for the record’s tight sound.

“We’ve played a lot of [these songs] live for so long that we were able to work out a lot of the bugs in the arrangements early on,” he says. “Touring with a lot of those songs [made] it a lot easier to hop in the studio, bang it right out and have it sound a lot more confident.”

Perhaps it’s that hard-won musical confidence which allowed the band to spread out and record the 12-minute title track on their latest disc, The Stability EP. An epic recording in the very best sense of the word, the tune slowly unravels in a shimmering cascade of delayed guitars and ethereal vocals. Also gracing the EP is a stunning cover of Björk’s “All Is Full of Love,” on which Death Cab For Cutie manage to transplant that ballad’s pulsing digital heart into the very drums and wires of their analog instruments.

As you read this, Death Cab For Cutie will be well into an early, but much-deserved, summer vacation; Gibbard is currently collaborating with Jimmy Tamborello (Strictly Ballroom/Dntel) on a dance/electronic album(!), and Walla is slated to produce Victoria, BC, go-getters Hot Hot Heat in May. While the band’s fans might have to wait a while for new material, they can take comfort in the fact that they’re sincerely appreciated.

“There are a lot of smart, resourceful kids in this country who are discovering how not to have things spoonfed to them,” enthuses Walla. “Those kids are coming to our shows, and they’re buying our records, and they’re saying hello to us…I think there’s a renaissance, and I think that nobody has really recognized that yet.”

Nobody but us kids, fellas.


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August 14th 2014

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