Bright Lights, Big City
The San Diego Freeway-a.k.a. the 405-is a drab, twistingexpanse known for bottlenecks, exhaust, and massive frustration. It’sthe quickest route to Hollywood, but in many ways, it’s the slowest.You could idle all day, stuck between the center of everything andnowhere at all. I was on the 405 one sunny day last January, listeningto “405,” a lilting song about the vagaries of distance-both physicaland emotional-from Death Cab for Cutie’s second album, 2000’s We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes. And the song was on the radio, not my CD player.
“Indie 103″ appeared on Los Angeles radio a few months ago, acorporate experiment in counter-counterprogramming. Suddenly, it’spossible to hear a four-year-old song from an indie-rock band high upon the FM dial. But just as Indie 103 is an unlikely radio phenomenon,Death Cab for Cutie are the unlikeliest of radio stars: a quartet ofexceedingly polite Seattleites whose striking ascendance has led themto L.A. for a video shoot, their first national TV appearance (on The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn) and a major-label bidding frenzy.
Bands like Death Cab were supposed to have fallen frombig-biz favor a few years ago (about the time Modest Mouse cashed theirfirst Epic advance check). And it’s a shock to many, including themembers of Death Cab, that their fourth and best album, Transatlanticism,has sold more than 100,000 copies since its release late last year. So,in the rich tradition of numerous little bands who’ve made their waydown the coast to awkwardly fill a slot on late-night TV, Death Cabfind themselves on the Kilborn set at CBS’s Television City, where they fit in about as well as their music does on FM radio.
Death Cab look and act like first-years killing time beforeAm Civ class. Bassist Nick Harmer and recently acquired drummer JasonMcGerr are eager to show everyone the giant Price Is Rightwheel a floor below, while singer Ben Gibbard and guitarist Chris Wallaseem particularly amused by the potential gastrointestinal side effectsof a complimentary breath mint that promises “immediate rehydration.”
Alarge group of expat Seattle friends has gathered in the green room,and the band members melt right into them. They wait until the lastpossible second to get slathered with makeup before giving a spotlessperformance of Transatlanticism‘s most outwardly rocking song,”The New Year.” Gibbard sings, “So this is the new year / And I don’tfeel any different,” warming up the crowd while Kilborn prepares tointerview Stephen Baldwin.
“L.A. points out all of one’s shortcomings,” Gibbard sayslater. “I was at a party here, and I met Kirsten Dunst. My rationalhead is saying, ‘This person isn’t any better than anybody else I’veever met.’ But then, you can’t help but feel a little inferior.”
Gibbard’s modesty is genuine, but it does hint at DeathCab’s shy mainstream courtship. With glistening hooks, openheartedsincerity, and lyrics that hone in on the tactile details of firstblush and breakup, Death Cab have found a way to communicate intimate,insular indie rock to the budding teen-emo overground. They write weepyseven-minute piano ballads and do sincere acoustic covers of AvrilLavigne. They tour with Pedro the Lion but idolize U2’s history of famewith integrity.
When the band started in 1997, they were compared to beardy guitar noodlers Built to Spill; on The Late Late Show,they were compared to Dashboard Confessional. They now tour in Europe,Australia, and Japan in a bus, not a van. Gibbard’s brilliant electrocollaboration with producer Jimmy Tamborello, singer Jen Wood, and RiloKiley’s Jenny Lewis-the Postal Service-has sold a staggering 150,000copies of its debut album, Give Up, since early 2003. Death Cab have even found the perfect mass-cult mirror image in The OC‘snervous, fast-talking, nerd-chic character Seth Cohen, played byreal-life fan Adam Brody (see below). Brody regularly name-checks theband on the show, and his unlikely rise to heartthrob status dovetailsperfectly with Gibbard’s.
The band have taken meetings with every big label, includinga waffle breakfast at Interscope boss Jimmy Iovine’s palatial pad andan Elektra sit-down where Gibbard chastised president Sylvia Rhone forher past treatment of peers Nada Surf, Spoon, and Superdrag. Gibbard isonly as leery of the majors as he is determined to find the audiencethe band deserves.
“My friend Rjyan [Kidwell, a.k.a. indie rapper Cex] alwayssays, ‘Why would you want to make a record only 1,000 people liked?’I’d feel really lame to have never taken a risk,” he says.
DeathCab for Cutie (their name references a ’60s song by Monty Pythonassociates the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band) formed when Gibbard, who wasattending Western Washington University, bonded with Walla, a buddingfour-track producer, over a shared love for Teenage Fanclub. “Between’96 and ’97, I wrote eight or nine songs that were suddenly reallygood,” says Gibbard. “I’d had the first major heartbreak of my adultlife-that always helps!”
Working part-time between other projects, Walla helped Gibbard transform those songs into a cassette-only release, You Can Play These Songs With Chords,that became a hit with local tastemakers. Gibbard quit his contractingjob at an oil refinery (he had graduated with a degree in environmentalchemistry), and in 1998, the band released their debut record,Something About Airplanes. But it was 2000’s elegiac We Have the Factsthat established Death Cab as the sweethearts of a scarred andscattered underground. “Ben never hits a wrong note-ever,” says JennyLewis. “His work reminds me of Lost in Translation, pure and simple, immediately accessible and then resonant.”
Death Cab toured relentlessly in 2001, releasing The Photo Album,a hastily produced, uneven third record that gained them tens ofthousands of new fans and forced them to confront, for the first time,the tension between part-time “project” and life choice. All three coremembers-Gibbard, Walla, and Harmer-are whip-smart, driven, and mature,but in quite different ways. Gibbard is dedicated to songcraft andcollaboration, Harmer is the steady, business-minded rock (creditingthe band’s success to “hard work and doing what we do”), and Walla isthe single-minded audiophile perfectionist. “I don’t think Chrisrealized until that tour [in 2001] that he was in a band,” saysGibbard. “He thought he was just playing with us in between being afull-time recording engineer. Whereas, I was like, ‘This is all I wantto do.'” After a nearly apocalyptic fight in Baltimore while on tour,Death Cab almost called it quits. Every band has an obsessive, butDeath Cab have two, often working on opposite sides of the soundboard.”They [Gibbard and Walla] have a way of tapping into a kind ofcollective consciousness,” says Harmer. “I couldn’t let them walk awayfrom that.”
The band scattered after the tour ended. In 2002, Gibbardhooked up with Silverlake scenesters Tamborello and Lewis andSeattleite Jen Wood, resulting in the Postal Service’s songs withbeats, Give Up. Meanwhile, Walla began producing in earnest athis home studio (the Hall of Justice), making records for the Thermals,Hot Hot Heat, and the Decemberists, among others.
“It was weird for a minute to see the Postal Service doingso well,” Walla admits. “Partly because I just didn’t really get it,because I know Ben’s songwriting, and I could see all the parts Iwouldn’t let him get away with.”
Gibbard,who won’t do extensive promotion for the Postal Service, insists thathis side project will not interfere with his real band. And in a sense,Transatlanticism marked the launch of Death Cab 2.0. The bandbrought in McGerr, an old friend, as well as a manager, freeing Harmerfrom handling band business. “They stopped and noticed that they neededto mature at a time when a lot of bands would have opted to justcontinue being juvenile,” says Josh Rosenfeld, head of their label,Barsuk.
The afternoon after the Kilborn taping, the band take another big step in the L.A. indoctrination process-a video shoot for Transatlanticism‘s”The Sound of Settling,” the first clip in which they’ve ever actuallyappeared. The guys goof around the set, playing wheelchair joust.They’re too normal, too familiar to make this a rock-star-in-waitingtraining day. (It says something about a band when the drummer givesyou the two bottles of rum in his Kilborn gift bag.) But thenthe music starts playing again over the P.A., and it’s possible to seethe American Coldplay that A&R gunners are drooling over. “Ben isthat rare artist with a truly unique and singular voice,” saysDreamWorks/Interscope A&R man Luke Wood. “Ben’s not Bert McCrackenswinging from the rafters. He’s not a rock star, but he draws you intohis world.”
On the best songs from Transatlanticism-the epictitle track (with its refrain of “I need you so much closer”) and themorning-after pill “A Lack of Color”-Gibbard rakes himself over thecoals of a breakup, but with a far-reaching command of melody andnuance. This thematic hook has exploded Death Cab’s fan base, pushingthem into the hyper-charged world of 15-year-old girls who sing alongand 15-year-old boys with blogs, and that makes Gibbard a littlenervous.
“I want to write songs that come from a real place, with areal story, but not like”-he clears his throat and sings in a StevePerry-esque croon, “Jenny! You fucking broke my heart! On Thursday…atthe Red Lobster!”
He complains half-jokingly about intentionally messing uplyrics so audiences in Florida can’t sing along, and the band haveturned down numerous invitations to open for Dashboard Confessional. “Iwon’t name any names, but if I were 27 and playing that kind ofbig-stroke, big-amp emo, I would find it to be an incredibly arrestedstatement.”
Later that night, Gibbard and I are driving throughHollywood in search of a Burger King, so he can score a veggie burger.Indie 103 plays a Dashboard Confessional song, then fades right into”Such Great Heights” by the Postal Service, and Gibbard pauses toconsider the weirdness of hearing your private feelings broadcast to anentire city in one moment. “If 14- or 15-year-old kids are getting intoour band-well, I think that’s a very good thing,” he says. “I’d rathertake a chance and fall on our ass than play the safe card.”
ForDeath Cab’s newfound fans-people at the point where everything in lifeseems both possible and risky-Gibbard’s vision of growing up, pepperedwith teenage sensations and regrets, is intoxicating. Many of hisobservations on Transatlanticism begin with “This is….” He’san expert at documenting the precise moment when things change or feellost forever. And such a moment may have arrived for his band.
“During the holidays,” Gibbard says, “my girlfriend and Ihad Nick and his girlfriend over to our house, and we played the Gameof Life for the first time since we were kids. And the thing is, Lifeis hard!” He laughs. “There were all these choices that I don’tremember being in the game when we were younger. I mean, Nick ended upliving in a trailer.” He laughs and looks out the window at the SunsetStrip. “Who knew things could end up that complicated?”
Inside the mind of Adam Brody-The OC‘s star and Death Cab obsessive
Spin: How much of Seth Cohen’s musical taste is your own?
Adam Brody: It’s a fusion of me and Josh Schwartz, thewriter/creator. He’s only 27 and likes a lot of the same bands. Myfavorites are Death Cab for Cutie and Bright Eyes. He’s more into theShins and Interpol, so we kind of split it.
How long have you been into Death Cab? Since The Photo Albumcame out. Ben’s lyrics are just so freaking great, so different andpoetic. Once you get into people who write that way, it’s hard to goback to the radio. It’s ruined me!
Did you give Death Cab and Bright Eyes CDs to people as real-life Christmukkah gifts?I gave Josh Schwartz a Bright Eyes CD-that might have been theinspiration for the episode. I made a “Best Hits of Death Cab” CD forRachel Bilson, who plays Summer. When Elliott Smith died, PeterGallagher said he’d never heard of him, so I made him a greatest-hitsCD. And when he and I were driving the other day, I had Death Cab on inmy car and he liked it a lot.
Are you aware of how popular Seth Cohen is with the indie/emo kids out there?The other day, these ninth graders came up, and they were dressed justlike I dress, and they yelled, “Seth Cohen is our hero!” I was like,”Wow, Seth is speaking for a generation!” I just hope I’m doing himjustice. A.G.