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Interview: Death Cab for Cutie

By: Amanda PetrusichConsidering the current state of the music industry–an industrythat has all but abandoned the idea of nourishing an artist infavor of instant gratification and prefabricated radio-friendlyhooks–the big, rolling snowball that is Seattle’s Death Cabfor Cutie is all the more impressive. Death Cab are remarkablywell-versed in the finer points of sustained evolution, havinggradually developed from a one-man act–the solo project ofvocalist/guitarist Ben Gibbard–into a fully operative, democraticfour-piece. Along the way, DCfC endured a perpetually revolvingrhythm section (drummer Jason McGerr is the band’s thirdman-behind-the-kit), and survived the potentially distractingside-projects of both Gibbard (who also records as the PostalService, alongside Dntel frontman Jimmy Tamborello) andguitarist/producer Chris Walla (who co-owns Seattle studio the Hallof Justice, and regularly mans the boards for fellownorth-westerners the Thermals and the Long Winters).

Death Cab have been locked in a steady upward trajectory since their inception in 1997, and Transatlanticism, the band’s fourth proper full-length (which was released by their longtime label–the Seattle-based indie Barsuk–last month) sees that momentum perfectly maintained. The record is packed full of sweeping guitar pop, alternately compact and spacious, anchored by flitting piano lines, a few spacey bits of synth, and Gibbard’s soft, plaintive coo.

They’ve also successfully overseen a transition from recording on cheap, shitty equipment in their basements (Gibbard reports a Barsuk rep’s reaction to their first setup as: “You guys mixed it on that? Are you insane?”), to employing what Gibbard now lovingly refers to as “top of the line, really fancy stuff.” Transatlanticism is the band’s most dynamic outing to date, shifting seamlessly from restrained, minimalist slow-players to thick, aggressive guitar assaults. As McGerr notes, “There’s a whole lot of sparseness and space, and a whole lot of denseness. And then there’s the in-between.”

“There are more sounds,” adds bassist Nick Harmer. “The fidelity issue is partly just a function of recording on bigger and better formats. I think there’s more space between it now, things are a little clearer, whereas before they were a little fuzzier.” Making note of their humble origins, Death Cab are not ready to plunge into slick studio effects. “The board Chris used to mix our first record on, you couldn’t get a $150 for it,” Gibbard admits. “So not only has Chris gotten better as an engineer, but we’ve just had better stuff to work with every record. It’s not that [Transatlanticism] is more produced, but everything is refined more, the sounds are better–the juxtaposition between the clean sound and the dirty sound is that much nicer.”

Gibbard is quick to credit Walla and McGerr for the richness of Death Cab’s sonic spectrum. “Chris and Jason especially will go into a music shop and be like ‘I just found the crispest, most awesome sounding cymbal I’ve ever heard,’ or ‘I just went and bought a $5 cymbal that sounds like fucking shit, and it will sound great on this song,'” Gibbard explains. This kind of eclecticism reflects, for Death Cab, an uncompromising dedication to solid song-craft, no matter the source. “At the end of the day,” Harmer confesses, “We’re fans of a good song. Chris will bring in a Justin Timberlake record or a Beyonce single and be like, ‘Check this out!’ And we’ll be like, ‘Wow!’ Or Ben will be like ‘I found this recording, from this kid who came up to me and gave me a CD-R, and listen to this, this is amazing, too!'”

Gibbard applies the same idiosyncratic principles to his lyrics: his uncanny ability to translate long, cumbersome sentences (“The glove compartment is inaccurately named and everybody knows it / So I’m proposing a swift, orderly change”) into sweet, pithy verse is remarkable, and while most of Death Cab’s songs survey the usual poetic terrain (girls, mangled relationships, shifting landscapes) Gibbard never panders to form, refusing to acknowledge that lyrics could be anything less than perfectly literate, coherent prose.

But while Gibbard’s laments might seem overtly confessional to some, he remains unworried by their potential for misinterpretation: “I don’t really think about it that much. I write what I write. It’s faulty for anybody to ever read or listen to anything and assume that what they’re getting is somebody’s own experience.”

“Think about the verbal aspect of it,” Walla prods. “The fact that you assume that when somebody speaks to you, it’s the truth. And when you’re seeing a staged performance or a reading, you’re set up to believe that it’s fiction. A song can go either way.” The band pauses to consider the repercussions of their storytelling, presumably contemplating Death Cab’s role in the ever-rumbling emo-machine. Nick looks up: “I think that Eminem’s lyrics are all true. I think he’s killed people.”

Walla nods sagely: “Undoubtedly.”

“But he’s the only guy I really believe.Everybody else is lying.”