Death Cab for Cutie are wrapping up their seventh full-length album for release in spring 2011, and singer-guitarist Ben Gibbard tells SPIN that its sound is “a testament to where we are as a band.”
“It’s not a guitar-based record. We’ve been into vintage keyboards and playing with that palette,” he says, citing Brian Eno’s Another Green World as a reference point. “We’re not adding guitars because people will be expecting them… I’m so proud of this album that at this point I don’t care if people don’t like it.”
The new album, which will feature 12 to 13 songs, is a departure from their chart-topping 2008 release, Narrow Stairs, which, says Gibbard, was very guitar-based and conducive to playing live. “This new record has turned out to be much more of a construction project,” he says, adding that the band would build a song in the studio around one vocal or riff. “It makes for some very creative moments.”
One of those creative moments resulted in “Codes and Keys,” Death Cab’s first song to include a string section in 12 years. “We had some really beautiful arrangements written for it,” says Gibbard. “It’s a standout track on the record. It’s really aching and gorgeous. It’s been really amazing to hear it come to life.” Another track, “Unobstructed Views,” Gibbard says is “a sprawling, seven-minute track that’s mostly instrumental. It has the piano and keyboard soundscapes that I’ve been really enjoying.” Other songs include “Monday Morning” — “I’m really happy with that one. [Death Cab guitarist/producer] Chris [Walla] just sent me a mix,” says Gibbard.
Lyrically, Gibbard is also straying from Narrow Stairs, a move indicative of his new life in Los Angeles with his wife, actress and She & Him songstress Zooey Deschanel. “There’s a level of self-loathing in [Narrow Stairs] that I’m a bit of embarrassed about now,” he admits. “It’s a really dark record. I didn’t want to make that record again. I didn’t want to write those songs again.”
With the new album, he thinks fans may make assumptions about his marriage. “Everything I write is reflective of my own life and the lives of those people around me,” he says. “They reflect the conversations you have and the rumblings of life around you. But when somebody gets married, people assume that they’re going to get a certain thing out of an album.”
The band, says Gibbard, is a “couple of weeks away” from having the as-yet-untitled effort completely tracked. This time, instead of holing up in one studio for six weeks, the guys changed studios every two weeks, recording in Los Angeles, Vancouver, BC, San Francisco, and Seattle, with two weeks vacation between each move, an approach also hinged on the band’s grown-up lives.
“We’re all moving into a period in our lives where family is very important,” he explains, adding that all the band’s members are either married, engaged, or have kids. “So living off in the woods for a month away from family isn’t something we want to do.” The approach has also opened up a new writing style for Gibbard: “On this record I’ve written a couple songs in our downtime between studios and we start recording that brand new song on the first day of the next session, which is something we’ve never really had the opportunity to do before.”
Walla also contributes more to the new album than ever before. “There are a few songs that Chris wrote all the music for,” explains Gibbard. “I cut and pasted and wrote lyrics and arrangements for them. This is the first time that we’ve had multiple compositions that started with Chris’s demos and not mine, which is exciting.”
Death Cab will tour behind the new album, but don’t expect them on the road long. “I would love to find myself making a record a year from now rather than moving into our seventh straight month of tour,” says Gibbard. “I’d like to capitalize on feeling inspired to writing rather than hobbling up onstage and jumping around for two hours in Dresden.”