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Death Cab for Cutie’s ‘Exciting’ Writing Experiment Fueled Their Best Album in Years

Indie vets are back for the first time in four years with a fresh approach
Death Cab for Cutie
(Credit: Jimmy Fontaine)

When Ben Gibbard was putting the finishing touches on Death Cab For Cutie‘s 10th album, Asphalt Meadows, he had a feeling that it would appease longtime fans.

And he was correct.

“As we started playing it for friends and people close to us, we started to get that reaction that was not just people being supportive, but people being genuinely effusive,” recalls Gibbard, speaking on Zoom from his Seattle home, with a peppy demeanor early in the morning.

In Asphalt Meadows, there are elements of the band’s early work, sonically nodding to Narrow Stairs, The Photo Album, and even Transatlanticism, while also feeling fresh — thrashier and livelier than ever before — with some of Gibbard’s sturdiest songwriting since their hit albums.

A year after 2018’s Thank You for Today, Gibbard started writing some of these songs in his home studio. When the pandemic arrived, Gibbard kept busy with his “Live From Home” web performance series — but as he continued to work on the album, he realized that he was creatively stifled.

To solve that problem, he came up with an unconventional writing exercise: Selected in random order, each of the band’s five members would be given 24 hours to work on and finish a song. The next day, a different band member would add something to it. Anyone could modify their bandmate’s addition as much as possible while adding their own. By Friday, there would be a final song.

“It was really exciting,” says co-founding member and bassist Nick Harmer over the phone from Seattle. “We would all wait eagerly for Friday because we had no idea how the song was going to develop at the end of the week. Not everything by Friday was a slam dunk. There were lots of times when we got to writing, we’re like, ‘Okay, well, that’s not going to see the light of day,’ but it was still a really great way for us to connect with each other as a band [while not being in] the same physical space. It kept my spirits up in a lot of ways.​​”

Gibbard notes that, between this writing exercise and the material he wrote on his own, there ended up being “about 90 songs.” But most of Asphalt Meadows came from the collaborative process between band members.

Death Cab for Cutie
(Credit: Jimmy Fontaine)

The album was narrowed down to 11 tracks, with Gibbard and the rest of Death Cab being carefully selective with what material would end up on the LP. “I’d rather release less music, and have it be…If I can be so bold, vital to the catalog, than for me to just be drowning people in music,” Gibbard says. “I feel at this point, certainly 25 years in, we’ve made so many records, and we’ve made some records that, thankfully for us, have been very important to people. The last thing I want to do is just to put music out and water the discography down.”

Death Cab joined the ranks of indie rock veterans who made albums under COVID lockdown, like Interpol and Silversun Pickups, with songs that capture the anxiety, fear, and yearning that 2020 brought. But in Death Cab’s case, the words feel timeless.

“I was very conscious [while] writing lyrics for this record that, by the time this record was going to come out, hopefully we were going to be through the worst of the pandemic,” says Gibbard. “No one was going to want to hear a whole album of songs about being locked in our houses, eating takeout, watching Netflix, right? Lyrically, I just was trying to focus on ruminating on the things that have always fascinated me. That’s the connection and lack of connection between people, and looking both forward and backwards at the same time, sometimes in the same song.”

Death Cab’s two previous albums, 2018’s Thank You for Today and 2015’s Kintsugi, are amongst the band’s softest, so to follow them, Gibbard wanted to forego mid-tempo ballads and inject a bolt of energy into the new work. Making yet another gentle, somber record would’ve been “so fucking predictable and boring,” says Gibbard. The goal for Asphalt Meadows, he adds, was to try new things while maintaining a sense of familiarity.

Harmer says that, even if fans notice moments that resemble the early material, the band didn’t intentionally sit down to write a record that sounds like “classic Death Cab.” He explains, “I think the DNA of the band is pretty well established. I think that the sound of the band and the music that sort of comes out of us when we all get together in a room or when we’re sort of left to our own devices, that’s just what comes out.”

For Asphalt Meadows, the band teamed up with Grammy-winning producer John Congleton, who’s produced many of their favorite records from the new indie rock generation, like Alvvays (whom Gibbard has covered before) and Angel Olsen.

That connection came at a serendipitous time. When plans of working with a different producer fell through, keyboardist Zac Rae suggested to Gibbard that he should get in touch with Congleton, who happened to be in town producing Tegan and Sara’s upcoming album. The chemistry was immediate.

“We had coffee, and I was like, ‘I fucking love this dude,'” recalls Gibbard. “I can honestly say, with all due respect to everybody we’ve made records with, I feel like this was the first record we made in a long time where I felt completely in sync with the person in the producer chair.”

Getting a new Death Cab album, and one of their best, is a welcome surprise for fans — but it’s not the record many thought Gibbard was working on in 2020. A year after Gibbard performed “Nothing Better” with Jenny Lewis on tour and played The Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights” as part of the Live at Home virtual concert series, The Postal Service teased something coming on Oct. 7, 2020. The tweet received over 18,000 likes, with fans frenzied over the potential of a second Postal Service record. Instead, what arrived was a star-studded jokey video featuring many of Gibbard’s friends, including Tim Robinson (whom Gibbard is a big fan of), Anne Hathaway, “Weird Al” Yankovic, Vanessa Bayer, and Slash, where the celebrities “auditioned” to join The Postal Service. The video was a “Make Your Vote Count” PSA ahead of the 2020 presidential election.

While many fans felt misled, Gibbard was surprised that fans thought his long-dormant side project would return. “I will argue that there was nothing that we put out in the world as a teaser to that video, that on its surface gave any indication that there was a new Postal Service record,” he asserts. “There’s not a new record; there’s not going to be a new record.” But he does give a good reason why: “Give Up is this little snowflake of an album — and there will never be another one like it, at least not by us.”

Gibbard’s decision to not follow up Give Up, realizing the indie pop classic will never be matched, underscores his current creative mindset: He’s only going to release music he feels strongly about, Asphalt Meadows included. “Our quality control, I would like to think, is higher now than it’s ever been,” he says. “Because there’s no reason to put out records unless we have something to say.”