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Death Cab For CutieThe last time Seattle's Death Cab for Cutie toured the US they barely made it this far. Nearing the end of a coast-to-coast jaunt on the back of the freshly minted Forbidden Love EP, front man Ben Gibbard was taken ill with a stomach virus. By his own understated admission, playing shows sitting down in a chair on the verge of passing out was "very difficult" and the tour was curtailed before it reached its east coast conclusion. This static, sit-down rendering of the band's plaintive pop must have made for a very different Death Cab show. As the sweat-drenched figure of Ben later tonight testifies, they're nothing if not an energetically mobile stage presence. With this previous Big Apple no-show and the wave of glowing press that's washed the band this far, tonight's show sold out weeks ago, and there's a palpable sense of anticipation in the air.
an interview with Benjamin Gibbard by Martin Williams
"I think all of us try to take it with a grain of salt," says Gibbard from the seats above the stage as tour-mates the And/Ors soundcheck below
. "Right now we're a band that's on a lot of people's 'to watch' list and a lot of the press has been really good. It's great to have a good article written on you or a good review, but the focus is not to sit and bask in what we've done so far, like 'everybody loves the first two records, everything is wonderful.' It's more like, 'we gotta get home, we gotta work on the next record. I gotta get home and write some more songs.' All the good reviews in the world aren't going to make up for not being productive."
In this Protestant spirit, the five tracks of last autumn's Forbidden Love EP can be seen as a way of keeping the ball aloft between full-length releases, a bid to maintain momentum that did nothing to stain the clean sheet established by the band's two albums, Something About Airplanes and We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes. The eagerly anticipated third album, due out in the Autumn, will be the first with new drummer Michael Schorr on board, after original member Nathan Good jumped ship just before the recording of We Have the Facts.
"I had been out of school for about nine months or so," Ben explains
. "And our drummer was finishing off his last year of school. As he finished school he kind of had a little bit of a freak out. He was like, 'I have student loans, I have to get a job, I have to start paying off my loans, I have too much money to pay back.' And at that point we were going to start doing a lot of touring and trying to make a real go of this, not just a band that plays in a basement and just plays shows locally. The 'buzz' [and he utters this with a tone of good-natured sarcasm] had kind of started to float around, to emanate from the Northwest and we had to go out and start playing shows. And he was like, 'I can't do it, I have to stay here.'"
He returned for a couple of tracks on We Have the Facts, but for the most part drum duties were taken by Ben himself. No stranger to the role of multi-instrumentalist, it's from such a background that Death Cab for Cutie sprang, with Ben writing a clutch of songs under that name while a member of another college band. This extra-curricular activity coincided with his meeting with guitarist/producer Chris Walla.
"He was in bands the same as I was in bands, y'know, garage bands, no bands of any kind of depth. He went to school to learn recording engineering and eventually was like, 'I'm going to max out my credit cards and buy a bunch of recording equipment.' He was moving into the house that I lived in so it was like, 'bring your all equipment to the house and we'll set it up.' So we made a cassette called Death Cab For Cutie that had maybe five songs that ended up on the first LP where I played all the instruments and Chris recorded it."
With the auteurist impulse of the inspired, along with a history of underachieving amateur bands, Ben was glad to have the opportunity to control all the elements of his music rather than surrender them to the vagaries of others. In a similar vein he had adopted the name All-Time Quarterback prior to his Death Cab days which paired his songs with a cobbled together cabal of battered instruments backed by a Casio keyboard drum machine, a project which resulted in an EP on Elsinor Records.
"I had four original songs, kind of half-songs, half-realised, but songs nonetheless, and I put these together with a Magnetic Fields cover and just put that release out. It was a really low run."
It was only out of necessity to play the Death Cab for Cutie songs live that Death Cab - the band - was formed, calling on Nick Harmer, one of Ben's ex-flatmates and drummer Nathan, an old friend of guitarist Chris. So why not continue solo under the Death Cab name?
"At the time we started playing, we had recorded these tracks and I had played all the instruments the way I wanted them to sound and I was like, 'okay, this is the way it's going to be because I don't want anybody else messing it up. I want to do it all myself.' But then when we started playing together it became pretty obvious really quickly that my lack of trust for other contributors was just that I was playing with the wrong people. We started playing the songs that I recorded pretty much note-for-note and then newer songs we pretty much worked on together and from that point on it became a band dynamic rather than a dictatorship where I'm like, 'you play this and you play that.' Every once in a while there are still times when I say 'I'd really like you to do this' or 'play this line here.' As soon as Death Cab For Cutie took off as a band it meant I didn't have to do all the work any more, I found people who are better players than I am primarily, and who I can trust to put things together in really cool ways."
This assurance is practically laissez-faire compared with the control Ben looked for in his solo projects. Does this mean his role in the studio is equally hands-off?
"That's Chris's role in the band, outside of being the guitar player and the keyboardist. I was just talking to Pedro from the Jealous Sound about this. I think one of the reasons that we do so well around each other is that we know what our roles are in the band. I'm the songwriter, Chris is the producer, Nick and Michael are the rhythm section and there aren't many aspirations to cross over, we all contribute together as we need to, but everybody knows where they need to be in the band. If it's Chris producing, it's Chris producing; I don't try to get too involved. We all trust each other a lot, as far as our instincts go and I don't think to date we've made any really bad decisions about the direction a song went into."
With the band relocated to Seattle by the time the second album was released, it seemed logical for them to draw on the better resources of Barsuk records, rather than split the release with Elsinor, as the first album had been.
"When Elsinor was going to put out the first record, Barsuk came in with a little more money and more resources and said they wanted to co-release it. So when it came time to do the second record we thought 'let's just do it with Barsuk,' because on a business level they were a little more on it, they were running the label full time and they were in Seattle while Elsinor were in Bellingham. It worked out better in the long run."
Does this mindset extend further, would you see Barsuk as a springboard to something larger?
"We've had a couple of offers from larger indies and small interest from majors, but right now there's really no reason for us to do anything other than what we're doing now. It's been working so well, why rock the boat? We never have a problem with touring or getting paid, it's not as if the records are not in the stores, the records are doing well. Why mess with a good thing? Just keep doing things the way we have been, until there's a need to move. I mean, none of us have any larger aspirations like this is a stepping stone to super stardom. Let's just keep doing things the way we have been doing them and just trust our gut. I wouldn't want to do it any other way. Our DIY is to do things the way we want to do them, regardless if that conflicts with what it means to be 'indie' or what indie music sounds like or what we should sound like given our ethics. We don't wallow in it; it's just the way we want to do things. It's not like we sit around and come up with a manifesto. We just know what is acceptable for this band, there's no dwelling on it or band meetings about what will or will not be acceptable for Death Cab. We're all on the same page with it."
With such sketched ethics I suggest that its perhaps a contradiction to be so often described as 'pop', an aesthetic that's so often synonymous with disposability and an absence of ethics.
"When I think of pop music I think of Teenage Fanclub and The La's and Big Star. In a nutshell that's what we are, we're a pop band. I think that dichotomy works in as far as having some very strong ethics behind what we're trying to do and making sure that we're trying to do things ourselves and do things independently as much as we possibly can. But, at the same time, being able to progress and do the things we want to do musically without having to kow tow to any kind of indie philosophy."
Is the band looking to make any changes for the third record?
"I think the record will be a bit of a departure from the others because there'll be more rock on it, there's definitely some more rocking going on."
With recording due to begin in May, the band will be taking a short break at the end of this tour, before regrouping in the studio. It seems that touring is part of what original drummer Nathan disliked about band life. How do the others feel?
"I love touring, I love it," Ben enthuses. "I mean for me it's like the ultimate embodiment of having that Kerouac kind of experience, but in an environment that I really enjoy. I love just looking out the window for hours in the van crossing this country. I love driving across the States and I love meeting people and I love playing shows. It's like anything else, it's stressful and - this is the 14th day in a row that we've had a show, tomorrow's our first day off in two weeks, we're all looking forward to it. But I love it. It's something I enjoy immensely, I love finishing off a record and going out on tour."
Ben's reference to the reluctant King of the Beats brings to mind the Death Cab song Lowell, Ma (Kerouac's birthplace) and the lyrics of Title Track from We Have the Facts, which refers to 'the railroad earth' (one of the best examples of Kerouac's breathless spontaneous prose style is called 'October in the Railroad Earth'.) With writer Gregory Corso dying just a few weeks earlier, these days the Beat boys seem like dying breed.
"I've always been a really big fan," Ben admits when I ask him about the Kerouac connection
. "And I know that Beat literature is kind of played out, but I never cease to take inspiration from his writing style. I understand the romance of the characters in his work is not necessarily the way things actually happened. Life's not always a romantic experience. But I just love his writing about the past tense; the way he builds pictures and uses imagery and I think it's just really romantic and really warm. It feels really warm. It's something that I'm really inspired by."
While Kerouac famously drew everything he wrote from life, the veiled poeticism of Ben's lyrics mark out a middle ground between the coded and the confessional. Does he make a conscious effort to avoid self-revelation?
"I like to shroud things as much as I can, but still use language that's straight enough that people can at least understand what's going on, so it's not so abstract that people go, 'what are you talking about?' I think maybe sometimes I'm guilty of that. That's something I strive for. Obviously there's a lot of extrapolation. It's like when you tell a fish story, like, 'the fish was that big.' There's definitely a lot of that going on in the songs, they're not note-for-note autobiographical, but I think everything has a basis that's in my own life that I've wanted to write about. I don't know how to write about anything else really other than things that happen in my life and to build on them. When I've tried it's never felt honest."
And with that comes time for Ben to move on. Later his eager abandon will dominate the stage and the band will vindicate the spotlight in which they're held, showing the massed New York crowd that Death Cab for Cutie are far from a dying breed.
CWAS #8 - Summer 2001