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The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Death Cab for Cutie continues to impress

Chicago traffic sucks. It especially sucks when it’s quarter to six, you’ve driven five miles on I-94 in the last half-hour, and you were supposed to interview Death Cab for Cutie at the Metro at five o’clock. And as I sat in the back of a car under those exact circumstances, my only solace lie in that fact that I was in the same car as Matt and Nick from the UW-sponsored arts magazine Emmie, and they were just as late for their 5:30 interview. Miraculously, a half-hour later, after several proclamations of, “Well, I’m not sure what street we’re on right now, but we’re going in the right direction,” Matt got us to the Metro.

Merely an hour and a half late, there was still a glimmer of hope that we might get our interviews before the show–a glimmer that was dimmed by a rather rude guest list czar who informed us that, although we were on the list, we hadn’t been left “all access” required to speak to the band. As if it might be some consolation, he said we could wait by the backstage door in case one of the band members happened to wander out. At that moment, however, a guy–who bore some resemblance to one of the guys in the bleary photocopied pictures of the band Nick had in his press packet–walked through the backstage door. Unfortunately, he was just another employee of the Metro. Fortunately, he was willing to find members of the band backstage for us to question.

The music journalism gods spoke, and five minutes later, due to a case of mistaken identity, we were in the Death Cab for Cutie dressing room. Nick and I plopped down comfortably on the same couch as lead singer/guitarist Ben Gibbard, while bassist Nick Harmer grabbed a bottled water and drummer Mike Schorr wandered into the room with a camera slung over one shoulder. As everyone got settled, we simultaneously pressed record on our mini-cassette recorders and chatted with the band, minus guitarist Chris Walla, about everything from the sad state of major music labels to Nick’s formidable mustache.

Death Cab for Cutie’s (the name comes from a song by a ’60s band called the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, which was featured in the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour) third album, The Photo Album, was released last month. It debuted at number five on the CMJ top 20 while shooting to number one in its third week–moving past, among others, Bjork, Tori Amos, Ben Folds and Superchunk. The Washington-state natives had already built up a healthy fan base with two solid prior albums. Coupled with a stellar EP released late last year, the four-piece had only further whetted the appetites of fans from Seattle to New York for a follow-up to last year’s critically acclaimed We Have the Facts And We’re Voting Yes. With so much success, one would think major labels would be lining up to get a piece of the action.

“We haven’t been approached [by a major label] in a long time. We were approached right out of the box,” Harmer said.

He went on to dispel any notions that, even if offers were out there, Death Cab might not be for sale. “I think all of us are on the same page about the climate of major labels right now. It’s just a really crappy time to even attempt to engage at that sort of level of business. They don’t even know what’s going on with their own companies. There’s so much folding and merging and firing and rehiring.”

“I don’t think there’s any reason to mess up a good thing,” Gibbard, who had been nodding along the whole time, chimed in. Harmer summed up their opinion on the matter, saying “There’s nothing that I can see that a major label could offer us right now, other than a whole lot of money in exchange for the end of our careers, which isn’t exactly a fair trade. It’s just not worth it at all.”

Instead, Death Cab has stayed loyal to local Seattle label, Barsuk Records, a label home to only 11 artists and 21 releases, five of which are by DCFC. But it’s a label that Gibbard said fits their “simple economics.”

DCFC tend to get lumped into the Northwest indie pop scene, with writers drawing comparisons to bands like Built to Spill, Modest Mouse, and Elliot Smith.

Comparisons, Gibbard notes, which have their pros and cons.

“I think the Built to Spill reference might have been more justified early on. It doesn’t really bother me, but at the same time I feel like what we’re doing now is overtly away from that. It’s always nice to be compared to bands that you like. The only time it really gets frustrating is when people just write you off as sounding exactly like this band, but that’s bound to happen,” said Gibbard, at which point Schorr smiled and leaned forward, adding, “At least their not saying, "These guys sound like The Farts.'”

Comparisons aside, DCFC firmly establish their personality as a band with The Photo Album. Finally securing a full-time drummer in Schorr, Harmer claims their sound has “rhythmically matured.”

Gibbard added that “Moving into a real recording studio for this record was a big help. Every other record we’ve done has been in a makeshift studio hooked up in people’s living rooms. In a real studio it helped us focus on the record a lot more.”

The difference is immediately noticeable on the album, which opens with “Steadier Footing,” an instrumentally sparse track, that spotlights Gibbard’s soft and soothing vocals, and his poignant lyrics with lines like, “I let you bum a smoke, you quit this winter past/ I’ve tried twice before, but like this it just will not last.” Lyrics that fade into the album’s next and strongest track, “A Movie Script Ending,” with DCFC’s patented layered guitar line-filled verses that build into a frenzy just in time for each chorus. On these tracks we get a glimpse of what pop music was meant to sound like.

Not surprisingly, it is these two songs that DCFC chooses to open with at the Metro. They follow opening acts The Prom (think Northwest indie meets Ben Folds Five) and Lawrence, Kansas natives Shiner, who like the Chicago traffic were only an annoyance seemingly hindering the crowd from seeing DCFC. Death Cab’s set included something from every album, with Gibbard and Walla occasionally setting down their guitars and heading back to the organ. The highlights of the show were an unbelievable cover of The Eurythmics “Here Comes the Rain Again,” and Walla and Gibbard taking the stage to play “405” for an encore.

The Metro was filled to the brim. The floor was packed, and the balcony railing was lined across five people deep, all craning their necks to sneak a peek at the band. But even in the midst of the chaos, the band seemed to achieve a conversational level of intimacy with the crowd, joking with ardent fans who screamed requests between every song, and apologizing for having to end the show.

“We want to play more songs too, but we’re getting kicked out of here just as fast as you are,” Gibbard said to appease the grumbling masses.

In talking to the band and seeing them play live, it is apparent that they truly love to play music. Even if it means putting up with writers who are an hour and a half late for their interview, they enjoy every moment of it.

“We’ve been working hard at this for a while. We’ve had a lot of tours where we’ve come through these cities a number of times before and played to not a lot of people,” commented Harmer on their burgeoning fame. “We’re really pretty humble guys when it comes down to it. I think we’re all just thankful for the opportunity to do what we do. I like to think that we’re the kind of band that even if we weren’t able to play places like the Metro, we’d still be touring and we’d still be putting out records.”

Whether they’re playing the Metro, Madison Square Garden or the backroom of some dive in the middle of Nebraska, after three straight solid albums there should be no doubt that Death Cab for Cutie will be playing smart, sensible, good pop music for years to come in a city near you.

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