When Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard and Chris Walla are confronted with the news that—according to Wikipedia—they’re an emo band, they respond in kind. “Are we? Still?” inquires Gibbard with a touch of pathos. “I feel very emotional about it.”
Once upon a time, they could’ve been lumped into this now most uncool of genres, the definition of which has changed significantly since the band’s late-’90s inception. “It’s a whole suburban sub-genre now,” says Gibbard, “which clearly four guys in their 30s who sometimes play an acoustic guitar and a [Korg] MS-20 [synthesizer] probably don’t fall into.”
Besides, Walla and Gibbard—bedecked in matching checkered shirts and sitting in a lounge on the 27th floor of the Atlantic Records building near Rockefeller Center—are far too enthusiastic about their new album to be an emo band.
“Look at our office!” quips Walla.
“We have arrived!” shouts Gibbard, a smile on his face.
The band’s latest record, Codes and Keys, is the follow-up to its Grammy-nominated, Gold-certified 2008 album Narrow Stairs. Much has been made of the band’s experimentation with synths, keyboards and other atmospheric textures on the new album. Gibbard has done his best to emphasize the notion by telling the press at every turn that the record is less guitar-based and more influenced by David Bowie’s Low and the production of Brian Eno. To some degree this is true and can be heard in the new songs, especially on the free-flowing “Unobstructed Views” and the background murmurs that play throughout the album. At its core, though, Codes and Keys is still an album from the Death Cab you’ve grown to know and love (or perhaps hate). Songs like the rollicking “Some Boys,” the singalong “You Are a Tourist” and the poppy, propulsive “Monday Morning” are all infectious melody and heart-on-sleeve lyrics, staples of the Death Cab oeuvre.
“Our version of, ‘Fuck it, we’re gonna try something completely different,’ is not that radical,” explains Walla. “This record is pretty different, but it’s a Death Cab record. It’s melodies and words and some drums—I don’t think anything we’re naturally drawn to is gonna make anybody go, ‘Whoa, whoa, I don’t get it.’ It’s not in our nature.”
Indeed. This is a band that very ably made the jump from indie to major label, selling hundreds of thousands of albums and contributing songs to movies like Twilight: New Moon. There’s something about Gibbard’s sensitive persona, storytelling and stage presence that speaks to legions of fans, young and old. It’s not exactly a tactic, but he’s certainly aware of his impact. “One thing that’s always drawn people to this band is the earnestness and honesty and songwriting and production. We’re doing something that’s mirroring people’s lives,” says Gibbard. “As long as we can continue to lean on instincts about the things we want to express as human beings, naturally every record we make will resonate with people who are fans of the band.”
The previous night, Death Cab played to a sold-out crowd at New York’s Bowery Ballroom. They seemed in great spirits, excited to perform their new material, but smartly peppering it amongst old classics and hits. “The New Year,” “Bend to Squares” and “Why You’d Want to Live Here,” among others, all filled the room before the band even attempted a new song. “People pay money for these tickets because they want to hear their favorite songs,” says Gibbard the next day. “They don’t want to hear you dick around with some stuff that you’re working on. Not that people are not going to hopefully enjoy the new material, which it seems like people are.”
One of the most remarkable things about a Death Cab show is how enraptured the audience is. Many people sing along with every song, a word-for-word duet with a band to whose lyrical content they feel an undeniably strong connection. For some at the Bowery Ballroom, this level of crowd participation was incredibly annoying, and they let it be known to those around them. Most, though, were caught up in the sheer joy of the moment. Gibbard’s lyrics have always been of a personal nature, but he’s comfortable with this connection to his audience. “If somebody is singing a song back to you, it’s really powerful because they’ve been listening to it, they’ve learned it, and they’ve placed it within their own lives in a way that they feel really close to it,” he says. “I think it’s more difficult now that people know who I’m married to… If there’s a ‘you’ pronoun in a song, people make assumptions now more than they did before.”
And just for the record—yes, “Monday Morning” is in part about Gibbard’s wife, actress and musician Zooey Deschanel, and, no, don’t expect a Ben and Zooey album anytime soon. Nor, for that matter, a new album from Gibbard’s Jimmy Tamborello-helmed side project The Postal Service. (“It’s the fundamental misunderstanding of what the thing is,” says Gibbard, “because bands make second records. Projects don’t always have second records.”)
Death Cab for Cutie, however, is now on its seventh record, and Gibbard and Walla are thrilled to be in a position where they can make the music they want and have the full support of a major label. “[Atlantic has] been a really good creative home for us,” says Walla. “They’ve recognized from the time they’ve signed us that—in sheer, crass business terms—we were in the black. We were a profitable business. They recognized we were doing something right and they’ve stayed really hands-off in that regard.”
Thus far, Codes and Keys has been getting a mostly positive reception, even if there has been some criticism about the slightly new direction. But both Walla and Gibbard seem focused, confident and, most importantly, excited to be sharing new music with the world. “I can’t imagine us straying so far out of our strengths or instincts to the point that … we’ll become a parody of ourselves,” says Gibbard. “I feel like we trust our own instincts and are primarily making music for ourselves. As long as our focus is to make things we’d all listen to, we’ll always be putting something out in the world that, hopefully, a respectable portion of our fanbase will enjoy.”