Nick Harmer greets me at the door of Avast II Studios
in Seattle’s Greenwood neighborhood. We’re ensconced in a quiet, residential part of the city—houses with windowsill figurines and tricycles dot the block—and it’s entirely possible someone’s grandmother lives next door, unaware the members of Death Cab for Cutie, the crown princes of Seattle indie rock, are completing their fifth LP, Plans, within the confines of this nondescript façade.
Death Cab hunkers down in its third studio this week; the mixing board blew up at guitarist/producer Chris Walla’s renowned Hall of Justice, then they were accidentally double-booked at Avast I. Bands of lesser character would be reduced to tantrum, hurling retro eyeglass frames and stomping their Pumas. It’s not an optimum day to have a visitor in the studio, much less a note-taking one. Still, Harmer is gracious and welcoming. (Hereafter, the bandmembers will be called by their first names. They’re so approachable that referring to them by surnames feels gratuitously prim.) He introduces himself and explains that because of the time crunch, I won’t get to interview all four members simultaneously, but that they’re glad I’m here. A kinder greeting I do not expect in the afterlife.
Nick escorts me down a labyrinth of halls into the control room. Its décor smacks of ’70s rec room—velour couches, overstuffed chairs and wood-paneling. An honest-to-god lava lamp gurgles in the corner. Jason McGerr is drumming in the glass-enclosed tracking room and the ferocity and precision of his syncopation blows me away. It’s like Zeus on a drum kit, if Zeus sported close-cropped hair and biceps like canned hams. Singer/songwriter Ben Gibbard sits in a nearby chair, wearing a navy blue cardigan and reading The New Yorker. “Hi, I’m Ben,” he says and shakes my hand before returning to the page. Chris introduces himself from behind the mixing board, his smile offsetting Greta Garbo cheekbones. I ask where I should sit so that I’m not in the way, and he says that anywhere is fine. I settle as unobtrusively as possible into a corner chair and enter the fast-paced, low-key world of Death Cab for Cutie.
Death Cab’s upcoming album is called Plans,
but the band began, essentially, without one. Ben had recorded under the moniker All-Time Quarterback and, originally, Death Cab was conceived as another outlet for his songs. It was 1997 and Bellingham, Wash., was churning with little-known indie-rock talent. Local cassette-only label, Elsinor, released Death Cab’s “unofficial” first recording, You Can Play These Songs With Chords, and while Chris and Nick both appear on the tape, the roster was not yet locked. Chords sold several hundred copies and its relative success prompted Ben to permanently recruit Chris and Nick and original drummer, Nathan Good.
In the summer of 1998, Death Cab’s first CD, Something About Airplanes, was co-released by Elsinor and then-newbie label, Barsuk. While many songs, such as “President of What?” and “Champagne from a Paper Cup” were re-workings from Chords, Death Cab obviously possessed a wholly original, ephemeral it. Ben’s voice sounded almost feminine at times, but could swoop down to lacerate with lines like “He’s unresponsive ’cause you’re irresponsible” on “Amputations.” Chris’s interlocking melodies zigged where others zagged, and he found his niche as the band’s producer. Nick and Nathan’s weighty percussion anchored a ship that could otherwise have drifted into the Sea of Precious.
We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes, released in 2000, signaled Nathan’s departure and the arrival of his replacement, Michael Schorr. Facts swirled with ache and jangle and lullabies, and fans latched onto “Company Calls” and “405.” Seattle alternative weekly, The Stranger, notorious for flaying some awesomely talented local bands, declared the album, “Great as in majestic; great as in fearsome.”
Throughout this time, Death Cab for Cutie toured relentlessly and earned a reputation as a band whose live shows were so powerful, they were almost medicinal. The band started playing larger venues and sold-out dates became increasingly commonplace. And while most bands would’ve opted for a break, Death Cab ramped up and released the Forbidden Love EP later that year. More of a mini-album than a collection of one-offs, its opener, “Photobooth,” featured one of Ben’s most evocative couplets: “I remember when the days were long / And the nights when the living room was on the lawn.”
In 2001, Death Cab released its third full-length in three years, The Photo Album, and it became even clearer: the band was not messing around. Tracks like “Movie Script Ending” and “Why You’d Want to Live Here” became staples on college radio, and the band’s fan base continued to grow like sun-kissed sugarcane, or maybe a fullback on steroids. When Ben sang, “I loved you, Guenivere” on “We Laugh Indoors” his voice dripped menace and loss, and it resonated with anyone who’d ever said goodbye while looking over their shoulder.
In 2003, Michael Schorr exited and Eureka Farm’s Jason McGerr came onboard. While Nathan and Michael were good indeed, Jason’s arrival marked a turning point. When Death Cab released Transatlanticism that October, it was rightfully lauded as a masterpiece. Nothing seemed outside the band’s range. “The Sound of Settling” bounced with guitar-laden “Ba bah!”s, “Passenger Seat” revealed a tale of unmasked love, and the title track’s Phil Spector-ish production haunted like a fog, coaxing listeners out of space and time.
Death Cab toured behind Transatlanticism throughout 2004 and the majors came calling. The lads signed with Atlantic and sent message-boarders into paroxysms. Zeitgeist-y teen soap, The OC featured a character, Seth Cohen, who regularly name-checked the band. (A week before I meet with Death Cab, a performance they taped for The OC aired to enthusiastic reviews.) They recorded seven live tracks from the 2004 shows and released them in March 2005 as The John Byrd EP, their last disc for longtime label Barsuk. And though it’s inexplicable to both man and God, Ben found time to launch his wildly popular synth-pop side project, The Postal Service, whose Sub Pop debut went gold, and Chris found time to produce records for The Long Winters, The Decemberists and Nada Surf. All this to say, I’m eager to witness Ben, Chris, Nick and Jason in their realm, to unscrew the back of the clock and peak at the gears.
For a while, I sit quietly and drink an iced mocha.
It occurs to me that I’m in the studio with Death Cab for Cutie and that, on paper, this sounds fraught with rock ’n’ roll static-electrical bad-assitude, but in reality, it means I’m curled up on stained furniture in a room that conjures All In the Family. Essentially, I’m in Edith Bunker’s chair and, so far, there’s not a lot to report.
Then subtle details emerge. I can’t help but notice that Ben, Nick, Jason and Chris seem tired—each looks like he could benefit from warm soup and a long nap—but they don’t take it out on each other. Around Seattle, they’re known for their almost maniacal work ethic and group unity. One can’t help but wonder if these traits haven’t been exaggerated, the result of the same stories being repeated over and over in a music community that’s akin to a giant treehouse. But it becomes obvious that the four of them have a short-hand with one another. They finish each other’s sentences, like siblings or The Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night.
Which isn’t to say that they don’t get on each other’s nerves. But when Ben asks Nick, regarding the latter’s half-hearted beard, “When the f--- are you going to shave that thing?” it’s with fraternal jest, not lead-singer prickdom.
Jason’s rhythmic feats continue unabated and Chris mans the boards with a sort of wizardry. He exhibits the concentration one associates with surgeons and catatonics yet fields technical questions from Kelly, the sound engineer, and inquiries from Ben regarding the song’s opening measures. When Chris plays the song back, it’s gorgeous and hard-driving, as if the strongest elements of Transatlanticism and You Can Play These Songs with Chords have cross-pollinated. I ask Ben the title. “‘Talking Like Turnstiles,’” he replies without braggadocio.
During a momentary respite, Chris tells me The Blood Brothers are his favorite band right now and plays me some of their songs from his iBook. Ben offers that the Dandy Warhols/Brian Jonestown Massacre documentary DIG! should’ve arrived from Netflix today and that he’s looking forward to watching it at home later tonight. While Jason continues drumming, a debate ensues between Ben, Nick and Chris as to how much of DIG! is real or staged. Ben and Nick have heard it’s verisimilitude. Chris has heard from a mutual friend of the Dandys that much of it was faked for the cameras.
Ben turns to me, smiling, “Being in the studio isn’t as exciting as people think it is.”
NICK HARMER WALKS ON SUNSHINE
Nick has some down time, so we head into an adjoining room to talk one-on-one. This room, too, is wood-paneled and window-less. It’s completely bare except for a musty carpet that smells like a dorm the night after finals. It’s the ideal chamber in which to shoot porn or drugs or interview a bassist. Nick goes to find us chairs and a brown spider the size of a terrier scurries toward my foot.
“We have a visitor,” I announce as Nick returns with two folding chairs.
That thing is huge,” he says, but makes no move to kill it.
I’m a girl who kills spiders, but I’m not a girl who likes the soles of her pricey Fluevogs coated with arachnid guts. Benji lives another day and meanders around our legs throughout the conversation.
“Let’s get the obligatory OC question out of the way,” I begin.
“It’s over, and it was painless,” he says, the circular tattoos on his forearms whirring as his hands talk on his behalf. “I can get behind any show that’s trying to, in whatever capacity it can, push the envelope. In the mainstream, you’re really hamstrung with what you can try to do creatively, and it’s awesome that they expose a lot of new bands who might not have that sort of avenue or outlet.”
It makes perfect sense that Nick is a bassist: he speaks in rapid staccato and bounces in his chair. Even when he’s still, he moves in time.
“It’s what a lot of the press does afterwards that makes me roll my eyes,” he continues. “I think it’s really funny that some people have written about how The OC has ‘made’ our band, or that Death Cab and The OC are synonymous.”
“Like you guys just sprung from nowhere,” I say.
“Exactly. That shows ignorance on the part of the writer. Like, you weren’t aware of what we were doing before you heard of us on The OC? Then clearly, you had your head up your ass for the past five years while we were touring the country.”
I ask about the move to Atlantic and mention that the response seems to run the gamut from “Bravo!” to “Sell-outs!”
“There have been some kids who have said it sucked that we’re on Atlantic, that they hate bands on major labels, and part of me just feels really bad for that mentality,” he says, growing increasingly animated. “If you have a hard line about bands on major labels, that also pretty much says to me that you have the lamest record collection of anyone in the world. I guess you don’t buy any Clash records or Talking Heads records or Bowie. I guess you don’t have any Stones or Beatles or Radiohead or the Pixies or Nirvana.”
“Or The Who or The Kinks or R.E.M. or U2,” I chime in. Now we’re both fired up.
“There are a million great bands who have done major-label things and had their souls intact. And if you would tell me that you’re not going to buy their records, from the sheer fact that a major label is affiliated with it, I guess that’s your prerogative, but I don’t want to hang out with you. If you’ve never danced your ass off to ‘Walking On Sunshine’ or The Romantics’ ‘What I Like About You’ you’re a hollow person. Anyway, whatever, I could go on and on, but I don’t want to make it sound like a rant.”
BEN GIBBARD IS BROADWAY DANNY ROSE
Nick needs to get back to the studio. As he exits he says he’ll send in Ben. I’ve lost track of the spider and this makes me uneasy. As I’m searching the floor’s periphery, Ben enters and sits. I tell him there’s a giant spider on the premises and he’s unfazed. This is, after all, rock ’n’ roll.
In Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Will Ferrell’s titular character drunkenly screams, “I am expressing my inner anguish through the majesty of song!” Based on lyrics like “I think I’m drunk enough to drive you home now” from Chords’ “Champagne from a Paper Cup” or “You are beautiful but you don’t mean a thing to me” from Transatlanticism’s “Tiny Vessels,” one might conclude that Ben, too, expresses his inner anguish through the majesty of song. Except he seems so goshdarn sane. He’s deliciously sardonic—at one point ripping the lead singer of an over-hyped haircut band—but he doesn’t seem tormented. From whence the lyrics come, only Ben knows.
I tell him his lyrics from the Postal Service song, “Don’t Wake Me I Plan On Sleeping In” are among my favorite and that the song creates its own self-contained world. I ask him if he would ever write short stories or fiction.
“I don’t think so. The thought sometimes crosses my mind that it would be nice to do short stories or to do fiction, but it just seems really complicated,” he replies after thanking me for the compliment. “I tend to think in terms of smaller pictures instead of larger pictures. I’m fascinated by how someone goes about writing a book. How do you do that? Do you lay out what’s going to happen where? Writing songs, it seems kind of easy. You have a certain set space in which to say something. There’s a verse and a chorus and a verse and a chorus. Though, for the most part, I don’t write choruses.”
I remark that after all these years in a band, though, surely he has stories he could tell in a different format.
“I love the Woody Allen movie Broadway Danny Rose. You know that scene where all the comedians are sitting around and the one tells them, ‘Go to the bathroom now because you’ve got to hear this’?” he asks, channeling a Borscht Belt old-timer. “I have my story like that. It takes 25 minutes to tell. All touring musicians have their stories like that. Bands who haven’t paid their dues don’t have these experiences. On paper, we’re more successful than we’ve ever been, but there are still places where it’s 1998. We still have to unload our gear because there’s no P.A. One night we’re in San Francisco at the Fillmore and it’s magical, and one night later we’re in Eureka, playing to 80 people on a stage that doesn’t fit us. But it’s good for us in a way because this is the reality for most bands, and we’ve done it before.”
I mention mutual friends who are on the Barsuk label and how lately, each time I leave my home, I run into one of them.
“And you notice you always run into the Barsuk people at a bookstore or record store or a magazine shop or shopping for furniture. It’s never at the f—ing [Seattle musician hang-out] Cha Cha at one in the morning,” he says and laughs. “We’re the most boring family of rock ’n’ rollers.”
Unbeknownst to me, the spider is about to crawl onto my shoe. Ben stomps his foot and I jump. “I was trying to scare the spider away from your leg,” he says, ever the gentleman.
CHRIS WALLA HAS KEN STRINGFELLOW’S GUM
Ben must get back to work and both of us return to the studio. Chris explains that neither he nor Jason will have time for an interview today and we make plans to talk later that week. All four of them thank me in a cheese-free way and I head to my car.
Several days later, I call Chris’ cell phone. He’s in Madison, Wisc., at Butch Vig’s Smart Studios and has commenced with the arduous mastering process. I call five minutes after our appointed time, and like a Marx Brothers sketch, I get his voicemail as he’s calling Death Cab’s publicist to make sure everything’s OK. When I call again, he apologizes that he didn’t check his voicemail. It’s endearing because I was the late one, and he did nothing wrong. Then he asks, if it wouldn’t inconvenience me, could I call him again in 20 minutes because he’s starving and desperately needs to eat lunch. There’s not an ounce of rock-star pretension in his blood.
I call—exactly—20 minutes later and we dive in. I ask him what major-label perk, no matter how outrageous, he would demand if he knew he could get away with it.
“The best perk of all is that Atlantic paid for me to track and mix at my two favorite studios. This is part of why we signed with a major label, for the resources,” he answers without pausing. “I’ve gotten to work at Smart in Madison and Longview Farms in Massachusetts. For me, this really is the best perk I can think of.”
Apparently, even Chris’s fantasies are work-related. “Can you imagine a time when you wouldn’t produce?” I ask.
“Yeah, I can absolutely envision not producing,” he says and laughs. “I would love to be able to play more. I know I definitely don’t want to produce our next record. I would love to let someone else take the responsibility on the next one. I think I’m a good guitarist and I’d like to focus on that. And it would be great to bounce everything off a fresh set of ears.”
So far, none of the guys has offered anything remotely scintillating or untoward. It’s starting to get on my nerves. As such, I attempt to elicit a tale of indie-rock debauchery, or perhaps general naughtiness. “What’s the weirdest request you’ve gotten from a groupie?”
“One girl had a charm bracelet and she asked, ‘Will you rub the teddy bear?’ We get stuff like that. I’m alarmed at how many pairs of perfectly good shoes and jeans we’re asked to ruin with autographs.”
He continues, “But, you know, I remember what it was like, how I felt around certain musicians. I was the biggest Posies fan. I once had Ken [Stringfellow] sign my shoes.”
“Is that weird now that you’re friends and peers with Ken?”
“Sure. I saw dozens of Posies shows. I think I actually have some of Ken’s gum.”
Perverse. I am sated.
JASON SPEAKS SOFTLY AND CARRIES BIG STICKS
Jason and I meet two days later at a coffeehouse in Seattle’s Lower Queen Anne neighborhood. I’m a few minutes early and he’s already seated, drink in hand. Nick likes to joke that Death Cab puts the “punk” in “punctuality.” He’s not kidding. I tell Jason the magazine would’ve sprung for his latte and he looks almost surprised, as if he would never think of accepting rock-star freebies. Before we start, he apologizes and says that Ben and Nick give better interviews and that he is, by nature, more shy. While this last point is true—we only talk for half an hour—it becomes apparent that Jason says few words, but makes them count.
“How were the challenges different with this record?” I ask. “To what degree were you guys able to tune out the buzz about Atlantic? Did you just focus on the music?”
“I don’t think there was any buzz [for us]. Personally, there was no, ‘Oh my god, this is our first major-label release!’ expectations,” he says and sips his coffee. “We hunker down and we work really hard and we’re in a bubble. … The most difficult thing wasn’t any sort of pressure on the outside, it was the pressures we created from the inside.”
TALK WELL, BANTER CAREFULLY
Six weeks later, Justin Mitchell’s Death Cab documentary, Drive Well, Sleep Carefully, debuts at the Seattle International Film Festival. Ben, Nick and Jason are in attendance, but Chris is still mastering Plans in Madison. The screening is sold-out and the audience is a mix of indie-rock demimonde—The Long Winters, Smoosh, Barsuk—and civilian Death Cab fans. The film captures some charming offstage moments—Ben and Nick skipping stones on the beach, Jason demonstrating how best to sleep on the tour bus, Chris ruffling his hair for the camera—but the concert footage is what gives the film its heft and heart. Ben’s wrenching vocals on “Styrofoam Plates” are as moving as anything I’ve seen onscreen all year.
The next morning, an editor friend asks about the after-party and when I give him details, he balks. “That is the most boring rock ’n’ roll story ever,” he says. “I’m going to tell everyone that Ben killed a hooker and made you dig the hole.”
I tell him he’s missing the point. Sure, Ben, Nick and Jason were only mildly intoxicated, and perhaps not even that. They mingled with friends and family, remained clothed and drug-free, and prompted zero 911 calls. The evening’s highlights—and there were several—were largely conversational. Stories were told, banter exchanged. Barsuk’s receptionist was as welcome as Atlantic’s A&R guy, and both seemed to be having fun. The night lacked danger, but also the hierarchical pecking-order bullshit that can afflict these gatherings. Death Cab for Cutie saves its high-voltage moments for the stage and studio. Offstage, Ben, Nick, Chris and Jason might seem a bit unremarkable, but they’re four of the most gifted musicians working today and they’re poised to become one of the defining bands of their era.
It couldn’t happen to a nicer bunch of guys.