By Mark Guarino
Put yourself in Ben Gibbard’s shoes.
You, a bookish-looking fellow and amiable guy, are responsible for writing songs for a band named Death Cab for Cutie, a band burdened with the word “cutie” in its name. Legions of fans, the blogosphere and media creatures all swoon to your songs, sensitive synth-and-guitar pop, which means you make a generous living recording, touring and otherwise knowing your place in the world of modern music is relatively secure.
Moving from an indie label to the majors is rocky but the band survives intact. No one accuses you of being a sellout: you have yet to employ inflatable penises to your live shows, no one in your band is dating Kate Moss. In fact, you pride yourself that even with the higher recording budgets and global outreach of your new label, you remain the same normal, nice guy you’ve always been. Look in the mirror, the same you waves hello. You know this person. Life works.
Yet, by the time you get around to writing songs for your sixth album, you feel tremors. You’re 31, an adult, no matter what percentage thrift couture hangs in your closet. Songs, when they arrive, show up by guitar this time, not at a keyboard. They are psychologically more complex than any you have written in the past, yet remain your most tuneful. Instead of sweet melancholy, which is your brand, these songs sweat blood. Your band pounces all over them, the sound you make together is rougher, with true menace. Your lyrics transition from twee to terror.
One song, cased in Beach Boys pomp with its pump organ and marching band snare, is injected with raw sentiments you choose not to censor — “I’m starting to feel we stayed together out of the fear of dying alone” — and putting them in the forefront feels more honest than the saccharine dependency of Hollywood romance you suddenly have chosen to kick.
“I want the sunset ending, when the two lovers kiss,” you say, on the heels of the album’s release. “But at the same time, my next thought is: What happens when the credits are done?”
If Death Cab for Cutie was known to the world only as Death Cab, the muscular new album Narrow Stairs would not be so unexpected. While light years removed from the white-knuckled doom you’d expect from a band dropping “death” in their name, Narrow Stairs clings hard to themes of mortality and loss, driven by the most sophisticated performances the band has ever committed to tape.
Speaking of, Narrow Stairs is not a digital recording, the Seattle band made the conscious choice to skip Pro Tools and record live studio sessions to a 24-track, 1976 console, where inspiration, mistakes and individual personalities would be ingrained into the songs. A natural fact about bands that strike fame and then commit to the treadmill of world touring is that the musicianship either collapses under the weight of too many expectations or rises sharply and suddenly to an exceptional level. Narrow Stairs is that pivotal shift, where a clubhouse of friends turns into a fiercely committed rock band, disciplined enough to create dynamics in the music, while at the same time lending even the craftiest melodies an intense physical weight.
“It all boils down to inspiration,” said drummer Jason McGerr, 33. “If you’re running laps, your lap time is not going to increase, it’s going to decrease. We didn’t consciously go out to make a rock record. But the energy couldn’t be bottled.”
Framed by Death Cab’s steady history, Narrow Stairs had to happen for a band with such auspicious beginnings: a college campus, four friends, a passion for underdog pop. Resident producer and guitarist Chris Walla remembers being directed to Gibbard by his former high school girlfriend who Gibbard was then dating. “We made each other mixed tapes all the time. She was having sort of a parallel experience with him and said ‘dude, you should meet this guy,” he said.
Before they spoke a word, Walla watched Gibbard play a gig with his former band, where he played drums locking rhythms with future Death Cab bassist Nick Harmer. One thing caught Walla’s attention immediately: Gibbard’s Teenage Fanclub T-shirt. “It was love at first sight,” he said. The conversations that followed focused on landmark albums from 1996 both were “really freaking out about,” like Superdrag’s Regretfully or This is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About by Modest Mouse. “Pop records from different corners of the pop universe,” said Walla, 32.
Of which Death Cab became the house band. In a span of four albums recorded between 1998 and 2004 for Seattle independent Barsuk, the band presented fans with neatly crafted pop songs infused with wistful melancholia and a deep pop vocabulary. In an era when rap-rock goons and boy bands occupied the mainstream, Death Cab’s humility connected with fans forced to the margins.
“There are certainly bands in the world that have a lot of fashion built into what they do. I like the fact that I can look out at our shows at people I would definitely consider hanging out with,” said Harmer, 33.
The inevitable signing to Atlantic came and went and while it didn’t immediately push the band into the mainstream like what happened to Modest Mouse or The Shins, it didn’t compromise the band’s understated way of making music.
Gibbard, who worked in the band’s early days as a environmental chemist, is aware his fans see him as “a very nice guy.”
“Which I‘m glad they do,” he said. “I am totally at peace and enjoy the fact that people think I’m a nice person because I think I am. I think I am an approachable person. I’m not Jack White.”
At the same time, Gibbard discovered the songs he was writing that would later form Narrow Stairs did not conform to others in Death Cab’s past, where the dark emotions were controlled more, or softened by the band’s dedicated craftsmanship. “As I went off on my own to work on songs, I felt myself for the first time coming to grips with the darkness that was always in the songs but was always sort of washed over,” he said.
As he wrote, he was determined to “try to be as fearless as possible.” A breakthrough was the song “You Can Do Better Than Me,” in which the narrator less accuses his paramour as much as he consoles her that she made the right decision to give him the boot. “I’ve been slipping through the years/my old clothes don’t fit like they once did/so they hang like ghosts of people I’ve been,” he sings.
“It’s all in the narrator’s head. He realizes what he had … but he’s having a hard time controlling the dark thoughts he has about everything around his relationship to that person,” he said. “I find myself feeling like that more often than not.”
Two of Death Cab’s players were army brats (Gibbard, Harmer), the second started playing bars when he was 15 (McGerr), the fourth spent a childhood at the mailbox awaiting goodies from the Columbia Record and Tape Club (Walla), indiscriminate in his mooning over anything Top 40: from Tiffany to Midnight Oil.
Separately, details like these seem inconsequential, but put together, they illustrate what kept Death Cab driving forward as a unit: Restlessness, wild determination, an insistent faith in pop music buoyancy.
But growth hesitated in 2004, when the cycle of Plans, their major label debut, was set in motion. Only now can Gibbard admit that, despite the excitement of being on, not just a major label, but the label that brought you Aretha, Ray and Led Zeppelin, also meant having to deal with what he calls the “retarded shit.” “Making Plans was a very stressful experience for all of us. We powered through it and tried to talk about it as little as possible,” he said. Unlike their experience on Barsuk, which required making music, releasing it and then touring, Gibbard said the band wasn’t prepared for the politicking required to get corporate radio airplay and other negotiations the band was sucked into in order to deal with a marketplace that now meant competing with Mariah Carey and Kelly Clarkson for attention.
For Walla, Plans was a project he meticulously tendered in the studio, over thinking each detail with the unspoken fear of coming up with a dud. “The record as a whole I have a hard time with,” he said. “I think it’s pretty interesting that by the end of that album cycle we were really only playing six songs from the record onstage regularly whereas (2003’s) Transatlanticism, we play all that record save two songs and do so happily.”
When it was finished a year and a half later, the band separated in order to regroup. Gibbard went on a solo tour, Harmer took lessons in acoustic bass, Walla prepped a solo album and produced bands like The Decemberists and Tegan and Sara and McGerr set out to build his own studio in Seattle.
Time helped ease the band back into the same room together in October 2007, this time at Two Sticks Audio, McGerr’s studio he built from scratch to give the band a home base. “At this point in our career it doesn’t matter where we record as long as we feel good about the space we’re in,” he said.
It was Walla who insisted they record live to tape with as few overdubs as possible. “I’m good at managing tiny performances but I was burned out on it. This is the first time we really zoomed in on the whole thing and said, ‘what the fuck, let’s be a rock band’. The defined framework was (The Stones’) Let it Bleed.
“The general feeling, oft unspoken, is that computers make things faster and easier and I just don’t know if that’s true. Computers make things perfect but perfect is just the enemy of awesome,” he said.
The direction slowly unshackled the band from their individual pensiveness and they started to approach their playing differently. Gibbard, normally a cerebral singer, felt unhinged; Walla watched him nail songs in first takes. Harmer noticed a stronger connection with McGerr. “I felt an amazing amount of instinctual stuff happen between Jason and I as a rhythm section that only comes from touring together. Notes and rhythms and counter rhythms started happening. We’d break from each other and I knew where he was going to land, it was that unspoken thing that kind of blows me away,” he said.
You can hear those dynamics in the playing, where each instrument sounds confidently driven, almost like each one is taking turns taking the lead. Dense guitars grind together on songs like “Cath …,” sounding not unlike epic workouts by Built to Spill; on album opener “Bixby Canyon Bridge,” the band starts with their signature softness before stomping to messy, cacophonic heights. A menacing bass line pulses through “I Will Possess Your Heart,” shading the borders with suspense as the band colors in the rest.
This is a more groove-oriented album while still retaining the band’s signature tunefulness. “Your New Twin Sized Bed” is buoyant, begging for the inevitable dance remix, as Gibbard’s crystalline vocals, however defeated his lyrics may sound, can’t help but sound charmed and relaxed. Despite their reputation for faultless studio confections, the heart-and-hips aesthetic of Narrow Stairs sounds more suited for playing live.
For the most part, the songs Gibbard delivered became source material for the band to develop further. “Very democratic,” is how McGerr described the process. “Ben is a super, super sport in the sense that if we wanted to take what he’d written and hit it out of the park, he’s happy,” he said. Ideas were never vetoed, and if a player was struck with a part instinctually and started chasing it, the others followed his lead. The result is an album that takes the band to a more refined level of playing while still grounded in their pop charms.
For Gibbard, the breakthrough came from a single simple pleasure. “It sounds like hyperbole,” he said. “But it felt so good to have my three best friends in a room and playing music again.”
With credits producing breakthrough favorites by Nada Surf, The Decemberists and Tegan and Sara as well as his own band’s impressive catalog, Death Cab’s Chris Walla has quietly become one of the finest producers working today, known for creating a sound that is sleek, unfussy and warm.
A self-described music geek, he grew up in Seattle entranced by his father’s vinyl collection — with afternoons spent on headphones figuring out the stereo mix of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. “I’ve always been fascinated by expansive pop records,” he said. “It pulls on my heartstrings in all the right places.”
These days, Walla is the only member of Death Cab who doesn’t live in Seattle (he chooses Portland for its superior public transportation and lack of gridlock). Preceding Narrow Stairs, he just released Field Manual (Barsuk), an impeccably crafted solo album he produced alongside Wayne Livesey who is among a select few of his personal console heroes.
1. Wayne Livesey (Midnight Oil, Whipping Boy)
“I’ve always been fascinated by (Midnight Oil’s 1987 album) Diesel and Dust. That record hit me so hard, it just felt so weird because it is weird. But as I started to listen to it over the last four or five years as a record-making adult, I started to realize that even though the sounds are sort of dated, that record is perfect in a way that very few records are now. Everything is in place. It’s hi-fi in a way like nothing ever was or is.”
2. Steve Lillywhite (U2, Talking Heads, Morrissey)
“He was 23 when he produced Black Sea by XTC and Peter Gabriel’s melting face album (Peter Gabriel). He is a guy I forever adored what he does to this day. Black Sea is the very definition of a rock record.”
3. Trevor Horn (Yes, Seal, Frankie Goes to Hollywood)
“I love all the English record producers, all the English stuff in the eighties. (Seal’s) ‘Kiss From a Rose’ is the ubiquitous single. The way that song was arranged and presented is so masterful and so awesome, it is an absolutely spotless piece of production. Trevor Horn is the sort of producer who exemplifies what can happen when you are a theory mastermind and you understand your instruments, like your sonic palette and how an orchestra works and how a horn section works and how all the thousands of keyboards you have work with absolute certainty. He’s totally the academic.”
4. Tucker Martine (Sufjan Stevens, Laura Veirs, Bill Frissell)
“I co-produced the last Decemberists album with him. He is kind of a Zen mastermind, very chilled out, a very logical sort of fellow. But he’s not afraid of doing things way off the map. What makes him so good is he treats (everything he produces) with the same structure and care. Plus, he always keeps it light in the studio, which is key. I’m finding out more and more you can’t get good sound unless people feel good.”
5. John Goodmanson (Sleater-Kinney, Harvey Danger, Bikini Kill)
“He did all the Kill Rock Stars stuff in the nineties. He is just a fireball of a producer, like ‘this is fucking rock and roll, let’s put the mic on and let’s do it!’ There’s an immediacy and fire to everything he does, which is so cool. He has been a mentor to me at different points for years.”