Death Cab, Full Speed Ahead

Death Cab for Cutie: Nick Harmer, from left, Ben Gibbard, Chris Walla and Jason McGerr.
Death Cab for Cutie: Nick Harmer, from left, Ben Gibbard, Chris Walla and Jason McGerr. (Autumn De Wilde)
By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 21, 2005

SPIN MAGAZINE crowned Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard "the poet laureate of the young and hopeful."

"I'll take it where I can get it," Gibbard laughs over the phone from Salt Lake City, a recent stop on Death Cab's tour supporting its major label debut, "Plans." (The band is at the 9:30 club Sunday and Monday.)

Of such high praise -- and there has been much of it in recent years -- Gibbard says that "it comes to the band in waves, at different times, for different reasons. There were certainly times when we were starting out, when we finished [our] first tape and people were really reacting to it and enjoying it, that we realized maybe we're on to something, that this might actually work. I'd been in a number of bands before, and they'd never really amounted to anything."

Gibbard has some local roots -- he lived in Herndon from 1988 to 1991. He was too young to go to shows at the 9:30 club but says he found WHFS ("when it was free-form") on the dial and heard such bands as the Stone Roses, Ultra Vivid Scene and the Pixies for the first time.

Eventually Gibbard found himself in the other Washington, growing up in Seattle during the heyday of grunge before settling in Bellingham, a college town 90 miles to the north. Gibbard, attending Western Washington University as an engineering student, was playing in a power pop band called Pinwheel when he met budding producer Chris Walla at a concert -- Gibbard was wearing a Teenage Fanclub T-shirt and the two bonded over a shared fandom for those critical favorites from Scotland.

By summer 1997, Walla was recording the slower, quieter, more introspective material Gibbard was writing under the name Death Cab for Cutie (after a Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band song featured in the Beatles' "Magical Mystery Tour" film). Those lo-fi four-track recordings were eventually released on an eight-song cassette titled "You Can Play These Songs With Chords" (1,000 copies were pressed). To play them live, a band was needed, so Gibbard turned to bassist Nick Harmer, his roommate and fellow DJ on the campus radio station, and drummer Nathan Good. (Three drummers later, that spot is held by Jason McGerr.)

Still, for a long time, the singer-songwriter says, "rock 'n' roll was the daydream I had when I was at work."

Gibbard, who earned a degree in environmental chemistry, explains that he'd always looked at his life in relatively small increments -- six to eight months -- even as Death Cab was generating its first buzz.

"Basically, I'd sit on the back porch of the refinery I was working at in Ferndale, Washington, doing environmental testing, have a cigarette and think, man, we're going on tour , it's going to be so fun -- but never that music was going to be a potential career. The goal was always to make enough money to just kind of not have to work for a couple of months and tour. Obviously the expectations and dreams have been far exceeded."

In 1998, a new Seattle label, Barsuk, released the band's official debut, "Something About Airplanes." As recording technology expanded -- "Airplanes" was recorded on an eight-track machine, 2000's "We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes" on a 16-track machine -- Death Cab's atmospheric indie-pop sound, melding Gibbard's sweet, aching vocals and poetic landscapes with melancholy yet infectious melodies, was rewarded with slowly graduating sales and sold-out shows in increasingly larger venues.

On a major label scale, the numbers were small, in the 100,000 range until the band's breakthrough album, 2003's "Transatlanticism," which has sold more than 300,000 copies. Some of the growth could be attributed to two years of plugs on the prime-time teen-oriented soap opera "The O.C.," where indie-rock fanatic Seth Cohen (Adam Brody) constantly proclaimed Death Cab his favorite band and sported a poster of the band on his bedroom wall. Last year, the band performed at the show's hangout, the Bait Shop, and Brody interviewed Death Cab for Elle magazine.

"That came out of left field," says Gibbard of the "O.C." connection. "I don't watch that much TV, or the show, so its cultural significance is kind of lost on me. It's certainly a chapter in the band's history to date. Both the show and us have benefited from our dance with each other, but it's time for us to move on from that."

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