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."
Death Cab itself moved on. After four buzz-generating Barsuk albums (along with several EPs) and relative stardom in indie-rock circles, the band signed with Atlantic Records. "Plans" was released in August, debuting at No. 4 on the Billboard album chart and selling 90,000 copies its first week. Naturally, the move created ripples in the indie-rock community, with inevitable sell-out accusations.
According to Gibbard, "the indie rock/indie label thing has been kind of lionized into being something a lot more pure than it can be at times. . . . I have far more friends who have been screwed out of money on indie labels than have been screwed out of money on majors. Bad business is bad business no matter where it is. That being said, Barsuk is the greatest indie label in the country -- they've always been honest, always paid on time, always been pro-artist." Death Cab insisted that the Barsuk logo and catalogue information be included on its Atlantic albums, and the Seattle label got vinyl rights to those albums as well.
Even as the band retained creative control -- Walla, who produces the Decemberists, Nada Surf and the Long Winters, was at the helm for "Plans" -- its move to Atlantic allowed for improvements in distribution and promotion. And, Gibbard says, "we actually had some money to go somewhere and try something different." The band spent a month rehearsing and recording "Plans" at the 48-track Long View Farm Recording Studio in North Brookfield, Mass., even though Walla has owned a funky triangle-shaped Seattle studio -- the Hall of Justice -- since 1999. In a previous incarnation, the Hall is where Nirvana recorded its debut album, "Bleach."
There are several notable differences between "Plans" and Death Cab's previous albums. One is the relative absence of guitars (though the acoustic guitar remains prominent) and the addition of a variety of keyboards and pianos. After years of cramped living, Gibbard could afford a house with enough space for a piano. "And I gravitated to it a lot when I was writing. There are some guitar songs on the record, but I didn't feel the urge to pick up a guitar most of the time. It wasn't a conscious choice, more of an aesthetic choice."
Another noticeable change is Gibbard's lyrical obsession, which is less with love than with death and separation, evidenced in such songs as "What Sarah Said" and "I Will Follow You Into the Dark." Both examine the way relationships are altered by death. The first is set in a hospital "amongst the vending machines and year-old magazines / In a place where we only say goodbye," the singer noting, "there's no comfort in the waiting room / Just nervous paces bracing for bad news." In the song, Gibbard somberly muses, "I'm thinking of what Sarah said / That love is watching someone die / So who's gonna watch you die?"
Death, says the 29-year-old Gibbard, is "something I've always been attracted to as far as writing about it but never found myself in a place where I felt comfortable addressing [it]. [Here] I do it for the first time, more presently and directly than I have before."
Part of that comes from being in a stable, long-term relationship (with music publicist Joan Hiller). According to Gibbard, "the idea of being with somebody when they die is more a statement of commitment than of loss. The natural progression when you talk about commitment is that someday one of you is going to die, so I felt the desire to address that." In "Soul Meets Body," Gibbard does so by vowing that "if the darkness takes you, I hope it takes me, too."
The album's most profound song, "I Will Follow You Into the Dark," is a solo, acoustic-guitar supported meditation in which Gibbard plaintively notes, "Love of mine, someday you will die . . . if heaven and hell decide / That they're both satisfied / And illuminate the nos on their vacancy signs / If there's no one beside you when your soul embarks / Then I'll follow you into the dark." Some writers have suggested it could become a first dance favorite at wedding receptions.
"In a weird way, if you want to generalize my general outlook on life, it's a sense of romanticism filtered through this pessimistic realism, having a hard time enjoying something when you know there's an end to it," Gibbard says. "I can't imagine that would make a very good first dance by any stretch of the imagination!"
Another track, "Different Names for the Same Thing" is a bridge between Death Cab and the Postal Service, the electro-pop project Gibbard did with Los Angeles-based keyboardist-producer Jimmy Tamborello. The two swapped music through the mail (hence the name) and in 2003 released "Give Up" on the Sub Pop label.
"I was always convinced the record would do 20 or 30 thousand copies," Gibbard says. "It's certainly taken on a life of its own." In fact, the Postal Service album has done better than any Death Cab album: At 670,000 copies, it's Sub Pop's second-biggest seller behind Nirvana's "Bleach" and has sold more than Death cab's four studio albums combined.
There was one small blip -- soon after the album's release, Sub Pop received a cease and desist order from the U.S. Postal Service, which asserted its trademark rights. Happily, an arrangement was worked out by which the duo could keep using the name if it promoted traditional mail delivery service to a young fan base more attuned to e-mail and instant messaging. "Give Up" CDs were sold on the U.S. Postal Service Web site, and in November, the group performed here (briefly) at the annual postmaster general's National Executive Conference, which Gibbard calls "a very surreal experience."
The Postal Service's "We Will Become Silhouettes" (an upbeat song about living through the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust) is featured in television ads for the Honda Civic (the rebirth spot with the butterflies and caterpillars), and that band's "Such Great Heights" opens the new "Grey's Anatomy" soundtrack. Death Cab songs pop up on soundtracks for "The O.C.," "Wedding Crashers" and "Six Feet Under." They're also on a soundtrack to the new video game "Stubbs the Zombie," featuring contemporary bands covering '50s classics. Death Cab covers the Penguins' "Earth Angel."
"When you can't rely on proper radio or MTV, which doesn't even play videos anymore, you have to find an alternate way to promote yourself, to get your music out there," Gibbard says. "As long as that doesn't involve compromising yourself, there's really no wrong way to do it."
DEATH CAB FOR CUTIE -- Appearing Sunday and Monday at the 9:30 club.