Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Death Cab For Cutie Interview

There’s been a rumour about town of late that Death Cab for Cutie have gone mad. It all started when guitarist Chris Walla told MTV back in October that the new album would be “a crazy, weird, heavy-rock record.” Then, last month the first single was released; called ‘I Will Possess Your Heart’, it clocks it at a mammoth eight and a half minutes – hardly radio friendly! Even odder, for a band whose teenage fanbase has grown largely around Ben Gibbard’s ability to translate the soppy into song, the first single sports a five-minute instrumental introduction before getting into any kind of lyrical lament. Now, with their sixth album, ‘Narrow Stairs’, due for release this coming May, Gigwise decided to give Ben himself the chance to explain all this sudden musical insanity…

Ben Gibbard, Death Cab’s moonfaced frontman, is almost breathless with anticipation as he starts to talk about ‘Narrow Stairs’. “Well, we’re all incredibly proud of this record,” he begins. “It’s pound for pound a lot more rock tunes, and I think far less glossy than the last record as far the production sense. It’s got a kind of abrasive element to it that’s more akin to how our live show is, and some of the quietest, minimal moments that we’ve had.”

Quiet and minimal at times, maybe, but when did we ever associate Death Cab with “rock tunes”? It was the gliding emo-electronica of Transatlanticism, back in 2003, which first had kids gazing sorrowfully at bedroom ceilings after the girl from maths turned them down in the playground. There’s always been something charming in the floating piano loops and frank-but-emotionally-connected lyrics that allowed Death Cab to progress from obscurity into mainstream cool, a position that was cemented with their appearance on America’s cult series, the O.C., in 2005. So all this talk of “rock tunes” seems pretty out of character for a band that have made a name for themselves with glacial, synth-led pop-songs.

But Ben doesn’t seem to think the leap is too great for Death Cab. “I think that if someone has been a fan of the band for the last handful of years they’ll definitely find things in this record to really enjoy.” His relaxed attitude seems to be derived from a sense that the progression towards guitar-led rock music is a natural one for Death Cab, and one that they’re hopeful their fans will embrace, too. “Our primary goal has always been to make music that we feel is inspired, and that we feel has a quality that we feel putting out in the world, and we feel fortunate at this point that that has translated into some modicum of commercial success. So if there is commercial success to be had with a record like we’ve just made then of course we would like to revel in that, but if that’s not on the cards I don’t think any of us would feel as if we had failed in any capacity.

“Our song are songs, you know, they’re hummable, they’re pop songs, I don’t think there’s anything about this record or any record that we’ve made that the world is not ready for. If we don’t get played on the radio as much as we did last time that will be of course a little disappointing, but not the end of the world. It has never been a motivation for why we’ve made records.”

The emphasis on the music is one that obviously shines through on records like ‘I Will Possess Your Heart’, with its delayed vocal entry. Ben seemed conscious that this is a very different style of writing than what fans might be used to as he explained, “as Nick put the bass line in we started kind of playing with the song. The idea was that we just kind of played it and let the themes kind of build and when it feels right really dive into the lyrics… and it just so happened that that was five minutes into the song. As it was going down on tape we realised that we had never presented a song this way before, but I hope people accept it from us, I don’t think it’s such a wild departure that we’ll lose people.”

Death Cab adopted a different approach to the recording of ‘Narrow Lines’, too, one that is very much at odds with the heavily produced gloss of earlier work, such as 2005’s ‘Plans’. Ben described it simply as “the sound of four people playing in a room”. They also decided to record the album on to two-inch tape rather than computers, giving them very little space for overdubbing, and producing a very real, live sound. This was a return to their early recording technique according to Ben. “We recorded our first four albums on tape so we decided to go back to that format with us all playing together live. Clearly there were some overdubs here or there but the organic element that you hear in ‘I Will Possess Your Heart’ is in a direct relation to the fact that that song was played from start to finish with all four of us playing at the same time.”

In an age where computers are used to create, market and distribute music, this back to basics approach certainly seems at odds with where the majority of the industry is heading. But Ben didn’t seem to think it was a particularly innovative approach, just one that is perhaps necessary to maintain a visceral authenticity about music. “People have been making records like that since the first fifty years of recorded sound, but it’s becoming more rare with every day that people rely on computers to fix our problems,” he explained. “I think it’s the imperfections that give things personality. It’s that mole on your neck, it’s the weird little glitch in the guitar, it’s those little elements that give everything in this world personality and I think the further we move into the digital world the more likely we are to lose more of those elements and therefore a lot of the personality that we have.”

Recording things live also produced some happily unexpected results for Death Cab. Ben cited ‘Talking Birds’ as his favourite track on the new album, one that “just turned out really beautifully” on the first recording. He explains that the album explores, as a theme, the notion “when you watch a movie and at the end of the movie people embrace and people are happy and the credits roll. I think a lot of the songs are a case of what might happen if the credits stopped rolling and you were back with these characters that you’ve just watched for an hour and a half, and now you have to really see them enter the world.”

After over a decade writing and performing as Death Cab For Cutie, Gigwise wonders whether this might not be how Ben is feeling too. As grown-up popstars, has the gloss finally worn off being an internationally acclaimed musician? But Ben just laughs: “I think we’re the only band in the states to sell a million records and not be famous!” He then quickly adds: “I’m quite happy with that. Our music is clearly the most interesting thing about the four of us as a collective. We’re not the most iconic of individuals. Whenever I go back to Seattle after being on the road for a long time I feel very fortunate that I can slip back into walking around the city I live in and eating in restaurants, going to shows and not really having to be any kind of big deal when I’m there. We wouldn’t make very good pop stars either, even if we tried!”

Maybe Death Cab for Cutie have gone a bit mad, to suddenly shun the elements of their music that have always brought them the most success, and swap their mixer for a cassette-player. Equally, though, their newfound love of the imperfect is a breath of fresh air in a musical era that seems convinced that only the spotless is satisfactory. This Seattle four-piece might not feel they’ve quite attained pop stardom yet, but there’s every indication that ‘Narrow Stairs’ might just change all that, whether Ben likes it or not.

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