Such is the excitement that surrounds a rare London appearance from Seattle’s new favourite sons, Death Cab for Cutie, that when I arrive early in the afternoon at Brixton’s O2 Academy, set to play host to the band’s headline appearance later in the day, there are already crowds of fans gathering around the venue. Huddled under umbrellas – it’s a miserably grey London “summer” day – these fans await the arrival of their heroes. That Death Cab are now amongst indie rock’s genuine royalty is an undeniable fact, but nevertheless one that remains surprising, even to the band themselves, given their humble roots, and the long route that they’ve taken to get to this point. I sat down with lead singer Ben Gibbard and bassist Nick Harmer to chat about their new album, Codes and Keys, the problems faced with keeping a fanbase happy while remaining creative, and the changing status of independent record labels. I started though, by pointing out to Gibbard that this very website is named after one of his songs…
Ben Gibbard: Yeah, we were just wondering about that! We were just saying, “it has to be a real coincidence…”
How does that feel?
BG: It feels… very nice actually. Our band is named after a song by the Bonzo Dog Band, so it’s kind of nice to think that you’ve put something in the world that someone wants to name something after.
The new album represents a bit of a shift from the two that preceeded it. When you decide to do something a bit new like that, is it a pressure you put on yourself to change things around, does it come from your label to do something different, or is it more just a natural progression into the sound?
BG: With any record that we’ve made, I think with the exception of Plans , we’ve never really put that much pressure on ourselves, and we’ve certainly never had any from the label. I think that by the time we signed to Atlantic, we were pretty much already a known quantity, and I think that they wisely realised that we know how to made a record, and they didn’t really want to get too involved with that. Thankfully the records we’ve made have been reasonably successful so they’ve never had to get involved. But really, I think with this record more than any other, the writing of it was just different… maybe because I was writing it in Los Angeles and not Seattle, where I’ve written the last two or three records, but I just felt I could write as openly or as freely as I wanted.
I’ve always felt that your band has been about evolution and not revolution. Your sound continues to change but you’ve never had a ‘Radiohead moment’ and done something radically different. Codes and Keys is new ground for you, but it’s unmistakably a Death Cab record.
Nick Harmer: I feel that way…I really feel like if you start with Something About Airplanes and you listen to every album chronologically then I think you can hear the evolution. I think it comes from a lot of the choices that Chris makes as a producer, he tends to react to what we did on the last record. So because we attempted the last album [2008’s Narrow Stairs] on tape, we recorded it on 24 analogue tracks, then this record was all on Logic, on a computer. So that contributes to the changes as well.
BG: We’re not the kind of band that have a summit, that we sit around and talk about how we’re going to, “this one’s going to be totally different, you guys”. We just come into the studio having been influenced by a number of things, anything from the music we’re listening to to the toys that we’re playing with…
What were the different influences for this record? You’ve mentioned Brian Eno in previous interviews.
BG: Yeah, I think a song like ‘Unobstructed Views’ has a very Eno-esque vibe to it. But it’s never really an overt influence like “we’ve all been listening to the band X, and we want to take as much from the band X as possible”. Usually it happens more like, say, Chris has been getting really into an MS-20 keyboard he’s got, that I don’t know how to make music on but he does, and he’ll run the drums through it, and we’ll just go “okay, let’s run with this, see where this is going”, and then over the course of the following weeks certain tones will come through in the way that he’s producing the track. As much as we’re all gravitating towards the songs that I’ve written that tend to be about a particular series of subjects, or that are all related, we’re still weening out the ones that don’t fit tonally or lyrically with what we’re doing in the studio.
Your lyrics are one area where the evolution of Death Cab, and of you as a songwriter is really clear; the lyrics now are a lot less obtuse than they once were. Is there a reason for that, was it a conscious decision to write like that or is it just more suited to the kind of music you’re making now?
BG: Writing lyrics for the earlier records, in my mind I wanted every line to be somewhat profound, and veiled, and full of metaphor, and when I go back to that material there are moments that I’m extremely proud of, but there are also moments that I realise that what I was trying to get across to the listener wasn’t necessarily coming across to the listener the way I wanted it to. And that’s fine, people find and form their own interpretations, but it wasn’t what I wanted to communicate.
I think the important aesthetic of those early albums is that they are so open to interpretation, that they mean something different to everyone. They feel much more personal than the later records, where you’ve perhaps moved towards a more widely recognisable sound.
BG: I think that the more I write songs, the more I find myself attracted to songwriters who just get to the point. I think that in the earlier material there is… the melody and the way I sang it was really just a vehicle for the lyrics, like in my mind I think that was far more important than it is to me now. And I don’t mean that in the sense that I don’t think the lyrics are important, I absolutely think the lyrics are important, but at the same time, I started to value, in relation to the obtuseness and wordyness of the lyric, just a little more economy. Like if a melody goes “da-da-da-da”, there’s room for four syllables, in the past I would have tried to figure out a way to stretch that melody out and fit in more because I couldn’t say as much as I wanted to say in those four syllables. So I’m trying to be more economical and somewhat mimic, at least tonally, that thing that someone like Randy Newman does, you know, if you listen to that record Sail Away, every song is so economical – there’s so few lyrics, but it’s so vivid, you know? And I feel like in the past I’ve done a pretty good job of writing very long verses with a lot of words and a lot of imagery, and I know for a lot of people that’s their favourite type of writing that I’ve done, but for me personally, I want to be a little more economical and let the melody and the voice do the work.
It’s a good measure of your success that you’ve managed to make the transition into doing something that’s more mainstream and to have changed as much as you have as a band, and still have retained the core of your fanbase.
BG: Well thanks! It’s nice to hear that opinion. We’ve been a band for fourteen years and I don’t think we’d still be doing it if… well we were talking earlier about a band, who will remain nameless, who I have been listening to a lot recently, and I like the record but I just don’t see where they’re going to go from here, and I guess it’s just… people probably listened to our early records and thought the same thing, so I don’t want to dismiss anybody’s ability to grow, but I think one of the blessings and curses of being a band who’s been around as long as we have is that our own back catalogue is, I wouldn’t say our own worst enemy, but certainly we’re very aware of our back catalogue.
But do you still enjoy playing those songs live?
BG: Oh, absolutely, but when we’re in the studio we’ll be like “oh that bassline sounds good”—not to pick on you —”but it sounds a lot like something off We Have the Facts” and that’s okay sometimes, but we usually want to try something a little different. So I think that being around for this long creates ‘eras’ that people gravitate towards and then that’s their favourite one. And it’s nice to hear the opinion that you have, of the evolution of the band, but there’s also the thing of… people going “why can’t you make another record like Plans?” or whatever.
There has been a lot written recently, certainly in the British press, about the ‘rise of indie’ and how 2011 is the ‘year of indie’—we’ve had huge successes from Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver on independent labels, selling hundreds of thousands of records. Have we not been here before, though? Back in 2003 or 04, with you guys getting mentioned by Seth Cohen on The OC every week, the Postal Service going massive, and bands like like the Shins and Bright Eyes infiltrating the mainstream. Is this new wave of indie any different from before, or just part of the same cycle?
NH: I think it’s an angle to write about. I feel like right now that’s all that is distinguishing a lot of rock-and-roll from a lot of mainstream entertainment. I feel like it’s more of a function of press and journalism than anything. I mean “the rise of indie”, that phrase has been banded around…
BG: It’s been “rising” for about ten years!
NH: Yeah, it’s been batted around for as long as we’ve been a band.
BG: The thing that I feel about it is – I agree with Nick – but I think that one of the great things about where we are culturally now, is that it is virtually a completely level playing field as far as labels go. So you’re making amazing music in a barn in upstate Wisconsin, or wherever, and you put this record out in the world, people are going to find it now.
So let’s go back, what is it now? Six years? Imagine you’d released Transatlanticism into this climate and you were getting major label interest. Would you still sign to Atlantic?
BG: Well I certainly think that, given the way that the terms of major label record deals are now, and probably a lot of indie labels too, which is where they want to own everything, they want to own the touring and the publishing…
NH: Yeah, the merchandising, everything.
BG: We got grandfathered in, in a way, so that our record deal, without going into too much detail, is just a record deal. I think that if Transatlanticism came out in 2010 and had the kind of response that Bon Iver or Fleet Foxes records are having – or even the response that it got in 2003 – I don’t necessarily think we’d be in a position where we’d legitimately consider a major label, because it’s not necessary any more. And I say that with the utmost respect for all the work that Atlantic have done on our behalf, and when we signed for Atlantic it was a different time. And that different time kinda bites us in the ass sometimes, people are always complaining like “why can’t I get the download codes in your vinyl?” and it’s like, because the vinyl in the States is released on Barsuk, and they don’t own the masters, so they can’t put the codes in the record… so we have this archaic record deal.
NH: I feel like one of the reasons that we signed to Atlantic at all is so that we could leave the States. We were on five different labels in Europe, I mean, trying to get Transatlanticism across the Atlantic was like… it was very hard to even get the press to write about our band, ‘cos it was our fourth album by that point, and we’re not a “new band” any longer, and it was difficult. And we really wanted the opportunity to play our music for people outside the United States just to see if it would even connect, and have that influence on people over here. I mean now, today, I joke about it all the time but I think there’s a level of truth to it; most bands, we’re all on one label called iTunes, so it really doesn’t matter if Merge are making the physical copies or Atlantic is, the overwhelming majority of people who are buying records of the kind of music that we make, they’re buying them from websites. That’s the main distribution channel that’s coming in. So you know, I respect the sort of categorisation of ‘indie’ and all that kind of stuff, but until we’re truly independent…
BG: Well, what I can say on that point is that this band started in ’97, our first record came out in ’98, and it was a piss poor time for American indie rock. I shouldn’t say that – there were a lot of great records coming out – but the mainstream, or people who were casually curious about underground things were still not aware of most of the interesting things that were happening at that time, because people had no ability to find out about it. Radio in the states was terrible, MTV, VH1 were terrible, the music industry was still somewhat flush with cash because people were still buying records, boy-band records, in the billions, so indie rock was still not on the radar. Our dream when we started this band was to sell 25,000 copies, our heroes sold 25,000 copies, so they could go on tour and play a few shows and maybe make enough money to get home, and not have to work for a couple of months. That was like the highest echelons of what we thought was possible. And now, almost fifteen years later, we have a much larger… well we don’t have as many huge rock stars, but we don’t have as many starving artists. Like Nick always says, we do have a much larger ‘middle class’, because there’s so many bands, and more every day, and thankfully a lot of people patronising those bands. So the music industry isn’t a place you can go to get filthy rich anymore, but it’s certainly a place you can go earn a decent living, if you’re willing to put the work in.
Is there anything you feel you would have done differently had you stayed with Barsuk? I know you’ve had no problems with Atlantic in terms of them pressuring you into making certain kinds of records, but did simply being concious of writing for a major label change what you were doing?
NH: I don’t have any regrets about it at all, I don’t think.
BG: I wouldn’t do anything differently, but I think if I could go back and tap myself on the shoulder in 2005, when we were making Plans, I would have just said to myself, “just settle down a little bit…”
NH: Yeah, I think we all would.
BG: At the time, we were doing our very best to convince ourselves and the world that we hadn’t walked through the doorway, that we’re still the same guys, still making the same music. And to a very real extent we were, but the realities and the perceptions of that music had changed drastically. I think that there was – not enough that we’re not still sat here talking to you today – but there was a lot of animosity coming our way and I think we were all, at least I was, reading more of that stuff than I should’ve, and I was kinda hyper-aware of it, getting a bit bummed out and questioning whether we’d done the right thing or not. And I think there was a nervousness around making that record that I wouldn’t say helped or hindered the process, but it was just there. We went out to this barn in Massachusetts, and we shipped everything we’d ever owned out there cos we didn’t know what we were going to need. We were all very on edge, and I’d just like to tell myself, “just settle down.”
NH: “It’s going to be okay!”
BG: And now, six years later, it’s nice to see that record de-politicised. It’s a record that I’m really proud of.
I listened to it myself for the first time in a while today, and even as someone removed from that process, it’s remarkable how different it sounds given a bit of space. It’s a really solid set of songs and I enjoyed listening to it just as that and not as this “Death Cab selling out!” thing that it turned into at the time.
BG: Well thank you, yeah, that was a very politicised record. I feel like there were people, some people, they had made up their minds before they’d heard it, even before we’d signed to Atlantic. So it’s nice and strange when I had people Tweet me before this last record and before Narrow Stairs came out and say “I hope it sounds like Plans!” I’m glad that as we play these songs live, it’s really nice to see how enthusiastic people are about them, because it was a really nerve-wracking time for us. I think we were all concerned that it would be our undoing rather than a stepping stone.
Death Cab For Cutie’s latests album, Codes and Keys is available now through Atlantic.