Progress Report

Progress Report: Death Cab For Cutie

By T. Cole Rachel / December 10, 2010

NAME: Death Cab For Cutie
PROGRESS REPORT: Prepping their kaleidoscopic seventh studio album Codes And Keys for release in Spring 2011

For those of us who were fans of Death Cab For Cutie back in the prehistoric days of the early 2000’s (a time when I saw them play to a half-empty room at the now defunct Brownies in NYC), the band’s startling rise to indie-fame has been bittersweet. While it’s always sweet to see a band you love — particularly an earnest band of genuinely nice dudes who write beautiful, melodic pop songs — become successful, there is (at least for some of us) a certain sense of loss involved. It’s a sad trait belonging to those for whom musical nerdery is a lifelong defining characteristic — a sense of ownership over the little bands that you love. It’s like seeing a Smith’s t-shirt for sale at Hot Topic or hearing an old Cure song played in an Old Navy commercial — you realize that the things you love no longer belong to just you (not that they ever really did), but that they now belong to the world. At this point — six albums and over a decade deep into their career — Death Cab For Cutie officially belong to the world. The band’s last album, 2008’s Narrow Stairs, sold a ton of copies and landed them the #1 spot on the Billboard charts for the first time, a feat which they followed by playing giant venues all over the globe for nearly two years. Then the lead singer married a movie star and moved to LA. For a band whose stock and trade has been crafting sweetly elegant pop songs about romantic melancholy, what happens when you’ve really hit the big time? Where do you go from there?

“We took about six months off after the last stint of touring,” says bassist Nick Harmer. “Ben was busy writing and recording demos during that time, but we all kind of go and do our own things for a while until it feels like time to start back to work — which usually happens when we’ve all collectively managed to put together a lot of new material. Before it becomes totally unmanageable, we get together and start working out the songs. It happens pretty naturally, actually.”

“Over the course of our history — where we’re at today versus where we were at in 1998 when we recorded Something About Airplanes — the process of how we work hasn’t changed all that much,” explains Harmer. “Of course, now we have access to better recording studios, whereas that record was literally recorded in various people’s houses. Still, the fundamentals of how we operate are very similar. We’re very invested in making music together. I’m always very excited to get into the studio to try and impress my bandmates and I know they feel the same way. Over the years we have proven to be our own worst critics but also our own bestest friends … if that makes any sense. Getting praise from Ben and Chris and Jason means so much to me and I take their advice and input very seriously. You know, this is our seventh album … and after 10 years of recording and touring, we still want to impress each other and we still really seek each other’s approval. That has never changed with us … and I think that has served us well over the years.”

Recorded at various studios over the course of several months in 2010, the new Death Cab for Cutie album — Codes And Keys — represents a departure of sorts for the band, but perhaps not one as radical as initial press reports have implied. The band employed a more cut-and-paste style of songwriting — as well as more of guitarist/producer Chris Walla’s compositions — on the record, but it will still sound very much like a Death Cab record. Despite comments from front man Ben Gibbard that likened the new record to Brian Eno’s Another Green World, Harmer is quick to point out that there will still be plenty of guitars as well.

“Oh, there are definitely guitars on this record,” he says, “there are just less of them than before and we’re using them in different ways this time. Ben was really inspired by writing on acoustic guitar and on a piano, so often those parts become voices or keyboard lines, rather than guitar parts. We really experimented with piecing the songs together in different ways and using the studio differently, so this a much less guitar-centric album than we’ve ever made before.”

For a band known for so acutely detailing the emotional landscape of heartbreak and longing — and given the general lyrical darkness on Narrow Stairs — can Death Cab fans still expect the same kind of sublime, intimate melancholy that resonated so strongly on previous albums? Ben Gibbard — the band’s principal songwriter — is, after all, a happily married man these days.

“The emotional spectrum feels much wider this time,” says Harmer. “The last record was much darker and was much more closely connected to what Ben had been going through in his life at the time. I think there is a lot more light in this record. Of course, Ben will always gravitate towards certain bittersweet material in his songs, but this record has a lot of expansive, soundscapey kinds of things. Thematically and musically, it’s just much more varied. We also have string sections on this record, which is very exciting for all of us. We’ve always wanted to hear that texture in our music, but it never really worked out before.”

Proving that the Pains of Being Pure At Heart haven’t totally cornered the market on snagging super producers to mix records, the newly completed Codes And Keys will also be the recipient of Alan Moulder’s deft touch. “It’s the first time we’ve ever handed over an entire album to a “big name” engineer for mixing, but obviously we’re very excited,” says Harmer. “Alan is responsible for helping create some of my favorite albums of all-time, so it’s very cool.”

While the general floundering of the music industry seems to have a lot of artists — even hugely successful ones — suddenly questioning their place in the rapidly atomizing landscape of pop culture and/or scrambling to stay there, the members of Death Cab For Cutie seem relatively secure. According to Harmer, spending a decade building up your fan base, along with a healthy amount of self-acceptance, seems to help:

“If there was ever a sense of palpable pressure, it has been fleeting. We do a really good job of blocking out the world when we work. There was a certain amount of external pressure when we recorded Plans and jumped to a bigger label. That really caused us to ask ourselves some heavy existential questions about who we were and what we wanted to achieve as a band. We were cognizant of not wanting people to feel like we suddenly became a different band, or that we’d sold out, or, quite simply, that we had turned into jerks after managing to reach this larger audience. There was some moment of acceptance that happened for us, both as people and collectively as a band, where we said ‘This is us. This is our life. This is what our band is.’ There is a sense of confidence that comes with time and with getting older and I think you can hear that in the music we make now. This record feels like a really awesome expression of who we are as a band and as human beings. For me, it kind of sums up so many things that we’ve always been trying to do and are now finally able to. I’m really, really proud of it.”