Q&A: Death Cab For Cutie Preview Their Final Album With Chris Walla
It’s weird to think about the fact that Death Cab For Cutie have now been a band for nearly two decades. For those of us who came of age alongside the band’s music, revisiting Death Cab’s back catalog — currently seven albums deep — can be something akin to re-reading old diary entries: deeply personal, wistfully sentimental, and generally indicative of who and where we were at the time. Death Cab’s last studio album, 2011’s somewhat divisive Codes And Keys, seemed to show the band at a kind of impasse. While it certainly wasn’t a terrible album, it also didn’t seem like a band pushing forward. Instead, it was the sound of a band treading water, resting heavily on their own well-worn, sweetly melodic laurels. Next year, Death Cab will release their as-yet-untitled eighth studio album, their first since the departure of band member (and longtime producer) Chris Walla. Despite the amicable split — an event that has caused longtime Death Cab fans no small amount of distress — the remaining members of Death Cab seem to have embraced the change as a much-needed shot in the arm and the kind of healthy shakeup that they didn’t even realize they needed.
I had to chance to meet up with the band — Ben Gibbard, Nick Harmer, Jason McGerr — and preview a few songs from their forthcoming record, which is tentatively slated for release early next year on Atlantic.
STEREOGUM: Codes And Keys came out in 2011. After touring that record, did all of you take some time away from the band?
BEN GIBBARD: The last show we played for that touring cycle was in August of 2012, and we all generally stayed pretty busy with our own projects after that. I put out a solo record and spent a lot of time on the road. I scored a movie. And then I kept myself busy writing songs for this record. We all reconvened in the summer of 2013 — the four of us [including Chris Walla] — to start the process of working on songs for this record. I myself would always wonder what bands actually did when they weren’t out on tour — and people will ask what we’ve been doing for the past three or four years — but that time really does fly by. So we started working on this record in the summer of 2013 and then Chris decided that maybe we should find someone else to produce the record. So the journey we were on to get where we are here today — with pretty much a finished record that will come out early next year — has felt like a long one. We hit a few speed bumps along the way. You know, starting the record with one producer and then having to find a second producer, which itself takes months. You have to find someone who you not only want to work with, but who also has time in their schedule to do it. So the amount of time in between these records has as much to do with that as anything else. A lot of it is just scheduling.
STEREOGUM: How did you go about choosing a producer?
NICK HARMER: We had a shortlist of people that we liked and who it seemed like might do something interesting with our music, so we basically just went out and started talking to people.
GIBBARD: We also wanted to avoid working with producers who are making records that sound very much of this particular time. Choosing someone who might have seemed like a safe, cool choice might not have really served us very well. We wanted to work with someone who would take us out of our comfort zone and who also had an awareness of the band’s catalog — and would help us make a record that made sense alongside our other records without also making it sound like a typically 2014 kind of record. That was the goal. We met with Rich Costey and really liked him. And I appreciated the fact that he really had to think about it for a while before he said yes to us. He really wanted to make sure that it was the right thing for everyone, and that he could do right by us. His involvement has been incredible. He was such a valuable resource for us.
STEREOGUM: The role of the producer is so important and often so mysterious. After working with Chris for so long — and really having such an insular creative process — was it weird to have this new person in the room? Did it change your way of working?
GIBBARD: Rich isn’t the kind of person who might hear your demo and then come back to you saying things like, “I’m imagining a wall of strings here and a drum machine and we’ll get Janelle Monáe to sing backup!” No, he was not like that. If anything, the only frustration we ever had with him was that he would always make us solve the problems. He might say, “What you’re doing right now doesn’t seem to be working, so you guys need to figure this out.” He was very quick to praise things that were working, but he had no qualms about letting us know when it wasn’t. His fingerprint on the finished product is probably a lot lighter than some people would imagine. He wasn’t trying to make us sound like Muse. He was trying to help us sound like Death Cab For Cutie, in the best way.
HARMER: It really did break down a lot of walls having this new person in the room. It required us to really talk about the choices we were making in a way that we haven’t in years. We had really established this process that was largely unspoken. Because we’ve all known each other for so long and because of our relationship with Chris, we often just made choices without realizing why.
GIBBARD: We just made choices based on the choices we’d made before. Over the years we had become a fairly self-referential band as a four-piece with Chris producing. We’d have conversations like, “Oh yeah, but on We Have The Facts we did that, so maybe we shouldn’t do that here,” or whatever. There were times when that was helpful, but there were also times when that probably held us back in some ways. Having someone around who had a knowledge of those records but wasn’t actually there proved to be really helpful. For [Costey] it wasn’t about doing or not doing something that we may have done in the past, it was simply about making the best choices for these songs.
STEREOGUM: You’ve been working with Chris as the producer in the band for nearly seventeen years. When he decided that he didn’t want to do that anymore, was it a complete shock?
HARMER: It wasn’t a complete shock. We’d actually talked about it before. When we finished the last record he had actually suggested that maybe we work with an outside person the next time, just as a way to shake things up. He’s produced all of our albums, so he’s always kind of had the right of first refusal anyway. When we got started on this record he just sort of resumed the producer role, but as we got a little further into the process he was like, “Well, maybe I’m not the best guy for this record,” and that was really fine. It wasn’t like we suddenly had the rug pulled out from under us or anything. We weren’t suddenly in a state of free fall.
GIBBARD: Looking back, I think he had some trepidation about it before we even got started, but we just kind of convinced him to do it. The idea of finding a new producer was a little scary to us, so I think we kind of just cajoled him at first — “No man, it’s fine. Let’s just do it the way we’ve always done it” — and he was the one who first realized that we really needed a change.
HARMER: To his credit, he spoke up very early on in the process. It wasn’t like we were a week away from finishing the record or something. It was actually kind of exciting in that moment to stop and rethink our process. I’m really grateful to him for that. Having an outside producer really galvanized all of our roles in a good way, and in a way that I’d never experienced before. It really made me stop and take stock of my own playing in a different way, which was cool.
STEREOGUM: Since I know people will be wondering, Chris played on the entire record, right? He was involved in the entire process?
JASON McGERR: Definitely. He played on everything and has been involved all the way through, even in the mixing. Even though he’s played his last show with us, he’s still been involved in everything involving this record.
GIBBARD: We knew he was leaving the band before the rest of the world knew. We just kind of put our heads down and kept working. We never had any kind of adversarial relationship at all. I think it helped that we had someone else in charge of producing. We knew fairly early on that he wasn’t going to continue in the band, so then it became just a matter of trying to make the best record that we could. We knew that Chris would bow out and that we would continue on.
STEREOGUM: We posted something about the last show you guys played with Chris. Typically I don’t look at the comments much on the site, but it was sweet to read what people were saying about that show and about what Chris meant to the band. It’s kind of a testament to how much of an emotional attachment people have to Death Cab For Cutie.
GIBBARD: It was such a weird thing. We didn’t really plan for it, and throughout that show I kept feeling like I should say something, but it’s a tricky thing to navigate. Of course there is some melancholy about his leaving the band, but you know … nobody has died. The band will continue and it will be different, but that’s fine. I would hope that as we move forward we will be judged on the music that we are making and not on the music that people want us to be making or based on who is or is not in the band. It’s unavoidable, I know. I’m not naïve about stuff like that. As a music fan, I also understand that. I just think we are choosing to focus not on what we’ve lost, but what we can gain from this change. You know, there are lots of bands in rock history that have lost seminal members and then gone on to do great things … and there are lots of bands that have lost important members and then become much worse. [laughs] Only time will tell what it means for us. I would hope that our longtime fans would trust us as we move forward.
STEREOGUM: I remember seeing you play here in NYC at Brownies back in 2000? 2001? and it being such a big deal for me. Over the years I’d go on to see you play at bigger and bigger venues and would often see the same people at those shows, people I recognized, all of us getting older. Do you find that your fanbase has aged along with you? When you write songs with these often very personal, very melancholy lyrics, it’s not surprising that people have a very emotional attachment to it. A lot of people feel like they kind of came of age with your record.
GIBBARD: Oh, absolutely. I feel so fortunate that the music we have made has been so important for some people. I try to say that with as little self-importance as possible because it can sound so weird, but I know that a lot of people have very emotional attachments to some of our songs. One of the things about our band that is interesting is that, if you make a record that has a certain kind of impact at a certain time in a person’s life, it becomes almost impossible to create that kind of moment again with the same listener. Seeing how the audience has changed over the years — everything from CMJ to The O.C. to signing with a major label — you notice how there are all these different entry points into what we do. That’s great to me. There are usually these three different kinds of fans: there are people who love We Have The Facts, there are people who love Transatlanticism, and people who love Plans. Those seem to be the three records that we’ve made that are kind of like lines in the sand for listeners. There are people who love We Have The Facts and sort of hate everything else … and that’s fine. I feel so fortunate that there are people who care about a single song that I wrote, I’m not gonna be greedy and say, “What do you mean you don’t like the new album?” You obviously want people to like everything that you do and feel connected to it, but you can’t always have it that way.
STEREOGUM: I can understand some people liking some records more than others — each record has its own vibe and its own sensibility — but it seems funny that people should love your early work and really hate the newer ones. I was thinking about that today while listening to your new songs — I heard four of them — and while they do have a really different vibe production-wise, they still sound very much like Death Cab For Cutie songs. You have a sensibility that kind of carries through all of the records.
GIBBARD: You’d be surprised. When Plans came out there were people who really fucking hated it. Everywhere I went during that time it felt like people were giving me shit about it. What’s interesting now is that people will say to me, “Why can’t you make another record like Plans?” Now that is the record they like. I’m not complaining, but there are people who heard that record, and heard that it was on Atlantic, and were like, “Fuck this band.” It’s funny. People have strong feelings of ownership — or disownership — of this band, depending on what’s happening with the band at any given time. You can’t control that sort of thing, but I do find it fascinating.
STEREOGUM: That’s a classic thing that happens to bands though. You jump from an indie to a major label and, regardless of what kind of record you make, certain people can no longer like you. It’s no longer cool.
GIBBARD: Totally. And that’s fine. We all kind of expected that. It was a risk. Still, looking back now on the past ten years — the ten years since we signed with Atlantic — I wouldn’t change anything about it. It’s interesting. I do feel that there’s a thread that carries through all of our songs that I hope would keep people coming back. I recently have gone through and listened to all of the records — not something I would normally ever do — just to think about how we want to go about playing the old songs as we move into this next phase of the band. I can see why some people gravitate toward certain things and not others. It’s like the way that I, as a Guided By Voices fan, used to gravitate toward Alien Lanes instead of Do The Collapse. And sometimes those records you don’t love so much will eventually become your favorite ones. Or sometimes not. I’m a music fan. I get it. Sometimes people are attracted to a certain aspect of the way your music is presented, and when that aspect goes away, they are no longer into it.
McGERR: Sometimes people can come back around to things later on. I met someone who told me that she loved our early records and didn’t really like Codes And Keys. A couple of years later she told me that Codes And Keys had become her favorite one.
GIBBARD: [laughs] She’s one of three people who feel that way.
STEREOGUM: It really does have a lot to do with where you’re at in your life at the time. I think about that stuff a lot, especially when I write record reviews. Why do I like this? Why do certain things resonate with me so intensely while other things don’t?
GIBBARD: That’s so interesting to me. I wonder how music writers sort out those things. As a music listener, I sometimes struggle with the conflict between what I want something to be and what something actually is. It’s like, if the Arcade Fire decided to make a calypso record, my immediate reaction would maybe be “Fuck this. I don’t want a calypso record from the Arcade Fire.” But then maybe you listen to it later and think, “As calypso records go, this is really great and really bold.” The truth must lie somewhere between those two poles. I always feel that music journalism tends to be bad when it says more about what the writer wants the record to be instead of a discussion about what the record actually is. It says more about the writer. How do you navigate that?
STEREOGUM: It’s hard. I can’t speak for other music writers, but for myself I tend to not write about things unless I actually like them. Maybe that makes me less of a critic, I don’t know. I think it’s important to spend a lot of time with a record and not go from your initial reactions, which are often misleading. Sometimes you end up loving records that, on first listen, you didn’t really understand. It’s also important to recognize your own biases and limitations. It’s OK to say no to things when you feel like you aren’t really the best person to talk about that specific record. Sometimes it’s just not your thing, which doesn’t necessarily make it bad. You have to judge things on their own terms.
GIBBARD: Right. I just wondered. Sometimes I’ll hear a song by an artist I love and just be so confused, like, how did the person who made THIS also make THIS and think it was OK? And then I wonder if we have ever done something so bad or so outside of our own wheelhouse that a listener has had that reaction. I’m sure the answer is yes. It just makes you want to consider what your goals are for making records and how those goals may change over the years. Or not.
STEREOGUM: And what is the goal when making a Death Cab For Cutie record in 2014? Surely it hasn’t changed all that much.
GIBBARD: I just want to make something that is honest and true to who I am as a person some seventeen years after we first started making music together. I want to create an accurate portrait of my life and the lives of those around me and to be honest and forthcoming and candid with people. Regardless of the reaction it gets, I honestly feel like we’ve met that goal with this record. I stand by it. Whether or not someone who was a fan of our earliest work — a fan of We Have The Facts — will love this, I don’t know. It’s not within my power to necessarily make someone feel the same way about this record as they did with some of our early ones, but I do think if you can put aside how much those records meant to you and try to sort of connect the dots to what is happening in this one, I think there’s a lot to discover in it. Also, I do think from start to finish it’s a much better record than Codes And Keys. If that record turned anybody off, I feel pretty strongly that this one could win them back. There are threads in this one that connect back to our earliest stuff that people love.
STEREOGUM: While it’s a total blessing to have been given this long a career — especially these days, when bands don’t often get that chance — it’s also hard when you’ve been around long enough to feel like you’re competing with your own back catalog.
GIBBARD: I’ll go on record as saying that it’s a good problem to have. That being said, our back catalog is often our worst enemy. The longer you’re around, the less new you are. People have a lot of new music to listen to and there are all of these fresh bands out there who are 22 years old and hungry and offer a fresh perspective. For some people in the world, maybe owning one or two Death Cab records is more than enough, you know? But from our perspective, we just love making music together and we love making records. And for me, this is my life’s work. But I’m not naïve, I know that 17 years into our career people aren’t going to love and appreciate all of our records in the same way. Still, those old records will always be there and people can always go back to them if they want. And we’ll continue to make new songs as long as we feel inspired to do so. Like I said, I feel genuinely lucky. To go out onstage and play songs that you wrote — to play “I Will Follow You Into The Dark” or “A Movie Script Ending” — and see people reacting to that … I mean, how fucking great is that? It’s fucking great. For some reason we’re still here and we’re doing this and people are still coming out to see us play. So why wouldn’t we keep doing it?