Death Cab For Cutie’s Live NYTimes Q&A

On Sunday night, we sent Stereogum reader Elizabeth and her Fuji FinePix to cover NY Times’ Q&A with Death Cab For Cutie. She took copious notes and great photos. Here’s her review. (Thanks Elizabeth!)

By Elizabeth Weinberg for Stereogum
I admit it: I didn’t enter the Elebash Recital Hall with high expectations. “Soul Meets Body” was being tinnily emitted from some unseen PA system, there were wine glasses (!) next to water set delicately on tables onstage, it was about four thousand fucking degrees, and a timer bearing “75:00″ beamed ostensibly in the back of the room. It felt like I was entering the taping of a Barbara Walters special. The entire operation seemed to be completely disjointed; a juxtaposition of shiny television-ready chairs (complete with some shiny television-ready audience members) waiting for the arrival of two of the most average-looking dudes to ever become heartthobs.

The crowd was a mixture of earnest collegiate couples, yupsters, thirteen year-olds, and people who were either hipster parents or who were “friends” of the New York Times and decided to take their complimentary tickets to see what the deal was with this bespectacled, sweater-clad fellow for whom their children swooned.

I sat in my admittedly excellent seat as a bizarre start-and-stop mix of tracks from Plans played overhead. My hung-over mind wandered into dangerous (i.e., psuedo-philosophical) territory: Is it difficult to grasp the transition from the CONCEPT of an artist to his or her physical manifestation? Why is it so fucking hot? Is there enough light in here to take a photos without flash so the Ushers of High Journalism won’t eject me?

Jon Pareles, to his credit, has done his homework. However, his blatant song lyric references throughout the interview seemed to be an attempt to prove to the crowd that “Yes, I really am into these guys, you jerks, just because I work for the New York Times doesn’t mean I don’t love me some Death Cab!” We didn’t need “So this is the new year,” Jon. You proved yourself with your mention of All-Time Quarterback about five hundred times throughout the show.

[After the jump, Ben reveals his oil refinery past, disses Ashlee Simpson, and picks the best song he’s ever written.]

Ben, clad in superthick black glasses and a boutiquey striped sweater with a sewn-on fuzzy lightning bolt, looked far more ill at ease in that cushy chair than he ever has on stage. Nick, who was wearing some hat that covered his curious hair-part (good thing no one asked about it), seemed to be more talkative and comfortable from the outset. As the evening progressed, however, they seemed to settle into a routine, and Ben took more and more of the questions for his own artful responses.

Pareles dives in; the obligatory name-origination discussion occurs. Ben saves the otherwise boring banter by stating he wished he’d named Death Cab something like The Killers instead, though explaining a simple “The” name might be more difficult: “Like the Strokes; there’s no story there, I would imagine…I hope not.”

The most interesting facet of the discussion detailed Ben’s songcrafting process: In general, Ben writes the songs, records roughs demos, and hands them out to the rest of the band. What works is kept, and what doesn’t is scrapped. These demos vary in levels of completion. “I’m not good at finishing a song — there’s a time when you need to turn your work over to someone else,” Ben says. “I can’t ‘jam’; there is nothing I hate more than playing the same riff for an hour and a half.” To Death Cab, songwriting is more of an intellectual, conversational process than purely musicall. Ben adds: “I like having coffee and talking about the songs.”

Next is a discussion of Directions, but not much is said that any web-savvy fan doesn’t know: There will be a video for every song on Plans, each done by independent filmmakers and illustrators that the band enjoys. Pareles then begins a discussion of unconventional song structures. At this point I’m wondering if this is getting lost on half of the audience. I’m also slightly becoming afraid that the technical discussions of these songs will in some way ruin my appreciation of them, in the way that studying filmmaking can make one unable to enjoy a movie without a critique or analyzation. Then Ben and Nick began discussing how they “fucked up” “405” (one of my favorites) by making what could have been a neat little 4/4 beat into the bizarre, meandering, beautiful song that it is today, and I was so enamored by Ben’s imitation drum sounds that I promptly forgot my fears.

To keep you, the window-tabbing blog audience, from becoming bored with my attempts to prose-ify the Gibbardisms I scribbled in that blazing room, here are some things that I learned and that you may find interesting:

  • Ben Gibbard has not written a song in eleven months; despite the idealistic visual one may have of the tortured songwriter carrying about scraps of paper and notebooks and napkins on which he has jotted down observations of his coffee-shop-filled day, Ben does not carry notebooks. Nor scraps of paper. He writes with discipline; he can’t write on the road; he writes like it is his job — it is. Nick: “Ben keeps hours.”
  • “I Will Follow You Into The Dark” tumbled out of Ben’s pen, very quickly, after about after two weeks of fruitless writing. “Writing is like a muscle,” Ben says. “If you don’t use it, it’s atrophied.”
  • That chick in Silver Lake was pissed.
  • “Styrofoam Plates” is not autobiographical, but it is about a friend of Ben’s — and the song was written the one time he actually had that rarely-used notebook with him, on the way back from the funeral.
  • Before Death Cab went national, Ben worked at an oil refinery; he has a degree in environmental chemistry.
  • Ben considers “Company Calls (Epilogue)” the best song he has ever written.
Despite my initial cynicism (see my comment that started this whole thing), I was impressed by my fellow audience members’ questions. They were all well-crafted and executed (and probably well-practiced). No one treaded any really controversial waters; one kid asked about going from writing poetry to writing songs (Ben’s answer: write the music, and fit the words in after — embrace the limitaton); someone asked what the band thought about downloading music (Ben doesn’t condone it, but acknowledges piracy’s undoubtedly instrumental part in the spread of their music). One question that particularly hit home was by a kid who asked if the post-O.C. crowd-shift made the band rethink its newfound fame. (Ah, I feel this one. I remember being 19 and shooting the Death and Dismemberment Plan tour in 2002 for my university’s newspaper and feeling like the youngest person in the audience. Then I saw Death Cab at Hammerstein Ballroom this fall and felt like a fucking granny. You couldn’t get out the front door afterward for all of the parents waiting to pick up their kids.) Yet Ben says that everyone needs a gateway to get into music — if people find out about Stars or Mates of State via Death Cab or The O.C., then more power to them. If people figure out that “Ashlee Simpson really is shitty,” even better. And he’s right. The age-old “I don’t want my favorite band to be successful” gripe doesn’t work anymore. Indie rock is no longer a sub-culture. Caring about it is effort better spent on, like, a pilates class or something. Or on finding a better job so you can afford the concert tickets again.

Up next for DCFC? Touring. Then another record. And Ben’s insight: the record-writing process will be different. “No free jazz,” he says (though can’t you imagine Chris Walla doing some neat schitzo-scat?). Transatlanticism and Plans were constructed via a fixed working arrangement, but for the next go-round, Ben says, he will start writing with a focus for the entire scope in mind. (Maybe Plans should have been a name for the next record instead?)

After the discussion, I got in line to snap some photos during the autograph signing at the Tower Records below the auditorium. (I had no idea there even was a Tower Records in the CUNY Graduate Center.) This “signing” consisted of the forced purchase of records most of these people already owned; the band would allegedly not sign programs. These people paid a lot of money to get in, you’d think they could get their god damned programs signed, no? Orders to “pull your CD jackets out of the cases so we can speed this along!” were barked as we looked at each other in amusement mixed with disgust. I managed to snap a few photos before the Higher Ups’ collective heads exploded because I was holding up the works.

Death Cab is the one band that is inextricably tied, in some fashion or another, to every single emotionally traumatizing, euphoric, nostalgic, and bittersweet moment in my adult life. Their songs have woven a customized geography; every song represents a place and a time. Ben and Nick attempted and succeeded in a thorough, intelligent, and entertaining explanation of how these songs came to exist. I’m sure John Pereles will write a far more analogy-filled, B-side-name-dropping article filled with many more obscure references for the completists than I could ever hope to do. That’s why I take photos instead.