Formed in: 1997, Bellingham, Washington
Key Albums: We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes (2000), Transatlanticism (2003), Narrow Stairs (2008)
Death Cab for Cutie are an indie-rock band hailing from Seattle, Washington, who've grown to become one of the biggest and, arguably, most important bands in the world. Formed by Benjamin Gibbard in 1997, Death Cab for Cutie have earnt a reputation as emotionally poignant, not least of all for Gibbard's lyrics.
"I think it's really hokey when people talk about their lyrics as 'poetry,'" Gibbard told me, in a 2001 interview. "I work a lot on my lyrics, but I don’t consider them in any way able to stand on their own."
Death Cab for Cutie were born in 1997 at Western Washington University, as Gibbard's solo project. Having spent that whole summer listening to Elliott Smith's Either/Or, Gibbard had written a set of songs too sad to play in his then-band Pinwheel. Taking his name from a Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band track featured in The Beatles' 1967 film Magical Mystery Tour, Gibbard recorded the demo You Can Play These Songs with Chords. Following its strong reception, Gibbard turned Death Cab into a full-time project, enlisting the recording engineer, Chris Walla, on guitar, and current/former housemates Nicholas Harmer and Nathan Good on bass and drums, respectively.
"We had recorded these tracks and I had played all the instruments the way I wanted them to sound and I was like, ‘okay, this is the way it's going to be because I don't want anybody else messing it up,'" Gibbard recounted, to Comes With A Smile, in 2001. "But then when we started playing together it became pretty obvious really quickly that my lack of trust for other contributors was just that I [had been] playing with the wrong people."
Those early days were centered around "the Ellis Street house," a shabby rental in Bellingham that, at one point, housed all the band's members. Gibbard would later enshrine it —in lines like "we’ll leave our sins within the carpet twine"— on the song "Scientist Studies," from the second DCFC LP, 2000's We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes.
"I wrote this song for and about the people who lived in the house and the house itself," Gibbard said. "When we were leaving the house, I wanted to write a song about it, to kind of close that chapter in my life."
With the 1999 release of their debut album, Something About Airplanes, on Seattle indie Barsuk Records, Death Cab for Cutie dedicated themselves to the independent model of constant touring. "There'd be times where we'd have to drive through fast food drive-thrus at closing, at night, to ask if they had any left-over french-fries for us," Harmer remembers.
Though they achieved a solid growth and warm critical responses to their second album, We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes, by the time Death Cab released 2001's The Photo Album (so named because each song was a 'snapshot' of Gibbard's backpacking travels through Europe), the band's mood was tense. Good had departed, and replacement Michael Schorr was "stonewalling" them creatively.
"I was just sick of it," Walla confessed, to The AV Club, in 2005. "It had gotten to the point where I was enjoying what I was doing so little and at such long stretches that I didn't see how it could be fun again."
Adding to the tension, Give Up, the debut album for Gibbard's side-project The Postal Service, was a massive commercial and critical success upon its 2003 release, overshadowing Death Cab at an inopportune time.
The band replaced Schorr with local Seattle drum teacher Jason McGerr, and set about recording their fourth LP with an experimental approach, using Brian Eno's infamous 'Oblique Strategies' tarot cards. The result was Transatlanticism, an epic, pining, lovelorned set whose title coined a phrase, and whose grand critical acclaim lead it to being Death Cab's crossover success, eventually going Gold. Yet, on its release, the band hardly seemed ready to embrace a new commercial model.
“The state of corporate rock in America is awful," Harmer said to me, in 2003. "It's a cesspool of corruption that chews up and spits out bands faster than you'd ever believe."
Yet, in November 2004, Death Cab for Cutie signed a "long-term worldwide deal" with Atlantic Records. Said Gibbard, to The AV Club: "We made that very un-indie-rock move of actually succumbing to our ambition as a band, and saying, 'You know what? I want as many people to hear this band as possible.'"
Gibbard would, in hindsight, tell Rolling Stone that "the period when we were transitioning from Barsuk to Atlantic was the most difficult thing that will ever happen to us." Adjusting to their new corporate environs, the band made 2005's Plans, a bland album that received lukewarm critical appraisals.
"Plans was a sort of partial, half-hearted step into an attempt to make something that is more appealing on a broader scale," Walla confesses. In spite of that, Plans was the band's commercial breakthrough, peaking at #4 in the US, eventually going Platinum, and scoring a Best Alternative Album Grammy nomination in 2006.
After Plans was released, Walla was already predicting "the next record's going to be the prog-rock record." 2008's Narrow Stairs wasn't quite that, but the Grammy-nominated, chart-topping set had the hallmarks of Death Cab for Cutie's most ambitious, polarizing outing. Preceded by the 8-minute single "I Will Possess Your Heart" —Gibbard's "creepy" ode to stalking— Narrow Stairs redefined what Death Cab for Cutie meant, and set the band up for an exploratory future.
"In one sense we've been in this for 10 years and it feels like forever," Walla told Crackerjack in 2008. "And in another sense we've only been at this for 10 years. We know what we can do really easily, but we don't yet know what we can't do."
In 2011, Death Cab released their 7th LP, Codes and Keys, which pushed further away from anthemic-guitar-rock. "It's not a guitar-based record; we've been into vintage keyboards," Gibbard told Spin. Boasted Harmer, to Stereogum, "this is a much less guitar-centric album than we've ever made before."
Coincidentally, on the same day as Codes and Keys' release, the band released an in-concert DVD, Live at the Mt. Baker Theatre.