Death Cab for Cutie on Becoming a Big-Time Band, and its "Curveball" of a New Album

Categories: Q&A

death-cab-by-danny-clinch.jpg
Danny Clinch
Death Cab for Cutie

Death Cab For Cutie hits the Fillmore tonight in support of its seventh album, Codes and Keys. We sat down with frontman Ben Gibbard and bassist Nick Harmer to find out what drives Death Cab after fourteen years of making music.

You started out being a lot of people's favorite indie rock band. Then you're getting to number one in the Billboard charts, getting Grammy nominations, and you're on The OC and the Twilight soundtrack -- but you've still remained very credible. It seems that something about Death Cab is universally appealing.
Nick: I hope so. It's very hard to have any kind of objective perspective on that when you're in the middle of it.
Ben: Still, for me, I understand what gets lost when your favorite band slips out of your fingers and ceases being your own secret and something that defines you and your friends culturally. And it becomes the thing that the kids at school that you don't get along with also like. It makes you feel less original. So I understand that there are people who may have been our fans that aren't anymore.
Nick: I actually always say to them, "We'll see you in ten years," because it's a very young thing to have that angst. As I get older, I've just kind of given up (laughs). You just go back to what you like.
Ben: I still do it! (laughs) I remember hearing "Strangers" by The Kinks in a Wes Anderson movie and being bummed out, because now everyone would know one of my favorite Kinks songs.

It's big of you to admit that!
Ben: Ah, it happens to everybody. Anyone who has any snobby opinions about anything artistically -- I know I do, I'll admit it -- will be upset. But it's not going to make me like that Kinks song any less.
Nick: That's how I feel about it. My identity is pretty much locked at this point. I don't live and die by it as much as I did when I was a kid. I am who I am. I guess it doesn't have the same weight that it did. I'm so much more forgiving of it now. As I get older, I wish monumental success on everything that I love.

You said before Codes and Keys came out that it'd be less guitar-centric, but it's still shocking quite how much less guitar there is.
Nick: Well, we've been a band that's really pushed ourselves to try new things almost every album.
Ben: We never go in with the idea that we're going to send someone a curveball. I just didn't end up writing a lot of songs on electric guitar this time. With this record, we would do a demo take in the studio on acoustic guitar -- strip it away then build it up from there.

It seems quite simple on the surface and then you listen closer to it and realize how many complexities there are there. Do you think you will win more fans with this curveball, or lose some?
Nick: I think we're gong to make some people really excited with this stuff, and some people won't be so excited. I actually like being in the center of that debate. I think that's interesting. Because that's how I talk about music and film with my friends. We are always evaluating and comparing and contrasting and I like the push and pull of that. To me, that's more of a sign that we're right where we should be than if everyone loves it. I guess that would feel really great, but I like it when opinions are split down the middle. After thirteen years of being in a band, I really enjoy still being able to generate that kind of response.
Ben: We're just not interested in recreating. We're not polling the fans trying to figure out which record they like the best. We're not trying to make that record again. With every record we make, we all want it to add to the legacy of the band. I'm very proud of this record.

When you're writing, do you have specific things that are inspiring you at the time of writing, or is it just what you do?
Ben: I've always rented a little writing room. Right now, I rent a little guest house at a friend of a friend's property that I just set up a little Pro Tools studio. It's in Beachwood Canyon. And when I'm in writing mode, I just go there Monday through Friday like it's a day job. I'll go in the morning and work through the afternoon depending on how much I'm getting done. But I've always preferred to write in a stream of consciousness sort of style. Then I turn them in to the guys and everyone usually agrees quickly on the good ones. Then we end up debating and recording and aborting on the others 'til the record shows itself to us. I don't know what the record's going to be about in the grand scheme until it shows itself to us. Some songs come more naturally than others. And naturally there are themes that float through records.

So what would you say are the recurring themes this time?
Ben: Codes and Keys has songs that are nervous and dark and trepid and have this sense of uneasiness to them. There are songs that deal with some relatively heavy subject matter -- like "Portable Television" -- but there are some light moments on the record. And I can see how fans could be put off by that, because they're somewhat foreign to what has been the MO of this band.
Instead of having, like on our last three records, the most depressing song on the record at the end, there's a really light pop song on the end. It's nice to end on an up note for a change.

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The Fillmore

1805 Geary, San Francisco, CA

Category: Music

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