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Ben Gibbard just woke up, and he's in no mood to be talking to anyone, let alone a reporter, let alone a reporter asking about a certain TV show/pop-cultural icon with which his band, Death Cab for Cutie, has become permanently tied. The last thing you'd want to do at this point is bring up Death Cab's involvement, whatever that may be, with Fox teen melodrama The O.C..
"Frankly, I'm so talked out about it that I don't even want to talk about it," he says, with a curtness that might have something to do with the night he just spent sleeping in a tour bus on the side of the road somewhere in Minneapolis. Still, for a guy renowned for heartfelt sentimentality on albums like 2003's downbeat breakthrough Transatlanticism, that year's shockingly successful laptop-pop side project the Postal Service and, most recently, Death Cab's 2005 joy-through-melancholy epic Plans, his attitude is more than unsettling. "It's a TV show, they used a song, and it seems that's all people want to talk about. If it's all the same, I'd rather just not talk about it."
Usually, though, a statement like that suggests he does, in fact, want to talk about it. "I think somewhere around the late '90s, the parameters of how well your band can do changed," Gibbard says. In a world where it's virtually impossible for indie bands to use radio, MTV or like-minded media outlets to promote themselves, he's glad to see the musical tastes of filmmakers, TV producers and commercial makers are changing in favor of less lacquered sounds. "With that being said, I think with Garden State for the Shins or The O.C.for us, it's just a way to get people to music and not a strategic alignment or anything like that. If they want to use a bunch of my songs or name-drop, that's fine. But it's certainly not by our design or desire, so that's an important distinction we have to make. There've never been any backroom meetings between our organization and The O.C. to try to get more attention for us."
Sensitive, ain't he? But the manically melancholic songwriter has got himself a point: Death Cab was making headlines long before fictional dweeb-hunk Seth Cohen started pimping out the band to America--in fact, Death Cab's first four albums have sold more than 700,000 copies on Barsuk, a once-teeny Seattle label. Yet every article written on the Northwestern-based quartet somehow fingers the TV show as the out-of-nowhere key to the band's success.
Death Cab is not defined by a teen soap opera, people. "The more I talk about it," Gibbard concludes, "the more it devalues all the work we put into the band over the years."
Still, the band's signature brand of densely layered mope-pop is more prominent than ever, thanks in part to a highly publicized major-label deal--though Plans is produced, as always, by Death Cab guitarist Chris Walla, it's out on Atlantic Records. Some have questioned the logic of such a move, especially considering the success the band had with Barsuk, but Gibbard is as unrepentant about this as he is indifferent about whatever contributions The O.C. might have made to his fame. "If we can't be a cool indie band 'cause we're signed to Atlantic Records, then that's fine," he says, dismissing critics he claims he never considers. "I never thought we were cool to begin with."
Hear that, Seth? You idolize nerds.
It's getting to be a tired story these days, anyways--a bunch of midlevel bands bemoaning the success of former peers who've graduated to the big leagues. After all, isn't the point of creating art to affect as many people as possible? Gibbard sees it that way: "If a band wants to be somebody's secret indie band for the rest of their career, that's fine. We, however, make decisions that feel best for us--and that might not be good for the little indie bands that think major labels are evil corporate conglomerates and like to shop at co-ops."
He pauses and backpedals a bit. "I'm a little crotchety and hung-over this morning," he admits. "People want it to work like, 'Major label bad, indie label good.' It's not that simple. The lines are too blurred."
Just don't cross them before Ben's had his first cup of coffee.