Death Cab for Cutie are welcoming winter with open arms.
Witness: Within the last few months, singer Ben Gibbard got hit by a car while riding his bike. Guitarist Chris Walla broke his foot. Bassist Nick Harmer was blinded for a few days when a cable whipped him in the face during a water-skiing tumble. Now Gibbard's sick, fighting off illness just long enough to get on stage every night, and the band's figuring out how to pay for the broken windshield it just replaced. Walla's gotten clever about the situation: "We had the No Joy Bad Luck Club summer," he figures with a wry, weary chuckle.
Star-crossed kismet and jacked-up insurance premiums aside, though, Walla's got a lot to be happy about. We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes, the Seattle band's second album, has found a bit of a buzz around itself, selling briskly since its March release and winning over fans and critics alike with its dense, sublimely pretty indie-rock fairy tales. The groundswell began in 1998, after a well-received performance at South by Southwest tipped hipsters to the band's debut, Something About Airplanes, released, as was We Have the Facts, by tiny Seattle indie Barsuk Records. That record introduced Death Cab's dreamy take on the sound now indigenous to the Pacific Northwest, adding an underwater blur to the tangential, quasi-prog pop of beard-and-flannel-wearing standard-bearers like Built to Spill. The new one hones it, showing off sharper hooks and more focused playing, as well as Walla's considerable ability behind the board. It's a record unlike most made today, built to unravel slowly but surely, peeling off layer after layer of humming keyboards and twinkling guitars. It all adds up to reveal one of the country's best bands, one still finding fresh air within the indie-rock tomb--no small feat when you consider that J. Mascis' new band is called the Fog. The commotion's just hit the guys at the center of it.
Death Cab for Cutie with Pedro the Lion
"I guess up until about three days ago it still felt pretty much the same," Walla insists, "but when we started playing these shows on this tour I think for the first time we're all realizing that people are actually listening, and actually coming to the shows and knowing the words and singing along and stuff, which is really nice."
It's not really surprising that the steam took a bit to build. Death Cab's of a rare breed of bands today, choosing to take its time inventing and reinventing, creating and destroying, trying and deciding not to--instead of point-and-clicking its way to the top. You can hear it in the band's songs--the way all of them sound alike until the fourth or fifth listen, the repeated phrases and melodic figures that pop up here and there, tying it all together while giving the finger to singles-band digestibility. "The record got kind of drug around through the dirt a little bit," Walla admits. "We're sort of at a point where any idea is an idea that's worth trying. And if it's a good idea, doesn't matter who's good idea it is; we'll screw around with it. If it's a bad idea, it's a bad idea, and it's thrown out." He laughs, suddenly aware of his explanation's tortoise-and-hare dimensions. "The record took a long time to put together, between Nick's mom's house and my mom's house."
Though he'll miss the charm of recording inches from his adolescent bedroom, Walla's excited (actually "super excited") about the new studio he's just acquired from veteran Seattle engineer John Goodmanson. It'll be where Death Cab begins recording their new record next May, and it's also where Nirvana's Bleach and "a couple of the old Mudhoney records" were done, Walla says with a breathless grin. Presumably, recording themselves will only lengthen Death Cab's working process.
"We're arranging together more and more as a band," he says. "Occasionally, Ben writes a song and he'll write all the parts--he's a good drummer and he can kind of play everything pretty well--and sometimes that just stands. A lot of times, though, it gets opened up to the rest of the band and we just screw around with it for a while until something else happens with it."
A just-released five-song EP, Forbidden Love, confirms that. Though it contains Gibbard's gorgeous acoustic version of the already-gorgeous "405," from We Have the Facts, its three new songs swivel on an axis of cooperation, presenting a band getting a feel for its own nooks and crannies. For all his excitement (actually "super excitement"), Walla knows taking up residence in Goodmanson's old digs will only strengthen talk of Death Cab's Pacific Northwest heritage.
"For the life of me, I don't understand the Modest Mouse comparison at all," he says of his fellow Seattlites. "I just don't get it. It's sort of like saying, 'Yeah, I really like you guys. You kind of sound like Smashing Pumpkins. Or Green Day.'"
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He's more allowing with the Built to Spill references. "We're all fans," he says, "but that's not necessarily where we're headed or what we're intending to do. I think more than anything it's a byproduct of similar influences. I mean, [BtS frontman] Doug Martsch obviously has the John Lennon thing going on, and Ben, as a songwriter, was weaned on the Beatles. And when you get into certain areas where you're sharing similar influences and also sharing similar equipment, I think similar things happen.
"It's the Galapagos theory," he continues, referring to the Pacific Northwest's perpetual having of a "sound." "There's this island, and there's all this life there, and it doesn't have any contact with anything else, so of course it comes out a little bit differently."
Still, he emphasizes that the new Seattle scene isn't exactly a tape-swapping club quite yet. "Anytime there's this idea publicly that there's a scene, anytime you're not in it, you assume that that's how it is. I mean, I was in Seattle for the grunge phenomenon, and I don't know whether or not it actually happened."
As Walla talks, he sees Gibbard through the van window, barely dodging an oncoming car. "Jesus Christ, that guy's got bad luck," he says, worried that maybe winter won't be so great. "He oughta stay out of the street. This is like the fourth show on this tour," he adds, laughing. "This is awesome."