So, here's a straw poll, just for fun. Given the rapidly expiring term limits on the kingships of Steve Malkmus, Bob Pollard and Doug Martsch, it's about time to anoint a new leader for the college-rock set. Built to Spill fans have already thrown their weight behind Modest Mouse; the Pavement people seem to form a natural Shins constituency. Guided By Voices keeps on running its lame-duck campaign. But were you to take a straw poll, you'd find that Death Cab for Cutie now reigns supreme in the field. In the four short years since the release of its first LP, Something About Airplanes, the band has emerged as the new emperors of indie.
And yet, what an unlikely cult of personality. Never so crass as to go for the hard sells of either trendiness or noisiness, Death Cab for Cutie's rise to the top of the indie-rock pile is practical proof that the meek shall indeed inherit the earth. They are the masters of subdued insinuation, sneaking melodies sturdier than they seem into your synapses, never mind that front man Ben Gibbard's favored mode of lyrical expression is the complete, grammatically correct sentence. Even proper syntax can't shake the feeling that he's aching straight from his heart to yours. Likewise, sonic impresario Chris Walla's perfectionist production finesse never chills the music's air of intimacy, or its lonely, drifting dreaminess.
Pulled over by the side of the road in his Seattle hometown, speaking into a crackling cell phone, Walla is so soft-spoken that it's difficult to hear him over the roar of nearby traffic. Somehow, however, he makes himself heard--and it's a fitting analogy for the way his band has managed to achieve its success, speaking softly but carrying songs big in feeling and tone, if not in musical girth.
"What I love about this album is its openness," Walla says, before pausing to let a screaming siren pass. He's talking about the band's just-released Transatlanticism. "Like, there was no wrong in making this album. We just took our time and let ourselves try every possibility, every idea, before knocking things out.
"It's ironic," he continues, "because we did spend a lot of time stripping the songs and picking them apart before we felt finished, and it's a lot harder to pare something down than to add on. You have to be more fussy, you know? But I think because we gave ourselves so much freedom to experiment in the studio, the songs came out sounding more organic and warm, to me at least, than any of our previous stuff. And happier."
The happiness Walla hears in Transatlanticism is, he notes, an echo of the band's pleasure in working together--something they rediscovered after hitting a rough patch in the sessions for 2001's The Photo Album.
"Honestly, we just didn't want to have another Photo Album experience," Walla explains. "I don't want to disown that record--I mean, I think it's a good piece of work, and I know a lot of people really love that one. But when I listen to The Photo Album, what I hear is fighting. Not in the playing," he notes, "but in struggling to make things happen that didn't happen, because we weren't in touch with each other. If we were going to continue working together, we had to figure out, OK, how do we make this fun again?"
Whereas on previous albums, Death Cab for Cutie used its live performances as a laboratory for new songs, this time around the band waited until it was in the studio together to begin giving shape to Gibbard's demo tracks. Gibbard trusted his bandmates to reconfigure his original arrangements, with Walla as producer guiding them in an unofficial policy of "try everything."
"I think we just learned better how to communicate with one another," Walla suggests. "And in order for that to happen, it was important to find a different way to work--one where maybe the songs weren't finished by the time we recorded them so that there was more room for us to surprise ourselves. And then, as a result," he adds, "the songs began to surprise us.
"Like, on 'Lightness,' the second track," Walla continues, "the arrangement on that song came out of a series of accidents and really vague concepts we played around with. And 'Title and Registration,' too--that was one we didn't have any clear idea what we wanted to do with, and it was just by experimenting with it that we ended up with something we all really liked."
Fittingly, the two songs that jump to Walla's mind in talking about which songs on Transatlanticism most surprised the band are the ones likely to surprise its fans. Although Gibbard's airy melodies provide familiar top notes, the clicks, loops and rhythmic ebb and flow of both tracks hint at the atmospherics of ambient techno. "Title and Registration," in particular, frays the edges of Gibbard's essentially sweet song with some unsettled guitar and xylophone phrases, while its looped electronic beat subtly underscores the song's theme of implacably passing time. What might have been a pleasant, sepia-toned exercise in nostalgia becomes something mightier and stranger, courtesy of the music.
"That's the kind of stuff I'd like to do more of," Walla asserts. "More stuff that sounds like us but kind of doesn't sound like us, you know? That's when it's the most exciting for me--I mean, it's so easy, once you've become recognized for having a certain sound as a band," he continues, "to settle for doing the same thing, only bigger. Like, hit the drum harder, play louder, add some fuzz, whatever.
"But it's a lot trickier," he goes on, "to go in a different direction with something you've become comfortable doing. Like, both those songs started out as rock songs, but in the course of learning to play them and then figuring out how to record them, we ended up pretty much taking out the guitars. And you get this energy from trying something new. I guess that's what I mean about it being exciting--I like the songs to sound a little restless."
The new kings of indie rock may have earned their position by doing one thing really, really well--but the reason they endure is that they're unafraid to forge a new path. Difficult times call for bold solutions; be creative; be open to new ideas. And when in doubt, forge bravely ahead: That's the Death Cab for Cutie platform, such as it is. Maybe it's time for some politicians to steal a page from the band's playbook.