The four members of Death Cab For Cutie look out of place amongst their salubrious surroundings. Globe-traversing megastars they may today be, but in casual clothing and fiddling with hair – where said spread allows – the quartet don’t seem suited to the hotel in which we find ourselves for this interview. It’s a place that would like to think of itself as luxurious, but the décor – everything in squares, rectangles, hard edges and parallel lines – doesn’t lend itself to relaxation. Even in comfortable sofas, either side of a table well stocked with bottled water and reading material (the band are here for the long haul, such is the misery of press days; I, meanwhile, can bail in but half an hour), Benjamin Gibbard (vocals, guitar), Nicholas Harmer (bass), Jason McGerr (drums) and Christopher Walla (guitar) shuffle in their seats, visually uncomfortable. What with – the suite or the series of writers that come to question them – is unclear.
They’re coming to the end of a UK tour, one that saw them play their largest headlining shows to date, selling out two consecutive nights at London’s Astoria. Success, though, had been slow and steady ‘til the recent influx of interest, one that saw them promoted from playing the Water Rats to today’s super-capacity venues via a triumphant ULU performance. The source of said explosion stems partially from the band enjoying unexpected, but welcomed, exposure on television, with their songs appearing not only in The O.C. but also Six Feet Under. Subsequently, their latest studio album, Plans (their fifth, discounting odds-and-sods collection You Can Play These Songs With Chords) , has sold by the truckload in the US, and debuted at number four on the Billboard chart. It’s all a far cry from the acclaimed but commercially ignored likes of We Have The Facts And We’re Voting Yes and The Photo Album.
Plans’ predecessor, Transatlanticism, sowed the seeds of change for the group – its gradually rising sales figures assured them a major-label deal come their next long-player, and sure enough Atlantic stepped in. The switch from indie – Barsuk – to major has been met with criticism from certain circles, but ultimately Death Cab have never been indie purists. They’re a working band, one that’s been doing it as a profession for no few years, and now they deserve their shot at accumulating a decent retirement fund.
Tape recorder positioned between the four, questions are unfolded. I hope I’m not about to tread avenues already explored over the past few hours of Q&A sessions, but face it: we need the facts, and we’re voting ask away…
So, Plans is doing ridiculously well, near enough outselling all of your earlier albums combined. What’s the secret to this one that perhaps wasn’t apparent on the previous releases?
Harmer: I’ve no idea. Maybe just… probably only because of the size of the label we’re on. That’s the main difference between this one and the last one. They’re able to get the record into so many more places.
So the move to a major was an important one to make for distribution reasons?
Harmer: That, and the band’s profile is growing too.
And did you expect your profile to grow now?
Harmer: I hoped for it, but I never expected it. It’s always nice.
And this, readers, is where my battery dies. No shit. Thankfully I carry spares, always, but the conversation’s thread has gone wayward somewhat by the time the ‘record’ button is depressed once more. The tape turns and plays tales of on-the-road illness, of the band’s lengthy jaunt across Europe leading to the spread of disease from bunk to bunk.
Gibbard: I was sick, and then I gave it to you…
Well, I guess if you tour Britain in February or March time, you’re gonna catch a cold. That said, you’re from the North West anyway. Surely the weather, at least, is pretty similar?
Walla: It’s about the same, yeah.
It’s been pretty wet here though of late. I guess you’re sick of having damp feet…
Harmer: (Laughing) Oh, it’s not quite that bad!
Walla: It is wet on the bus, though.
Okay, anyway, on with the proper questioning. Do you think that the market for indie rock or pop music has improved a lot of late, for whatever reason, and it’s this that’s helped you gain a wider audience, as much as any televisual leg ups?
Harmer: I think music has changed a lot, certainly over the last five years. I mean, I feel like it’s opened up a lot more in terms of the variety of different bands and artists doing all kinds of things. I’m pretty excited about that, ‘cause I used to get really… well, the only thing that’s ever upset me about trends in music is how they define one specific sound at one point, and that becomes everything, all the time. There’s so much going on…
Gibbard: These ‘movements’ are created by journalists, though, not musicians.
Harmer: And radios, and other things…
But once a genre, if you like, is established and its initial purveyors successful, others will ape them, right? That’s how scenes get saturated…
Gibbard: What’s funny to me is that I keep hearing about Interpol rip-offs. It’s so post-modern. I can’t believe there are bands being called Interpol rip-offs. I mean, Interpol are a great band, but they’re still here. They’re not done yet!
Harmer: Ha, they’re replaced by their next clone.
Are you a band that can, or has, spawned imitators though? Do you know of acts that have obviously looked to copy certain traits of yours for a little of the same success?
Gibbard: We go to clubs in Seattle now, and everyone’s doing this… (does a little impression of some kind of post-punk-dance stuff. You know, jagged guitars et cetera.) So, I think we’re a little far down the track for that.
Walla: I think we’re the next Death Cab For Cutie.
Gibbard: I do hear people, though… I just spoke to Jo (Gibbard’s girlfriend) on the phone, and she said she heard something on the radio that sounded so much like us that she had to turn it off. Which can be read a number of ways! But I don’t think there’s any market for unfashionable, 30-year-old men playing introspective rock music.
Do you think of yourselves as unfashionable though? Bearing in mind your high profile right now…
Walla: We’re specifically fashionable.
I was at one of the Astoria shows, and the make-up of the crowd was so different to your previous shows here. There were real rock kids there, y’know, who a couple of years ago wouldn’t be seen dead at such a show, alongside the real obsessives singing the words at each other…
Walla: The audiences have become more diverse than I ever thought they would be. ‘Soul Meets Body’, the lead single in the States, did better on adult album radio than alternative radio.
So you’re also attracting a new, more mature audience?
Walla: Yeah, but there are kids too. We’re all pretty pleased with the breadth of the crowd, at least in the States – I didn’t get a very accurate gauge of it here. The younger kids are always at the front, the older people are at the bar at the back.
And do these kids at the front know the older songs, too?
McGerr: Some of them do.
Walla: The last two records, everyone knows pretty well.
Do you get people coming to you not knowing about the records before Transatlanticism?
McGerr: Oh sure.
Walla: I think we’re a new band to a lot of people.
Harmer: But that’s good, it’s exciting. I like seeing the kids who know the last two albums hear a song that they think is totally new. I like it when they hear a song for the first time that we’ve been playing for seven years, or something.
Gibbard: I think I speak for all of us when I say that, as music fans, it’s always fun to find an artist that has a huge back catalogue to go back through. I don’t think that everyone will do that with us, but those that do will find some pretty exciting things.
So have sales of The Photo Album, for example, gone up since the release of Plans?
Gibbard: Yeah, but it’s still lagging – crawling – behind the last two records, because in the States, and here, there’s only so much space in the racks for the older stuff.
And the older stuff is almost always more money, too…
Gibbard: Yeah, I don’t know why that is. You can get the new record for seven dollars, but if you want to get (Something About) Airplanes you have to pay twenty bucks.
Going back to the live setting: some attendees, I’m sure, come with the assumption that you’re a quiet, a – and I almost daren’t say it – wimpy band. But you properly rock out…
Harmer: I don’t mind being a wimpy rock band.
McGerr: They’re different worlds, the records and what happens at the live shows. There’s no way we could perform wimpy, it’s not in our genes.
Harmer: So what’s the alternative to being a wimpy band, then? Is it the band that goes out and kicks in the crowd? I don’t want to be that band!
But you do have this cross appeal, where the harder, punk types will come to see you, as do commercial pop fans. In the States, for instance, you toured with Pedro The Lion, an act that similarly attracts punk music fans to their/his shows…
Harmer: Here’s the thing – it’s okay to be a wimpy band, ‘cause it means a lot of girls come to see us play, and their boyfriends have to come see us too…
Gibbard: All our favourite music is the sort that pulls you in rather than just holds you. If we’re a wimpy band because people have to perk up and listen, I’d rather have people have to be attention than force them to pay attention.
Walla: But you’re also completely obsessed with AC/DC right now…
Gibbard: Yeah, this is true. Maybe on the next record… I think I’m fascinated with them, though, because they’re the complete opposite of the band we are, which is really appealing.
Do you knock out ideas in the studio, then, influenced by what you’re into currently, that don’t make the final cut for records?
Harmer: We don’t really spend too much time in the studio when we’re not making a record. We’ve typically been a band that only gets together for certain bursts of output, and that’s about it. Our time away from touring and recording sees everyone going off and doing other things, so in our free time we don’t go to the studio to capture anything. We don’t, in the recent years – because our free time has become so much more precious – the kind of extra stuff that we used to have sitting around.
Walla: The first couple of records were done in a home studio that Ben and I lived in, and there’s something that happens when you have that. You don’t think about what you’re doing as a demo, or that it’s part of a process or whatever. As soon as all my equipment was moved out of my house and into a semi-professional space my thinking about it really changed. There was a point where we’d be, “Let’s go record something!” And we did, and it probably came out. It’s probably already out…
So when you take time off now, how do you get together to write? Do you talk on the phone, or arrange specific meetings?
Gibbard: The last couple of records I worked on in breaks and on tour, and I gave stuff to the guys to peruse at their leisure. We do come together to see what does and doesn’t work, and then funnel that down, but that way of working will change drastically for the next record, I think. We’re in contact with each other to discuss the material that’s in front of us, but usually when we get back off tour we split off in our own directions. It’s because we have to, y’know…
So when was the last time you woke up of a day and didn’t see these guys?
Walla: Yeah, probably. I mean, we’re like one organism at this point.
So how long does it take, when you get back together, to reform that kind of bond?
Walla: I think the actual playing shows part of it takes a little while. The first three shows we did on this tour were a little ropey. I mean, like, personally… it’s the same as it always is. You play for three months and you can’t wait for a little break, but then you get a little break and you can’t wait to play a show, and then you do two months’ of shows and you can’t wait for a bigger break, and then the bigger break comes and you can’t wait to record a record. That’s how the cycle works, and I feel that our off time and our time as a live band and as a recording time all need one another.
Have you slipped into a proper routine now, then? After all, this is your job… are you able to keep things comfortable?
Harmer: It’s as comfortable as it’s ever been. Whether it’s our ideal of comfort remains to be seen. It’s evolutionary: only in time do you realise what you do need and what you don’t need. Certainly how we’re touring now is far more comfortable to how we were touring five years ago.
Walla: The hardest part is balancing out the off time. There wasn’t really much downtime between Transatlanicism and Plans. They got smashed together, and before that we went through from the first cassette to The Photo Album without a break. We then took ten months and started on Transatlanticism, and we’ve been going since.
Harmer: But the breaks between the first three albums were because we were at home and we had jobs, but now it’s non-stop.
Walla: It’s been since November 2002… we’ve been on since then.
I guess that’s when this, what was once a hobby I guess, a job secondary to what paid your bills, became your full-time deal?
Gibbard: Well, we (looks to Harmer) kinda stopped working in 2000, but that was like, “Here we go! We’re diving in!” We had a run of touring in 2001 which started with a seven-week tour with a four-day break at week four, and I remember that feeling like the longest tour of all time. We were in a van, and lugging our own gear, and it was a different time, but now seven weeks is nothing to us. Certainly since 2002 though, like Chris said, it’s been non-stop. And it’s not just touring, but it’s press…
Harmer: We also switched record labels between the last two albums, so there was a lot of business.
Gibbard: It was like, “You gotta fly to New York again, bro”…
Harmer: There were so many of those things, ergh.
Gibbard: I know, but I think we’re all really pleased with how things have went. The changing of label went the way we wanted it to go. It has been as smooth as such a transition can be, and we were discussing when Transatlanticism came out what we wanted to do next. I think we realised that we were at a crossroads: we could choose to follow the career path of a band like REM and make that transaction unapologetically, stating that we wanted access to all these resources and to be able to make records that we wanted to make through one label worldwide, not six. Or we could go the route of every indie-rock band that we grew up loving, some of whom are still active, but there’s a point when you stop playing to new people, ‘cause they have other priorities. So for us it was important to take a peek, to see if we could make the transition and appeal to new people. And I think yes, we can.
And that’s evident in the attendances, too…
Harmer: Yeah. Since November 2002 we’ve all been thrilled at what’s happened with the band, but I think we’re going to be excited to have another break and check in with real life.
You must get home and discover you’ve totally missed events in the life of family and friends…
Harmer: It cuts both ways. We have to work very hard at maintaining friends who exist outside of this life, as while they’re going through transitions, so are we. You kind of find that if you don’t maintain those relationships, you end up sitting in a room with someone and no idea of what to talk about. Y’know, you’re like, “I couldn’t even begin to explain what I’ve been going through, and I’m sure you couldn’t either, so this is really awkward.”
Gibbard: It takes time to realise that these people have no interest in your tour stories. I think we’re getting better in that respect. I call my girlfriend every day though. I used to not, but I learned my lesson, and it’s easy now with cell phones. Bands have no excuse not to call somebody and talk for just five minutes. So… it’s been a long tour, but I feel it’s been really worthwhile. And we’ll never come over to Europe again for as long as we have on this tour! No, no… it’s been really fulfilling, and really fun.
Death Cab For Cutie release a new single, ‘Crooked Teeth’, next Monday (April 10). They play Leeds University on June 27 and London's Brixton Academy on June 28.