Death Cab For Cutie - Biography
Seth Cohen’s Starter Pack put the words Death Cab in the pop culture lexicon, for better or worse. The indie rock outfit that came to prominence as the favorite band of the thinking girl’s protagonist of The O.C. was already a hipster touchstone by the time they played “Title and Registration” and “The Sound of Settling” at the TV show’s fictional Newport Beach hang out, The Bait Shop, in 2005.
Death Cab for Cutie (often shortened to Death Cab) was formed in Bellingham, Wash., in 1997. Death Cab started as a side project for lead singer Ben Gibbard, then a guitarist in the band Pinwheel. The solo project was initially called All-Time Quarterback. The name Death Cab for Cutie comes from a satirical song written and performed by The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band on its album, Gorilla (1967 Liberty Records), and in The Beatles’ movie Magical Mystery Tour.
Gibbard’s first release as Death Cab was titled You Can Play These Songs with Chords (1997 Elsinor Records). The release created plenty of buzz prompting Gibbard to put a full-time band together, recruiting guitarist Chris Walla (he contributed early on, as well), bassist Nick Harmer and drummer Nathan Good.
Death Cab was formed while members attended Western Washington University in Bellingham, and many of the band’s early songs include local references. The band recorded many of the early songs in the basement of Gibbard’s Ellis Street home in Bellingham where he lived with roommates.
The band’s first extended release was Something About Airplanes (1999 Barsuk Records). The album received rave reviews, followed by We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes (2000 Barsuk). However, Good left the band during the recording of the album. He recorded “The Employment Pages” and “Company Calls Epilogue,” but Gibbard recorded drums on all other tracks. Good’s replacement, Michael Schorr, recorded tracks on The Forbidden Love E.P. (October 2000 Barsuk), followed by The Photo Album (2001 Barsuk). Limited edition versions were released with bonus tracks, which were later released separately as The Stability E.P. (2002 Barsuk).
Next up was another drummer shuffle. Jason McGerr of Eureka Farm replaced Schorr, recording tracks for the next release Transatlanticism (2003 Barsuk). Tracks from the album appeared on the soundtracks of TV shows The O.C., Six Feet Under, CSI: Miami and Californication, as well as the movies Lost in Translation, Wedding Crashers and Mean Creek.
Death Cab recorded a live E.P. called The John Byrd E.P. (2005 Barsuk), named after the sound engineer. Earlier in November of 2004, the band had signed a long-term worldwide deal with Atlantic Records, leaving their label Barsuk. Gibbard had long been vocal about the dangers of signing to a major label, but he changed his mind, stating on the band’s website that nothing would change other than the mark on the back of the recordings.
After signing to Atlantic, the band was apprehensive about corporate economics and encouraged fans to download its songs from the internet. The first and second singles off the band’s Atlantic Record release, Plans (2005 Atlantic), were “Soul Meets Body” and “Crooked Teeth.” The band played both songs during an appearance on Saturday Night Live on January 14, 2006. The album received a Grammy nomination for Best Alternative Album and went gold in 2006 after charting on Billboard for 47 consecutive weeks.
Plans was also the first of Death Cab's albums to feature a song initiated by another band member (“Brothers on a Hotel Bed” was written by Walla), and it’s the first release with the same drummer from a previous album (McGerr). The album was recorded during 28 days in early 2005 at Longview Studios, housed in a converted barn in Massachusetts. Walla produced the album, as he had previous releases, and in a fit of barn fever from not seeing daylight for nearly a month, blurted out the release’s title, Plans, over burritos with Harmer, according to the Atlantic Records website.
The song “What Sarah Said” is the emotional peak of the album, a song that inspired the album but nearly didn’t make the cut. What Sarah said that set it all off was “Love is watching someone die,” which she muttered while walking with her husband, a friend of Gibbard’s. She burst into tears at the realization that one day one of them was going to have to deal with the other one passing away.
In 2005, Death Cab for Cutie released a DVD, Drive Well, Sleep Carefully (Plexifilm), made while touring in support of Plans. The band gave permission to PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) to give away copies of the DVD to promote animal rights. The band also released Directions (2006 Atlantic), 11 short films inspired by songs from Plans, each by a different director. The short films were posted one at a time on the band’s website, and the DVD went on sale that same month. The videos were also formatted for iPod in March. Directors who contributed include Lance Bangs, P.R. Brown, Ace Norton, Jeffrey Brown, Lightborne, Autumn de Wilde, Rob Schrab, Laurent Briet and Monkmus, and Aaron Stewart-Ahn. MTV2 show Subterranean featured the videos plus discussions with band members.
Gibbard’s side project, indie electric pop band The Postal Service, includes Dntel’s Jimmy Tamborello. The project began after Gibbard provided vocals on the Dntel track “(This is) the Dream of Evan and Chan.” The band released Give Up (2003 Sub Pop), with additional production by Walla and guest vocals from Jen Wood and Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis. While anticipation was high for a second album, fueled by Iron and Wine’s cover of “Such Great Heights” on the Garden State (2004 Epic) soundtrack, it is unclear whether that will happen due to both band members’ obligations to their main projects.
Gibbard also contributed vocals and drumming for Kind of Like Spitting’s album Bridges Worth Burning (2002 Barsuk). That same year, Gibbard also released an album for the Home EP series, Home Volume V (2004 Post-Parlo), which is a series of EPs released by the label with each volume bringing together two artists to write and record songs with the theme “Home.” Gibbard’s collaboration was with Andrew Kenny of the American Analog Set. In May 2007, Gibbard also toured solo.
Chris Walla released a solo recording in 1999 under the name Martin Youth Auxiliary, on the Bellingham-based label Elsinor Records. Less than 100 copies were made, so the recordings are very rare. He went on to tour by himself, and created his own recording studio in Seattle, Hall of Justice, where he produced acts including Tegan and Sara. He has a website (www.hallofjusticerecording.com) in which he blogs and releases mp3 files of some of his solo recordings. Walla released another solo album Field Manual (2008 Barsuk), but this time under his name rather than Martin Youth Auxiliary. But it was not without some drama. He reported on his blog on October 14, 2007, that the masters for his solo album were confiscated by the US Homeland Security at the Canadian-American border.
On March 31, 2008, in time for April Fool’s Day, a prankster leaked a supposed version of Death Cab's new record, Narrow Stairs, on a file sharing website, but the music turned out to be a German band called Velveteen mixed with the already released “I Will Possess Your Heart” (March 2008 Atlantic). The sham was the brainchild of blogger Charlatantric, real name Jerome Holeyman, who pulled off the same stunt a year prior dropping a Swedish band Cut City in for Interpol.
Narrow Stairs (Atlantic), released in May of 2008, is a departure from what fans may recognize as the Death Cab sound. The band told Billboard that the release is a “curve ball,” louder than previous releases, influenced by synth-punk band Brainiac. The album was recorded at drummer McGerr’s studio Two Sticks, Walla’s new Portland, Oregon, studio Alberta Court, and friend John Vanderslice’s L.A. studio Tiny Telephone.
Narrow Stairs was written mostly by Gibbard in California. The first track, “Bixby Canyon Bridge,” finds Gibbard hiking slippery terrain to a lonely grave, a song that Gibbard has said was written in an attempt to try to tap into the spirit of Jack Kerouac. The first single “I Will Possess Your Heart,” a creepily beautiful stalker ode, clocks in at eight and a half minutes, a risk for an unlikely band that has broken into the mainstream. But it worked. During the first week of sales, Narrow Stairs sold 144,000 units, debuting at number one on the Billboard charts the week of its release. In support of the album, Death Cab played the festivals Coachella, Sasquatch and Bonnaroo, as well as embarked on a world tour, a big step up from The Bait Shop. 2011 saw the release of Codes And Keys.