Thursday, October 9, 2003

Death Cab Goes the Distance

UR Chicago
October 9-November 12, 2003
(no link)

On its fifth album, Transatlanticism, Death Cab for Cutie moves past the trappings of indie rock.

Somehow it would seem inappropriate to interview Ben Gibbard in person. After all, the Death Cab for Cutie singer/songwriter collaborated on an entire side project through the mail-- the Postal Service's electro-pop full-length Give Up. Some of his finest songs, such as "A Movie Script Ending" from 2001's Death Cab release The Photo Album, render long-distance relationships in heartbreaking detail.

So when the Washington state-based musician's voice crackles over a speaker-phone from his home 2,000 miles away, nothing could seem more apropos, especially given the content of Death Cab's fifth album, Transatlanticism. Out October 7 on Barsuk Records, the release picks up thematically exactly where "A Movie Script Ending" left off: "on the highway," far from friends and loved ones.

"Coming off all the touring and promotional stuff for the last album, I came to the realization that your relationships, personal or romantic or whatever, really suffer when you are gone all the time," Gibbard explains.

Produced by Death Cab guitarist/keyboardist Chris Walla, Transatlanticism marks a progression in the band's sound, as the quartet toys with expansive arrangements to convey the songs' subjects in form as well as lyrics. Much as Chicago band Wilco's 2002 album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot deconstructed alt-country, Transatlanticism sees some of indie rock's standard-bearers breaking down the conventions to confect a shimmering, spacious and remarkably accessible record.

"I don't want to be an indie rock band," Gibbard says. "I want to have songs, with beginnings and endings. We're over a lot of the stereotypical trappings of indie rock."


Transatlanticism's title comes from a word Gibbard thought he coined, referring to distances "such as a body of water creates between two people," a concept that informs nearly every song.

Gibbard's lyrics remain as highly dense and grammatically correct as on previous collections, and no less earnest. "I wish the world was flat like the old days / Then I could travel just by folding a map," he sings on the first single, "The New Year." But the album includes more pop influences than the rest of the Death Cab catalogue, from the "Bah bah" chorus of "the Sound of Settling" to the melismatic "so-o-o-o sad" on "The Death of an Interior Decorator," which feels like a composition by indie-pop singer/songwriter Elliott Smith. The overall effect is intentionally bittersweet.

"My outlook on life is somewhat cynical, but always trying to find the little slices of beauty and truth that only exist for short periods of time and fall away," Gibbard says. "It's somewhere between misery and happiness. I have a hard time going all the way one way or the other."

Some lyrics are oblique, such as the "ivory lines lead oh-wa-ho" chorus of "Lightness"; Gibbard explains that, in context of "a tear in the fabric" from an earlier verse, the are lines of ivory skin leading to "a naughty place."

Unlike previous albums, the band performed very few of the disc's 11 songs on tour. As a result, Transatlanticism sounds more intricately textured and less like just a studio recording of a live band.

"When you play the songs on stage, the easiest thing to do practically is just to have two guitars, bass and drums," Walla says. "But when you're not tied to particular textures or having a particular voice play a part, it's much easier in the studio to go, 'I don't think that's a guitar line. I think you should be playing that on piano or glockenspiel or whatever's around.'"

Caught up in a spirit of experimentation, Gibbard, Walla, bassist Nick Harmer and new drummer Jason McGerr built up layer after layer of sound around Gibbard's words and melodies. A grinding drone that Walla stumbled upon by accident carries on throughout "Lightness." One track later, a xylophone-like device designed to educate children about pitch provides the instrumental interlude for "Title and Registration." Wurlitzer electric keyboards and pianos flourish throughout the disc, leading to an almost-Ben Folds effect on the slow, graceful "Passenger Seat."

Though Gibbard's other 2003 project, the Postal Service, filled its music with tweaks and blips, that aesthetic didn't bleed over to the Death Cab record, according to Walla.

"I won't speak for Ben, but I think he wanted to be in a rock band again," Walla says.


Both Gibbard and Walla express only confidence about this album's poppy, song-focused nature.

"The bands that I admired always evolved and moved past the noise," says Gibbard, whose favorite record by indie-rock icons Pavement is their polished, Nigel Godrich-produced Terror Twilight-- not such disjoined earlier work as Slanted and Enchanted.

"I don't feel there's any reason for us not to try and reach as many people as we can," Walla says. "This is our fifth record, and of the people who have been with us since day one, there are going to be some who love this record. There will be some people who hate it. And then there are going to be a bunch of kids who, this will be their first Death Cab record and this will always be their first Death Cab record."

For Gibbard's part, as long as he can look out in the audience and see someone who reminds him of a younger self, who makes him think, "I would come to my shows," he's more than pleased.

"If we started doing shows and only 14-year-olds were coming, I'd feel a bit strange about that," he admits. "I like the crowd that I see when I look out from the stage, and to me, that's what it comes down to."

For the band's current tour, hitting Metro October 10 and 11, expect a sampler and lots of instrument-switching on stage. The ambient noises that float around on Transatlanticism will provide continuity to the live show, as well.

And the girl whose distance inspired all of the heartache of Transatlaticism She now lives with Gibbard in Seattle. "That's the happy ending to the otherwise-sad record," he says.

Transatlanticism (Barsuk Records) is out now; Death Cab for Cutie plays the Metro October 10 and 11

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