A history of an old music nerd’s aughts-era band crush
MUSIC by Craig Silliphant
Metric And Death Cab For Cutie
Conexus Arts Centre
There probably isn’t any band more identified with indie pop in the early 2000s than Death Cab for Cutie. What started as a side project for a musician and engineering student in Bellingham, Washington, became a major part of the zeitgeist of the aughts. Over a mere few years, they went from total unknowns to platinum selling band, writing anthemic hits that would appear in TV shows and movies like Six Feet Under, CSI, Californication, Easy A, and The Wedding Crashers. They were one of the bands that brought indie pop into the mainstream, getting so big they eventually caused debate about what, if anything, the term ‘indie’ really meant.
But back in 1997, Ben Gibbard had some songs he wanted to record away from his power pop outfit Pinwheel, so he sat down with producer Chris Walla and made an eight-song tape called You Can Play These Songs With Chords. The tape became a bit of a surprise local hit, so Gibbard enlisted some friends to play in the band, including Walla as guitarist. They chose the name Death Cab for Cutie, taken from the name of a song by the somewhat absurdist English group, The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band.
When I first heard the name years ago, I thought Death Cab for Cutie was meant to portray some kind of ‘emo’ imagery — sort of an ironic take on the emo preoccupation with doom and gloom. And while I was obviously incorrect, one of the questions that has followed the band around over time is whether or not they fall into the emo category. Emo started out as a nebulous term that was part of the DC hardcore punk scene but it morphed into an often-maligned genre, referring to emotionally overbearing, heart-on-sleeve music for sad teens. Gibbard’s work contains expressive, confessional lyrics that are a cornerstone of the genre, but some argue that Death Cab’s music was much more brilliant than emo bands like Jimmy Eat World or Dashboard Confessional (sometimes referred to as Mall Emo, for obvious derogatory reasons).
Emo or not, Death Cab signed with Seattle’s Barsuk Records within a year of releasing You Can Play These Songs With Chords and several more albums followed. In 1998 they released their first full-length album, Something About Airplanes, followed by their second, We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes.
By the time they released 2001’s The Photo Album, the music press and a growing number of fans were realizing that the band was injecting new blood into power pop. Oddly enough, their popularity grew at almost the same pace as their skill and songwriting prowess as they matured.
And of course, they hit their stride in 2003, both musically and professionally, with their fourth album, Transatlanticism. The album was eventually named one of the 50 most important recordings of the 2000s by NPR, and 57th in Rolling Stones’ best of the decade list.
Though they had weathered several line-up changes, Gibbard and Walla had brought forth a fully formed album that presented the band at the top of their game.
It’s also worth noting, that in 2003 Gibbard and Walla teamed up with an electronic musician named Dntel (aka Jimmy Tamborella) to release one of the best glitch rock albums of all time and certainly one of the best albums of the decade. Give Up was recorded under the moniker The Postal Service, named so because they collaborated with Tamborella by mail. Give Up was so good it threatened to overshadow the success of Death Cab and the excellent Transatlanticism. Two huge, groundbreaking albums in the same year is a good problem for musicians to have.
By Transatlanticism, Death Cab had blown off most comparisons to emo music. Their songs were more emotionally complex, with lyrics that were confessional but usually smarter and more restrained. Their sound had dynamic range, from quiet, heart-breaking dirges to walls of ringing, post-dream pop guitars. It ran the gamut of emotions and sonic ranges from aggressive to dreamy, from happy to sad.
After the juggernaut success of Transatlanticism, the band felt they were in a better position to take it to the next level while still keeping their artistic freedom intact so they signed with a major label, Atlantic Records. While Death Cab are still seen today as indie pop, technically, they’re no longer an independent.
Their first album on Atlantic was 2005’s highly successful Plans. It debuted at number four, remaining on the Billboard charts for almost a year, eventually hitting platinum status. But perhaps because their sound had played out, or maybe the novelty was wearing off as we moved on from everything that made them important in 2003, but this was the start of the band’s slide from relevance, for me at least.
It’s not that they were still desperately trying to be lovelorn 20-somethings, and it’s not because they had signed to a major label. Plans just didn’t have the chutzpah of the earlier work. This was an album for new fans that were more into the sad sack balladry side of Death Cab. These albums aren’t bad by any means, but the band just sort of stopped being relevant in any musical discussion that didn’t revolve around units sold.
It was the same with the next few albums, and while the band went on to earn more fans and be nominated for a Grammy (an award that is a farce in and of itself), they were still drifting away from their best work. In 2015, they released Kintsugi, their eighth full-length record, but not without a bittersweet note, as original member Chris Walla (the guy so often called their “secret weapon”) left the band.
All that said, I don’t want to end on a dour note, because this band (and moreso The Postal Service) meant a lot to me in the early years of the new millennium. And they still mean a lot to people now, even if your favorite grumpy music writer thinks they’ve lost their lustre creatively.
So let me leave you with a story: Death Cab for Cutie was opening for Neil Young at Brandt Centre and during their set, the building was half-empty. Attendees were mostly older and just skipped the opening band that many of them had probably never heard of. The people that did wander in during the set, beers in hand, were there for Neil Young, not these young punk indie pop upstarts, so they paid no mind. But I watched Gibbard intently on the stage, and he hammered away at the songs, putting everything he had into his performance, for the few people like myself in the audience that did happen to be listening. I have always appreciated that. A lot of people that successful, met with an ambivalent audience in some little corner of the world would have just phoned-in their performance. Not Gibbard.
As he hunkered down, pounding a keyboard, singing the famous refrain, “I need you so much closer,” it really did feel like he was closing the oceanic gulf between performer and audience, creating intimacy out of nothing.