Death Cab for Cutie could teach a master class on how to stick around in the music business while achieving two very elusive things: success (in terms of selling a ton of records and playing big venues) and cred. After (gasp!) signing with a major label in 2004 and (eek!) being at the forefront of the TV licensing trend—they were Seth Cohen's favorite band after all—this Seattle quartet have managed, through this topsy-turvy industry reorganization, to remain not only profitable but relevant.
In retrospect, it seems like they were ahead of the curve. In the current climate, all those arguments about major vs. indie—about "selling out"—seem like luxuries from a bygone era, like dog pedicures or $100,000 trash cans. These days, if you can find people to help you get your music heard with minimal interference, then you're on the right track.
"I think a lot has changed in the industry since we started this band 10 years ago," says bassist Nick Harmer. "I think the lines between independent and major used to be a lot crisper. But even back then, I don't think they were that crisp, I think that was just a perception. The Internet has really been the great equalizer."
Death Cab's latest full-length, Narrow Stairs, opens in typical fashion—frontman Ben Gibbard's sweet, unadorned voice singing carefully chosen words over the low hum of instrumentation. But before you know it, "Bixby Canyon Bridge" swoons and contorts into a grand, even dissonant wail. From that moment, it becomes clear that this record is quite a bit different from its predecessor Plans. (As if to prove that point, the album's lead single, "I Will Possess Your Heart," is an eight-minute opus with no lyrics until four-and-a-half minutes in.)
Narrow Stairs buzzes from pole to pole—from the delightful "Cath..." to the jaunty drama of "You Can Do Better than Me" to the deeply rhythmic "Pity and Fear." And no Death Cab record would be complete without some killer ballads. The slow burn (no pun intended) of "Grapevine Fires" showcases Gibbard's storytelling skills while "Your New Twin-Sized Bed" is one of those classic Death Cab songs about the delicate disintegration of a relationship, done with a wistful metaphor—the kind that teenagers will find clever and, like, totally true, and more mature fans will find sweetly sad.
"I don't know if there was a cohesive end-vision for this record, but we definitely had an approach in mind," says Harmer. "It was important for us that the songs were recorded with the four of us, in a room, more or less live.... Plans was such a surgical process. This record was so much more about being a band—a group of friends playing music."
Remember that master class? It would also include a very important lesson on stretching yourself musically while retaining the things that made people like you to begin with. In Death Cab's case, that's Gibbard's articulate angst and lush, approachable songs filled with clever surprises.
"It's always been important to us to take risks and explore new horizons, just as players, and to keep things fresh," says Harmer. "But I think we've never lost sight of what we're good at and the things about our band that are important to preserve. I don't think we would ever turn in a free-jazz record full of noise just because."
At the end of March, the band released a 5-song EP recorded during the same sessions that produced Narrow Stairs. The Open Door has an easy swagger and a slightly lighter tone—a perfect spring snack for fans—beginning with the charming shuffle of "Little Bribes" and closing with a delicate demo take on the album track "Talking Bird." It's yet another reason for people to keep paying attention.
Though album and merch sales are down slightly in light of the recession (no one is immune), Death Cab were able to add a second show here in Nashville—a sign that even in tough times fans remain fiercely loyal to their favorites.
So, any closing words for the class?
"I feel sorry for people who will do anything for a dollar," says Harmer. "I think you know that when you see it. There is a sort of hollowness to the things that they're creating that doesn't feel good. For us, we've been involved with a major label; we've been involved with an independent label. Things have changed, the profile of the band has grown, but when you strip all those extra environmental things away, what we've always tried to protect and tried to do is make music that's ours."