Death Cab for Cutie rides a crest of creativity

by Kevin C. Johnson

St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MCT)

15 October 2008


Death Cab for Cutie fans indulged front man Ben Gibbard when he embarked on his solo tour last year, but now he’s back in his proper place.

“I always wanted to do it and never had the time. It was fun, it went well, and I learned what I wanted as a musician,” Gibbard says of the trek. “But I’ve never been more exhausted in my life. I was emotionally and physically drained.”

And he wasn’t alone in being alone. Guitarist-keyboardist Chris Walla released a solo album, while the other Death Cab players, bassist Nick Harmer and drummer Jason McGerr, got involved in other projects.

Now, the Seattle-based band is back together helping Gibbard carry the load.

That includes a new tour and the band’s sixth CD, “Narrow Stairs,” the first No. 1 debut for the former indie darlings. “That was thrilling, something you get the news and feel excited about. At no point when I started the band did I think it would be remotely possible,” he says.

“But I think having a No. 1 record is less about our band being mainstream and popular and more about having a lot of fans who are so rabid they have to get the record the first week. It’s not like we hit No. 1 and stayed there for five weeks,” he says.

Gibbard says stylistically “Narrow Stairs” pulls upon parts of various past CDs, which most recently includes 2005’s “Plans” and 2003’s “Transatlanticism.”

The CD captures the feel of the live band, thanks to recording with the four players in the room together, rather than the last CD, which involved a lot of “construction.”

“We were working with recorders, sequencing and sampling. It made the record good, but it also made the process of making it less inspired. But the record still came out well,” he says. “‘Narrow Stairs’ is far more inspired in the recording and the arrangement, with all that creativity cresting together at one time.”

“Narrow Stairs” includes the epic “I Will Possess Your Heart,” the song Gibbard is most proud of. “I don’t think it’s something anyone would think would come from us,” he says of the song, on which Gibbard’s vocals don’t come in until late in the 8-minute-plus track.

The label might not have expected it either. They loved it - just not as is. “They said they couldn’t wait to release it as a single and it’s going to be amazing. Then they said they were going to need a radio edit,” says Gibbard, who was OK with the request.

“We didn’t sell a million records by not playing ball,” he quips.

“As far as we’re all concerned, we’ve always thought of ourselves as an album band, with a similar theme throughout. And whatever way it takes to put that album in the hands of others we’re open to discussing, even if it means shortening to get on the radio. But as far as I’m concerned, the definitive version of that exists on the album.”

Death Cab for Cutie recently followed up “Narrow Stairs” with iTunes exclusive “Live in Las Vegas.”

“That was a lot of fun to do. We always enjoy doing the stripped-down, acoustic versions. We got some good takes, and we think it’s really enjoyable for the fans to have these alternate versions,” Gibbard says.

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