For long time followers of Death Cab for Cutie, the news was a pleasantly unexpected sock to the tender-hearted jaw, just as it was for singer Ben Gibbard. Two weeks ago, the Seattle quartet’s sixth full-length album, “Narrow Stairs,” entered the Billboard Top 200 at No. 1, putting the band in such company as Madonna, Mariah Carey and George Strait, just to name a few artists who held the top spot in the past few weeks. It’s a milestone that cements the fact that Death Cab isn’t a little indie band that could anymore - this is an indie band that can, did and does.
Buzz has been building around “Narrow Stairs” for months in the wake of the success of Death Cab’s previous record, 2005’s “Plans,” which marked the band’s first record in a deal with Atlantic, and sold more than a million copies. But even with heavy expectations and a big tour getting under way, Gibbard is able to keep everything in perspective.
“The way you deal with (expectations) is you just don’t. It’s nice to hear that people like the record you just made and that people think other people are going to like it, but to be perfectly honest, having `Plans’ just went platinum, I couldn’t even wrap my brain around what another plane of existence would look like for this band. After we finished (first album) `Something About Airplanes’ we were debating whether or not we should press a thousand copies of it, because we weren’t sure we could sell that many.”
That’s not a concern these days, but “Narrow Stairs” does prompt one question that may not have a good answer: Can Death Cab still be called an indie rock band?
The group is on a major label, moving enough units to make waves in an industry still led by the likes of “American Idol” winners, Madge and Mimi. But even if Death Cab is big business now, with its members cruising into their 30s, the indie rock and power-pop aesthetic remains the same, and so do Gibbard’s smartly written lyrics of hope and acceptance, and his superb ability to tell stories that observe tiny moments, imbuing them with meaning and weight.
“I feel my primary responsibility as a songwriter is to write songs in the moment of the lives of myself and the people that are around me that allow me to put them into my songs. I think the general themes ... are more coming from somebody who’s relatable to people that are my age than to people that are 15. But at the core of those songs there is a sentiment that is relatively universal,” he says. “I would like to hope that if I feel strongly enough about something that I want to write a song that there’s enough people that would relate to it regardless of age. Until I start writing songs about being famous or how hard it is to tour or until I turn in, like, Bob Seger songs, I think we’ll be OK.”
Indeed, “Narrow Stairs” is not necessarily new sonic territory for Death Cab, which consists of Gibbard, guitarist-producer Chris Walla, bassist Nick Harmer, and drummer Jason McGerr. It’s bigger and, in some cases, better.
“Transatlanticism,” the final true indie record on label Barsuk, had a number of expansive, three-minute-plus songs that built to heart-swelling grandeur. But “Narrow Stairs” has a meatier, more serious, more upbeat sound, and takes more chances - in short, it has a lot more chutzpah.
Opening track “Bixby Canyon Bridge” goes from a typical intimate Gibbard confessional about attempting to commune with a dead friend to fuzzed-out guitar rocker on the back end. It’s as if Walla found an extension chord for “Marching Bands of Manhattan,” the lead track from “Plans,” and plugged everything in. First single “I Will Possess Your Heart” is an 8:25 exercise in jammy excess, featuring a bass-driven 4 ½ -minute intro that precedes Gibbard’s creepy, ominous unrequited love letter.
Other tracks find Gibbard writing stories that he simply wouldn’t have 10 years ago, for lack of experience. “I look back at the super super, really really DIY period of this band with a little bit of nostalgia like you would about high school or that summer you spent at the lake. That was a time in our lives as a band and I have many fond memories of that but I don’t want to go back to that as much as I don’t want to go back to being 21 years old again. I was 21 when I was 21. I’m 31 now. I don’t look back on that period of my life with any kind of `God, I wish I could do that again’ sentiment,” he says.
“It’s like I have a song (`Grapevine Fires’) about going off with a friend and having to go pick up her daughter at school and that’s not something that I would have written when I was 22 because it wasn’t a part of my immediate surroundings. The themes that I’ve always gravitated towards will always be a part of the way I write songs but I’d like to think as I grow older that I’ll be able to bring some perspective that my age at that time has given me on those subjects.”
As for the band’s commercial success, Gibbard is fine with whatever happens.
“I can say pretty definitively that none of us have been sitting around hoping and crossing our fingers that we’ll become U2 or something. That’s great for Coldplay but I would be very surprised if this band ever falls into echelons like that. We may have sold a million copies but I still walk down the street in Seattle and nobody recognizes me. I’m pretty comfortable with the way my life is these days.”