Movin' on Up (Without Sellin' on Out)

An Interview with Death Cab for Cutie

by Jennifer Bendery

Death Cab for Cutie's Chris Walla fills us in on his band's Plans.
On their rise from unknown act to major-label stars, Death Cab released five true albums (along with a handful of EPs and a collection of rarities). PopMatters tracks the band’s rise:
Something About Airplanes
(Barsuk, 1998)

The group’s strong debut set the template from which their other releases would either build or respond to. The group proved that indie guitar-rock could be pretty without being twee, and matched their restraint with careful crafting.
We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes
(Barsuk, 2000)

Arguably the band’s finest effort, this disc offers more breadth to the original aesthetic. “We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes is something you want to discover and cherish with no strings attached, and pass it on as eagerly.”
original review
The Photo Album
(Barsuk, 2001)

The Photo Album sounds like a band treading water, not so much because it’s flawed as because they seem to have quit getting better. “Death Cab for Cuite has beefed up the sound. The production is clearer; gone is the static, hazy spell band member/producer Chris Walla created on the first two albums.”
original review
(Barsuk, 2003)

—d starts moving toward the mainstream with this brighter-sounding release and drew split reactions from fans and critics. “But for old-school Death Cab supporters, it’s gut-check time: Did you like these guys for their ‘rock’ or their ‘indie’?”
original review
(Atlantic, 2005)

This album marks their first release with the full weight of expectations, and they succeed not by trying to write a great album, but by focusing on the steady craft that brought them here. “This record isn’t a musical revolution, but more of a musical lullaby, a sweet collection of sad and hopeful stories.”
original review

At the record company meeting
On their hands—a dead star
And, oh, the plans they weave
And, oh, the sickening greed
Re-issue! Re-package! Re-package!
Re-evaluate the songs
Double-pack with a photograph
Extra track (and a tacky badge)”

—From “Paint a Vulgar Picture” by the Smiths

When a beloved indie band signs to a major label, the fallout generally includes longtime fans shaking their heads and mourning the loss of what was once a musical gem now being bleached, painted over and sold alongside packets of M&M’s and camera film on the shelves of Wal-Mart.

But in the case of Death Cab for Cutie, the Seattle-based band that just ended a five-CD stretch with Barsuk Records to release their latest album with Atlantic Records, the unthinkable has happened: diehard fans are buckling up and coming along for the ride to commercial success. Instead of treating the shift to the mainstream as if they were just shot in the face, Death Cab followers appear to have faith that the band will continue prioritizing artistic integrity over profits, even as millions of new pairs of ears gain access to their best-kept secret.

At least, this seems the case with Plans, Death Cab’s newest album that fans and critics are praising as “a headphones album” because of all the intricacies that will go unnoticed by listeners who blast the songs at 80 mph with the windows rolled down. The meticulous melding of electronic music with vocals and guitars that is such a marker of Death Cab’s sound can be attributed to Chris Walla, the band’s producer and guitarist. Indeed, amid the transition to Atlantic, Walla’s masterful production work on Plans is a main reason why the band’s original edge is preserved on the album.

Fans of Death Cab’s previous album, Transatlanticism, will be pleased to hear what drummer Jason McGerr has said about Plans: “If Transatlanticism was an inhale, Plans is the exhale.” The most noticeable difference between the two albums, however, is that Plans has a lot fewer guitars on it, said Walla. “We went for wider and dreamier and more atmosphere.” The result is a catchy but emotionally dark album resembling a bastard child of New Order and Elliott Smith.

Reflecting an increasing reality in today’s music industry, the album’s title track “Soul Meets Body” was already circulating the Internet before the album was released. While executives at Atlantic may not be happy about losing profits to music dorks playing on the Internet at 2:30 am, Walla encouraged fans to bring it on. “I love it,” he said. “The more anarchy we can give to the record industry, the better.” The ability to leak songs onto the Internet “only serves to put artists first”.

Still, Walla acknowledges the divide between his philosophy and that of Atlantic. “Their infrastructure and business model is set up to sell physical copies of music in the physical world,” he said. If a label is losing money on CDs in stores and on CDs in the virtual world, how will that company make money? “From a stockholder’s perspective, something like that is kind of terrifying,” said Walla. “But from the perspective of kids who like music and want to hear music, it’s amazing.” Walla said he identifies “more with a kid who wants to hear music than I am a person who’s looking at numbers. We would be disingenuous if we were to devalue what the Internet has done for us.”

To the contrary of the business plan driving corporate giants like Atlantic, Walla thinks music freely circulating the Internet “absolutely” benefits bands. “It weeds out” bands that make bad music, he said, suggesting that if a band puts out “a tremendous piece of crap, nobody would have cared about it and it wouldn’t have sold a bunch of records when it came out anyway.” He cited the band Arcade Fire, which he described as a bunch of “kids of Montreal who made a weird little pop record that caught fire and resonated with a whole bunch of people.” Despite minimal marketing, vigorous Canadian file-sharing elevated the band to its current popularity. “How do you argue with that? You don’t. You can’t,” said Walla. “I think that’s great.”

Walla sees the role of major record labels changing dramatically in the next few years. “I think they’ll be much less involved in the creative aspect and more and more of a distribution service.” While there are always going to be entertainers to promote on record labels, Walla said the artistic end of the process need not be part of a label’s responsibility. “I never considered Bob Hope much of an artist,” he said. “He was an entertainer,” much like Britney Spears or Jessica Simpson. Spears may not be making “any grand artistic statements with her music, but that’s cool,” said Walla. “There’s nothing wrong with that.” But for artists with an interest in musical ability versus entertainment value, the market is really changing, he said.

In light of the segment of fans who view Walla and singer Ben Gibbard as demigods, Walla laughed and said he doesn’t know why that is. “People really connect with Ben’s songs,” he said. “I think that’s a lot of it.” While Gibbard’s songs may be about a broken heart half of the time, Walla said it’s the honesty of the lyrics that runs deeper. “It’s not, ‘Oh, my heart’s broken,’” he said. “It’s writing about all those places in between. I don’t know anyone else who can write a song about regret and loss, about a glove compartment, and make it work.”

Aside from word-of-mouth popularity, Death Cab has found success in unusual avenues of popular culture. They are the favorite band of a main character in the FOX television series, The OC, which displays a Death Cab poster hanging in a character’s bedroom and even features Death Cab performing in a fictional club on the show. The OC stint “kind of just happened,” laughed Walla, after FOX asked for clearance to use a song. In addition, the band’s song “Transatlanticism” was prominently played in an episode of HBO’s Six Feet Under. Gibbard has appeared on MTV 2 and released a well-received album with his side band, the Postal Service.

Walla said he doesn’t feel the band is “selling out” by allowing songs to be used in mainstream venues as long as “outlets don’t become more important than the fact that we’ve been a band for eight years, touring and making records for a long time”. There is some danger in taking it too far, he acknowledged, but the band is careful when it comes to making licensing decisions. “We get tons and tons of licensing requests and some are really lucrative,” said Walla. “But if it seems like it’s going to pop up in the grocery store, we won’t do any big product ads.”

While Death Cab has taken some flack for signing with Atlantic, fans have been “very supportive” for the most part, said Walla. “We would have made the same record for Barsuk,” he noted. Whether or not someone likes the band’s new album less than the last one is “a perfectly valid sort of thing. I don’t have any problem with that. I do that all the time,” he said. “That’s how music works. It’s a time and place in your life. It might not have anything to do with the actual quality of what you’re doing.” But someone who decides the new album is worse just because it’s on a major label “is pretty delusional”. The real secret to keeping fans is “to have some integrity” and to “be honest about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it”.

Ultimately, Death Cab is “making the sort of records we want to make,” said Walla. “If we wanted to make a record for an audience or a label, this is the point at which the sharks can smell you.” Walla said the band is “not at all controlled or restricted by Atlantic”, and that contractual terms are “clear that we get to do whatever we want”. While Atlantic executives may come into the recording studio to listen in on a session and make suggestions, Walla said bandmates have no problem with replying, “Yeah, we see what you’re saying. But we like how it is.”

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