[31 October 2011]
There is a magical spot in Los Angeles that no amount of Internet searching will reveal. Far above the city, in the mountains that on a clear day, humble LA, near one of the spots where Physicist Albert Michelson calculated the speed of light in 1926, stands an unassuming grove of pine trees. Out of that grove of pine trees juts one of the largest communication antenna arrays in the world, some of the delicate steel towers stretching their masts nearly 1,000 feet into the air.
On winter nights when the mountain air becomes dense with moisture, closing off the view to the Los Angeles basin that they sit above, the towers will begin to emit a strange music. The hum and crackle of the electricity that it takes to run such massive transmitters becomes audible, and when the air becomes just heavy enough, right at the point when it might start to condense a rain drop or two on passersby, a strange and wondrous phenomenon begins to reveal itself like an electronic Salome.
Through the torrent of electricity, radio waves, television and cellular phone transmissions, an unearthly music becomes audible. The encompassing clouds, heavy with moisture, begin to act as resonators, amplifying the audio portion from the analog signals that the surrounding towers are broadcasting. To the observer on the ground on these rare nights it is as if the heavens are speaking to you, in a language only an electronic God could understand.
However, occasionally something intelligible breaks through the din and you can hear a distinct word or phrase come forth through the white noise. The one that appears regularly and jolts me into recognition (yes, I am a regular attendee of the sky church, as the parishioners call it) is when I hear the call sign of KCRW.
KCRW ranks with WBEZ in Chicago, WGBH in Boston, WNYC in New York, and WHYY in Philadelphia as one of the premier public radio stations in America, and KCRW ranks first among them when it comes to music. It’s from that reputation that some of the most popular pop and indie bands play fundraisers for KCRW and on October 14th, Death Cab for Cutie played to a 100 person audience in a small studio in Santa Monica, CA. Pop Matters was invited to be there.
I arrived barely on time, which in LA means arriving extraordinarily early, but as I walked in I was greeted warmly by KCRW staff and then led to the studio space where after a few moments Death Cab for Cutie jumped up onto the small stage and began performing songs from their newest album, Codes and Keys.
While 2000’s We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes, released on Sub Pop, is the only Death Cab album that I own or have ever listened to more than once I have always admired their pop sensibilities, particularly in lead singer Ben Gibbard’s Postal Service side project. In many ways they are the gloomier but just as poppy version of their fellow Pacific Northwest one-time indie band, The Dandy Warhols.
The stand out track from the set, and the album, is of course the song You Are a Tourist which by its own merit is a superbly crafted pop song, and reminiscent of the more guitar heavy Dandy’s. However, it could also be a timely paean to the nascent Occupy Wall Street movement, if for no other reason than it describes perfectly the ennui which motivates these new doubters of commercialism. Unfortunately, despite Gibbard’s requests it’s no longer an option to move on, so for today’s revolutionaries the solution seems to be to improve where you’re at.
Anne Litt, the world’s hippest DJ and my pick for heir to the KCRW Music Director post once held by radio legend Nic Harcourt, interviewed the band about five or six songs into the set. For twenty minutes or so she asked questions about Death Cab’s music, motivation, and history. Like professional sports there is a standard set of answers that world famous musicians give, but for the die hard fan it will probably be fun just to hear Ben Gibbard speak despite the obligatory oblique answers.
The live session and Q&A airs on Tuesday, 1 November at 11:15 AM PST. To enjoy the music, and to hear the interview, tune in to KCRW’s livestream (which will include video of the performance), or if you’re in the Los Angeles area tune your radio to 89.9FM. If the weather is right that day, perhaps you’ll be able to hear a note or two in the clouds.