They’re two of our region’s most prominent acts to find fame in the last 20 years, coincidentally hailing from the same college town. Yet ironically, the first time indie-rock giants Death Cab for Cutie and electronic stars ODESZA crossed paths, it was 1,200 miles away from their mutual Bellingham birthplace.
Last summer, the groups that formed while their members were attending Western Washington University were booked as the marquee names on a big radio-sponsored concert in Southern California — the type of gig that would land the otherwise disparate bands on the same bill. The backstage camaraderie was immediate.
“Having that connective tissue of both being from Bellingham, it was like ‘Ah, come here, you,’” says Death Cab’s main man Ben Gibbard. “Very familial and familiar.”
“By the end of our conversation we were reminiscing about Bellingham, and [how] we should do a show up there together,” says ODESZA’s Harrison Mills. “We hit them up a week later like, we should actually do it.”
And so was born the May 18 Double Major concert, a massive scholarship benefit show coheadlined by the somewhat unlikely pair of Death Cab — a defining indie-rock band of their generation — and ODESZA, rapidly emergent stars during an indie-electronic boom time. Tickets to the 12,000-capacity bash at Civic Stadium, held during the university’s alumni weekend, quickly sold out, with students getting first crack at a presale. Rounding out the bill are Seattle indie-electronic artist Chong the Nomad, whose manager booked ODESZA’s first show; Robotaki, of ODESZA’s Foreign Family Collective label; and Bellingham rockers LipStitch. ODESZA also plays a DJ set Thursday at the Wild Buffalo with Manatee Commune and Beat Connection, acts they played with early on.
From the jump, both acts knew they wanted a charitable tie-in, and contributing to the alumni association’s scholarship fund was the most logical choice, says Gibbard, noting the skyrocketing cost of education since he graduated in the late ’90s.
For Mills, it was personal. By the time the Eastside teen was wrapping up high school, his older brother had dropped out of multiple colleges and it was sort of assumed the younger Mills wouldn’t go. But as his friends started making their post-graduation plans, the aspiring illustrator got the itch and managed to land a last-minute design scholarship to Western. “[It was] a huge reason why I got to go to college, so to give back to someone in a similar position” was important, Mills says.
While both bands are generally regarded as being “from Seattle,” where each is currently based, their formative Bellingham years are a crucial part of their story.
“This band wouldn’t have become what it’s become without Bellingham being the art hub for at least the first couple years,” Gibbard says.
‘It’s all about Bellingham.’
Twenty years after graduating, Gibbard’s hard-pressed to recall professors’ names or what he learned during those nights spent screaming at a physics textbook. But for the Death Cab frontman and bassist Nick Harmer, it’s the “weird theater performances,” basement shows and storage-locker practices that stand out from their time at Western. “There was always something weird happening,” Gibbard says.
Case in point, one night Death Cab was playing the defunct 3B Tavern with an improvisational/performance art band. The frontman brought a container of pumpkin pulp and a TV on stage. As the band started playing, he threw the TV out into the crowd, splitting someone’s head open. An ambulance came and took the fan to the hospital.
“[He] was really upset because he had hurt somebody, so he just took the pulp and spread it all over himself and that was kinda the show,” Gibbard says. “We had to get it cleaned off the stage because we were playing two bands later or whatever. The silver lining was the guy came back to the show with stitches in his head and he was fine. They were drinking together, it was OK. [Expletive] like that happened all the time.”
Though some of the antics now seem silly to a 42-year-old Gibbard, it was emblematic of a college-town scene where young artists could experiment and find themselves without judgment (or, back then, social-media evidence). “There’s probably a tape of me drunk at a party talking about how socialism is the greatest thing in the world,” Gibbard jokes.
Gibbard and Harmer swear their own musical explorations weren’t nearly as out-there, but they did spawn Death Cab’s earliest releases. At various times, Gibbard, Harmer, Chris Walla and drummer Jason McGerr — who grew up in Bellingham and joined the band in 2003 — lived in an Ellis Street house where Walla, Death Cab’s longtime producer/guitarist who left the band several years ago, set up a makeshift studio with mic cables dangling from the ceiling. It was there the “You Can Play These Songs With Chords” cassette and their debut album “Something About Airplanes,” jointly released by Barsuk and Bellingham’s Elsinor Records, were made.
Gibbard recalls sitting on the front porch when the labels told him they were ordering 1,000 copies of “Something About Airplanes.” “We were imagining we were going to be carrying around boxes of our own records for the rest of our lives,” he says.
Fast forward a few years and their breakout “Transatlanticism” would eventually sell more than 500,000 copies.
Coming up after the “grizzled garage rockers” from Estrus Records, the Death Cab guys fell in with a group of Bellingham bands like Noggin, Wicker Biscuit, Pacer and Revolutionary Hydra — which Gibbard joined for a time — that played basements and living rooms together. (In 2017, Death Cab posted a recording of its first house show on Bandcamp.) To Gibbard, it felt like a concerted effort to create a scene in a geographically isolated city, similar to how other college-town indie-rock hubs like Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and Louisville, Kentucky, had.
“For me at that time when I was 20, 21 years old, that was the center of the universe,” Gibbard says. “Seattle — what? New York — who cares? It’s all about Bellingham. That period of a year or two, I never wanted this scene to fall apart. I wanted this to live forever, because it felt so organic and special.”
“It wasn’t just that we had some magical moment,” Harmer says later, pointing to ODESZA’s rise well after they’d left as evidence of a lasting cultural spirit. “There’s something about that town.”
‘It just felt like you could do anything up there.’
By the time Mills and Clay Knight arrived on campus in the late ’00s, the Death Cab lore was heavy. “There’s just an air about them everywhere,” Mills says. “You’d be at a party — ‘Did you know they used to practice down there?!’ Probably lies, but everywhere you went you heard something about them.”
While the Seattle-area locals grew up listening to Death Cab, the beatsmiths’ musical pursuits strayed from the indie-folk, rock and occasional college-kid reggae band then comprising Bellingham’s “vibrant, youthful scene,” as Knight describes it. The two met through Sean Kusanagi, Knight’s high-school buddy from Bainbridge Island who’s now ODESZA’s videographer, and bonded over their love of “weird electronic music,” each plugged in to SoundCloud’s then-burgeoning online beat scene.
“We were all living in the internet, not really talking about it, so to actually meet somebody face to face there was pretty quick chemistry,” Mills says.
During their time at Western, Mills and Knight developed a close network of artistically inclined friends — budding filmmakers, visual artists and musicians — often living together in houses that felt like creative communes. The energy was inspiring, if at times distracting, for two producers making electronic music, often a solitary endeavor. The school seemed to attract creative students, Mills says, and a supportive culture permeated the town. “It just felt like you could do anything up there within your community and people were gonna support it and go out of their way to be a part of it,” he says.
Though they made music on their own and jammed with various musicians throughout their Western days, it wasn’t until their waning time in Bellingham that ODESZA truly formed. Mills had graduated a semester earlier than Knight and moved back to the Seattle area, driving up to Bellingham weekly for extended studio-binging weekends while crashing on Knight’s couch. Whenever Knight wasn’t in class (or at the Up and Up for $4 PBR pitchers), the two stowed away in Knight’s “leaky” basement that “smelled really bad,” Knight says, but had enough space for a drum kit, multiple guitar rigs and their electronics setup.
“There was not a lot of talking,” Mills says of those feverish basement sessions during the summer of 2012. “We were just layering each other’s music back and forth, so it was really fast. That’s what was so exciting. Some of those songs were made in three hours and we just put them out, which is such a scary thought today.”
“Bellingham empties out during the summer because all the kids are gone, so it’s actually a really cool place to hang out — a quiet escape,” Knight says. “It was good for that creative head space.”
It was supposed to be a college send-off project; a fun way to burn their last summer of freedom before getting those proverbial “real jobs.” Mills even had a design-firm gig lined up. But those quick-fire beat-layering sessions yielded ODESZA’s debut album, “Summer’s Gone,” which quickly caught SoundCloud buzz and the tour offers started rolling in.
It was a pivotal moment for the fledgling duo, which at that point had only played a couple of trial-by-fire shows at the Wild Buffalo using their school laptops: embrace the stability of the 9-to-5 world or shoot their shot on the road. Mills never made it to that design firm.
“We were pretty much on tour for three years after that,” he says.
Though they’ve left the “city of subdued excitement” and gone on to headline festivals (and even launch their own), their Western connections continue to serve them. Kusanagi handles many of their video projects, while Mills’ design-school friends Luke Tanaka and Michelle Gadeken have produced ODESZA’s live visuals and album artwork respectively.
“It’s not just special for us,” Mills says of Double Major. “Half the people that still work for us have been working for us since we met them at Western. It’s a big community of people that still have their roots there, so it’s going to be a big family reunion.”
It’s been seven years for ODESZA, and 20 for Death Cab, since they roamed the campus as undergrads. While both have done Bellingham shows since, Double Major is by far the largest concert event to hit the town in recent memory.
“There’s so much to look forward to coming back to a place where we had these big dreams and we never thought they’d happen,” says Mills.
Gibbard remembers students running around campus in ’95 telling their friends when word leaked that Sonic Youth and Bikini Kill were playing Carver Gym a thousand yards from where he lived. He hopes someone is similarly excited for Double Major, even if it’s more for ODESZA, he jokes.
As much as has changed for the bands since they left, both insist Bellingham feels largely the same.
“It is packed full of nostalgia,” Mills says. “Every nook and cranny of that town has a memory for me.”
Gibbard contrasts it with Seattle, where every time he gets home from tour the skyline looks a little different. He mentions Death Cab’s song “Gold Rush,” which looks at how life can feel like a dream when places you’ve attached memories to suddenly vanish. Revisiting his old Bellingham haunts, he says, is both comforting and a little eerie.
“Going back to Bellingham, you have to rectify with a whole other set of emotions,” Gibbard says. “I’m a 42-year-old man walking into a bar that I drank in 21 years ago and it looks exactly the same as it did when I was here. … That’s a whole other existential crisis.”