Note: In keeping with the spirit of the new Death Cab album, we are publishing "print-friendly" and "extended-read" versions of this story...
Note: In keeping with the spirit of the new Death Cab album, we are publishing “print-friendly” and “extended-read” versions of this story. This is the extended-read version.
How much bigger — and weirder — can things get for Death Cab for Cutie?
Seattle’s indie-rock superstars are coming off the platinum-selling album “Plans,” which spawned things like a VH1 special with Elvis Costello, and a Grammy nomination. Now, as the May 13 release nears for “Narrow Stairs” — a follow-up album anchored by an eyebrow-raising 8 ½-minute single — last weekend Death Cab “opened” for the Dalai Lama at KeyArena.
His Holiness bestowed a blessing on the band, so they’ve got that going for them.
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(À la Bill Murray’s “Caddyshack” character: “So I jump ship in Hong Kong and make my way over to Tibet, and I get on as a looper at a course over in the Himalayas … A looper, you know, a caddie, a looper, a jock. So, I tell them I’m a pro jock, and who do you think they give me? The Dalai Lama, himself. Twelfth son of the Lama. The flowing robes, the grace, bald … striking … So we finish the 18th and he’s gonna stiff me. And I say, ‘Hey, Lama, hey, how about a little something, you know, for the effort, you know.’ And he says, ‘Oh, uh, there won’t be any money, but when you die, on your deathbed, you will receive total consciousness.’ So I got that goin’ for me, which is nice.”)
But will Death Cab fans bless “Narrow Stairs”? It’s quite a departure from the more mainstream pop of “Plans.” For instance, instead of the former album’s heart-wrenching ballad “I Will Follow You Into the Dark,” this one has “I Will Possess Your Heart,” that epic single, which is about a stalker. The band will debut that song and a handful of others from “Narrow Stairs” Friday night in Bremerton. The concert, at the historic Admiral Theatre, sold out in minutes.
After a few road shows, Death Cab — singer-songwriter Ben Gibbard, guitarist-producer Chris Walla, bass player Nick Harmer and drummer Jason McGerr — will be back in Washington to play the Sasquatch festival at the Gorge on May 25. By then, fans will be digesting and dissecting the 10-year-old Death Cab’s seventh album. Songs like “Bixby Canyon Bridge” and “No Sunlight” reflect the new album’s spiritual and physical setting: Last year, Gibbard searched for song-writing inspiration at the Northern California cabin where Jack Kerouac wrote “Big Sur,” his last novel.
Tuesday morning, Gibbard was back at the Seattle home he shares with his longtime girlfriend. He was still waking up but his usual self: pleasant, polite, insightful, a little self-obsessive — he is a writer, after all — and playfully self-deprecating. And certainly not above a slightly off-the-wall, hourlong phone Q&A.
Q: Set the scene: What have you done — and where — since 6 o’clock last night?
A: [My girlfriend] and I went with a couple friends and saw “Tron” at Cinerama last night. Have you seen “Tron” in recent years? … It’s pretty funny, a sci-fi movie about computers that was done in 1982 — the entire computing in the film is like what you have in your cellphone. …
Q: And this morning?
A: I got up about 8. I’m still having some coffee and milling around in my pajamas.
Q: What percentage of “Narrow Stairs” did you write in Big Sur, and what percentage in Seattle?
A: Maybe 25 — I’ll go 20/80 — 20 percent in Big Sur, 80 percent in Seattle.
Q: I read a Paste magazine article you wrote [check it out here: www.pastemagazine.com/action/article/7074/feature/music/the_meaning_of_life], and it made it seem you were trying to be more simple and less obtuse in your lyrics on this album — is that accurate?
A: I think so. I feel certainly with the last couple records I’ve been feeling a self-imposed shift to writing more literally. … With the older records, [the lyrics] are more veiled…. As I go back on the old songs from the old records, they don’t seem as easily discernible as I thought they did.
Q: Which cut on the new album is most like Death Cab, circa 1998, and which cut is least like Death Cab 10 years ago?
A: “Cath” is undeniably the most Death Cab ’98 song on the album. I was playing some of the cuts for John Roderick from the Long Winters, and he said, [“Cath”] “sounds like old-school Death Cab” … I would say “Bixby Canyon Bridge” and “You Can Do Better Than Me” are the least like anything [from earlier].
Q: Who will be most pissed off by this album: ambivalent critics, Death Cab fanatics or DC haters?
A: I really think the haters will be pissed off more. … With this record, I really feel we stretched and did some things that will take a lot of people by surprise. I think a portion of Death Cab haters will hate us even more because they’ll secretly enjoy it … and if they weren’t such haters they would enjoy it — they’ll be frustrated that we’ve finally done something they like.
Q: Who got to tell Atlantic about the eight-minute single?
A: A couple of [Atlantic Records label] people came to the studio. … Obviously, we were very quick to point out that this 8 ½-minute song could be edited down for the radio. We were really excited about [the song] because it was indicative of the tone of the album, which is a leap forward for us. … But we also haven’t got this far on a major label without playing the game to a certain extent. After selling a million records, we’re not foolish enough to be like, “No one will touch our music or edit it in any way.” We’ve always felt the radio airplay has always been a commercial for the album. …
For us, it’s an 8 ½-minute single that gave everyone a story — how cool was it that the record label’s releasing an 8 ½-minute single? … There are some stations playing the 8 ½-minute version, but none of use have been put off by turning on the radio and hearing the shorter version.
Q: So it doesn’t quite sound like Nirvana’s “In Utero,” the Kurt Cobain “anti-commercial” album?
A: I certainly think — it gets back to that kind of funny question you asked, who will dislike this record most — but I think people who only came to the band [with “Plans”] will be the ones most surprised by this album. … Anybody who’s been a fan of the band or at least knows the older material, there’s not that much in this record that’s wildly different. …
Q: Who would you rather have as a stalker: Britney Spears, Courtney Love or Amy Winehouse?
A: Probably Amy Winehouse. She’d probably have a real difficult time getting into the country. So as long as I’d avoid the U.K. …
Q: Second choice?
A: Given the amount of court appearances Britney Spears is unfortunately required to make, she probably wouldn’t give me trouble as long as I’m not venturing down into L.A., whereas Courtney Love would probably have more time on her hands …
Q: You can choose one or the other, but not both: Discovering a cure that will heal millions physically, but not change their mental state, or writing a song that will lead millions to discover true happiness.
A: I think I’d rather go with the former … assuming somebody has already written a song or has written a song that will bring people’s mental health back around. You have to remember, my pre-music path was in science [which he studied at Bellingham’s Western Washington University]. I’m the kind of person who will literally time how long it takes to get home from different freeway exits because I’m such an analytical person. If the only things I’ll accomplish with music I’ve already done, I would have accomplished more than I thought was possible.
But, given the choice, a Nobel Prize might have been nice for curing malaria or something.
Q: So it sounds like maybe you made the wrong career choice?
A: Yeah, but I’m already 10 years in. [Laughs] And I wanted to be the shortstop for the Seattle Mariners when I was 8 years old. So, yeah, life’s a bitch.
Q: What would you least rather be thought of: a total jerk or a bad writer?
A: I think at the end of the day I’d rather be seen as a bad writer over a total jerk. If people are seen as bad writers, at least it can connote some people see you as a good writer. … People seen as total jerks tend to be megalomaniacal — people who think they should be more famous than they are. … Me, personally, I’m more than satisfied with my level of notoriety for what I do.
Q: You seem to be a rarity, a Seattle rock star/personality/celebrity who is not self-destructive. If this is the case, how do you avoid harmful substances and/or behaviors?
A: I think it’s kind of like, knowing when enough is enough. … I’m 31, going to be 32 this year, and it’s getting to the point of seeing some of my contemporaries who I’ve been partying with for years going off the rails a little bit. … My girlfriend talks about “the Gibbard resolve.” This grim determination, that when something needs to get done we get it done. … I was noticing some unhealthy habits in my life I needed to get right. And so I did.
Q: What’s the biggest trap Death Cab for Cutie could fall into?
A: The trap I would have been worried about, if we hadn’t made this record, was running the risk of falling into a “Docker-rocker,” soft-rock thing.
Q: Why Bremerton — is it just a spot to do a show, or does it have meaning?
A: It certainly has meaning for me — I grew up in Bremerton, for the most part. I was a Navy brat, I was born in Bremerton, that always was home, even though we moved around a bunch. … We wanted to find historic theaters in Washington state — and … no disrespect to Bremerton, but I think everyone there would agree with me — we wanted to go to places that don’t have national acts very frequently. So when Bremerton came up as a possibility, we jumped at it. It’s our first show in a year and half, if you don’t count the Dalai Lama show, which was acoustic.
We’ll be doing six or seven new songs. … I wouldn’t devalue them by saying they’re “warm-up shows,” but it’s certainly our first show back in a while. … We’re trying to figure out how to present the new material properly. [The Admiral] holds a thousand people and sold out in like 5 minutes, so people coming to the show obviously want to hear new songs. …
Q: Who is cooler and why: Elvis Costello or the Dalai Lama?
A: Elvis Costello is, you know, absolutely brilliant. He’s one of the greatest songwriters of all time. But Elvis Costello is only a rock star. The Dalai Lama is like a spiritual leader, a rock star and president all at once. Really, no question, the Dalai Lama is cooler. … Giving blessings happens all the time for this guy, but all hyperbole aside, it was one of the most humbling experiences of my adult life.
Q: Who for you is a better writer and, briefly, why: Bob Dylan or Jack Kerouac?
A: I’ve always kind of felt that kind of comparing/contrasting writers across genres is something best left to professional rock and literary critics. … I’m very proud of the lyrics I write … but I still feel lyrics are never to be divorced from the music. … People say, “Bob Dylan was the greatest poet of his generation” — no, he’s the greatest songwriter of his generation.
I think Kerouac first and foremost was a writer. He played with language a lot more than Bob Dylan did. But I can’t see a place to compare them. …
Q: If there were a movie made about Death Cab for Cutie, who would you rather have play you, Owen or Luke Wilson?
A: Owen Wilson is the blond one, right? So I think it would probably be Luke Wilson. … It wouldn’t be hard for him to put on 15 pounds, to look a little more like I do, and throw some glasses on.
Q: Who should play Chris Walla — Kevin Bacon or Matt Damon?
A: I think it would probably have to be Kevin Bacon. At least in those Hanes commercials he has the same haircut as Chris. … Slather Kevin Bacon with some foundation and knock about 10 years off him, he’d be an ample stand-in for Chris.
Q: And Nick Harmer? Jack Black or Matthew Broderick?
A: I’m going with Matthew Broderick. Nick’s been rocking a beard lately, and I’ve seen photos of Matthew Broderick with a beard. Throw some contacts in Matthew Broderick to give him dreamy eyes. …
Q: Jason McGerr: Matt Dillon or Matthew McConaughey?
A: My understanding is Matthew McConaughey is balding … and obviously there’s no secret Jason is balding. And they have a similar build. Jason McGerr is built like a pit bull; he’s the naturally strongest guy I’ve ever met in my life, and he doesn’t lift weights.
Q: When you die, if you could choose between the two, would you rather come back as Kurt Cobain or Jimi Hendrix, and why?
A: I think I’d come back as Jimi Hendrix. I lived through the early ’90s and remember what it was like, so it’d be nice to experience the ’60s through someone like Jimi Hendrix’s eyes.
Q: If “Narrow Stairs” totally bombs, whose fault will it be?
A: It’ll be completely our fault. It’ll be our fault if only for making a record that we — how can I put this? — our fault for completely ignoring the things that people wanted out of our band or want from our band in place of things we wanted.