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Death Cab for Cutie
Death Cab for CutiePhotography Eliot Lee Hazel

Ben Gibbard and Nick Harmer on the cult legacy of Death Cab for Cutie

Ahead of their London show tonight, the band reflect on their role creating an emotional soundtrack for a generation

Few artists’ voices can propel you into a tailspin and lead you right back to your teens. Ben Gibbard, frontman of Death Cab for Cutie, has the voice and the presence that takes me to a bedroom covered in posters, fuggy indie club nights, and Seth Cohen of the The O.C.’s car.

Still, it’s strange to be talking with someone whose cadence and lyricism I attribute to heartbreak and cavernous emotion about marathon-running. The first five years of Death Cab, where Gibbard and bandmate Nick Harmer would crash on living room floors and eat mustard sandwiches in the back of tour buses, is a distant but fond memory. Today, he’d rather run. “Man, I look back at that Plans era and think, ‘I really made life so difficult for myself,’” Gibbard says when we meet at the offices of their record label, Atlantic. “Nick and I used to smoke so much, drink copious amounts of alcohol. I feel myself getting more physical in shows these days – they can be two-hour affairs, but I can do 27-hour ultramarathons. It’s maybe a mid-30s thing.”

As with anyone whose career spans over 20 years, from soundtracking teen TV shows like The Hills and The O.C., to Grammy nominations and band line-up changes, the Seattle group’s ideals have shifted. Last year’s album Thank You For Today, their ninth, includes caustic evaluations of industry-affected life (“60 & Punk”, which bites like Plans), richly textured songs that hit Narrow Stairs steeples of indie-pop (“Autumn Love”), and reflections on more tangibly adult issues, like the changing Seattle landscape and the plod of time (“Sometimes I’m overcome with every choice I couldn’t outrun,” Gibbard laments on “Summer Years”).

What hasn’t changed is Death Cab’s dedication to their loyal fans. “Thank you for sharing your hearts with us, be they beating brightly or broken,” the band tweeted last year when they announced the album. “We’re still making music for the teens, the twenties, now the thirties,” says Nick Harmer. “It’s for yourself, it’s for Seth. This is a record for the second roaring twenties. We wanted to remind people what kind of a relationship they had with us, rekindle love, and stir new love.” It’s something that’s been playing out on their recent tour, which has seen them mix classic gems and sincere nostalgia with fresh sensibilities and expert experimentalism.

Ahead of their show tonight at London’s Hammersmith Apollo, Gibbard and Harmer discuss musical time machines, the wonder of new music discovery in the era of Spotify, and Death Cab’s cult appeal.

You’ve been playing a lot of older, never-before-played-live tunes on tour, like “Expo”. Do you feel there’s old emotions and narratives attached to these old songs that you maybe don’t feel anymore?

Ben Gibbard: It’s maybe a bit of a tired analogy, but it’s a little bit like cracking open an old book of photos. I remember what these songs were about, I remember the context in which I wrote them. “Expo” is like, “Yeah, I remember who this song’s about, and I remember the A-frame attic that I wrote it in in Seattle. I remember what the demo sounded like.” It’s an opportunity to re-interface with your own past. I find it comforting.

Nick Harmer: There’s no real ‘clever’ way to explain it. It feels like a time machine. I don’t live in that space until we play the song, and then suddenly, woosh, I can just be transported right back there. It doesn’t wear out. It’s not that we play “Expo” and I’m like, “Oh, this old thing, I don’t relate to this song any longer.” I never feel a disconnect because of time. Some we don’t play for a reason, but then others we definitely don’t play enough.

Are there any songs that you’d be scared to play live again?

Ben Gibbard: Yeah, pretty much all of Codes and Keys! ‘Scared’ is maybe not the right word, but it felt like we made it in a laboratory, it’s hard to take them into the real world. The songs that we still play from all the records are just enjoyable and effortless to play. You can just be in the song, it has its own life. Our fans enjoy those the most. When I see the songs that people are reacting to, I feel the same. This circular energy that is created in that is because I love this song, too. I think the songs that we tend to shelve are the songs that are either too cerebral or that don’t necessary translate live.

Nick Harmer: Well, I was thinking about our first few records. We obviously tried everything live, because we needed sets. We had, like, ten songs! Now it’s much easier to let things go.

What album is the biggest time warp for you?

Nick Harmer: I’ll always go back to Something About Airplanes. I know it’s the first one, and it makes sense because it’s the longest stretch of time. When I think about where we’ve been making the last couple of records, and how we made that album. Facts too.

Ben Gibbard: Yeah, well we made most of Facts in your mom’s house.

Nick Harmer: Yep, our first two were in living rooms and bedrooms.

Ben Gibbard: There’s some handy-cam footage that’s survived from that era, and we’re just so fucking young. It’s hard to not feel how the years have gone by, but also, it feels like it’s just yesterday. The kids in that video could never have imagined a tenth of what this band has gone through.

You guys put out audio from your first show a while back. I’m sure that’s so nostalgic, listening back.

Ben Gibbard: That was in a living room with maybe 20 people, a time capsule of this very idyllic period in our lives. We were in this little college town, nobody cared about it or the music coming out of it, but everybody in that community lived and died for it.

Nick Harmer: We’re still playing some of those songs! (Laughs)

Ben Gibbard: You know, listening back to that recording was a reminder that this should be fun, and the spirit of why we do this should remain the same. I don’t find that daunting or overwhelming, that’s just part of what our lives are like now. This should come down to people who care very deeply for each other and have something they want to express. If that ceases to be the motivation, then it’s time to find another job.

Are you ever surprised by what songs become fan favourites?

Nick Harmer: Yeah, one like “Title and Registration”. I love Transatlanticism, but that was one of those songs I never thought would work live. It occupied an interesting space for me. It’s interesting hearing feedback from fans, journalists, and friends on Thank You For Today.

Ben Gibbard: There’s a song in every record where we’re like, “People are going to shit their pants when they hear this one,” and then when the record comes out it’s like, “Oh no, you didn’t like that one, no?”

Nick Harmer: I’m surprised about what people dislike, more than what they do like.

“We’re lucky to have a record that marks a definitive time in people’s lives... Our relationship to music is as much contextual as it is relative to the actual music itself” – Ben Gibbard, Death Cab for Cutie

The Ice Is Getting Thinner” is a tune that has a particular sting for me, soundtracking a particularly bad teen break-up.

Ben Gibbard: Oh really! Wow, you’re the first person who’s said that to me.

Nick: That’s one we’ve never played live.

I’d die if you did.

Ben Gibbard: I love when someone has a favourite that isn’t obvious. Those stories are better than hearing “I love Sound of Settling’” one more time. It’s like, “Well, yeah, it’s a two-and-a-half minute pop song.”

Thank You For Today was your first album without Chris Walla. How did that feel?

Ben Gibbard: In the past, if I couldn’t finish songs, I would just leave them open. I thought, “Oh, Chris will figure something out, he’ll save this one.” This time, I knew it was going to be a pivotal record for determining band’s future. I had to come in with complete demos. We love Dave (Depper) and Zac (Rae, both current bandmates), but we’d never worked with them in this capacity, and had to be sure we were entering as best we could. It’s one thing to enjoy being on a tour bus and playing all the songs, laughing and goofing off. It’s another to be in the creative process with people. I think the reality turned out to be kind of a happy medium. There were songs that definitely took on a life of their own. Rich Costey (producer) leaned over to me on the couch when we were working and was like “Man, I knew these guys were good, but what they’re bringing…”

We were never trying to replace Chris, he isn’t a replaceable musical figure. I’ve often felt too that our albums ride or die based on the quality of the songwriting. The most brilliant production in the world can’t save sub-par songs, it just can’t. A few years ago I was adamant we would be successful so long as we keep the quality control on the songs.

The O.C. celebrated a major anniversary last year. The show made your music its own recurring storyline. Did soundtracking these moments of teen television influence your trajectory?

Ben Gibbard: It was interesting. In 2003, we just got an email saying, “Hey, there’s this show on Fox that’s going to use one of your songs.” It was great, we were broke and it paid money. We were fairly established in the indie scene, but that certainly played a part in bringing us to a larger audience. When it happened in the States, it was kind of like, “Death Cab is to The O.C. like The Shins are to Garden State.” The Flaming Lips were on Beverly Hills 90210. The show had precluded our arrival overseas. It’s definitely a whole, odd chapter in our story. I found out a while ago that the show is going into syndication in Laos and Cambodia. There’s a whole new audience experiencing us.

Nick Harmer: I was surprised by how big the show was outside the US, and coupling that with the changing landscape of how people discover music, I had to shake off all my old ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ ways to find out about music. There’s no wrong way to find a band that you like.

Ben Gibbard: For one of our first dates, my wife and I went to see The Perks of Being a Wallflower, where one of the main plotlines is that somebody heard a song on the radio that was so amazing, but they couldn’t remember what it was. They had to wait until it came on again to figure it out. Like wow, I remember that being a reality! Then when we pulled into London here, I was trying to remember this song: “Growing up in east London, sunny east London, on the corner waiting for conundrums.” I just put in ‘sunny east London song’ and it came up: Hak Baker, “Conundrum”. I can remember five lyrics of a song and just find it, and it doesn’t diminish my connection or love of that song, that I could have it so quickly. The nature of discovery has changed so dramatically.

What’s a lesson that you’ve learned from being in a band for so long?

Ben Gibbard: We’re lucky to have a record that marks a definitive time in people’s lives. We played Meltdown Festival for Robert Smith, maybe the most influential character on my life. I remember being 14 and listening to “Pictures of You” over and over as my family moved around for what felt like the fifteenth time in a decade. Our relationship to music is as much contextual as it is relative to the actual music itself.

It’s our responsibility to respect our history, too. I saw one of my favourite bands, who will remain nameless. They hadn’t played in Seattle for years. I was so excited. They had a new record out. They played for 70 minutes, playing the entire new record, oddly chosen catalogue songs, and two hits. Man, I still love this band, but it was just like… dude, you guys are on your 12th record, why would you think that we want to hear the whole thing? We understand, and I think we have a better understanding than some other bands, what people want to hear from us in a live setting. As a performer, I don’t understand why somebody would want to look out at hundreds, thousands of people just putting up with something.

I’m sure it’s surreal when you get people screaming your lyrics still.

Ben Gibbard: Oh, it’s so fun. It’s even more powerful, for me at least, when I can tell that these people weren’t sentient beings when these songs were written. It means a lot to see 20-year-olds who know Airplanes.

Death Cab for Cutie play London’s Hammersmith Apollo tonight (February 1)