“On the Road” with Death Cab for Cutie isn’t just a weak pun for the touring band. Jack Kerouac’s book is an inspiration to lead singer and songwriter Ben Gibbard, who wrote many of the songs on their new album “Narrow Stairs” at a cabin in California’s Big Sur once occupied by the author.
Death Cab for Cutie performed Sunday at the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival where their powerful, rocking new material sounded befitting the large festival stage, as it did at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.
The Seattle-based band is at an apparent apogee, both artistically and commercially. “Narrow Stairs,” their second major label release for Atlantic Records, debuted no. 1 on the Billboard sales charts. (Their last album, “Plans,” sold even better in its first week and recently went platinum.)
“I’m not going to lie, having the number one record is quite an accolade and is very exciting,” said Gibbard in an interview backstage before the band’s Bonnaroo performance. “But the fact that that many people had to go out and have it on the first week ... that makes me feel really good.”
But “Narrow Stairs” might also be their best album yet — guitarist Chris Walla called it a “curveball” before it came out. It has drawn very positive reviews and their always energetic live performance now has a bigness to it that the softer songs on “Plans” didn’t supply.
“It’s really strange that our most successful record was the quietest, most introspective record we ever made,” said Gibbard. “But I feel like with this new record, there’s just a lot more guitars, there’s a lot more rock, and in a way it feels a lot more akin to some of the material on the earlier records than ‘Transatlanticism’ and ‘Plans.”’
Gibbard says that’s not a result of any specific goal the band had for “Narrow Stairs,” but an outcome from how it was recorded — in analog fashion, “like a band playing in a room.”
“It certainly has been translating, so far, on these bigger stages a lot better,” he said.
A good bar in Brussels, anyone?Gibbard and the band were politically involved last election year and the singer recalls playing Las Vegas on election day in 2004 as “one of the worst places to be in the country, let alone on such a tragic day, at least for my political persuasion.”
This time around, Gibbard — a supporter of Barack Obama — has considered how he’ll approach politics on the stage.
“I look back now on some of the things I might have said on stage or some of the things I might have done in particular areas of the country ... and am maybe a little bit embarrassed about the way I handled myself,” said Gibbard. “On most occasions, I did it the right way, but there was a couple times I did it the wrong way.”
The band will be touring through the summer, playing both amphitheater and theater gigs with Rogue Wave. They head to Europe in July where they have more festivals scheduled and will be in Japan for the Summer Sonic festival before several stops in Australia in August.
Gibbard acknowledges life on the road today is a little cleaner, a little more civilized than it was in Kerouac’s day, but he thinks the core of the experience is still there.
“This lifestyle allots us a lot of similar types of relationships and a similar type of worldliness that makes you realize that people really aren’t that different,” said Gibbard. “There’s something really great about being in a band and breezing into a town that you’ve been to a handful of times and you have friends there.
“It’s weird that I now know a good restaurant and a good bar in Brussels. Why would I know that?"