The sensitive, polite, nice guys that are Death Cab for Cutie were reared in the Seattle area during the heyday of grunge.
Though their name might suggest a hard edge, for eight years Death Cab has been building a following with gentle, introspective pop. Far from brash and loud anti-heroes, they are, as guitarist Chris Walla says, more a reaction to their hometown’s fabled era.
Their punk revolution? “Stay in your living room! Have a quiet night with your girlfriend! Listen to some records!” jokes Walla.
Last year, thanks to some major plugging on the hit TV show “The O.C.,” their fourth album, “Transatlanticism,” sold more than 200,000 copies — sensational for an indie release. Now making the hazardous but frequently lucrative jump to a major label with a new album, “Plans,” Death Cab is poised for the big time.
But can nice guys finish first in rock ’n’ roll?
Proximity to grungeBen Gibbard is rolling on his hotel bed, tugging at pillows.
The Death Cab frontman’s brown bangs hang above his large, thin-framed black glasses as he tries to summon some energy after a long day of talking to the press.
“I just want the record to come out,” Gibbard wishes, a week before it will. “When the first record came out, it came out when it got back from the pressing plant. The release date was when the box showed up with 1,000 copies!”
Gibbard formed Death Cab for Cutie in 1997, naming the group after a Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band song featured in the Beatles movie “Magical Mystery Tour.” Walla joined him, as did bassist Nick Harmer. They have since rotated drummers, but Jason McGerr seems to have locked down the job.
As a young teenager during Seattle’s days of Nirvana and Pearl Jam, Gibbard says, “it was exciting that the world was taking notice of what was happening in our backyard — whether or not the music was the kind that I really cared for.”
Harmer agrees: “We learned about being in a band and being approachable and being a good person by watching bands from Seattle, in some cases, go through their implosions.”
Death Cab’s appeal is the same now as it was then: layered, well-produced harmonies that aren’t scared of a little contained jamming, but are still predicated on Gibbard’s high, melodic voice and relationship-heavy lyrics.
“I feel like the thing Ben does best in his writing is scripting the tiny details and the spaces in between,” says Walla. “Like, I would never, ever have thought to write a song (’Title and Registration’) that addresses lost love by way of the glove compartment.”
'O.C.' comes knockingOver the years, Death Cab built a loyal fan base from touring. “I don’t think their personalities are necessarily these big, extraordinary, larger-than-life characters,” says Josh Rosenfeld, who signed the band to his Barsuk label. “They’re really just normal guys.”
Being normal seems to be one of the reasons Death Cab is so popular. Offensive to no one, soothing to the lovelorn, they occupy a space in music something like Coldplay for thinkers.
Also, the undying admiration of “The O.C.’s” Adam Brody doesn’t hurt. Brody’s character on the Fox show is frequently heard proclaiming Death Cab his favorite band. They also performed at the show’s hangout, The Bait Shop.
“Their music is perfectly suited for our show — the sound of the songs, the personalities of the band members,” says Alexandra Patsavas, the show’s music supervisor.
Though clearly helpful in exposing Death Cab to a younger, teenage audience — a demographic that tends to like romantic songs of heartbreak — there is the risk that the band has become too linked to a network teen drama.
“‘The O.C.’ has been great and was amazing for us,” says Walla, “but I would hate to think that we were the band that was made by ‘The O.C.”’
Couldn't say noRosenfeld considered it “improbable” that Death Cab would ever leave his Barsuk label: “They’d been getting attention from major labels for years and had always not been interested at all.”
But this time around, Death Cab couldn’t say no to Atlantic. Having built its fan base organically, the progression felt natural. And with four albums behind them (all produced by Walla), the band was confident in their ability to stay true to themselves.
“We’ve been handed this opportunity where we can make a real dent in popular music that we never would have had before,” Gibbard says. “I think we all believe in what we’re doing to such an extent that I want to take that risk. If this doesn’t work out, that’s fine, but at least we tried it.”
The band also points to radically improved international distribution, and the majors refocusing on distributing artists rather than “producing” them.
The talented songwriter John Vanderslice, a friend of the band and former Barsuk labelmate, defends the decision. “In many ways, they’ve just kind of outgrown being on an independent label. They’ve changed and progressed and shed skin.”
The result? A “turning point in contemporary mainstream rock,” observed The Los Angeles Times.
A somber setting
On the lead track, “Marching Bands of Manhattan,” Gibbard paints one of his trademark pictures: “Sorrow drips into your heart through a pinhole/ Just like a faucet that leaks and there is comfort in the sound.”
On “What Sara Said,” Gibbard details the experience of sitting in a hospital waiting room. One line sums up the album: “Love is watching someone die.”
Nearing age 30, Gibbard has mortality on his mind. The album’s title refers to the futility of “plans” in the face of life and death.
More than age is behind such sentiments, says Walla. “Some of it is that Ben’s in a really great, committed relationship, I think for the first time in his life,” he said. “When you’re used to heartbreak, I think you start imagining heartbreak in other ways and that’s how the mortality thing came up.”
Gibbard explains it thus: “Everyone has those moments in their lives when that kind of youthful idea, ’I’m going to live forever, nothing is ever going to affect me’ — you lose that. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all. I think it’s an important part of growing up.”
And so as Death Cab for Cutie matures, their nice guy, corduroy-and-sweater revolution will not be televised. But you won’t have to leave your living room, either.