Ten years ago last August, Death Cab for Cutie released their debut LP, Something About Airplanes, a highly literate and pleasantly unassuming set of carefully constructed songs that set the band on a journey to chart-topping superstardom that hardly seems to exist for bands who sound like Death Cab anymore. Barsuk has now reissued …Airplanes, and tossed in a bootleg of the band’s first Seattle show as a bonus; the excellent combination is available today at a fine record store near you. This morning, we rang up Death Cab founder and frontman Ben Gibbard in Germany — where the band is wrapping up its big fancy world tour and heading home for Thanksgiving — and asked him to join us in assessing his decade. It all started with a cassette tape. Quaint!
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When Something About Airplanes came out and you held it in your hands for the first time, what was that like? How did it feel?
BEN GIBBARD: We had agreed to do it with a label in Bellingham [Wash.] that our friends owned, called Elsinor Records, and Barsuk Records came in because they were friends with the people who ran Elsinor. To call these record labels — you know, they were putting out cassettes. I think there was maybe one 7-inch on either label at that point. So we had a meeting at Joe and Jay Chilcote’s house, these two brothers who ran Elsinor Records, and we sat there with Josh Rosenfeld, CEO of Barsuk, and we talked about pressing 1,000 copies. I remember there being some argument as to whether 1,000 copies was too many to press. I feel like I may have come down on the side of 500. So when that first box of records showed up, and we all pulled them out — people had been putting out records for many years up to that point, and so you hold your own for the first time and it’s just an amazing sense of accomplishment. I’d been trying to get bands started for years and was never really able to get anything going that got to a point where we were actually recording anything, let alone anything releasable. It’s kind of cliché, but it was a sense of accomplishment beyond anything I’d ever felt.
When you decided to take Death Cab from what was essentially a solo project and bring more people in, why was Chris Walla the right person to go to first?
We just liked a lot of the same music, and at the time, in Bellingham, I didn’t really know a lot of people who were into the same music that I was. Not that it was so strange to be into indie rock and Brit pop, but I hadn’t met anybody I felt like spoke the same language. Chris was also learning how to record bands and going to college to take audio engineering classes. He was living in a suburb of Seattle and would come up on the weekends, and he would rent a recording device, like an 8-track reel-to-reel, and we’d just record songs that we had written or covers or whatever. Just these weekend projects. And eventually I accrued enough songs over the course of about a year or so after meeting him that I had the idea to start this side project, and Chris had just bought a reel-to-reel 8-track machine, and he needed a place to put it. So he put it in the house I was living in at the time, and then he eventually moved into that house. And we put together that cassette [1997's You Can Play These Songs With Chords]. And it sent waves around Bellingham, selling upwards of 150 copies [laughs], and we decided we could maybe put together a band to play some new songs live.
It’s so funny how much was centered around a reel-to-reel. I can’t imagine anyone now being like, “Hey man, I need a place to leave my MacBook.”
Analog recording is a connoisseur’s kind of medium. But even 10 years ago, reel-to-reel machines were becoming hard to find. Chris has always prided himself on doing things kind of old school. We went from a reel-to-reel and then sent them away to a cassette manufacturing plant that sent back the cassettes, and then we had to cut and fold all the covers…
So retro. It’s very clear how much the Seattle music community played into your upbringing and success, and I think the liner notes that Sean Nelson from Harvey Danger wrote for this reissue— which are, first of all, really kick-ass liner notes…
Yeah, he did a great job. I’m really proud of him. He really captured that period of our band better than anybody else could have.
But I read about your early days in tiny club/demo cassette world and think to myself, Wow, now someone can record one song on their computer and put it on their MySpace page and get a record deal. It’s like the romance is gone.
I think it’s just a different type of romance. I find myself remembering this thing Mike Watt said: Not everybody can be born at the same time. Not everybody can have the same rise to whatever level of success of the generation before them. The meteoric rise of a band like the Fleet Foxes — they have become incredibly successful really quick because they’re really, really good at what they do. And just because they exist in a climate where your MySpace page has hundreds of thousands of hits before you’ve released anything, it’s completely circumstantial. I feel very fortunate that we were able to have the slow-building career that we’ve had, just in the sense that it’s the only reality I know. But I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way to find out about music, and I think if this record was coming out in 2008 for the first time, we would be hoping to utilize the Internet the same way everybody else has: to make a lot of people find out about our band as quickly as possible. It wasn’t fun playing those shows in Sacramento for three people. It certainly built character, but it wasn’t fun. I don’t look back on that and wish I was still doing that. Or, conversely, I don’t think that’s necessary for a contemporary band. Bands develop at a speed that makes sense to them, and fits their learning curve, and some bands that have risen very quickly will fall even quicker. But some will be around for a very long time. I think it just separates the wheat from the chaff that much faster.
Yes, there’s a lot more chewing up and spitting out now. And I think you guys have one foot in each world — you were also one of the bands first adopted and shepherded by blogging culture, as that sort of rose up and became the way many people discover new music. Would you agree?
I don’t know if I’m in a position to agree or disagree. I feel like by the time I was aware of the concept of the music blog, people were already over us. If that is the case, I certainly thank them for their albeit-fleeting interest in the early phases of our career, to get us to where we are now.
The other aspect of the Death Cab template is the placement of music on TV shows. Obviously, you benefited from the O.C. effect, and that’s really established itself as a sustainable model for bands to get exposure, now that no one buys records anymore.
That certainly was a boost for us. I always like to point out that we’re still putting out records and that show’s been off the air for a couple years now. I’m glad that’s turned out to be a very productive chapter in the band’s career, but not necessarily the prevailing story as we continue on.
Oh, you don’t want to be defined by Seth Cohen?
I’d prefer not to. I’d prefer to be defined by the records that I’ve made. But you know, all of the traditional outlets that we as the music industry use to get turned on to new music are either gone or changing format or going online, or just trying to keep up with the speed of information these days. As much as I’m all talked out on The O.C., it’s certainly interesting to me that millions of people heard our music in a format other than commercial radio and MTV, a lot of people who wouldn’t have otherwise heard our music. And there was a real paradigm shift that happened in pop culture where that became an okay thing to do. I’m not saying it became okay because we decided it was okay for us. But there’s a vast number of bands who you never thought would license music to TV. You started hearing Modest Mouse in minivan commercials, places that had traditionally been taboo. Maybe not even so much taboo, but those doors were never open. I mean, maybe no one ever asked Sebadoh if they wanted to use a song for a commercial. There’s a generation of people my age who grew up with indie rock and all of a sudden they found themselves with jobs where they could put their music into the places they wanted to hear it.
I guess I’m trying to get you to admit — and you’re probably not going to — that in some way you guys have defined what an indie rock band looks like in the last 10 years, even now that you’re on a major. Whether it’s the way your songs have gotten into the mainstream, or your journey from playing the Crocodile in Seattle to having a No. 1 album this year, you’ve had a trajectory that ostensibly could be modeled by up and coming bands.
That’s very possible. I would hesitate to spin back to you what you just told me, because I don’t want to come off as arrogant, but I do think that we are one of a very small handful of bands who began a career as an independent band before a lot of this cultural shift started happening. I think we’re one, Modest Mouse is one, Wilco is another — bands that had records in the mid to late ’90s as these shifts were starting to happen and that are still here and still putting out records. I’m sure somewhere in an office there’s some record executive in the final throes of his job, trying to convince a young indie band to sign to his big label, and maybe he’s throwing our name around as a way they’re going to be marketed and built. But I’m not so sure that the build we have can be modeled, just because it seems like such a strange, serendipitous series of events to me when I look back on it all. We never had a plan. We never had a career path that we were attempting to follow, other than the fact that we thought R.E.M. was great. We just kind of made decisions — and continue to — on a very day-to-day basis. Thankfully, the vast majority of decisions we’ve made have been the right ones. But as I look back on the last 10 years with this record being reissued, and I see those photos from when we were all 21, 22 years old, we look so young and bright-eyed. And I look at myself now, both physically and where I find myself as a musician and a creative person — it all seems like a little bit of a blur.
Yes, it’s almost impossible to put yourself into historical perspective, which is why I like to ask people to do it, and see what comes out.
I just really want to avoid revisionist history in relation to my own work. You know what I mean? I don’t want to start looking back and saying, “Yes, we absolutely knew that this was the path we wanted to go on!” I think we all make really good decisions together, and the majority have been the right ones, but there are many bands that we have been friends with throughout the years — some who are still around, some who aren’t — that were making records that I think were just as able to cross over to the mainstream as ours were, and didn’t. So I think we’re good at what we do, I’m proud of the music I’ve written, but to try and pick up why it happened to us and not American Analog Set is not something I feel I can make a sweeping comment on.
When you go back and listen to …Airplanes, is there a place where you say, “That is the place this band started, and what we’re still doing now”? Is there a nugget in there that you think encapsulates Death Cab?
You know, I still really like playing “Your Bruise.” I feel like there are moments throughout the catalog that have echoes of that song. I think it’s the arrangement. I wrote the drum parts and my guitar part, and each instrument was doing a particular type of noodley, puzzle-piece kind of part. I’ve always enjoyed writing songs like that, deconstructing the parts. I like how in that song everything is very pulled apart and arpeggiated, and everything has its own space without taking up too much sonic space. I really like playing that song a lot — I think it’s on the set list tonight. But I think a lot of the lyrics on the record are a lot more obtuse than I thought they were when I wrote them. I kind of had very clear images in my head of what all these songs were about, and I thought people were going to put this record on and really delve into the lyrics and get into the story, and as I put it on now, the obtuseness of the lyrics is maybe not what I was attempting years ago.
We were all much deeper when we were 22.
I think we probably were, weren’t we? Everything was a lot more serious and precious back then.