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"It was really ugly," Death Cab for Cutie guitarist and producer Chris Walla says. He's recalling an incident during an October gig at the University of Vermont where he unleashed the fists of fury on an unruly fan. "I haven't landed a punch on somebody since I was in eighth grade I think."
"I figured out this wasn't really that cool, and then I figured out I was in a lot of pain and that I was really angry, so I threw off my guitar and I tackled one of these kids down a flight of stairs, then I punched him, and then I really freaked out and realized that I just punched somebody," Walla says.
Lesson being: Don't let the pretty songs fool you, and don't fuck with Death Cab for Cutie.
With its latest album, the smashing Transatlanticism, hitting the stores last month, Death Cab for Cutie stands as the torchbearers for a new indie-rock aesthetic, humble but ambitious musicians who aren't ashamed to want to reach as many listeners as possible. Transatlanticism is the Seattle quartet's fourth full-length album, yet it's light-years beyond the band's last LP, 2001's disappointing The Photo Album. Transatlanticism is a breathy, sprawling opus built on songs about physical and emotional distance that vacillate between crashing rockers like "The New Year" and minimal piano dirges like "Passenger Seat," covering miles of unexplored territory in between. Attribute Death Cab's experimental sound this time out to a new perspective on recording that came with the leisure of owning their own studio.
"Now we're really operating where we're building things in the studio and then learning how to play them live," explains Ben Gibbard, the band's singer and chief songwriter. "Most of the records, we'd play live and tour [the songs] and then finally get to record them and try to take a picture of the way the songs were live. That's kind of boring. It's a boring way to make records when the studio, instead of being a place for experimentation, it becomes a Sears photo studio. You go in with your nice clothes and sit down and take a couple pictures, then you can give them out to your friends."
The band wrote and recorded Transatlanticism over the course of a year and a half, with Gibbard escaping to San Francisco for a time to compose in solitude -- sort of.
"It definitely isn't like sitting in a cabin with no electricity working on music; nothing quite that romantic," he says. With a stack of demos in hand, the band members set about filtering the songs into a cohesive album with a constant thread of separation anxiety running through them, expressed with both despair and yearning.
"We can just dig in forever and ever," Walla says. "The thing we knew we wanted to do was make a record that was more experimental than the last record, where we weren't attached to the arrangements and anything goes. During the making of the record we were listening to these big, ambitious records. [U2's] The Joshua Tree got referenced a lot, [the Flaming Lips'] The Soft Bulletin, Pet Sounds, Peter Gabriel records -- just big, creatively orchestrated records. That's what we want to do, and I think we're just now starting to fine-tune that."
The best moments on the record come in the eight-minute title track, a tidal crescendo that begins with only keyboard chords and a quietly bubbling drum machine, guitars slowly washing in while the intensity rises with the volume, borne along by Gibbard's plaintive one-line chorus, "I need you so much closer." The song ends with a chorus of voices singing, "So come on," with such earnestness one voice alone never could have conveyed it.
Reminiscing on "We Looked Like Giants," Gibbard sings, "Every Thursday I'd brave those mountain passes/And you'd skip your early classes/And we'd learn how our bodies worked." On "The New Year," he wishes "the world were flat like the old days, so I could travel just by folding the map."
Gibbard is a strikingly talented songwriter, able to express complex emotions with lyrical ingenuity. Just don't ask him what the songs actually mean.
"I think a large part of the way I write the way I do, and the subject matter I choose to write about, is more a matter of closing books on things," says Gibbard. "So for me, rehashing what songs are about or being asked if they're personal -- of course they're personal, I wrote them. Every song you write has a part of you in it, whether or not you're making up a story or you're singing verbatim something that happened to you. I'm more interested to hear what people think the songs are about.
"My interpretation's boring; it's like giving you the answer to the puzzle."
Death Cab for Cutie has spent its existence on the small Seattle label Barsuk Records, also home to Nada Surf, John Vanderslice, and Kind of Like Spitting. Now the band's cachet is such that characters on the adolescent Fox drama The O.C. reference Death Cab, and it's logical to wonder if Barsuk will be able to keep up with the band's burgeoning popularity.
Gibbard found unexpected success early this year with The Postal Service, a collaboration with indie-tronic artist Dntel, a.k.a. Jimmy Tamborello. The two swapped music through the mail (hence the name), with Tamborello sending Gibbard his poppy, New Wave electronic constructions, and Gibbard then adding vocals and the occasional guitar. The Postal Service's precious Sub Pop album Give Up spread to a wider audience than any Death Cab for Cutie release had at that point.
"None of us would have imagined it would do as well as it has," Gibbard says. Yet Transatlanticism should shortly eclipse the Postal Service's popularity. "I think in the last three weeks we've sold almost as many [copies of Transatlanticism] as The Photo Album has in the last two and a half years," Walla says.
While the band members may be surprised by those numbers, they do their best not to act overwhelmed -- "I want to be the band that people see, and not just 300 people," Gibbard told GQ in a fawning blurb.
"It's kind of a weird quote to read, it sounds weird," he says now. "The whole idea of putting out records is because you feel you have something special and you want to share it with people. The real question is, why should there be a cap on that number of people? There seems to be such a stigma with indie-rock. It's okay for 2,000 people to like us because they really know music, but if a million people bought our record, that wouldn't be cool."
As for the attention being lavished on Death Cab for Cutie and Transatlanticism, Gibbard is circumspect about praise from the fashion rags.
"It's hilarious. Who doesn't like being validated by taste-making magazines?" he says. "We're all just at our core kind of humble, simple people. We're all fuckin' dorks, y'know. There's nothing cool about us. It's like we're pulling the wool over somebody's eyes. You actually think we're cool? What the hell's wrong with you?"