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FILTER 17: Learning to Love the White Noise with Death Cab For Cutie

By Pat McGuire; thumbnail by Danny Clinch on June 2, 2011


FILTER 17: Learning to Love the White Noise with Death Cab For Cutie

Almost six years before the highly anticipated release of Codes and Keys, Death Cab For Cutie were gearing up to release 2005's Plans and completely unaware of the positive feedback the album would ultimately receive. FILTER caught up with the band before the album hit to discuss the life cycle the band had gone through up to that point and the effect it had on the metamorphosis of their music.

Who will die first? She says she wants to die first because she would feel unbearably lonely and sad without me. She is adamant about this…It isn’t that she doesn’t cherish life; it’s being alone that frightens her. The emptiness, the sense of cosmic darkness.

— Don DeLillo, White Noise

Ben Gibbard is pushing 30. He’s growing up. His youth is nearly behind him. He’s in a serious relationship. He’s bought a house. He’s going through all of those adult things that we’ve all either gone through or will be very soon. And while it seems that the majority of his band’s fans fall into the latter category, there’s just something in the easy, stark resonance of his words that draws us all in, no matter our age or experience, and says to us, in that high, unfeigned alto, “Hey there. I feel you.” You can trust a guy who sings in that key. He knows who he is, and he’s not afraid of it.

And while he may know who he is, Ben Gibbard, like so many of us, is struggling to define who he is in the eyes of someone else. He has reached that point in his life where he may never have to be alone again. Except, of course, in the event of that one dangling, taunting pest; that indeterminate, unavoidable little bitch that, whether we took up a pen and signed on the X or not, we’re bound to contractually just because. But before we get to Death, in this story at least, let’s go back to the other end of that line, to the birth, and see how this whole thing started.

Death Cab For Cutie began with a broken heart. Gibbard, who was writing songs under the name All Time Quarterback, made a record about a break-up, and with the help of fellow Washington buddies Chris Walla (guitar/producer) and Nick Harmer (drums), he got it out into the world. People liked it. They could relate. Gibbard, Walla and Harmer liked it too. They decided to form a band.

It has been that same heart, mending itself, breaking, reforming, crumbling, then mending all over again, that would provide most of the band’s creative fodder. The first proper Death Cab For Cutie album, Something About Airplanes, with original drummer Nathan Good, was about the juxtaposition of those who feel everything and those who don’t feel anything at all.

A couple of years passed, and two increasingly well-received albums (2000’s We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes and 2001’s The Photo Album) were made, both of which (helped by plenty of hard touring) won the band fans, praise, and a devoted indie following. In those years, a style was developing, as Gibbard’s songs were dealing more and more with that familiar (and soon to be Death Cab trademark) theme of exploring love through the space created by metaphors of travel and movement. Walla’s production was also honing the band’s sound into something recognizably great. A second drummer (Michael Schorr replaced Good in 2000) came and went, and after a few deep breaths, a planned break, and a decision to give the full-time rock and roll life a go, in 2003 the nuclear trio of the group hired their friend Jason McGerr on drums, and feeling more comfortable than ever before, made the best record of their career.

Photo by Autumn de Wilde

Transatlanticism was an embattled, sorrowful rock record dealing with those old constants of our time: love and distance. It found Gibbard working with that same starfish-like heart—the heart that has taught itself to regenerate what it’s lost—and longing for both the comprehension and affection that results from the space that separates us from what we love and what we don’t understand. McGerr fit in snugly with the band’s aesthetic, and they suddenly became, along with Modest Mouse and Built to Spill, one of the leaders of the Northwest indie rock movement. Gibbard experienced further acclaim with side project the Postal Service as Walla gathered recognition by producing critical darling records by Nada Surf and the Decemberists. Pop culture then came calling for Death Cab: they were one of the first to appear on the nowobligatory “it” band music segment of The O.C. Fortunately, the band’s heart was strong enough to take this all in stride, and where weaker groups might wither and crack, or attempt to make-over their sound into something different or “arty,” Death Cab For Cutie picked up where they left off and together, for the first time in their history, the same group of players that made the prior record made a second.

Plans is in several ways a natural progression of the thematic and sonic elements the band explored on Transatlanticism. It is an older, wiser sibling, perhaps one that has been faced with the difficult chore of raising the rest of the family. And though its actions may not always reflect it, the record knows, deep down, somewhere, what’s important. The rest is just learning how to believe it. So what’s important?

“I think for me,” Gibbard says during our rather heavy early morning chat, “it’s taking stock in the relationships I have with people at this point in my life, both romantic and otherwise. Instead of being able to sit back and enjoy the people around me and the things in my life I’ve been able to achieve, I find myself just dwelling on the eventual end of those things in death. This idea of ‘Wow, being with this person makes me feel wonderful, but one day one of us is going to die and it’s gonna be a super bummer whenever that happens.’”

He sounds less like a pessimist than a realist who has spent ages dwelling on this subject, trying to shake off feelings of impending doom and instead “suck the marrow out of life,” as some dead poet said. When he speaks, Gibbard flounders about at high speed, stepping on his words, stumbling and reiterating, apologizing for going off on a loop, and ultimately sounding exactly like a person who is trying with all his might to believe the things he is saying but just isn’t quite there yet. It’s like an anxious first grader reciting lines in a school play: he’s gone over them enough that they sound perfect in his head, but when they come out of his mouth, they sound more like hand-me-down shoes, two sizes too big.

When he sings, it’s a different story. A song like “Soul Meets Body,” the first single on the new record, a song of dedicated, real love (“And when the darkness takes you/then I hope it takes me too”) is hard to miss, or misconstrue. “I know Ben really well, and I can tell when he’s writing something that’s part fiction and when he’s writing something that he absolutely believes with every fiber of his being,” says Chris Walla from his Seattle home. “And ‘Soul Meets Body’ is one of those songs. That song and ‘I Will Follow You Into the Dark’ are both from that place. And I love that.” Walla speaks fondly of his bandmate, and refers to Gibbard as the primary creative force behind the majority of the songs.

When it’s brought up that “Chris Walla” is a name people may know now for reasons besides his involvement in Death Cab, the technical-minded Walla is flabbergasted and denies that he is really even aware of it. “I guess I experience it in that there are nice kids at the shows who want to know what microphone I use on the kick drum. There’s a little bit of that, which I love. That’s me. That’s a 10-year-younger version of myself every time that happens. But I’m not the singer of the band, and I’m not writing the songs.” When politely reminded that he did write one of the songs (the earnest “Brothers on a Hotel Bed” marks the first time that anyone besides Gibbard has written a song on a Death Cab album), he admits almost reluctantly, “Well, yeah, but just in terms of that emotional content/attachment thing. In terms of words and the sorts of things that draw people to our records, I think the primary weapon is Ben’s writing. He’s got a beautiful voice and he’s a master of simple metaphor. But I don’t mean to say or imply that I don’t feel like a part of this whole thing, because I do. I feel like we’re really democratic and we’re really a band, we all need one another for this to work the way that it does.

“We had such a good time making Transatlanticism,” he continues, “and we really like it, and other people really seem to like it, and it wasn’t as though we didn’t change anything on this one, but we didn’t change up nearly as much as we did in between The Photo Album and Transatlanticism. And I think that’s good; it felt like it was the continuation of something, like it was the development of a theme.”

Photo by Ryan Russell

All plots tend to move deathward. This is the nature of plots. Political plots, terrorist plots, lovers’ plots, narrative plots…we edge nearer death every time we plot. It is like a contract that all must sign, the plotters as well as those who are the targets of the plot.
White Noise

“And it came to me then/that every plan/is a tiny prayer to Father Time”
— DCFC, “What Sarah Said”

With all of his painstaking, focused effort on living in the moment, Ben Gibbard doesn’t let Plans have a view on the afterlife. “I don’t think the album really does suggest what happens when we die. I grew up Catholic; I’m kind of this indoctrinated Catholic even though I haven’t been to church of my own volition in 10 or 15 years now. I feel there’s something, it can be called faith, but to me it’s kind of a level of arrogance to think that somebody could possibly know what happens to us after we die. And in dealing with the subject of death, I tried to keep the subject of a true afterlife out of the record and out of the songs. Having a song called ‘I Will Follow You Into the Dark’ kind of sums it all up in a way. To me it’s this idea that what happens to us after we die is virtually nothing, we float around in a weird kind of way, and I like this image of everybody just stumbling around in the dark.”

It isn’t until the near-end and apex of the album, the emotional narrative “What Sarah Said,” that the central sentiment of Plans arrives. Gibbard depicts the anguish and frustration of a hospital waiting room, and after the song melodically lulls to a gentle, hushed hum, he attests both mournfully and assuredly that “Love is watching someone die.” Gibbard isn’t even sure that he fully understands the gravity and force of such a statement. “I don’t think I’ll ever really understand it until I’m in that situation,” he admits, “but there’s something really dignified in a weird way about being with somebody and holding someone’s hand as they’re slowly leaving the world. I think that it really takes a lot of love to watch somebody you really care for deteriorate. The easy thing to do is walk away from it, or check out from the whole situation, and with the people in my family we’ve lost over the years, the most difficult thing was to be there. But you’re there because you love that person, and that’s what makes it difficult.”

After slowing to a silent halt to utter its grand declaration of what it is to love, “What Sarah Said” is not yet finished. The music starts again, slowly, faintly, and builds to a pleasant din to ask its aching question. It’s a strange question to place in a love song. Unless you’re Ben Gibbard, whose oddly high voice quivers delicately over the hum of white noise and simply asks: “So who’s going to watch you die?”     F