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Death Cab For Cutie - A Band Repossessed

Author: Carlisle Rogers
Sunday, 15 June 2008

It’s been a strange few years for Washington State’s Death Cab ForCutie. after the phenomenal success of their fourth LP,Transatlanticism – name-dropped heavily on The OC – the quartet signedto Atlantic Records, and found themselves at the top of the indieworld. now, in 2008, they deliver their sixth LP, arguably their bestwork yet. 
Death Cab for Cutie just reinvented themselves. Death Cab for Cutie just got respect – and it probably has something to do with an eight-minute single, I Will Possess Your Heart, off their new longplayer, Narrow Stairs.

Released to stuttering, gushing praise from critics, the real test is going to be whether the new album cuts off the band’s old-time fans for new indie-conscious listeners or simply corrals in a whole new fold of fans.

“We really weren’t trying to make some sort of big statement about the nature of the single,” explains Nicholas Harmer, bassist and incidentally, the most visible member of the band for about the first two minutes of the album. “We released that with the understanding that with an eight minute single there would have to be some kind of radio edit for it. But when we were listening to the album as it was coming together deciding which songs were our favourites, I Will Possess Your Heart really came to the front early on. For us, it really feels like it captures the spirit of the entire album. It’s a nice sonic presentation and appropriate introduction to Narrow Stairs and we hoped it would peak some people’s interest because it sounds different.”

Recorded to tape with minimal overdubs, Narrow Stairs is the musical statement of a bunch of guys who know what they’re doing, both musically and stylistically, and are brave enough to make a fantastic album, rather than choosing to remain ‘in the groove’ in the interest of pleasing anyone other than themselves. And it’s the honesty in that statement that makes it work; they really aren’t making another Death Cab album – they’re making something without a name.

“Everyone who really loves music has experienced that moment when you hear that song or see that band and the hair stands up on your arms and you realise ‘this is incredible, this is the most wonderful thing I’ve ever experienced’,” Harmer says. “We had some unexpected moments like that on this album, those goosebump moments when you’re like ‘whoa, that was amazing, what happened there, we didn’t expect that.’”

Harmer says that working straight to tape, within a more live environment, enriched both the experience of recording the album and the final product. “It certainly makes you feel closer to your instrument, but also closer to your bandmates and the music they are making at the same time. You listen a lot more. I find that when I’m talking about it, I try to avoid hippie-sounding words like energy, vibe and magic and those kinds of things, but there is just something that happens when you’re playing and everybody is listening really intently and we’re all playing really well. There is a moment that happens when you look at each other and go ‘that’s awesome’, when something unexplained just happened that we didn’t expect. We were trying our best to preserve and create some of those moments on this album.

“Most of the album was recorded as just the four of us in a room playing a song. We really wanted to capture a nice live feel, what it really sounds like when the four of us are playing together. We recorded Plans in digital on a radar system which is pretty much like ProTools. I think the songs we were writing at the time demanded that we record on a digital format and allowed us to make more specific decisions and enabled us to make sure that everything lined up perfectly. These songs were written for demos and we arranged them together as a band as far more rock songs with more guitars. It made sense to go back to tape and limit the options. When you’re on computer you have the ability to do whatever you want whenever you want. It was nice to have limitations again.”

Working on the songs that Ben Gibbard brings to the band, sometimes in demo form, some just a few notes on an acoustic guitar, the band found themselves in a position to become themselves. “Our process was just about being calm and comfortable enough as musicians with the music we make to just say ‘look, these are the songs, we’re not going to try to dress them up or change them or trick anybody into liking them’,” Harmer says. “We wanted to preserve a real sense of authenticity and honesty and that means there are moments where everything is not perfect on the album. There are little happy mistakes that we really struggled with as a band. Do we stop and make everything perfect or do we just let it be on display- In the end, after we got over our initial fear of letting things be what they are, we let the songs exist and not try and over manage them. Our albums are always a very song by song project. We take a song and try to make it the best we can and then we move onto the next one and before we know it we have a group of songs that form an album. We don’t sit down as a band with a master plan and a big goal in mind.”

Harmer says that, while the album is divergent, it shouldn’t necessarily split their audience. “I don’t think that this record is going to be that much of a polarising experience for everyone. I’m hoping that there are people in the world who have their minds made up about the kind of band we are and the kind of music we make and this album gives them some pause and makes them go ‘ah shit, I thought I had these guys pegged and all figured out’.

“I’ve always enjoyed it when my favourite artists throw me for a loop. Some of our favourite albums over the years have been bands who have done that. My favourite album of all time is Laughing Stock by Talk Talk and a close second is Spirit of Eden. And those two albums for a synth pop ’80s band are just wildly different from where they started and just incredible.”

WHO: Death Cab For Cutie
WHAT: Narrow Stairs through Atlantic/Warner / Play Enmore Theatre
WHEN: Out now / Monday 18 August