Ben Gibbard’s vocals carry a rare honesty. The Death Cab For Cutie frontman sings in a light, airy voice which comes across as shy and innocent. That combination sucks you into DCFC’s albums – for you believe every emotion Gibbard sings about. Pretty soon you began to feel his emotions for yourself.
All DCFC albums revolve around fleeting and lost love. Songs like these can become overly gloomy, but the band adds sword-fighting guitars that jab and dance around one another to the bouncy roll of Michael Schorr’s drums. These elements make the heartbreaks bittersweet. Gibbard is like the boy next door who holds on to hope and optimism despite his failures at love.
It makes sense then that DCFC’s temperate and melancholy sound comes from the city with hardly any sunshine: Seattle. DCFC’s notes linger, weighing their songs down in a way that embodies a heavy overcast sky and constant drizzle. This weather, perhaps responsible for creating a healthy indie rock scene in Seattle, made the birth of DCFC inevitable.
DCFC’s formation was consistent with the pattern seen in cities with strong and interdependent music scenes. All the members came from different bands and eventually met each other through friends; Gibbard and bassist Nick Harmer were also in a band together around 1995. Slowly Gibbard and guitarist Christopher Walla began playing and soon Harmer was fired from the band he was in at the time. Together they recorded “You Can Play These Songs with Chords” after which Walla said, “People wanted to hear the songs live.”
Now that Seattle’s much-hyped grunge fad has been relegated to the dust heap of history, Walla insists that his city is an incredible place for bands. “It’s personally cohesive. A lot of bands love and respect one another. The studio community is very generous – benefiting all the bands in Seattle.” And he adds the scene has even improved, “It’s competitive in all the right ways. No dog-eat-dog bullshit that there once was. It’s very warm and fuzzy right now. The reaction to the big explosion of 1989 made the scene so diverse right now. Bands know they don’t want to be a grunge band.”
In 1998, DCFC released their first full-length album, “Something About Airplanes,” which established the band in smaller indie music circles and around their city. Their follow-up “We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes,” established the band as a dominant force in college radio. The song “Company Calls Epilogue” highlighted DCFC’s beautiful and dizzying melodies with Gibbard’s imagery of crashing through parlor doors on an ex’s wedding day.
The band’s third full-length, “The Photo Album,” broke the band into a larger market with attention from Spin, Rolling Stone and even some nibbles from MTV during 2001. That year, the band toured with jagged-indie poppers The
Dismemberment Plan for the wittily titled Death and Dismemberment Tour. This tour brought them to larger clubs around the country, including First Avenue.
Though the band now has a fairly large and loyal fan base, Walla is proud to say, “We’ve done it all on our own.” In the matter of switching to a major label Walla simply said “the right thing has never presented itself. Record companies are not going to sell actual records in seven or eight years and the record labels are not accepting it. The best thing about (DCFC’s label) Barsuk, it can make a move pretty quick.” He added the band is able to make a living on an independent label and said, “the question should be how can you make a living on a major?”
On DCFC’s latest album, still on the Barsuk label, the band tried a very different recording method compared to previous albums.
Normally, the band would play new songs in concert for quite a while before taking them to the studio. This, Walla said, made a song “hard to change if you’ve been playing it one way for a year and a half.”
But this time, DCFC saved their new songs for the studio first. “It significantly changes the way we approach the songs. We list what is important to us for each song.” From that list, the band could focus on the essential part of the song and build from there. The result, according to Walla, is “the best thing we’ve done. I couldn’t say that about ‘The Photo Album’ and that was really hard. But we had to make it in order to make this one.”
In terms of playing the new record live, Walla at first thought it would be “impossible to pull off on stage. But it’s really fun and involved and elaborate. It still rocks hard.”
“Transatlanticism” certainly features some of the best work from the group. “Title and Registration” has such classically enduring Gibbard lines such as, “The glove compartment is inaccurately named, and everybody knows it / So I’m proposing a swift orderly change / ‘Cause behind its door there’s nothing to keep my fingers warm, And all I find are souvenirs from better times before the gleam of your taillights fading east to find yourself a better life.”
The band builds the song “Expo ’86” into a stunning frenzy as Gibbard realizes the repetition and circle of his relationships. And “The Sounds of Settling” is probably the catchiest DCFC song to date.
As a result of the recording technique, Death Cab for Cutie only grew tighter and more composed while keeping the essential Death Cab For Cutie beauty. And Gibbard remains, perhaps forever, a hopeless romantic.