It's been eight years since Ben Gibbard recorded Death Cab For Cutie's debut cassette, You Can Play These Songs With Chords, during which time the solo project has turned into a full-fledged band, recorded several slabs of beautiful, earnest indie rock, and steadily built up a devoted fan base (which includes The OC's Seth Cohen). And now, with the release of Plans, the Bellingham, Washington-born, Seattle-based quartet has gone pro.
The move to Atlantic Records has meant a lot to some (mostly longtime fans who, like the band, are old enough to remember the hipster-sellout police of the '90s), but almost nothing to a majority of the people who take Death Cab so personally. Predominantly recorded at Longview Farms in central Massachusetts and mixed at Butch Vig's Smart Studio in Madison, Wisconsin, by guitarist-producer Chris Walla, Plans is the sound of a band settling comfortably into the more subdued space it occupied on 2003's Transatlanticism. Some things about the recording differed from past experiences—it's the first to feature the same full-time drummer on consecutive records, and there's the major-label budget—but in the end, it sounds like a natural progression, so much so that it's probably exactly what the band would have turned in to Barsuk if it hadn't jumped ship. (The Seattle indie is still in charge of Plans' vinyl edition, a two-LP set that includes the bonus track "Talking Like Turnstiles.") The A.V. Club recently spoke separately with Gibbard and with Walla, who announced that he's moving himself and his currently defunct studio The Hall Of Justice to Portland early next year.
The A.V. Club: You know from personal experience, and you even mentioned in Justin Mitchell's tour documentary on the band, Drive Well, Sleep Carefully, that it's possible to make a living on an indie label. So why did you decide to sign to Atlantic?
Ben Gibbard: I think the short answer is that we found ourselves at a crossroads. We could attempt one of two different career paths. The first one is to stay the course and keep doing exactly what we know, and be successful, but not take any real risks, business-wise or anything. As we looked at the situation, especially after the last couple years, we realized that we had all this bargaining power to go to a major label and have every detail fall in line the way we wanted it to—you know, the dream record contract that every band's trying to get at some point. And Barsuk is a wonderful label, they've been amazing to us and continue to be amazing for us, but we made that very un-indie-rock move of actually succumbing to our ambition as a band, and saying, "You know what? I want as many people to hear this band as possible."
AVC: If Death Cab hadn't had the opportunity to sign to a bigger label, could the band have continued at the same pace, or was this business decision necessary to keep you guys invigorated?
BG: Oh, no. If nobody had been sniffing around, I don't think it would have made any of us feel like we weren't accomplishing something as a band. But we had discussions a couple years ago around the time of Transatlanticism: "Well, what's the future of the band?" And it became apparent over the course of that album cycle that—it's a talking point that I've mentioned before, but I think it's applicable in any kind of conversation about this whole move to Atlantic—in 1998, when the first record came out, it was right at the end of that big '90s alterna-boom, where there were A&R reps—even still in Seattle—sniffing around everybody, and all these bands that barely had a show had development deals and all that kind of stuff. And Mammoth Records came to us and was like, "Hey, we heard this record, it's great, maybe we could license it, and maybe we could sign you guys." At the time, we didn't really have anything going—Barsuk and Elsinor really weren't labels at that point. So we talked with them, and they were like, "Well, just let us know what you guys want, and we're going to make this happen."
So we put together a list with the most desirable points you could have: We want to make our own records, we want to be in control of this, we want to be in control of that." And they came back to us kind of scoffing: "Well, I mean, we can't do this—this isn't the kind of thing that labels usually do for bands, and you guys are new, and I'm sorry, but we can't really do these things the way you want to have them done." And at the time, we were just like, "Thanks, but no thanks, we'll just go our separate ways with this thing."
And, not to a tee, but those demands have never changed. And when things started shaping up really strangely, not only for us, but obviously in relation to Postal Service and all these weird cultural things—the Garden States and the OCs, and just this weird kind of rebirth of indie-rock culture on a much larger level the last couple years—we found ourselves being able to go back to some of the same labels that had sent people sniffing around seven years before, or five years before, with basically the same list. And Atlantic looked at it via the lawyers, and obviously there's more to it than that, but in a nutshell, they looked at the same list and said, "Great, we can do this." You know, the record just came out, we're still in the honeymoon phase, I don't know where this is going—time will tell whether this was the right thing for us to do. But I think the most important thing for me now is that I feel incredibly comfortable, and while it's not a family the way Barsuk is a family, I certainly really like the people that are in charge of things for us at Atlantic, and it doesn't feel like that slimy corporate machine that so many bands get ground up in.
But also, and I certainly don't say this to toot our own horn, I feel like we're an exception to the rule in so many cases. When people have come to me talking about, "Hey, somebody just came to our band, a major label wants to sign us," or even some band that we're friends with that Atlantic's been talking to, I feel like I need to always qualify that we're a very special situation in this whole major-label world, I think, because of where we've come from and what we've done on our own with Barsuk.
AVC: After We Have The Facts And We're Voting Yes, you guys were seriously considering signing with Jade Tree. It seemed like that was maybe a loyalty thing with Barsuk. Have you done anything to take care of the label now that you've moved on, since Death Cab has been Barsuk's cash cow up until now?
BG: When We Have The Facts came out, Barsuk was still in a very awkward growth spurt. I think [co-founder] Josh [Rosenfeld] was still working a day job, it was just a couple people working out of an office—things were going well, but there were a lot of things falling by the wayside, a lot of things kind of scattered. So when Jade Tree came calling, it was at the time when they had an amazing roster of bands that all sold records, with The Promise Ring, and there's Jets [To Brazil], and Joan Of Arc, and Pedro [The Lion]—our friends were on the label, that made us feel good. And at the end of the day, I really have Chris Walla to thank for [not signing to Jade Tree].
Chris Walla: It was kind of all gut. It felt like it was going to be about the same thing, except that there was a contract involved and we didn't really know these people and they were on the other side of the country. And I made the case that the fact that they're a bigger, more established label is outweighed by the fact that we have somebody here in town standing by us who we know and who we can get on the phone whenever we want and who will take a bullet for us. And I never doubted for a second that [Jade Tree co-owner] Tim [Owen] wouldn't do that, but we just didn't have any history, and it wasn't as much of a business decision as the move to Atlantic was. It would have been something that Pitchfork and a few dozen kids would have gotten really excited about, and aside from that, it really wouldn't have made that much difference, I think.
BG: So I had to call Tim and tell him that we weren't going to sign to Jade Tree, and the last thing he ever said to me was, "When you're ready to sell records, give us a call." Which, of course, we know who the joke's on at this point. I mean, that's such an egotistical, horrible thing to say to somebody. Because it just demeans everybody in the equation—it demeans us, it demeans Barsuk, it's just a really awful thing to say. So while those guys are nice enough and they run a good label, I would be lying if I said I didn't garner a little bit of vitriol from that. I'm sorry, I got off the course of the question. About Barsuk, what was the—?
AVC: Over the years, did you get the sense that if you left Josh, you might kill the label? And what have you done to make sure he's taken care of?
BG: I'm not allowed to go into specifics, but we had another record on our contract at Barsuk, which needed to be rectified contractually and financially, and let's just say we all made out fine from this deal. Of equal importance in consideration to our own standing in this whole record deal was making sure that Barsuk was happy, and that they had all the resources and things they needed to move on without us. And thankfully, everything that was supposed to happen in that equation did. I'll always feel like part of the Barsuk family in a way that I could never feel part of the Atlantic family. Certainly not because the people at Atlantic aren't great—they are—but it's just in the sense that, among everybody from the people who work at the label to the bands on the label, there's this real sense of family and community, and that is one thing that can't exist on a major label.
AVC: You were approached by at least one label that wanted to sign Death Cab and The Postal Service as a package deal. Did you ever seriously consider that?
BG: Absolutely not. That's something we could never—to me, that was the big red flag. And, if I recall correctly, it was really only Jimmy Iovine at Interscope that was gunning to get both. He was like, "Why would I only want the one that doesn't sell as much as the other one?" "Well, because one's a real band, and the other one is not." [Laughs.] That idea demeans everybody in the equation—it demeans the value of the band, saying we're not worth it to you unless you can have this other thing, it demeans my relationship with Jimmy [Tamborello]. That puts me as, like, "I'm the star wonder kid between these two projects." And plus, I want to keep what I have with Jimmy—which is very special to me, and very creatively satisfying—separate in every way possible from what I'm doing with Death Cab, for everybody's sanity. There could be no worse situation than ending up on a huge conglomerate major label with two bands fighting for the same attention, and I'm—as the songwriter and voice of both—put on the fucking 50-yard line with both of them. Why would anybody think that'd be a good idea? Seriously. Jimmy Iovine should fucking know better than to think that would be a good idea.
AVC: What was it like having your supergroup The Postal Service blowing up while Death Cab was promoting Transatlanticism? Did it create any tension between you and your bandmates?
BG: Well, the times that it got tough was when there were weird events happening that affected both—it's like, there are two groups of people both trying to sell records for their respective bestselling record. On one hand, we have Sub Pop doing everything they can to maximize album sales in a place where we're not doing any press, we're not doing any shows, we don't really exist, and then we have Josh at Barsuk and everybody else surrounding that whole deal trying to maximize, you know, get the records in the stores and selling records. They're two companies independent of each other that are both trying to get the records to the same people. And some tension is naturally going to happen—not directly between me and the guys in Death Cab, or me and [The Postal Service's] Jimmy [Tamborello], but just when all of the sudden there's some weird conflict where a radio station wants Postal Service to appear at some event, and Sub Pop doesn't get back to them in a timely fashion, or basically does what any label would do: try to maximize the amount of time the song's getting played on the radio, and all that kind of stuff. And then when all of the sudden that turns into, "What do you mean they're not playing this event? Well, now we're not playing Death Cab." Or like the threat of, "Then we're not going to play anything Ben's involved with." It's like, "Whoa, whoa."
There were a couple moments in the last couple years that were just like, "What am I going to do? How do I do this?" There has been no role model or answer for how to deal with situations and the position I've found myself in. I can't think of another person who's been spread across a band and a project that have been this successful. There's no guidebook for this situation. Granted, it's a very good problem to have, I'm certainly not crying with two loaves of bread under my arm, but it does come with its own set of complications that unfortunately we all have to deal with.
AVC: Did you ever feel compelled to sit your bandmates down and convince them you were still focused on Death Cab?
BG: Everybody in the band has been really supportive and really understanding. For chrissake, I started this band, you know? [Laughs.] Would I have really put in years of work and writing and pining over trying to become a musician, only to walk away from it because something was, for all intents and purposes, slightly more successful than the band that I'm in? Any good band, from the minute they start playing together, they sound great—there's just something that happens when people get in a room and start making music together, and when it works, it's like you're fucking flying. It's like doing magic—it just happens, and you can't explain it, and no amount of technical virtuosity or songwriting expertise is going to make a band sound good. I feel so blessed in my life to have that with these people—there's nothing that would ever make me want to walk away from that, because this will never happen again. I'll never find three other people that can get in a room and do this the way we do it, and do it as effectively and as well as we do it.
AVC: It seems like you guys work really well as a unit now, but in 2001 you nearly broke up.
BG: We'd just finished The Photo Album. At the time, I think we were okay with it, but in hindsight, we were kind of doing a record because we had to get on tour in the fall and we had to have a new record—a very typical indie-rock decision-making process: "Well, we gotta get on tour, we need a new record, I've got eight songs, I think I can get two more." I'm proud of the record, don't get me wrong, but we went in with just enough songs to make a record, and we ran into a lot of problems with Michael [Schorr], our old drummer—we just weren't gelling creatively. He was stonewalling us a lot of the time, and it just wasn't working out that well. And I think Chris kind of got caught up in the band more than he maybe initially wanted to. Because we went from Chris recording a tape for me, to, all of the sudden, "Hey, let's play a couple shows," "Hey, you play guitar on some of this stuff, why don't you play guitar in the band?" "Sure, that sounds fun." All of a sudden, a couple months later, we're heading out on tour. We never really had any clearly defined lines, like, "We are a band, we're moving forward, and we want to accomplish this." I think for Chris, he was always kind of, "Do I want to make records, or do I want to be in a band?" And not seeing that you can do both of those things.
CW: I was just sick of it, yeah. It had gotten to the point where I was enjoying what I was doing so little and at such long stretches that I didn't see how it could be fun again. It's the point at which you say, "I'm sorry, this isn't working." But, also, communication had broken down to a point where I couldn't even say, "I'm sorry, this isn't working." We'd been on tour for about two weeks at that point, and it just completely exploded, like the whole thing completely fell apart.
AVC: What specifically wasn't enjoyable about being in the band?
CW: Relationship stuff had really taken a toll on me in the year leading up to The Photo Album, and I think I started to blame that on the band, and I think that I was using not getting to record as much as I wanted as sort of the excuse. Because tours were pretty miserable at that point—they were just starting to get better, but, like, I don't know. And we never really clicked with Michael. At that point, I'd never gotten over [original drummer] Nathan [Good] not being in the band, because Nathan and I had been playing music together since we were 13, and he is, to this day, the very definition of drummer. And Jason [McGerr] is the first person that I've played with since then who has met Nathan at that level, and I needed that. And we'd just forgotten how to be friends, we'd forgotten how to communicate with one another, we'd forgotten to care about one another. Halloween of 2001, it was rotten. We were as bad to one another in that car ride as I believe that we've probably ever been to anybody. Certainly I was. That was one of my darkest moments. The whole if-it-doesn't-kill-you-it-makes-you-stronger analogy is really true in that particular case. It took about a week for things to get to a point where I could ask Ben how he was doing without shaking and feeling just awful, just all this crazy guilt and sorrow. But I decided that I never wanted to do that again, and I never wanted to feel that again. I had to get to the place where I knew how badly I could treat somebody before I knew where that line was, and that I never wanted to see it or cross it ever again.
BG: It was in Baltimore in this place, the Ottobar. It was a really bad show, low-energy show, and Chris was kind of just not trying. I was like, "He's just not into it, he's not trying," and I basically just laid into him afterward: "What the fuck is your problem? You just threw that show. What the hell is going on? What the fuck do you think you're doing?" And that blew up into a you-know-what-I've-always-thought-of-you fight among all of us, in the van on the way to a hotel. All those thoughts that go through your head in your darkest periods when you're assessing your relationship with somebody—all of that came out. And for context, I had been seeing this woman for like four years, and she had recently left and moved to DC, and this was going to be the first time I was going to see her in her new environment. The whole tour was leading up to this day—I was really dreading it, it was really weighing on my brain, and the night before I'm supposed to have this reconnection, so to speak, we have this huge blowout. And in the hotel, I'm thinking, "You know what? I don't think Chris is going to be there the next morning. What are we going to do? We're in DC, we're so far away from home, how are we going to get home? Are we going to play shows without him? Oh shit, I'm going to see her tomorrow. Oh God, what the fuck is going on?" So I didn't sleep at all, and then I found out the next day that Chris had called and talked to Nick and, "Okay, he's going to be at the show, it's all good."
After that, we all reassessed the state of our relationship with the band. We're like, "Wow, we're really burned out. We've been busting our asses so much, and we need to really reassess the situation. A lot of times when you have a very volatile creative relationship with somebody, you very rarely take the time to take stock and tell that person, "Hey, I really appreciate you, I really love you, I'm glad we're doing this." And also, I had such blinder-vision about the band, trying to keep on tour and keep things moving and continuing being active, that I didn't see a lot of the earlier signs that Chris was getting a little disillusioned in the situation that we were in. Over the next couple days, it all got worked out, but I've only really realized in recent months, basically I lost the person in my life because of my devotion to this band and being on tour and doing what I love to do, and I came so close to losing the one thing in my life that was the most important to me, that made me lose the thing that was of equal importance to me. That was probably the worst day of my life.
CW: We re-recorded "Stable Song." I wanted to put it in a different frame from where it was with The Photo Album, because when we recorded it as "Stability" for The Photo Album, with the big, scary, bleak-ass outro, that was the sound of a band falling apart. That was the sound of us just hating on one another and not trusting and not whatever. And I've always loved that song. It's funny, because depending on how you frame it, it can be really optimistic or it can be really, really bleak, and I wanted to put it in the other frame and see what it would sound like. And it seemed really appropriate for this album.
AVC: When you released Transatlanticism, it was your least-rocking album to date, and now Plans seems even less rocking. You still appear to enjoy cutting loose live, so why have your records been getting mellower?
CW: I cut about a dime-size chunk off of the pad of my middle finger last December in a razorblade-versus-cable-tie accident at the studio, and I could barely use that finger still when we started rehearsing and going though demos for this record. So I just didn't play a lot of guitar on this record, and not the sort of guitar that I have been playing. And it's still not totally put together—there's still songs from the catalog that are hard for me to play. And I didn't think about it much, and I didn't talk about it much, because it was just sort of like a "Well, this is how it is" kind of thing. But just recently, I'm realizing, "Oh, wow, there's no guitars on this record. Like, I totally would have put a guitar there and there and there"—it's really bizarre. Every record is such a time and place and whatever-people-are-going-through sort of experience, and that's part of the fabric of this record.
AVC: Are you healing up?
CW: Well, I lost a whole bunch of skin. It's numb most of the time, and then the time when it's not numb, it hurts like hell. So it's weird, because it's hard to know sort of where to put my finger, like where I used to have—there was just more material there, and I haven't learned exactly where the pad goes now. It looks totally normal, it looks fine, but it doesn't feel right. And after I've played for a long time, it just hurts like crazy, like after we get done with a set. And a couple songs—it's really hard for me to play my part in "Transatlanticism." That's a tough, tough thing to do with this particular injury.
AVC: So are you going to get back to normal?
CW: No, no I'm not. And that's fine, you know, whatever. I've been through that before, more or less—I had to have a piece of my tongue removed in 1995. [Laughs.] That's a long story. But I don't have any feeling on the left side of my tongue. Yeah, you know, you just get used to it. What are you going to do, cry about it?
AVC: The vinyl version of Plans includes the extra track "Talking Like Turnstiles," which rocks out more than the rest of the record. Did you leave it off the proper album because it didn't fit in with the rest of the songs?
CW: Not completely, no. We recorded two different versions of it, and the one that made it to the vinyl, we recorded and mixed it the very first day we were at Longview—like all in, soup to nuts. It's all energy and it's zero anything else. [Laughs.] There are a lot of rough edges and loose cannons and whatever else all over that song. Part of the cool thing about having it be on vinyl is that some of that stuff just gets lost, and you kind of can't tell so much, and it's just kind of this cool little rockin' pop song. But yeah, it just never happened, like it never felt right, and it never felt like it really would make any sense on the album. So yeah, I guess that's true. I guess that's why it got left out.
AVC: It's normal for fans to worry about what jumping to a major could do to a band's sound, so it was nice to hear that Plans is a natural progression from Transatlanticism.
CW: I think the next record is going to be the big thing, the big change. I really suspect that that's true. This is a really transitional record in a lot of ways. It's much more than a placeholder, but it's not a revolutionary step in any way. It's us staying the course and doing what we know how to do, and doing it as well as we know how to do it. And already in the conversations now, the next record is seeming kind of weird. [Laughs.] There's no songs yet, there's nothing, but I'm dying to see what happens next. I think the next record's going to be the prog-rock record. [Laughs.] I think it's going to turn into Close To The Edge. It's going to be a whole bunch of little pieces of pop songs dropped into three tracks that are each 15 minutes long. [Laughs.] Yeah, I think it's going to be interesting. [Laughs.] Ben's been spending a lot of time with Dark Side Of The Moon—thank God for that. Jason and I are super prog-rock geeks, and Nick has this big theatrical metal sort of side to him, and Ben, he's pretty traditionally been the only sort of musical moderate or even semi-conservative in the band. And getting him to—I mean, all you would have to do is just tap the rest of us, and we would totally go over the edge. If we get the tiniest hint that we can crack something open and do something ridiculous, we'll totally do it. I'm pretty excited about it. I'm very encouraged by the conversations we've had so far.
AVC: Part of your agreement with Atlantic is that you're able to continue recording and producing Death Cab records, but is it true that you don't want to produce the next album?
CW: Yeah, that's true. To be clear, it's not that I never want to produce a Death Cab record again, but I don't want to produce whatever we do next. I feel like I'm maybe missing some things that somebody else could get. I've been doing this with these guys in this band for so long—there's pros and cons to that. The pros are that I know what everybody's good at, and I know not to push people in certain directions because I know it's going to end in sadness.
At the same time, we've fallen into so many habits, like I maybe don't know how to push people as much as they can be pushed. Maybe somebody's amazing at doing something that I haven't discovered yet. And with all of our records up to and including Plans, the recording situations have been so different and the budgets have been so different and the equipment has been so, so different every time, and now looking forward, our next recording situation, unless we set out to make it so, it's not going to be remarkably different from this one. We're going to be in a comfortable studio, we're going to be eating good food, and we're going to have good equipment that sounds nice. That was new this time, and that's not going to be new next time, and I fear what that would do to the record, like a second time in a row with exactly the same group of people.
AVC: So it's more about the band than it is about you.
CW: Yeah, totally. But then, it's about me, too, in that I also want to know for myself what it's like to be a guitar player in a band. In the sense of like I'm putting together parts, and I'm getting specific performance and arrangement feedback from somebody who's not Ben or Nick or Jason. I want somebody to push on me as much as I want somebody to push on the rest of the band. And I want to spend a record focusing all of my energy on doing all the Johnny Marr stuff that I've been trying to figure out how to do for the last 15 years. [Laughs.] Whatever happens with the next record, I'm not going to not be involved—I'll probably end up doing some recording, and I'll probably end up doing a mix or two or something like that. But I want to find somebody who I can trust implicitly, who I can turn the process over to, who can cut vocals with Ben and I know that it's going to work, like I know that they're going to make him do his thing.
AVC: Do you have a wish list already?
CW: It's really weird. Now that we're in this place as a band, where I could conceivably put together a producer wish list, none of the guys who are on the wish list who were making good records when we started the band are really making very good records anymore. As much as I love Tchad Blake, I don't think that would be a good record for us. I don't think it would be a good fit. And Steve Lillywhite hasn't done anything that I absolutely adore since, like, 1983. So yeah, I don't know. There's a short list of now, modern-type guys who I really enjoy—it's not totally firmed up yet, but I think I'm going to co-produce the next Decemberists record with a guy named Tucker Martine. He's a local guy, he's done a bunch of the Bill Frisell records, but the records that really turn my head that he did are the last four Laura Veirs records. I think they're really interesting, and they're really song-forward, but they're not so song-forward that the arrangements are lost or denied. I think he's a really good arranger, and he's a really bizarre, unique stylist, and he does a lot of things that I'm just scratching my head and going, "How did you do that? What is that? How did you get there?" kind of stuff. So I'm curious to see how that goes.
AVC: So you're not worried if you pull yourself out of the picture that the label will try to bring in the hot new emo producer?
CW: Well, we've got it in writing. They can bitch about it, but I think the way that the contract actually ended up working is that the label has the ability to veto one producer that we bring, like that we suggest. So all we would have to do is go, "Yeah, we're going to have Calvin Johnson produce the record," and they would go, "There's our veto," and then we're free and it's great. [Laughs.] They've been really, really good about stuff so far. Like, the label wanted some more mixes done, and they were making some kind of scary suggestions as to who they wanted to have mix a couple of the songs on the record, and it was real easy—it was just like, "No, I don't think that's a good idea. You know, we like it the way it is." And they went, "Cool, that's great." And that was it.