Follow that Cab!

Gibbard is still trying to explain to his grandmother why his band is named Death Cab for Cutie

October 20, 2005|By JOAN ANDERMAN | JOAN ANDERMAN,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Ben Gibbard wasn't cut out for the red carpet. With his tweed jackets, thick glasses and pudgy cheeks, the frontman for Death Cab for Cutie looks more like the chemical engineering student he was a few years ago than a rock 'n' roll VIP. But the newly minted A-lister recently found himself on the dreaded scarlet path outside the new Nokia Theatre Times Square, where his band was headlining a star-studded MTV concert with Mary J. Blige, Sean Paul and Nickelback.

Nose to nose with an evening-gowned television reporter pressing for backstage dish, Gibbard (who, conveniently, makes up stories along with chords for a living) did what any self-respecting melancholic would do in such an awkward situation: He lied.

"I told her we were drinking champagne with Mary J. Blige," Gibbard recalls, still sounding shell-shocked. "What am I going to say? We were watching TV? It was really awkward. I mean, nobody who watches Extra knows who we are."

Gibbard isn't being coy. Death Cab for Cutie, which performs Sunday and Monday at the 9:30 Club in Washington, is part of a wave of formerly cultish bands whose remarkable rise in the Internet-fueled world of independent music has catapulted them to unprecedented levels of success -- and, in turn, complicated courtships with major labels. Record companies have been knocking on Gibbard's door -- actually, they've been looking up his number in the Seattle phone book and cold-calling -- for years. Gibbard and bandmates Chris Walla, Nick Harmer and Jason McGerr (who replaced drummer Nathan Good in 2003) passed again and again, choosing instead to release four albums of intelligent, introspective indie pop on the well-respected Barsuk label. Meanwhile, they kept a comical list of non-negotiable points -- 1. We Will Not Wear Silver Pants. 2. We Will Not Wax Our Chests -- and a list of serious demands such as the right to produce their own albums.

All of which was agreeable to Atlantic Records. In late 2004, on the heels of an album cycle that saw alternative long shots such as Modest Mouse and the Killers become platinum-selling acts for major labels, Atlantic emerged the victor in a bidding war for Death Cab.

"We were faced with two potential career paths," says Gibbard, 29. "At the core of our decision was the fact that we would rather try and fail than never try and be bitter. Given the success of our last record [2003's Transatlanticism, which has sold 375,000 copies] and the changing tides of pop culture, it seemed like a major label could probably get one of our songs on the radio, that we could make a dent. We don't want to sound like egomaniacs, but we're curious about our ability to do that. If this isn't the right time, I don't know what is."

So far so good. "Soul Meets Body," the first single from the new CD Plans, is in the Top 20 on Billboard's modern rock charts as well as at Triple A (adult alternative) radio stations, a new format for the band. Plans moved more than 90,000 copies during its first week of release in August; after six weeks, sales are nearing a quarter-million. The good news is that Death Cab didn't have to mess with either its sound or its image to expand its audience.

A Navy brat who moved frequently with his family, Gibbard first got his hands on an electric guitar at age 14 after enduring the five years of classical piano lessons his parents insisted on as a prerequisite to rock 'n' roll. He loved Devo, AC/DC and Hall & Oates before discovering indie rock. Gibbard formed Death Cab for Cutie with Western Washington University classmates Walla and Harmer in 1997, and he's still explaining the band name -- taken from a song performed by the British combo Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band in the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour film -- to his grandmother.

"I was a fan of the non sequitur," Gibbard says with a trace of self-loathing. "The problem is it doesn't roll off the tongue very well. You have to say it 15 times. If we pull up in a truck stop and someone asks, `What band are you?' I just say Slayer."

Joan Anderman writes for the New York Times News Service.

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