Indie-pop darlings make it personal

Death Cab for Cutie, at Merriweather tonight, says new CD pleases band first and foremost

June 09, 2008|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun pop music critic

After about a decade in the margins, the guys of Death Cab for Cutie are full-fledged rock stars - whether they want to be or not. Known for its novelistic lyrics and crisp synthesis of pop and progressive rock, the unassuming quartet from Bellingham, Wash., topped Billboard's pop album charts two weeks ago with its new CD, the engaging Narrow Stairs. The disc - the follow-up to Plans, the band's platinum 2005 major-label debut - has garnered mostly glowing reviews, and its chart-busting success has cemented the former indie band's status as a mainstream act.

"This record is more relaxed. It was made with clearer heads than before," says Chris Walla, the band's guitarist. He and his band mates - vocalist-guitarist Ben Gibbard, drummer Jason McGeer and bassist Nick Harmer - play Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia tonight. "Narrow Stairs was a more comfortable record to make."

During the three years between Plans and the new album, Death Cab for Cutie made some artistic readjustments. After signing to Atlantic Records in 2004, Walla says the band set out to make a big pop record, something a little sleeker than its previous four efforts on the independent Barsuk label.

"We were really interested in trying to make a hit record," says Walla, who was at tour stop in Minneapolis last week. "We hadn't tried to do that before. We saw it as something else to try. We love pop. That's the cornerstone to our sound, so it wasn't a crazy stretch for us."

The stretching worked. Sort of. Plans, the resulting CD, became the band's pop breakthrough, spawning the amiable, radio-friendly hits "Soul Meets Body" and "I Will Follow You in the Dark." The album went platinum, and Death Cab for Cutie garnered a Grammy nomination. Thanks to the band's heavy exposure in 2003 on the hit teen soap opera The O.C., the momentum for such commercial success had already been set.

"I was surprised that our music was on this TV show," Walla says. "I didn't even have a TV. We had no idea what was going on until it became the only thing that people were asking us in interviews. ... We had albums and a fan base before The O.C. So for that to feel like it was our whole story was frustrating."

Still, the band benefited from the exposure on the show, signing a long-term major-label deal soon afterward. However, the guys had to adjust to being a part of a mighty machine.

"Being that it was the first major-label record, we did everything we could not to be freaked out by it," Walla says. "The biggest thing was learning what the label does and doesn't do - learning the different personalities there. It was a bigger transition than any of us gave it credit for."

The move affected the band's recording process.

"Plans was like the black sheep in our discography. It felt less like a band record," Walla says. "We spent a bunch of money on it. I spent more time working on tracks than working with my band mates on that record."

The album was recorded in a barn in Massachusetts, away from the band's usual recording homes of Seattle and Portland, Ore. But for Narrow Stairs, Death Cab for Cutie, whose name comes from a song by the comedic rock group the Bonzo Dog Band, decided to get back to a more natural sound. Although Plans featured some of the band's tightest songwriting, Walla says the sleek pop experimentation just didn't feel right.

"With the new record, we did it at home again," he says. "It's very weird how your home base inspires you."

The familiar recording surroundings and the group's relaxed state of mind are the main reasons for the warmer feel of Narrow Stairs. Gibbard, the group's chief songwriter, crafted songs whose scope is more cinematic than before. The tunes are also darker and starker. For instance, "I Will Possess Your Heart," one of the standouts on Narrow Stairs, is a lovesick tune from the perspective of a would-be stalker. To embellish the eeriness of the tune, the song's intro, featuring a strutting bass line, a slightly shuffling backbeat and atmospheric guitars, rolls on for four minutes before Gibbard's chilly, plaintive vocals fall in. The loose, organic feel is emblematic of how the other 10 tracks were recorded.

"The fourth take of that song was really cool," Walla says. "We were in the process of figuring out our parts. We [re-recorded] it, like, half a dozen times after that. But the fourth take was the one. The recording process this time was like that. We screwed around with it, but the early takes were sometimes the best."

For Narrow Stairs, the band stopped chasing an obvious pop sound. Walla says the guys just wanted to make songs that pleased them first. The result is their biggest album to date.

"The songs on this record were made exclusively for us," he says. "The fact that people are coming to it is all the better."

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

If you go

Death Cab for Cutie performs at 7:30 tonight at Merriweather Post Pavilion, 10475 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia. Tickets $25-$40. Call 410-547- 7328 or go to ticketmaster.com.

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