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A sharp turn

Death Cab for Cutie really arrived with 2005's 'Plans.' But for a follow-up album, the introspective rockers took a different route in the studio.

April 13, 2008|Mikael Wood | Special to The Times

Chris WALLA of Death Cab for Cutie thinks that the volatile state of the download-ravaged record industry calls for a new way to measure commercial success. "It's like dog years now," the guitarist figures. "Every one record you sell actually stands for seven."

Based in Seattle, where Walla and singer-guitarist Ben Gibbard formed the band as a home-recording project in 1997, Death Cab has sold nearly 1 million copies of 2005's "Plans," its debut for Atlantic after a string of albums released by Barsuk, a hometown indie. Yet Walla says that the number of people the group plays to on tour indicates an audience much larger than that. "Maybe 'Plans' would've been a 7-million-selling record in 1994!" he exclaims.

One million or 7 million -- either figure makes Death Cab, which also includes bassist Nick Harmer and drummer Jason McGerr, one of the highest-profile acts in alternative rock right now. Later this month the band will perform alongside Jack Johnson and Roger Waters at the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival in Indio, and on May 13, it's scheduled to release a highly anticipated new album, "Narrow Stairs."

Coachella founder Paul Tollett remembers Death Cab's participation in the festival's 2004 edition (and booking the band at the Glass House in Pomona well before that). "It's a totally different animal now," he says.

Gibbard, seated with the rest of the group at the Le Parc Suite Hotel in West Hollywood, agrees. "This band has grown bigger than any of our wildest dreams," the frontman admits.

With that success has come a renewed willingness to experiment. Though Gibbard and his bandmates insist they made no conscious attempt to challenge their fans' expectations, "Narrow Stairs" represents something of a left turn for Death Cab: Where "Plans" emphasized the band's well-known knack for pretty, introspective indie pop, the new CD explores thornier, noisier territory. "I Will Possess Your Heart," for instance, runs for more than eight minutes, the first four of which proceed without Gibbard's trademark sensitive-male vocals.

"I don't think we sat down and said, 'Let's write a single and make it really long,' " Harmer says. "In the body of songs that we recorded, it just felt like this was the best representation of the album as a whole."

"We weren't sure it was going to work as we were recording it," adds Walla, who also produces Death Cab's records. "But after it was done, every time we'd rewind and listen to the whole thing, it never got old. You know that's going to happen with a three-minute single -- the point of it is that you can listen to it over and over. But the fact that it was happening with something so long was really compelling."

A little more lively

Gibbard says that as a result of the heavy touring Death Cab did in support of "Plans," he "rediscovered riffing on the electric guitar" while writing the new album's songs, and that led to a change in how the band operates in the studio. It recorded much of "Narrow Stairs" live, with all four members of the band playing simultaneously. Harmer calls the process a reaction to their experience making "Plans," which entailed "each player sitting in the control room playing along to what other people had already played."

"It wasn't some brilliant revelation," Gibbard acknowledges. "The approach we took is one that people were taking for the first 30 or 40 years of making rock records. But in our digital world, there's this attention to detail that's maybe not so necessary."

Focusing less on detail than on the big picture made the frontman feel like he was "making music rather than recording," he says. "On our previous records I know I didn't play as much music as I did on this one. That was really satisfying; I listen to it now and remember when we were all in the same room and this thing happened."

True to Death Cab's indie-scene roots, no one in the band will cop to any anxiety over how "Narrow Stairs," with its unexpected break from a proven formula, might perform commercially. "I would never want to make any decision based solely on trying to sustain or outdo what we achieved with 'Plans,' " says Gibbard. "Those kinds of conversations never exist between us. In this day and age, what could possibly be the next level, anyway? What could we be hoping to achieve?"

"Toby Keith could be opening for us," Walla deadpans.

"There's no competition in us," Harmer admits with a laugh. "The Daniel Plainview in this band is at an all-time low."

Not surprisingly, Atlantic President Julie Greenwald isn't quite as nonchalant about the new album's performance -- she "can't imagine ['Narrow Stairs'] not doing the same business ['Plans'] did." According to Greenwald, "the key to selling records now is to be in a project for the long haul. There's no getting in and getting out."

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