Atlantic Crossing

Tracking Death Cab for Cutie's transoceanic quest for high fidelity

Walla has always recorded and mixed the band's records, but his groundbreaking engineering techniques are now as remarkable as the material itself. And in an unprecedented move, Transatlanticism is being released (in limited quantities, aimed at what the band's webpage admits are "neurotic audiophile freaks") in a special "Super Audio" hybrid edition.

"I think we're the first indie-rock band to do this," says Gibbard, noting that the move was undertaken at Walla's insistence. "He's really excited about it. But nobody at our level had ever done this before -- it's been reserved for, like, Dylan reissues." It'll cost more to buy the SACD, playable in normal players but revealing its supersonics only in SACD players, which still retail for around $1,000.

If the epic "Transatlanticism" is Death Cab's "A Day in the Life," then "Tiny Vessels," the track that precedes it (and segues effortlessly into it as well), is its "She's Leaving Home." Over a stark chilling guitar melody and Walla's electro-ambient sound effects, Gibbard delicately debones a short-term conquest: "So one last touch and then you'll go/And we'll pretend that it meant something so much more/But it was vile and it was cheap/And you are beautiful, but you don't mean a thing to me." So devastating is this thread as it unravels that the closing chant of "Transatlanticism" that follows becomes that much more a plea for survival.

That's one big cab.
That's one big cab.

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"There are times that you end up with people for the wrong reason," Gibbard offers in explanation of "Tiny Vessels," adding, "It seems like a really mean song to the subject, but I see it more as a song that talks more about the pathetic of the narrator than the subject itself."

Gibbard's songs on the übercuddly Postal Service record, Give Up, placed his sensitive yearning voice in an electropop setting far removed from Death Cab's guitarcentric viewpoint. It also sold more copies than any Death Cab release to date. "One of the reasons the record's done so well," Gibbard opines, "is it makes people my age remember what it was like to be 10 years old, listening to the Human League and OMD, things we all grew up with. There's a nostalgic element to its popularity."

Even so, Gibbard says he ended up preferring a reworking of Give Up's sequencer-dipped summer single, "Such Great Heights," as reinterpreted by Miami's own Samuel Beam, a.k.a. Iron and Wine. Beam recently recast the blippity tune as -- what else? -- a somber acoustic ballad. It makes Gibbard think back to the old Eddie Murphy skit on Saturday Night Live, where a voice pitching Buckwheat's solo album announces, "When Buckwheat sings a song, it becomes exclusively his own!"

"That's how I feel about Sam Beam," Gibbard raves. "Anything that comes out of that guy's mouth sounds amazing."

So far, 2003 has been a big year for Gibbard, what with Death Cab's new album and the Postal Service record. His non-stop careerism is now paying bigger dividends.

"From the very first time we went out on tour, we didn't lose money," Gibbard informs. "We were able to at least break even and have enough money to buy a burrito when we got home. But everything in the lineage of this band has been what I consider gradual steps.

"Chris and I met and made a tape, and that tape turned into a band that played around Bellingham, and then we made an album and played more shows. We did a short tour, and somebody heard us and offered us another short tour. Then we took a big step and did a national tour. And I think we have been incredibly lucky as far as being in the right place at the right time. No band can rest on talent alone. We dodged some really dangerous bullets in our time as far as label choices and personnel. It's the most noble-looking way, but not everybody has had the same opportunities we've had."

And all they had to do was show up.

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