The work ethic ingrained in Death Cab for Cutie singer/guitarist Ben Gibbard is the sort Sly Stone never mastered. Gibbard, who is 27 years old, is already doing a phone interview at 9:30 this morning, even though he was up well past 3 a.m. Instead of sounding dull or half-awake, he's excited about the prospect of spending another day in the bus en route to another city. He wants to ensure plenty of time to set up and soundcheck, which is typical of Gibbard's dedication to perfection. His Bellingham, Washington, outfit has turned up the shimmer and brightened the shine on Transatlanticism, its fourth album of wistfully skewed pop.
Gibbard probably knows that with Transatlanticism, he and his bandmates -- Chris Walla (guitar/keyboards), Nick Harmer (bass), and Jason McGerr (drums) -- have created not only the finest album of their six-year career but one of 2003's best platters period. Everyone else will figure this out by the end of the spectacular title track, which comes mid-album and packs a monumental buildup that culminates in one of the most glorious sing-along codas in rock history. (More on that later.) As if that weren't enough, Gibbard already is a shoo-in for 2003's best-of lists for his work with the Postal Service, a snail-mail side project with collaborator Jimmy Tamborello (Dntel), which mated Gibbard's narrations with a distinctly electronic-oriented realm. How does he do it all?
"One thing my dad taught me early on is that the biggest secret of success in life is just showing up," the boyishly affable frontman says. "If you show up, you've already done 80 percent of the job. Show up to practice. Show up to shows. Go out and tour. Show up to those shows. The biggest obstacle for most bands to get over is just to show up. Just to have a stable-enough lineup of people motivated and devoted enough that they can make a real go of it."
In 1999, Death Cab for Cutie released its first record, Something About Airplanes, crowding a market already cornered by the likes of Built to Spill and Modest Mouse. But the debut's stripped-down model revealed promising basic materials -- pristine crystal-clear production, economical engaging guitar and keyboard melodies, and Gibbard's sly intelligent wordcraft. Dressed in a sky-blue sleeve with tracing-paper cut-out pages, Airplanes did respectable business within its admittedly tiny demographic.
"If you sound like Limp Bizkit," Gibbard counsels, "you can't do what we do. The market we play to is very much a niche market, a very small sliver of the people who buy records in this country." 2000's We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes won even more accolades as Gibbard's slightly dour dark humor placed Death Cab firmly among the Pacific Northwest's slew of successful indie bands.
Released in 2001, The Photo Album couldn't escape comparisons to Modest Mouse or Built to Spill. An odds 'n' sods compilation from the following year, You Can Play These Songs with Chords, showed a more reserved side to Death Cab, with more emphasis on Gibbard's lonely-boy lyrics and lovely little epiphanies. Comparisons are far more difficult to come by with Transatlanticism. It would be easier to place the band in the same pantheon as the Beatles (the name Death Cab For Cutie, in fact, comes from Magical Mystery Tour) than with the aforementioned groups from the Northwest.
The eight minutes of the title track begin with two simple quiet verses adorned only by Gibbard's voice and piano. Almost imperceptibly, Walla begins adding small doses of static and other synthetics. A chiming, circular, lead-guitar riff offsets Gibbard's voice, measuring an ocean of emptiness that separates him from his object of desire. Finally, bass and drums begin throbbing quietly as the chorus unfolds -- just one line, over and over again -- "I need you so much closer." Building and building to a shuddering climax, the guitar reenters the mix, ushering in Gibbard and what sounds like a choir belting out massive refrains of "SO COME ON!" riding on melodic crests and crash-cymbal spasms. Gibbard explains that he'd had the first section written and recorded but knew when the chorus merely faded out, it wasn't enough.
"Something needed to happen to make it... the ultimate," he says. So on a Wednesday afternoon, he and Walla called up all their friends who could sing. "Which, frankly, was not that many people. But we put out phone calls to everybody we knew." Only four folks showed up, but the resulting multitracked chorus sounds like hundreds of phantom voices beckoning from somewhere far removed from Bellingham. Much of that hair-raising impact lies in Walla's amazing layering of tiny noises and textures; they add an enormous amount of drama and reveal an attention to detail as devastatingly precise as Gibbard's emotional bayonet.
"To be perfectly honest, I had a similar reaction when I first heard what [Walla] had done to the song," Gibbard explains. "You leave it one way and it just comes back sounding just... something that totally floors you. When we did the basic tracks, I said, 'It needs something, some ambiance to it,' and when it came back, it sounded amazing!"
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.
"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.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.