Death Cab For Cutie: “Indie Rock Is Dead”
The band’s classic We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes at 20
Twenty miles south of the Canadian border and tucked in its eponymous bay on Puget Sound, Bellingham, Washington, is about as far northwest as it gets in the lower forty-eight.
A big part of the local economy has long been Western Washington University. Bellingham may not have the reputation of Athens or Chapel Hill, but the continual churn of college students, and the venues and ideas that they prop up, has given the small city a worthy scene history.
In a way it makes sense that some of Bellingham’s most notable musical exports have represented sounds most associated with the Pacific Northwest: the Mono Men and Estrus Records with garage rock, the Posies with melodic alt-rock, and Death Cab For Cutie with indie rock. (Death Cab were in fact so indie rock that when you ordered their first tape from the homespun local label Elsinor Records, it came with a sticker that said “Indie Rock is Dead.”) More recently, as electronic music has grown there, Odesza, the region’s biggest name in the genre, hail from Bellingham as well.
Death Cab and Odesza even did a WWU benefit show together last year, and in anticipation of it Ben Gibbard spoke to the Seattle Times about the place where his band got off the ground. “For me at that time when I was 20, 21 years old, that was the center of the universe,” he said. “Seattle — what? New York — who cares?…That period of a year or two, I never wanted this scene to fall apart…because it felt so organic and special.”
Something About Airplanes, Death Cab’s debut album, was the final product of that fertile time. Not long thereafter, the band was in a state of dislocation as they contemplated their next move. In music journalist Greg Kot’s 2009 book Ripped, former guitarist and founding member Chris Walla recalls the difficulties Death Cab faced in 1999 following unlucrative early tours and the departure of original drummer Nathan Good. “It could’ve ended right there,” Walla says. “It’s like I have no money and no job and I’m making a decision that is going to ensure that I have less money and no job for the foreseeable future…I ended up moving back in with my parents. It was really a rotten year.” Between albums, having graduated school and scene, Death Cab decided to relocate 90 miles south to Seattle.
Right then in the Northwest it felt like you would increasingly hear of friends, or overhear people in coffee shops, buying into a buzz about the opposite side of the continent. New York City was back in vogue. The dot-com boom was part of the draw, and that bubble was nearing its peak in the early spring of 2000. JetBlue was just getting off the ground and would soon cater to the burgeoning hip pipeline between Seattle and New York. Amazon was still foremost a bookseller, and suburban life in Redmond working for Microsoft didn’t have the bohemian allure of the East Village.
Walking into this moment was We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes, a song cycle sympathetic to those of us left behind. Gibbard’s “New York — who cares?” was the pointed argument of the album’s penultimate track, “No Joy in Mudville”: “Last night I dreamt that I was you/I was dressed all in black with dark glasses and attitude/Such a pose I could simply not hold through days in a northern town that I had once called a home/Your studies of fringe New York streets: I was reading the pavement in every word you would speak…”
The song’s sentiment drips with sarcasm, from the trust fund hipsters on speed listening to techno to Gibbard’s air quotes around “brownstone up three flights of stairs.” We Have the Facts is also a postmortem of post-university life, a self-administered exit interview to survey the damage. It’s about cracking open the collegiate cocoon and feeling unsure if the bright light of day is a good thing or a bad thing. Then there’s what comes next: watching yourself and the people around you either sink or swim.
Death Cab for Cutie benefited creatively here from being an indie band backed by what was then a new and modest label, Barsuk Records. Big money up front has its benefits, but no corporate involvement also means there are no suits to disappoint with an honest quarter’s sales numbers. Facing no real pressure other than their own muse, both Gibbard and Walla ran with their freedom in different ways. The growth from Something About Airplanes to We Have the Facts was organic but still obvious, cleverly deployed but not overly self-aware.
Kot notes that when Gibbard and Walla first met at a house party in Bellingham, Walla was not a guitarist in search of a band but “an aspiring recording engineer with a newly bought eight-track tape recorder.” This eight-track recorder was the “Hall of Justice” on which Walla recorded and produced Something About Airplanes. We Have the Facts, too, is credited to the Hall of Justice, which at that point still essentially referred to Walla’s growing collection of recording equipment, set up in whatever spaces they could utilize, including a house outside of Seattle that bassist Nick Harmer grew up in. Soon, though, Walla would take over a different studio in Seattle to make a legit Hall of Justice through which he would guide records from bands like the Decemberists and Nada Surf.
There is maybe no better example of Gibbard and Walla hitting their tandem stride on We Have the Facts like the runners on the album’s cover than the first song, “Title Track” (a name of practical wit, given the record’s long title). Walla’s increasing confidence and curiosity as a producer is noticeable all over this record, but particularly on his opening gambit. For a full minute and forty seconds, “Title Track” is pronouncedly lo-fi and distant. This keeps up for an entire run through verse and chorus, until finally a switch flips, and the effect is like walking down a long hall and then throwing open the door to their practice room. Permanently committing half of one of your stronger songs to this device is no small thing. Who knows how many times Death Cab listened back to the mix before deciding that this was the move, but even after twenty years it doesn’t get tired and can still catch you off guard.
Meanwhile, Gibbard puts his best foot forward as a lyricist. “Title Track” swings from esoteric poetry to sharp detail as it recounts a romantic encounter at a house party. “Talking how the group had begun to splinter/And I could taste your lipstick on the filter/Lushing with the hallway congregation/My best judgement signed its resignation.” *Chef’s kiss*, man. The evocative wordplay, nailing the personal significance of a common shared moment – We Have the Facts is loaded with lines of this caliber. Gibbard’s lyric game remains strong to this day, but here there are none of the “clanking of crystal” cliches that would soon start to slip in to some Death Cab songs. Champagne from a paper cup was still the drink of choice.
VIDEO: Death Cab for Cutie performs “Title Track” on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon
The notion of We Have the Facts as a concept album about love in the time after college is solidified with the second song, “The Employment Pages.” “I remember there was such upheaval, and it was kind of a nervous time for me, and for us, I think, as we were making the big shift and trying to figure out how to be a band and live in this new city,” recalls Harmer about the making of We Have the Facts in a ‘From the Vaults’ interview on the band’s YouTube page. “The Employment Pages,” as Harmer puts it, “captures this moment of uncertainty” in relatable images of young life newly adrift: rearranging furniture at night, the neighbors asking you to turn down the stereo, flipping through job ads but finding nothing worthwhile.
“The Employment Pages” is suitably languid, a bruised daydream, mellow but not yet melancholy. It is also one of two songs that Good came back to play drums on. The other was “Company Calls Epilogue,” which has a similar but heavier step. Gibbard handled drum duties on the rest of the record, a credit to his versatility given the spry momentum of songs like “Lowell, MA,” “Company Calls” and “Scientist Studies.”
Those tracks are Walla showcases as well. The vibrating layers of “Lowell, MA” give its East Coast escape scene an uneasiness as “skyscrapers sink into the ground” in the rearview mirror. The whoosh effect into and out of the chorus of “Company Calls” heightens the melodic rush. “Scientist Studies” is clean and balanced up to the slow build of its crashing feedback end. There’s also the echoing breeziness of “405,” which mirrors its memories of an “alcoholic summer” spent on the east side of Lake Washington: “Red wine and the cigarettes: hide your bad habits underneath the patio.”
VIDEO: Death Cab for Cutie performs “The Employment Pages” at the Breakroom in Seattle 2/20/2000
“The shadow Nevermind of post-boom NW indie rock was unquestionably Built to Spill’s There’s Nothing Wrong With Love…” wrote journalist and musician Sean Nelson in his introduction to Pitchfork’s 2016 ranking of indie rock albums from Northwest artists. “The songs were exuberant and melodic, but they were also, somehow, intensely private.” That influence is clear on the early records of groups like Modest Mouse, 764-Hero, and certainly Death Cab for Cutie. Speaking to Rolling Stone in 2005 about going to Seattle to see small club shows in the early ‘90s, Gibbard was quoted, “I remember thinking, ‘Wow, it would be so great to someday do what [Built to Spill singer] Doug Martsch does.’” But, for all their micro visions, Idaho’s Built to Spill also did their share of stargazing on the Snake River Plain in songs like “Big Dipper” and “Randy Described Eternity.” Death Cab, too, would soon set their sights further afield.
The Photo Album, Death Cab for Cutie’s next full length, which arrived in the fall of 2001, clears its throat with “Steadier Footing” and then rolls into the band’s most overt tribute to Bellingham, “A Movie Script Ending.” “Whenever I come back, the air on Railroad is making the same sounds/And the shop fronts on Holly are dirty words (asterisks in for the vowels)/We peered through the windows, new bottoms on barstools but the people remain the same.” Name-checking Railroad Avenue and Holly Street and abstractly referencing bars like the now-gone 3B Tavern, the nostalgia soon dissipates with the realization that prices have gone up and it isn’t just the big cities that change.
Once again Gibbard finds himself “on the highway,” but this is an “ending” and for the first time the romance is in leaving home. The New York he once didn’t care for makes a wistful appearance toward the end of The Photo Album in “Coney Island” (quite an about-face from “No Joy in Mudville”), and came roaring back with “Marching Bands of Manhattan” from Plans in 2005. We Have the Facts didn’t need such big-name attractions. Its inherent regionalism is a valuable part of the perspective it brings to universal themes of love and life’s growing pains, even the road-trip middle of “Lowell, MA,” “405” and “Little Fury Bugs” (with its inscrutable Dinosaur Jr. reference title). TV show soundtracks and gold-certified discs were still a few years away, but Death Cab for Cutie, cresting an early peak, nailed an emotional time and place on We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes.
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