Death Cab for Cutie were originally a preppy indie band from Seattle, whose melodic, poetic songs about being clever and confused attracted a large base of wussy fans.
One of them was The O.C’s Seth Cohen, and once Seth fans got wind of “Death Cab” they were financially set — but it wasn’t until the band topped the U.S charts this year with Narrow Stairs that they could be accused of selling out. However, given that the band don’t wear skinny ties or sing songs about going to discos in ball-hugging jeans, perhaps Death Cab have proven that it is possible to maintain integrity at the top.
I begin to understand how they manage this when I encounter Jason McGerr’s goofy smile as he welcomes me into the interview room. He takes his phone out of his pocket to switch it off and for a moment I think he’s going to record the interview too, “Yeah, I’m gonna sue you and use this as evidence!” I want to make a hilarious joke about his susceptibility to money-making schemes but decide to take the more subtle line of enquiry and ask him how Narrow Stairs compares to their previous records.
Jason leans forward and looks up attentively through thick framed glasses, “I think it’s the best snapshot of what we do live on stage. Our records tend to be mellow but Narrow Stairs is pure excitement. Up until now it was always a surgical process. Plans was a little more groomed. Narrow Stairs just has wild hairs and torn jeans,” he smiles fondly at his metaphor. “We recorded on a tape for this one. You can hit tape lot harder than with a digital process. There’s just this raw frenzied feel to Narrow Stairs and the majority of the tracks are made live.”
I ask if Narrow Stairs is a divergence from typical Death Cab material and whether that was a contrivance in order to target a more mainstream audience. “I mean it’s still like a Death Cab record.” He goes on to describe the recording of their previous album, Plans, which was completed in a month in an isolated farmhouse in Massachusetts. “With Narrow Stairs we wanted to take the pressure off so we recorded in our studios in Seattle. It was like doing it in our practise space. With Plans it was more like putting our suits on and going to work but Narrow Stairs was just a hell of a lot of fun.” Yet despite the meticulous effort put into Plans it was the more organic Narrow Stairs that ended up topping the U.S charts.
I ask Jason what he makes of this: “Yeah!” he laughs uneasily, “It was nice that we went up against Kanye West and came in before him. Maybe I’m speaking too humbly about it but the band was going for 10 years without being a hot topic. Still, the fact that by recording by ourselves we could achieve something like that is amazing!”
I ask whether the energy compressed into Narrow Stairs reflects the political excitement of the last year in the U.S considering Death Cab’s overt support of Obama, “I guess none of our songs are about tax payments or anything. But we have been pretty open about our support for Obama.
"Both Chris and Ben played at the Democratic National Convention in Denver earlier this year. I guess there are more philanthropic bands than us but we try and give back to local governments by contributing to musical programmes, grants and scholarships. It just feels good to have a focus towards a great purpose if that doesn’t sound too redundant.” He looks down at his thumbs and smiles bashfully.
“We just want to show that we care about young people in America and the future of our country.” I ask him if there is any advice for young Scottish bands who want to catch the attention of platinum record sellers like Death Cab; “Just tour your arse off,” he smiles, pleased with himself for his familiarity with our nation.
“Getting a bit of praise on the internet and selling a bunch of records isn’t enough. We were really fortunate that we started touring before the internet became such a deciding factor. Now it just takes one fantastic or terrible Pitchfork review to make or break your band. Stick together. That’s the key. Just stick at it.
Any Death Cab fan on hearing Narrow Stairs, whether they like it more or less than the band’s previous work, would probably be convinced to stick with them as their Pitchfork review recommends. So I wonder then what they have next for us. “I guess this album will run its course and it’ll probably wrap up at some point next year.
"There’s talk maybe of a 2010 release. Now that we are buzzing we are definitely ready to start all over again,” he nods pleasantly. It becomes clear that the band’s success derives from mastering and nurturing their creations with skill, intelligence, and barely a hint of smugness. Death Cab for Cutie, on the awkward tightrope between indie and mainstream, have held on to their integrity.