Death Cab for Cutie is an American alternative rock band formed in Bellingham, Washington, in 1997. The band comprises Ben Gibbard (vocals, guitar, piano), Chris Walla (guitar, production, keyboards), Nick Harmer (bass) and Jason McGerr (drums). Death Cab for Cutie's music has been labeled as indie rock, indie pop, emo, and alternative rock, and is noted for its use of unconventional instruments as well as Gibbard's unique lyrical style. The band has released seven studio albums, five EPs, and one demo to date. The group takes its name from a song by The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band featured in The Beatles' 1967 film, Magical Mystery Tour.
Gibbard's first album, You Can Play These Songs with Chords, was released as a demo, leading to a record deal with Barsuk Records. It was at this time that Gibbard decided to expand the project into a complete band, and recruited band members to join. In 1998 the band released its debut album, Something About Airplanes, followed by We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes in 2000; both records were positively received in the indie community. Lineup changes ensued both before and after the release of the The Photo Album (2001), and the group's album Transatlanticism (2003) gained the band commercial success. After signing with Atlantic Records, Death Cab For Cutie released Plans in 2005, which contained the singles "Soul Meets Body" and "Crooked Teeth". The 2008 record Narrow Stairs served as a stylistic departure for the group. The band released their seventh album, Codes and Keys, on May 31, 2011.
Early years (1997–2004)
Death Cab for Cutie began as a solo project of Ben Gibbard while he was the guitar player for the band Pinwheel and was recording under the name All-Time Quarterback. As Death Cab for Cutie, Gibbard released a cassette titled You Can Play These Songs with Chords; the release was surprisingly successful and Gibbard decided to expand the project into a complete band. He recruited Chris Walla (who had also worked on the cassette) as lead guitarist, Nick Harmer as bass player, and Nathan Good as drummer. Death Cab for Cutie was officially formed at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington, and lyrics from early songs include local references that were important to the band's development. Many of the early songs were recorded in the basement of an Ellis Street home Gibbard lived in with several roommates in Bellingham.
The four released the LP Something About Airplanes on August 18, 1998. The album was favorably reviewed in the independent music scene and in 2000 the band released We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes. Nathan Good left the band at some point during this album's production, replaced by Jayson Tolzdorf-Larson. Good's playing on “The Employment Pages” and “Company Calls Epilogue” was kept, but Gibbard played drums on all other songs. Although Tolzdorf-Larson did not contribute to the album, he did appear on the song, "Spring Break Broke" from the "Death Cab for Fiver" 7" record. He also joined the band on two tours, including their first full U.S. tour. He was later replaced by Michael Schorr who would first appear on The Forbidden Love EP, released on October 24, 2000. In 2001 another LP was released, entitled The Photo Album. Limited editions of this album contained three bonus tracks, which were later released separately as The Stability EP.
In 1998 the band met their long-term manager Jordan Kurland. Kurland had heard good things about them and after a failed attempt to see them play at South By Southwest finally hooked up with them when touring with his then client the band Crumb.
In 2003 there was yet another change of drummer, with Jason McGerr of Eureka Farm replacing Schorr. McGerr would play drums on the next release, Transatlanticism, which was released in October 2003. Tracks from the album appeared in the soundtracks of the television shows The O.C.,Six Feet Under, CSI: Miami and Californication, and the films Wedding Crashers, Easy A, and Mean Creek. In spring of 2004 the band recorded a live EP titled The John Byrd EP, named for their sound engineer. The EP was released on Barsuk Records in March 2004.
Signing to Atlantic (2004–2006)
The band had been contacted by major labels on and off for several years but it was only after Transatlanticism had proven very successful that they decided to start talking to labels about a potential deal. Having already achieved considerable success meant that they would be able to negotiate a lot of creative freedom. According to Kurland they spoke to "pretty much all of them" and then decided they were most excited by what Atlantic had to offer.
In November 2004 Death Cab for Cutie signed a “long-term worldwide deal” with Atlantic Records, leaving their long-time label Barsuk Records. Gibbard stated on the official website that nothing would change except that "next to the picture of Barsuk holding a 7", there will be the letter "A" on both the spine and back of our upcoming albums." After signing to Atlantic, the band was still nervous about corporate economics, and encouraged fans to download its songs from the Internet.
The first and second singles from the band's Atlantic Record release Plans were “Soul Meets Body” and “Crooked Teeth” respectively (which they performed on Saturday Night Live on January 14, 2006). The full album was released in August 2005. Plans was well received by critics and fans, and received a nomination for the Grammy Award for Best Alternative Album of 2005. It achieved Gold Status in 2006 after charting on Billboard for 47 consecutive weeks and was certified platinum by the RIAA at the beginning of May in 2008.
The band released a touring DVD titled Drive Well, Sleep Carefully, in 2005. Known for their contributions to animal rights, the band is supporting the activist group PETA in giving away copies of the DVD to promote animal rights. In early 2006 the band announced the upcoming release of Directions, eleven short films inspired by songs from the Plans album, each directed by a different person. The videos were posted one at a time at the band's website and the DVD went on sale April 11, 2006. The iTunes Store began selling the videos (formatted for iPod) early on March 28, 2006. Lance Bangs, P.R. Brown, Ace Norton, Jeffrey Brown, Lightborne, Autumn de Wilde, Rob Schrab, Laurent Briet and Monkmus, as well as Aaron Stewart-Ahn, are among directors that have contributed to the project. An episode of MTV2's Subterranean played these videos for the whole hour plus discussion with members of the band. In 2006, the band made their first appearance at Neil Young's annual Bridge School Benefit. The band completed their lengthy 2006 tour of the USA on December 10, 2006, finishing with a show at the KeyArena in Seattle, Washington.
Narrow Stairs and The Open Door EP (2007–2009)
Walla claimed on October 18, 2007, that the new album was "in full swing" and that they had six songs completed. He went on to call the new music "weird," "spectacular," and "creepy," saying that it contained "lots of blood." He noted that the album had a "Can jam" that lasted 10 minutes, which Walla said that he would have never imagined doing in 1998. In a Billboard piece in January '08, the band promised the album to be a "curve ball," and said that although it would have slower songs, there would be some surprises. Walla said, "I'm really excited about it. It's really got some teeth. The landscape of the thing is way, way more lunar than the urban meadow sort of thing that has been happening for the last couple of records." Walla added that the album was "louder and more dissonant and ... abrasive." They claimed that they were influenced by "synth-punk band Brainiac." The album, titled Narrow Stairs, was released on May 12, 2008.
The band released the first single, "I Will Possess Your Heart" from the album on March 18, 2008. The radio edit version does not include the extended introduction. Other singles off the album were "Cath...", "No Sunlight", and "Grapevine Fires".
In an album review, MTV writer James Montgomery said "Narrow Stairs is a great album, one that could make them very famous, but could very well also kill their careers," and although "Death Cab for Cutie had gone insane," he believed the LP could be "an early contender for the best album of 2008." Indeed, Narrow Stairs was nominated for "Best Alternative Music Album" and "I Will Possess Your Heart" received a nomination for "Best Rock Song" at the 51st Grammy Awards. The band lost in both categories, but prompted debate after appearing at the ceremony sporting blue ribbons to protest against what they view as the excessive use of Auto-Tune in the music industry.Narrow Stairs was their first album to reach No.1 on the Billboard 200 chart on May 31, 2008. Though the album achieved strong success, Gibbard went on to call it the band's most "depressing record".
On March 31, 2009, the band released The Open Door EP, containing tracks left off Narrow Stairs as well as a demo for "Talking Bird".The Open Door EP was nominated for Best Alternative Music Album at the 52nd Grammy Awards. In 2009 the band wrote the song, "Meet Me on the Equinox" for the The Twilight Saga: New Moon soundtrack. "Meet Me on the Equinox" was not the first song that Death Cab for Cutie contributed to a soundtrack, as they contributed "Soul Meets Body" to the soundtrack for Catch and Release in 2006.
Codes and Keys (2010–2012)
The band's latest album, Codes and Keys, was released on May 31, 2011. Ben Gibbard and Nick Harmer have both been quoted as saying that the album was "a much less guitar-centric album than we’ve ever made before". In March 2011 Ben Gibbard performed the title track at a solo concert in San Francisco. The tracklisting was released on their website on March 15, 2011. The first single from the album, "You Are A Tourist," has drawn The Stone Roses comparisons. On April 5, 2011, the group streamed a live performance of the music video for "You Are A Tourist." The video was accomplished in one take, using multiple cameras, and no edits or re-takes. The innovative and artistic production employed dancers, actors, and projected images. The band released the video for "Home is a Fire" on May 9. The video features street artist Shepard Fairey plastering lyrics from the song around Los Angeles. Ben Gibbard told Shave Magazine that the album was written in 4 different studios in 4 different sittings "to keep the creative progress moving forward" and prevent stagnation.Codes and Keys was also nominated for Best Alternative Music Album at the 54th Grammy Awards.
The band was due to play at the Ottawa Bluesfest on July 17, 2011, but the outdoor stage collapsed earlier in the evening after sudden severe weather hit the area. On their website, the band posted: "Our hearts go out to those that were injured and we are so thankful that no one was killed."
In 2012 the band toured across the globe, starting in Australia, New Zealand, Southeast Asia. In April and May, the band toured in the United States with members of the Magik*Magik Orchestra, who collaborated on tracks on Codes and Keys. After headlining the inaugural Bunbury Music Festival in Cincinnati, the band played summer festivals in Europe.
Eighth studio album (2013–present)
On October 11, 2013, the band reportedly began working on their eighth studio album. This was then confirmed by the group's official Instagram profile in which an image was uploaded with the caption "DCFC LP8 begins". Death Cab for Cutie re-released Transatlanticism as a remastered version of the 2003 album. The new album includes a vinyl LP and MP3 download, with demos for all the songs from the album. The re-release was made available on October 29, 2013, to mark the ten-year anniversary.
As part of the 2014 Record Store Day, the band released its first live album, a vinyl-only double LP recorded during various 2012 tour dates with Magik*Magik Orchestra. Included within the packaging was a code for a digital download of the recording.
Death Cab for Cutie's music has been labeled indie rock,indie pop,emo, and alternative rock. Death Cab for Cutie's early work on You Can Play These Songs with Chords was described by Rolling Stone as "emotion through its lack of emotion".Pitchfork Media also remarked that the work on the cassette was "ultra-lo-fi". On Something About Airplanes the band's style remained similar, with some new instrumental work introduced; "flute, synth, or cello" were noted by Allmusic's Nitsuh Abebe. On We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes the band again expanded their use of unorthodox instruments, including organ and glockenspiel. Pitchfork Media called them a "gentle niche" in the current rock climate, compared with bands such as Modest Mouse and Built to Spill.
Rolling Stone reviewed Transatlanticism and commented that it contained "melodic, melancholy songs about feeling both smart and confused, hopelessly romantic but wary of love." Gibbard's voice was described as "plaintive boy-next-door"Entertainment Weekly commented on the music on Plans, saying "The lush arrangements are long on hothouse organs and pianos, but short on the squirmy guitars and squirrelly beats that, on Gibbard's best work, offset his sweet voice and borderline-maudlin poetics with a sense of emotional danger." The band's music on Plans was described by the Dallas Morning News as "a literate, whispery style, the kind of stuff that normally sounds better in headphones than in large venues".
In an interview with Shave Magazine, Ben Gibbard commented on his song writing saying that he "never sit[s] down to write an album number one. I just kind of sit down and write songs and the theme kind of makes itself apparent. But I would never say I was writing about searching for something as much as just trying to document with every song where I am in that moment when I’m writing that song. If a theme kind of makes itself apparent in a record, it has more to do with the fact that just what’s been on my mind recently. So I guess clearly I have been and was and am, but it was never a conscious decision."
Gibbard took the band name from the title of the song written by Neil Innes and Vivian Stanshall and performed by their group, the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, in the Beatles's 1967 film Magical Mystery Tour. The song's name was in turn taken from an invented pulp fiction crime magazine The Uses of Literacy, devised by Richard Hoggart as part of his 1957 study of working class culture. In a 2011 interview, Gibbard stated, "The name was never supposed to be something that someone was going to reference 15 years on. So yeah, I would absolutely go back and give it a more obvious name."
- Benjamin Gibbard – vocals, guitar, piano, bass, drums (1997–present)
- Nick Harmer – bass, keyboards, guitar, backing vocals (1997–present)
- Chris Walla – guitar, production, piano, vocals (1997–present)
- Jason McGerr – drums (2003–present)
- Nathan Good – drums (1997–1999)
- Michael Schorr – drums (2000–2003)
- Something About Airplanes (1998)
- We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes (2000)
- The Photo Album (2001)
- Transatlanticism (2003)
- Plans (2005)
- Narrow Stairs (2008)
- Codes and Keys (2011)
- "Live 2012 featuring Magik*Magik Orchestra" (2014)
- at AllMusic
- on Myspace
- at the Internet Archive's live music archive
- on VH1