An Interview With Death Cab For Cutie
By Mark Mason
They've been described as "fiercely independent" and "punk rock, in attitude, if not musically", so No Ripcord battled through the haze of an uncharacteristically hot English summers day, to find the real Death Cab For Cutie. We make ourselves comfortable and are soon joined by Ben Gibbard (Vocals/Guitar), Chris Walla (Guitar/Things), Nicholas Harmer (Bass) and Michael Schorr (Drums) to see what makes a band, with flawless integrity, tick.
So how does an English audience compare to, say a Seattle audience?
Ben: We're reaching the British audience at a different time, at home we're playing to 600 to 1000 people a night and everyone's singing along to every word. In England we're playing smaller venues and we're having to win people over, because not many people have really heard of us.
Michael: Yeah we're brand new.
How long have you been on this tour?
Ben: This is like our fourth date in Britain, but we've been touring for a while in the States. This is more like a vacation for us. When we're on tour in the States, a full US tour is like five or six weeks and we travel in a van that could fit in the back lounge of this bus.
Chris: Plus in the States we do everything ourselves, it's like running a business, you know, someone's driving, someone's doing the money or whatever, we're always working.
Ben: We have a T-Shirt guy now, but we've never had a bus like this, we tour in a van in the States. It has its plusses and its minuses...
Its minuses being?
Nicholas: You can't take a shit on this bus, ha ha.
Ben: It's strange, you finish the gig, you get on the bus and sleep and then you wake up. I woke up this morning and I was like "Where the hell are we?" - it's really disorientating.
Chris: I drive most of the time in the States and see every mile of road, but here, on the bus you wake up in a new town and it's like you've been teleported, you know.
You've been described in the music press as "fiercely independent" - does the idealistic independent music community actually exist, or is it a lonely road to travel?
Ben: In the States there are like-minded bands that we play with, but it's never the utopian vision that people think it is. I see an independent community in the US, that I don't see here and I don't know if it even exists.
Chris: I think a lot of it has to do, simply with the fact that there are just more people there, than there are here. You can make a living as an independent band in the States. I mean we sold almost 30,000 copies of our last album The Photo Album and that's enough to make a living, but in the UK it seems a lot harder to make it, if you're selling to the same ratio of people, say 1 in every 15,000 people; you'll only sell a couple of thousand records. That community didn't even exist in the seventies, it was in the eighties with Fugazi and Black Flag, the punk rock forefathers of what were doing now, built that community, from the basement up, into the clubs and so on, you know before e-mail and everything.
Ben: It must have been so difficult for the likes of Black Flag to tour and get contacts, or whatever. Whereas now you can go on the Internet and type in "Death Cab For Cutie" and within five seconds you'll have pictures and articles and music and where we're playing next, it's fantastic, word spreads a lot quicker.
What about all these so called "independent" bands, who suddenly pop up in GAP adverts, what do you think about that?
Ben: I once held a staunch opinion on stuff like that, but if James from The Shins can sell a song to McDonalds for $80,000 and put a downpayment on a house and they can justify it to themselves, then nobody has the right to tell them it's not a cool thing to do. I don't know if I'd feel comfortable doing that, but you know if it gives money to musicians, then who the hell are we to criticise.
Michael: Plus, can you keep making the music that you wanna make, without offers like that?
Chris: It's a job, you know. Even when we're not recording or touring, it's a full time thing, Ben is writing, I've been compiling this retrospective thing that's coming out soon...
Michael: And I've been answering fan e-mails ha ha.
Ben: I think it has to do with the kind of people we are, rather than sticking to some kind of ethic. We're four intelligent people, there's no reason to have another person in the communication chain, it's difficult enough communicating from me to the other three or vice-versa.
Ultimately it must be more satisfying, because then everything you put in comes straight back to you?
Ben: Yeah, because every paycheck we've received has been money we've earned, it's not a result of some kind of deal we've signed, it's not as a result of an advance, which is initially not your money.
Chris: If you're in a band in the States and you sign a million dollar deal, which is a huge deal, after everyone like the lawyer and the manager and the income tax is taken off, then you're left with fifty or sixty thousand dollars, which is a lot of money yeah, but you can't really buy a house with that. You are absolutely chained to the label too.
Ben: Now you have all these rock stars, like Courtney Love, saying how corrupt the music business is. It's like "Duh, where have you been?"
In her mansion, that's where she's been.
Ben: It's easy for us to trash talk the major record labels, because we've found this scene that we're comfortable with and our music appeals to the people in the independent world. I mean if you're a band like Hoobastank or Staind... Staind could never do what we do, they could never make their own records or tour or whatever, because the people that like their records don't actively search it out, they turn on MTV or one of the major independent stations and whatever is on, they buy.
So, do you think that if a song is written, simply for financial ends, it's as valid as a song written without the thought of a paycheck?
Ben: Music exists for many reasons for many people, whether it's in a club or getting pumped to go out or to have sex or whatever.
Chris: I like to think that, regardless of what it is, that someone somewhere is getting something out of it. Say if a twelve year old girl is having a tough day at school and she hears a song and it means something to her, I can't deny it too much.
Michael: What went behind writing a song is far less important than if someone gets something out of it. You can write a song with the worst motivation possible and it affects a million people and that's art, you've communicated.
Who do you consider your direct contemporaries, not just in music, but art and film?
Ben: There are bands that we all like and we get on with, like Pedro The Lion and American Analog Set, that have similar ideas on things.
Michael: As far as films go it's such a different thing, but people like the Coen brothers have a vision and ideas that we admire.
Do you think that there is an Englishness to your music?
Ben: Definitely. When I was 12 or 13, in the States all that was on the radio was Poison or Warrant and songs with ripping guitar solos in them and I was like "How am I supposed to do this?". Somebody had a cassette of The Stone Roses, Charlatans and The Happy Mondays and Chris and I came from that era of stuff. We also had our town and those bands like Mudhoney and Nirvana that also inspired us, as well as Fugazi and Black Flag around too.
Is there any kind of hangover from the grunge thing in Seattle still?
Ben: Every band that we encounter in the studio seems to want to talk about it and want to talk about Nirvana. There aren't any bands doing the same musical style, no.
Nicholas: Everybody's really sceptical of bands that have any desire to be successful.
The final question: Do you think that any great art can be created in a safe, stable environment, without any kind of antagonism or friction?
Nicholas: In a straight and comfortable environment? I don't think so.
Chris: The thing is, a safe and comfortable environment becomes fucking boring and is kinda terrifying for too long...
Nicholas: And that creates the drama that fuels the art.
Ben: Americans especially are looking for the junkie singer songwriter who had one parent, the tortured artist.
Nicholas: I think that the reason why we all ended up making music, was equal parts because we think we could do something better than what we were hearing and partly as a tribute to the music that we love. It's like the music that gets shoved down our throats in America and you just think "Oh God, these people" and that equally informs your music.
Ben: That's the reason David Lynch is so popular too, all of his backdrops are always safe, clean, perfect portraits of Americana and that's always the creepy, weird shit to me. It's the people who set their art in that kind of environment, to me that's really powerful.
Nicholas: David Lynch is the best at taking suburbia and pulling up the carpet and showing the bugs underneath.
Ben: Especially living in affluence there is the feeling of pulling back that layer of affluence and you discover that the crimes are hidden and the city's not so clean.
Michael: If you're not slightly restless, you won't gravitate towards any kind of instrument or anything creative, anyway.
Ben: It's like that Radiohead thing of "I have everything that I ever wanted and I still feel like something's awry, what's wrong with me?" kind of feeling.
A perfect ending. Intelligence and inspiring views of a world where souls need not be sold, but bills need to be paid and bugs under carpets feed fires of inspiration. Later the same day Death Cab For Cutie play a gig that encapsulates all they were waxing lyrically about and backed with a soundtrack of heartbreaking melody, what more do you need?
Death Cab For Cutie: "The Photo Album"
Death Cab For Cutie: "We Have The Facts And We're Voting Yes"