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Death Cab for Cutie - Follow that cab for a completely new direction

Death Cab for Cutie's downbeat last album made No 1 in the US. But, for their follow-up, they have moved on from indie guitars and slowcore melancholy, they tell Gillian Orr
  • @gillian_orr

Half an hour or so into a Death Cab for Cutie concert in Toronto last week, between an old track called "What Sarah Says", which features the line, "love is watching someone die, so who's going to watch you die?", and their most-loved hit, the solemnly titled "I Will Follow You Into the Dark", frontman Ben Gibbard cheerily greets the enthusiastic crowd.

"This is fun, right?" But Gibbard is not trying to be clever, he is having fun. And so is the packed-out Phoenix Concert Theatre. For when the Washington quartet perform, they, curiously, inspire joyous crowd singalongs and dancing that often belies much of the music's terribly depressing subject matter.

With its lugubrious lyrics and stark observations, their last album, 2008's Narrow Stairs, was the band's bleakest release to date. It was also their most successful, debuting at number one on the US Billboard Chart. But now they are back with a new record, their seventh – Codes and Keys – and it is an altogether more upbeat and well-balanced affair.

When I meet Gibbard and the band's guitarist/producer Chris Walla backstage before the concert, they are visibly relieved to be able to leave some of the melancholy behind.

"I feel like virtually anything we do at this point would be brighter than that record," laughs Gibbard. "In the throes of writing Narrow Stairs I kind of allowed myself for it to become the most extremely dark thing that it could be. Up until that record I don't think I could have written a song like 'You Can Do Better Than Me' and been, like, okay with it. But I didn't want to wallow in that place too much more." Besides, life seems to be treating Gibbard well. Having recently married the actress Zooey Deschanel, he has moved from Seattle to Los Angeles, a city he described as "the belly of the beast" on 2001's The Photo Album. Indeed, a new song, 'Stay Young, Go Dancing', even includes the line "Life is sweet in the belly of the beast".

The other band members have similarly undergone dramatic life-changes. Walla relocated from Portland to Seattle after ending a long relationship; bassist Nick Harmer got married and changed cities twice; and drummer Jason McGerr has had children and moved his family back to the town of Bellingham, where the band grew up.

These developments have certainly informed Codes and Keys, an album preoccupied with the concept of home: the search for it and how to recognise it when you get there. "It wasn't a conscious decision to make a record that dealt with a particular subject," explains Gibbard. "But, as somebody who recently moved from a place that I've lived the vast majority of my life to a city I never in a million years thought I would end up, it makes you re-evaluate things. I found myself living in a very foreign place, but also feeling for the first time in my life that I had never felt more comfortable, and that was very surprising."

Recorded over several months and in a number of different locations, Codes and Keys also heralds a new sound for the band, with one of Walla's main references being the point where electronic music first interfaced with rock in the late Seventies and early Eighties. Much more of a sonic experimentation than previous efforts, the straightforward indie-rock guitar sound has been ditched in favour of synths and a string section.

"I was interested in making a harmonic bed for things out of something other than strumming guitars," says Walla. "And that turned out to be kind of a bigger challenge than I thought it was going to be but I'm really happy with how it turned out. This record took a step back by layering things piece by piece and trying to build a soundscape from the ground up."

So, are they nervous of alienating their famously die-hard fans, some of whom have followed the band obsessively from their inception in the late Nineties, and watched them graduate from a modest, dive-bar playing, guitar band loved by college radio to Grammy-nominated, indie-rock royalty on a major label?

"There have been points where the audience has been a consideration," nods Walla. "But I think it's sort of been left to us to be whatever band we want to be or all the bands we want to be all at once."

Certainly one of Death Cab's many blessings was to come of age in the pre-internet era, allowing them to evolve slowly and develop. Walla considers it a "luxury" to have toiled in semi-obscurity for a while, in the days before blogs were able to pick you up and spit you out in the space of six months. "We were lucky enough to have people not really paying attention for the years that we were trying to figure out how to be a band," he notes.

Gibbard nods in agreements, "I don't know if this band would have lasted had our first record been a first record today and people started to get excited about it. I highly doubt we could have handled the pressure at that age."

Death Cab only made the jump to a major label in 2004, and the long road to mainstream success could also be put down to them being a solid, gimmick-free guitar band. They are the first to admit that they make for a tough sell.

"We've got to be infuriating from a marketing perspective," laughs Gibbard. "It's like, 'here are four boring white guys'." Walla continues: "We don't really have a 'thing', like, there aren't mountains of blow, we're not 19. Whatever it is, we're not doing it and never did." It has meant the band, while being hugely popular as a collective, have yet to reach celebrity status and can largely move about unrecognised, a coup that Gibbard notes is "a little bit have your cake and eat it too."

Our talk turns to the future and where the band wants to go from here. Just before the start of the interview, when Gibbard and I were waiting for Walla to join us, our polite small talk turned to books and we discovered that we have both recently finished A Visit From the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan's study of time passing. Largely set in the music business, the book follows characters who struggle with ageing whilst working in an industry where youth is everything. Does the band, now all in their mid-thirties, ever fear for what is to come?

"Some of my favourite bands, even today, are bands from the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties, and are still together and putting out records," Gibbard points out. "And for the most part I'm really enjoying them and get excited for their new records. Like when The Cure put out something, it may not hit me the same way that Disintegration did when I was 13 years old but I'm still excited to go out and get it. And if The Cure's coming through town, I know that they'll play all these songs from this beautiful catalogue of music that they've accrued over the years. At the end of the day, that's what we're trying to provide to people, and getting older just gives you more opportunities to do that."

'Codes and Keys' is released on Monday on Atlantic. Death Cab for Cutie tour the UK in July (www.deathcab forcutie.com).