By Emma Silvers
By Gary Moskowitz
By Alee Karim
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
By Derek Opperman
By Emma Silvers
By Alee Karim
There was a time in the '80s when underground and mainstream music were as different as mohawks and three-piece suits. Independent record labels that made a dent in the major labels' cruel music machine were rare, and debates between the two camps raged endlessly. In 1986, the person who owned both the Throwing Muses' debut and Bryan Adams' Reckless was as fictional as Bigfoot.
But somewhere along the way things changed. Grunge happened and so did the Internet. Companies merged, then bought out many indie labels. The purveyors and consumers of what was once termed "college rock" graduated and purchased Volkswagens and SUVs. Whereas the words "punk" and "indie" used to describe an entire DIY aesthetic, they're now simply used for cataloging music in chain record stores. The same radio stations that invented the "alternative" tag now smoke cigars with Clear Channel and Linkin Park. In 2003, the majors put out all the "indie" records you heard on the radio and saw on MTV2. So what's the point of calling it indie anymore? There isn't any point.
But with major-label profits dwindling and the entire industry framework changing, some bands on independent labels are thriving like never before. Case in point: the empire that Death Cab for Cutie and its label, Barsuk, have created. In its first week of release, DCFC's latest full-length, Transatlanticism, sold 13,254 copies, debuting at No. 97 on the Billboard Top 200 chart. These are serious numbers for a truly independent band, numbers that many would argue should earn it a ticket to major-label land. So what's the holdup? Well, a band able to sell that many units has no need to sign to a major label. With the ability to bypass these corporate juggernauts, Death Cab for Cutie is the proprietor of a whole different kind of music industry, proof that, with the right team and the right songwriting, the independent realm is now capable of accomplishing everything the majors have in the past. The playground bullies are falling, ladies and gentleman, and the nerds are taking over.
Monday, Nov. 17, at 8 p.m.
Tickets are $16.50
The coup started in the late '90s in the town of Bellingham, Wash., about 90 miles north of Seattle, when guitarist/ vocalist Ben Gibbard cribbed the name Death Cab for Cutie from the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour. He enlisted guitarist Chris Walla, bassist Nick Harmer, and drummer Nathan Good (whose spot has been filled twice, most recently by Jason McGerr) to make Something About Airplanes, a catchy, endearingly low-fidelity LP that stretched heart-on-your-sleeve confessions over a body of minimalist arrangements. The album was remarkably diverse in its melodic construction and texture for a debut.
After making plans to release Airplanes on Elsinor, DCFC was approached by Josh Rosenfeld, who, with a few friends, had started a small label called Barsuk, primarily to release records for his own band, This Busy Monster. Rosenfeld expressed interest in co-releasing the record with Elsinor. "We were sitting on the porch at the Elsinor house," Gibbard says from his tour bus, "and Josh was like, 'OK, we're gonna do an initial pressing of a thousand copies.' And we were like, 'I don't know Josh. I don't know if we can sell a thousand copies.'" Needless to say, the band's fears were invalidated. "We were pretty shocked," recalls Gibbard about DCFC's first tour. "We went on tour expecting to lose a bunch of money and actually came back with 200 bucks a person."
In 2000 the band dropped We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes, a record that showed Death Cab maturing. It implemented, at times, even slower, more sparse arrangements and peculiar melodies that came off as genuine, emotional, and unique.
By 2001 when the group released The Photo Album, things were looking very bright. This time around, better production and a varied sonic palette (acoustic guitars, vibrato effects, subtle and occasional electronic beats) resulted in a collection of songs that appealed not only to indie rockers, but also to music fans across the board. Gibbard sang about both East and West Coast cities, intrigue and disdain, choking on L.A. smog and bumming cigarettes somewhere else. The band had clearly broken through to a solid fan base, and everyone was curious about what would happen with its next record.
Transatlanticism is confessional and pretty like other Death Cab albums, but the textures and arrangements are fresh, due in part to a new method of writing and recording. "We sort of got together and demoed the songs, but then we would go into the studio in chunks of five days and just play around with the songs and with different sounds," Gibbard says, which is a break from the past, when the band would play songs live for some time before committing them to tape.
The approach has resulted in Death Cab's most intricate work to date. The record's title track is an eight-minute opus that combines spacious piano and distant, machinelike percussion with slow-building rhythms. "We Looked Like Giants" is dark and bold, with big bass chords and ahead-of-the-beat drumming. "A Lack of Color" faintly recalls Nick Drake with its pastoral acoustic picking. Finally, "The Sound of Settling" completes the emotional spectrum with strategically placed handclaps, campy "Bah Bah" background vocals, and long, happy electric-guitar phrasings. With diverse songwriting like this, it's no surprise that the band has become as successful as it has.