True Grit

With its latest album, Death Cab for Cutie reclaims the word "indie"

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.

You'd think they'd be a little happier, 
considering they just cracked 
Billboard's Top 100.
You'd think they'd be a little happier, considering they just cracked Billboard's Top 100.

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.

Much of the credit goes to Barsuk, which has developed into an impressive entity in its own right. Rosenfeld insists on sharing credit with his label partners and the bands on the roster. He is modest when he says, via phone from a New York taxicab, that "the growth of the label was pretty steady and natural," because actually the enormous success has happened in less than half a decade. This has a lot to do with the label's attention to details like album artwork and new technology -- the new DCFC is the first indie record to be released in Super Audio format -- and an unparalleled respect for its bands. When talking about Death Cab, Rosenfeld uses the tone of someone who seems perpetually in awe of the group's output. Much like when speaking with Gibbard, it's hard not to perceive him as just a nice guy, rather than someone interested in moving units.

But aren't nice guys supposed to finish last in this cutthroat industry? Not anymore. Poor choices, unfair business practices, and increasingly bland output from the majors have inspired fans and artists to look elsewhere for their music needs. The fat cats realize this, and probably aren't very happy about it (which is why it comes as no surprise that they resorted to suing music file-sharers recently). Unfortunately for the major labels, bands like Death Cab are rendering them useless. We have the facts, and we're voting yes to nice guys finishing first.

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