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Death Cab For Cutie Pulls Into The Studio


From the BPP archives, our interview with the band Death Cab for Cutie. In its first week of release, the new album by Death Cab hit number one on the Billboard Charts. That's a first for the Seattle band, which stopped by the studios the day the album, called "Narrow Stairs," came out. They played some songs for us. And then we sat down with singer-songwriter, Ben Gibbard, and guitarist-producer, Chris Walla, to talk about the new record. The first single released off "Narrow Stairs" won - runs eight minutes long, believe it or not, half intro, half song. The BPP's Rachel Martin talked with Ben Gibbard about finding inspiration for his songs at the home of one of his favorite writers.

(Soundbite of reverse playback)

Mr. BEN GIBBARD (Singer-Songwriter, Death Cab for Cutie): You know, the process of writing this record wasn't really that different than the writing for any record that we've ever done. I mean, I - with every record, I try to take some kind of writing trip, to kind of go somewhere and just kind of change my environment for a couple weeks and finish the songs that I need to finish, and hopefully write a couple more while I'm there.

And I took part in this kind of, you know, soon-to-be-completed, I would imagine, documentary about Kerouac, and got to kind of see the cabin that Kerouac stayed at back in, I guess in the early '60s or late '50s. And I just got to - was able to rent it. I decided to go in there for a couple of weeks and spend that writing trip there. So, I just kind of spent a couple weeks in Big Sur and finished the songs for this record.

RACHEL MARTIN: I want to ask Chris, when he comes back - so he goes away - this is a question about the writing process.

Mr. CHRIS WALLA (Guitarist-Producer, Death Cab for Cutie): Mm-hm.

MARTIN: You draft out kind of the bones of what you want a song to sound like, and you come and present it to Chris and the rest of the band - I'm assuming this is how it goes down - in the stripped-down version. When he puts these songs to you, do the other textures of how you want this to be come immediately to your mind? I mean, one example, "You Can Do Better Than Me." Did you hear that and think, oh yeah, we're going to make a big sound, we're going to have big drums, we're going to have big organ in this?

Mr. WALLA: Sometimes Ben brings stuff in and it's just definitely just bones, and then sometimes he brings stuff in and it's, like, bones and muscle and skin, and it's like already wearing a suit and has a feather in its cap.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Little tuxedo.

Mr. WALLA: Yeah. And like, it's...

PESCA: Been to college, has strong opinions about the deficit.

Mr. WALLA: Totally. Yeah. And it's like - it's every, like, every song's a little different. Like, sometimes it's like you just take the picture. It's like you just - it's like the arrangement makes sense, everything's working, and then we just do it like that.

And then sometimes it's like it's just wearing the wrong suit, and sometimes it's - the bones are in totally the wrong body and, like, it's just a matter of, like, trying to determine which is which. And "You Can Do Better" came in as - it was just piano and vocal, right? When it came in?

Mr. GIBBARD: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It was one of the more sparse vocals than I tried to do.

Mr. WALLA: Yeah, totally. The whole, like, sleigh-bell timpani send-up was definitely, like, that was Ben's idea, but it was something that I - I mean, it made perfect sense to me. As soon as he said it, it was, like, right, right, got it.

PESCA: And from that, when he says sleigh bells timpani, did you hear, like, 80 percent of the final version? Did you hear it right then?

Mr. WALLA: Kind of did, yeah.

Mr. GIBBARD: But that was also - I mean, but that's an interesting song to kind of note, because, I mean, I - that song, I think, kind of just showcases more of Chris's production on the editing than it does necessarily the arrangement, so to speak.


Mr. GIBBARD: Like, when I brought the song in, it had a verse and a chorus, and a verse and a chorus, and Chris, you know - and it wasn't a song that was really in contention for the album, I don't think. I mean, it was just one of many songs, and Chris was like, well, why don't you just have it be the verse - first verse and the first chorus? I mean, you say all - everything you need to say in that minute and a half. Let's just cut the other half of the song off and, like, just let it be this long.

Mr. WALLA: It's a two-minute song, like, yeah.

Mr. GIBBARD: Yeah, exactly. And then to me, that - it just was perfect, because that's - I mean, the sentiment throughout the song, that's about as long as that thought goes through your head. You know, you kind of - you find yourself having a really dire thought about a person you're with, and then - and by the time you kind of come full circle to it, you realize that you were foolish to think that way in the first place, and there's no point stretching that sentiment out. And to me, that's one of the biggest calls that Chris made on the record, because it really saved the song and made it something really special, I think.

Mr. WALLA: Well, and, too, with that song, I mean, like it felt - I don't know if it's true or not, but it felt to me like they just spilled out and they happened, and it was, like, that all glued together...

PESCA: Mm-hm.

Mr. WALLA: And then the second half of the song felt really, like, there needed to be a second half to the song, and like, you sort of really worked on it, and it...

Mr. GIBBARD: Yeah. That's the way it went.

Mr. WALLA: Yeah, exactly. And, like, it just - you can just tell, like, and it just - I don't know. I love how it turned out, like, just as a - just as what it is, so...

MARTIN: Well, before we get any further...

Mr. WALLA: Yeah.

MARTIN: Let's listen to a little bit of music. We're going to hear the whole band. We're going to hear a song off the new album. The album is called "Narrow Stairs." The song is called "Talking Bird."

(Soundbite of song "Talking Bird")

Mr. GIBBARD: (Singing) Oh, my talking bird, Though you know so few words, They're on infinite repeat, Like your brain can't keep up with your beat.

And you're kept in an open cage So you're free to leave or stay. Sometimes you get confused, Like there's a hint I am trying to give you.

The longer you think, the less you know what to do.

It's hard to see your way out When you live in a house in a house, 'Cause you don't realize That the windows were open the whole time.

But oh, my talking bird, Though your feathers are tattered and furled, I'll love you all your days 'til the breath leaves your delicate face.

It's all here for you as long as you choose to stay. It's all here for you as long as you don't fly away.

(Soundbite of applause)

MARTIN: That was "Talking Bird" off the new album, which is called "Narrow Stairs." So we were talking about how Ben can come in with a fully formed song. We use the metaphor of the body. It's got muscles...

PESCA: The metaphor worked, by the way.

MARTIN: It did, and so we're carrying it on.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: Sometimes it's a mixed metaphor, and you just go with it, but that was nice.

MARTIN: We're using it. Speaking - this is my segue - speaking of muscles, speaking of muscular...


MARTIN: That's how this album has been defined by some critics, have used that word floating around there, "muscular."

Mr. WALLA: Yeah.

MARTIN: Does that suit this?

Mr. WALLA: I think it's got some, sort of, brutish kind of muscular qualities about it, yeah. I think after eight months off, we all had a series of introspective, distinctively not muscular experiences. It was kind of weird. Like, we all got back together...

MARTIN: What's an example of a not muscular experience?

Mr. WALLA: Well, like a solo-acoustic tour, or like, working on a solo record where everything's in overdub. So, yeah, I mean, it was - everybody was really ready. I mean, after a year and a half of just playing scrappy rock music every night on big stages and then going away and doing like, sort of, solitary things, it was really nice to come back and just plug in and play rock music.


Mr. WALLA: Back to basics. Like, everybody in the room together recording the tape, just totally doing it the way bands used to make records before we were looking at all the sounds.

MARTIN: Last question, and then I'll let you go. What about this album gives you the most satisfaction to you? What are you most proud of?

Mr. WALLA: I am most proud of the fact - OK, two things. I'm most proud of the fact that we played the thing as a band. I mean, it's - save from some really isolated incidences, it's the first time that we've really done that, sort of, as a theme for making a record all the way through. And I'm totally thrilled with the artwork. I'm so excited about it.

MARTIN: Oh, yeah!

Mr. WALLA: Yeah, and I mean, that's, like, not something that's, like, directly related to the record, but it's exactly related to the record.

MARTIN: No, it's a part of it.

Mr. WALLA: It is a part of it, and I love how the artwork glues together with the music, and that doesn't always happen, you know.

MARTIN: Yeah. Ben?

Mr. GIBBARD: You know, I mean, I feel kind of the most proud of the fact that this record, the writing, and particularly the recording of this record, felt more like something that we did 10 years ago than we did in recent years.

Mr. WALLA: Right.

Mr. WALLA: Like, where it never - it didn't feel like, every day I was going to the studio, I was going into make the second major-label record for a band that had just went platinum. It felt like I was going into a room with my friends and just making a record. And...

MARTIN: And you guys have been friends a long time, now.

Mr. GIBBARD: Exactly, yeah, we have.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GIBBARD: And it just - and I just really like the fact that it was just a very fun process.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, we're going to get one more song out of you. It's called "I Will Possess Your Heart." And again, the album is called "Narrow Stairs." Thank you guys very much for being here. We appreciate it.

Mr. GIBBARD: Thanks for having us.

Mr. WALLA: Thank you.

(Soundbite of song "I Will Possess Your Heart")

DEATH CAB FOR CUTIE: (Singing) How I wish you could see the potential, The potential of you and me. It's like a book elegantly bound, But in a language that you can't read.

You've got to spend some time, love. You've got to spend some time with me. And I know that you'll find, love, I will possess your heart.

You've got to spend some time, love. You've got to spend some time with me. And I know that you'll find, love, I will possess your heart.

There are days when outside your window, I see my reflection as I slowly pass. Then I long for this mirrored perspective, And we'll be lovers, lovers at last.

You've got to spend some time, love. You've got to spend some time with me. And I know that you'll find, love, I will possess your heart.

You've got to spend some time, love. You've got to spend some time with me. And I know that you'll find, love, I will possess your heart.

I will possess your heart. I will possess your heart. I will possess your heart.

You reject my advances and desperate pleas. I won't let you let me down so easily, so easily.

You've got to spend some time, love. You've got to spend some time with me. And I know that you'll find, love, I will possess your heart.

You've got to spend some time, love. You've got to spend some time with me. And I know that you'll find, love, I will possess your heart.

You've got to spend some time, love. You've got to spend some time with me. And I know that you'll find, love, I will possess your heart.

I will possess your heart. I will possess your heart.

PESCA: That was Death Cab for Cutie, live in the BPP studios, and you can see a video of that performance on our blog at npr.org/bryantpark.

(Soundbite of song "Stay Positive")

PESCA: Ah, this isn't them! This is The Hold Steady. We'll be talking about them on the BPP with Lizzie Goodman from Blender Magazine, as it is New Music Tuesday. This is the Bryant Park Project from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.