Death Cab for Cutie

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Death Cab for Cutie

Rock group

Originally formed in the musically fertile region of Bellingham, Washington, in 1997 as a solo project for singer/guitarist Ben Gibbard, Death Cab for Cutie grew into a huge underground musical sensation that came to define the emo genre in the early 2000s.

Gibbard, an environmental chemistry student at Western Washington University, took the name Death Cab for Cutie from a song by the 1960s rock ensemble the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, after Gibbard had been performing under the moniker All-Time Quarterback. In the mid-1990s he met guitarist and four-track enthusiast Chris Walla at school, and the two bonded over Teenage Fanclub albums. Soon they began writing and recording songs together in their dorm rooms. "Between '96 and '97, I wrote eight or nine songs that were suddenly really good," Gibbard told Spin's Andy Greenwald. "I'd had the first major heartbreak of my life—that always helps!" As they continued their academic pursuits, Walla helped Gibbard polish up his songs into a cassette-released album titled You Can Play These Songs With Chords. The cassette became a local favorite in Bellingham and helped to establish Gibbard as a performer and songwriter.

With Walla playing keys and guitar, and fellow Western Washington University friends Nick Harmer on bass and Nathan Good on drums, Death Cab made their official debut. Their album, 1998's Something About Airplanes, started a buzz in underground music scenes throughout the country. Before the band was set to record their follow up, they encountered their first lineup change. Death Cab's next album, 2000's We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes, saw the debut of drummer Michael Schorr as the replacement for Nathan Good.

We Have the Facts proved that Death Cab for Cutie was charting new and exciting territory, and the record sold remarkably well for an independent release. To keep the positive momentum going, the band put out an EP, Forbidden Love, later that year, and quickly followed up with 2001's The Photo Album, a standout record in Death Cab's catalog. Kristi Coulter of All Music Guide wrote, "Mixing the sound of a quieter Built to Spill with the lyrical specificity of Belle and Sebastian, The Photo Album's ten tracks explore the near misses and equally tenuous triumphs of human connection."

In 2002, with an obvious demand from the public for more of the band's music, the Barsuk label re-released Gibbard's hard-to-find cassette-only collection You Can Play These Songs With Chords on CD. The disc also included a few of the band's rarities and other unreleased demos. Writing about You Can Play These Songs With Chords, Rolling Stone's Jenny Eliscu commented, "This eighteen-song disc proves that Seattle indie-rock band Death Cab for Cutie was onto something before it even got started."

The band toured each record extensively, and after their 2002 tour things changed yet again. Drummer Schorr left, and Jason McGerr, formerly of Eureka Farm, took his place. The band found itself somewhat scattered across the Pacific Northwest, with each member pursuing solo projects. At the end of the year, however, they finally began work on their next collective release, Transatlanticism. The record's title referred to the distances between Gibbard's geographical and emotional relationships with his bandmates and with his partner. Gibbard began the project by giving the rest of the band a stack of demo songs he had been working on. At first the band was not entirely supportive of his musical arrangements, but they hashed out each song's details in the studio. "We ended up doing a lot more surgery," explained Walla in the band's press materials. "Stripping songs all the way down to the melody and the lyric—knowing that those were totally right on—and then building up around that. For me, from a producer's perspective, that was great."

Transatlanticism's recording process was a strange one in many ways. Not only was the record produced over six months between Seattle and San Francisco, but the inventive Gibbard employed Brian Eno's Oblique Strategies, a set of chance operations devised to spark creative thinking, in order to influence the production. "Honor thy error as a hidden intention," and "Use 'unqualified' people" were some of the instructions that Eno's model directed. "They're vague in the way that horoscopes are vague," Walla commented to CMJ New Music Monthly. "If you're not into it, you won't get anything out of it," Harmer added.

Regardless of the unorthodox recording methods used, Transatlanticism sold more than 100,000 copies, an unlikely feat for any independent release. Teri Tsang, writing in Rolling Stone, commented that "Transatlanticism should be overwrought—it's an album about young men enduring a lost love in an ocean of memory; instead, it feels like a conversation with an old friend."

Barsuk Records' president Josh Rosenfeld attributed the group's success to an un-indie-like determination and seriousness. "They stopped and noticed that they needed to mature at a time when a lot of bands would have opted to just continue being juvenile," he commented in an article in Spin. The group's success led them to impressive record sales and brought them new promotional outlets such as television appearances—a rank which few indie bands ever attain. After the album's release the band performed on both The Late Late Show With Craig Kilborn and Last Call With Carson Daly.

Death Cab for Cutie also found an unlikely hero in actor Adam Brody. In real life and in his role as the witty and sarcastic Seth Cohen on the television show The O.C., Brody championed the band endlessly. In the Spin article he commented, "Ben's lyrics are just so freaking great, so different and poetic. Once you get into people who write that way, it's hard to go back to the radio. It ruined me."

Selected discography

Something About Airplanes, Barsuk, 1998.

We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes, Barsuk, 2000.

Forbidden Love (EP), Barsuk, 2000.

The Photo Album, Barsuk, 2001.

For the Record …

Members include Ben Gibbard , vocals, guitar; Nathan Good (left band, 2000), drums; Nick Harmer , bass; Jason McGerr (joined band, 2002), drums; Michael Schorr (left band, 2002), drums; Chris Walla , guitar, keyboards.

Death Cab for Cutie began as solo project for Ben Gibbard under the name All-Time Quarterback; Gibbard and Chris Walla met at Western Washington University; released cassette-only You Can Play These Songs With Chords, 1997; joined up with Nick Harmer and Nathan Good, released Something About Airplanes, 1998; released We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes and Forbidden Love, 2000; released The Photo Album, 2001; released Transatlanticism, 2003.

Addresses: Record company—Barsuk Records, P.O. Box 22546, Seattle, WA 98122, website:, e-mail: [email protected]. Website—Death Cab for Cutie Official Website:

Transatlanticism, Barsuk, 2003.



CMJ New Music Monthly, November 2003.

New Musical Express, August 15, 2002.

Rolling Stone, November 14, 2002; April 17, 2003; Novemeber 27, 2003.

Spin, April 2004.


"Death Cab for Cutie," All Music Guide, (April 24, 2004).

Additional information was provided by Barsuk Records and Tag Team Media publicity materials, 2004.

—Ken Taylor