Music » Music Stories

Best-Laid Plans

Death Cab for Cutie weathers their major label transition with grace


It's not an exaggeration to say that Death Cab for Cutie signing to Atlantic Records at the end of 2004 was the biggest jump into the mainstream by an indie band yet. But last year's elegant Plans (along with the lovely videos on the group's April 11-released DVD, Directions) shows that the Bellingham, Washington, quartet is ready to conquer any challenge in its path. Fresh off the opening night of their co-headlining tour with Franz Ferdinand (here in St. Louis, show-opening duties are ably handled by UK rockers the Cribs), bassist Nick Harmer spoke about the state of Death Cab's nation.

Annie Zaleski: Plans has been out for over six months now. Has your opinion of the album changed at all?

Nick Harmer: It's changing; I'm not exactly sure how. When we finished the record, it felt like a private, intimate experience, and I wondered how these songs would translate to some of these bigger places and in front of crowds. It's been really exciting to see. All of the songs we're playing from this record have this different personality to them live.

What's been the biggest surprise for you being on a major label?

The thing that's surprised us the most so far is how well it's going. [Laughs] I mean that in the best possible light. We went into the major-label thing just having friends in bands that had gone through the sort of major-label machine before — some of them ended up in great places and speak highly of their experiences, and some of them ended up in really terrible places. We really had our guard up pretty high, were really not really sure what to expect, but we were certainly bracing ourselves for the worst [laughs] in some ways.

It's so funny — here in St. Louis I've heard "Crooked Teeth" on the radio after songs by Staind and Slipknot.

[Laughs] That's a little strange. I don't know what's going on with that. I'm not sure what "Crooked Teeth" sounds like when you hear it after [like] "People = Shit" by Slipknot.

It sounds fine! So, the "Crooked Teeth" video is a Peter Gabriel homage [after his video for "Sledgehammer"]. Who in the band is the big prog fan?

Chris [Walla, guitarist/keyboardist] is the biggest prog fan. He's like a library of prog bands. I didn't realize in the world how many members of King Crimson have been all over the place. He's always, "That's a Robert Fripp thing." [But] I'll give a lot of credit to Ace Norton, the guy who directed the video. He came up with the concept, put it all together. We just sort of read the treatment and we were like, "That's great! Let's totally do that."

This video is part of Directions. What was the genesis of that project for you guys?

It was an idea that I actually had with one of my friends, Aaron, who I had grown up with. We came up with this idea and brought it back to the band, and said, "Hey, would you guys be into this if we could get it together?" and everybody seemed pretty excited about it. There's actually thirteen total videos. Eleven for the record and then we made two videos for two B-sides. [For] all thirteen videos we ended up hand-picking the director and treatment we really liked. We are so incredibly proud and happy of how the videos have come out and how the project has taken shape.

Do you think you would have been able to have done something like this on Barsuk?

It would have been a little bit more of a stretch; it would have certainly been a longer conversation — mainly because the budgets for these videos were very, very small. A lot of people go, "Oh Death Cab for Cutie, they're on a major label, they have all the money in the world right now, so that's why they made eleven videos." Well, actually, no. We spent less for thirteen videos than we've ever spent on one video on Atlantic. We could have done that on Barsuk for sure.

Live, what kind of reaction are you getting to your songs? Are people only reacting to newer records?

For sure the strongest reactions come from the last two records. Between Transatlanticism and Plans, we've certainly turned the heads of far more people in the States. But when we play, we like to play older material and play deep stuff. Almost every show we'll play at least a song from every record. You will always have some percentage of the crowd that are just diehard fans and know whatever you're going to throw out. And then there'll even be a smaller percentage that every once in awhile will yell out some really obscure song that we haven't played in a long time. [Laughs]

It astounded me that when you guys signed that so many people talked about indie bands selling out. I thought that died when the '90s ended. Have those accusations quieted now?

Oh yeah, they've totally died down. The kind of character in the world that cries sell-out, they pretty much started crossing their arms and saying humbug right around Transatlanticism. Once you cross a certain threshold, and you're not just everyone's little secret band anymore, then it's not even really about selling out. It's more about those people just like to hold some cards over people —— in conversation, where it's like, "I know about this one band you don't know about." And once everyone knows about that band, they get bummed out.

It's like, "Are you always unhappy?"

Once we released Plans and everyone kind of realized, "Oh, well, this is the band we know and recognize, and they still make the music that I know, it's not a big deal," that kind of made everybody relax a little bit. We haven't really come across the diehard sell-out kids at all.

They're in their rooms avoiding your shows.

Those people that are like, "Everything on a major label is crap," I just feel bad for them; they must really have some of the worst record collections in the world. If it wasn't for Talking Heads, the Clash — think about these bands that only had major-label careers in the world. The Cure, all of these bands, geez, that I grew up on that influenced me to no end. I would have never found them in the small-town USA I grew up in if they weren't on major labels, especially because there weren't many independent record labels or much distribution.

Yeah, back in the day, there wasn't the Internet to watch videos and find new bands. I remember getting mail-order catalogs and circling things, like, "That sounds cool."

[I remember] getting an SST catalog, and going, "I like the name of that band, I wonder what they sound like, I'll buy the record and they'll send it to me." I used to take risks like that all the time. You had to go on gut instinct alone, have your senses razor-sharp and go, "OK, I'm going to give this one a shot, I hope it's good."

Did you buy anything atrocious?

When the grunge thing was happening in Seattle, there was a lot of grunge bands at the time that you were like, "Oh, fucking cool!" We were kind of in this frenzy, at least growing up near Seattle, where we were buying lots of stuff that was coming out around then. I got burned a couple of times. There were a few bands where it's like, "I can't wait to get that record! That sounds like a cool band!" Then you go and buy it: "No, no, no. Geez, I should have bought the Soundgarden EP, and not that."

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