As a whole, Death Cab for Cutie spent much of 2007 on a sort of self-imposed hiatus, but that doesn't mean the parts that make up that whole did the same.
Frontman Ben Gibbard embarked on a solo tour and landed a cameo in "Brief Interviews With Hideous Men," a film adaptation of David Foster Wallace's short-story collection directed by John Krasinski, that vaguely indie dude from "The Office." Guitarist Chris Walla recorded a solo record and caught the ire of the Department of Homeland Security. Bassist Nick Harmer continued working on a series of small film projects, and drummer Jason McGerr built his own studio, Two Sticks Audio, in Seattle.
But when everyone reconvened at the tail end of the year to begin work on a brand-new Death Cab album, all those side projects were quickly put to bed. After all, they know where their bread is buttered.
"It's what we refer to internally as 'the Postal Service rules,' " Walla said, referring to Gibbard's ultra-successful, electronic-tinged side project. "You can do whatever you want to do, it just can't interfere with the rock band. It's like 'Don't cross the streams.' "
And so, over 44 days, in three studios, DCFC kept the streams uncrossed, ripping through the sessions that would become Narrow Stairs, the follow-up to their major-label debut, Plans, and an album that, from the sound of things, is already shaping up to be a divisive one. Last year, when the band was still in the middle of making Stairs, Walla — who produced the album — began tossing around terms like "crazy," "bloody," "weird" and "hard rock" to describe it, and those are terms that, to this point, have not generally been used to describe anything Death Cab have ever done.
And even now, with the record in the can (it's due May 13), Walla isn't backing down from those claims.
"It's definitely a real landscape shift from where we've been. It's way less of a construction project and it's way more of 'four guys playing guitar-rock in a room together,' " he told MTV News. "It's really unhinged. There's a lot of attention paid to a particular kind of detail. Like, the presentation of the song — the big-picture part — has got to be totally right, but [if] somebody hits a totally wrong note or a totally wrong chorus inside of that, like if something's really whacked out, we didn't go after it if it didn't wreck something. We really zoomed out a lot."
That approach, Walla said, was a conscious reaction not just to the way he'd been working for most of the past year, but to the way Death Cab had recorded Plans, which he freely admits to being "too studied and too concentrated." On Stairs, the goal was just to play.
"For me, that came from working on a couple of records in a row that were definitely construction projects — like with the Tegan and Sara record [The Con], everything kind of went down piece by piece," he said. "And that's how I had done all the Death Cab records. So I just got really excited about the idea of us crashing through a record together. Like, getting everybody in a room, setting up the mics and spending two and a half days on setup; then you play the song, and eight minutes later you have a take. It's got a real stamp to it. We did it all on tape, it's all back to state-of-the-art 1978, but in 2008, in the world of ProTools, it sounds kind of throwback."
Take, for example, the first single, the eight-and-a-half-minute (!) "I Will Possess Your Heart," which grew out of a jam inspired by '70s kraut-rockers Can and developed into, as Walla put it, "a big, ridiculous space jam" ("I don't know who's going to play it," he laughed). There'd be no place for it in the Death Cab of old. But it fit perfectly into the aesthetic the band employed while recording Stairs.
Walla cites "The Ice Is Getting Thinner" as a personal favorite, sort of the perfect synthesis of everything the band hoped to accomplish on the new album.
" 'The Ice Is Getting Thinner' is terrifying," he said. "That's one of those cases where I got really excited about the soundscape of the song matching the lyric. It's particularly icy and particularly cold.
"There was a point, when we were in the middle of it, where I kept checking in with everybody, being like, 'Guys, this is kind of weird. Just making sure everyone is aware of that,' " he continued. "And everyone seemed into it. That's just how we worked this time out. We committed to everything really quickly. It's less brain and more gut."