It’s a story as old as rock and roll itself (or at least as old as Jawbreaker or Jawbox): beloved — yet idealistic — indie band signs deal with evil major label, gets lost in the shuffle, is chewed up and destroyed by the machine, subsequently breaks up.
Death Cab for Cutie knew all this when they signed to Atlantic in November 2004. Their fans did too, and they let the band know about it. History, they said, was not on their side. This could not end well.
Only, Death Cab didn’t listen. Their first major-label record, Plans, was certified platinum, thanks in no small part to the fact that the band agreed to put in the work, touring relentlessly, playing the rock-radio-festival circuit and doing reams of interviews. They shouldered the load, played ball and, as a result, were given the time and space they needed to make their new album, Narrow Stairs (due May 13), a sonorous and sanguine effort that’s very much the sound of a band pushing the borders.
“When we signed to Atlantic, we told them and ourselves that we were going to do the work,” DCFC frontman Ben Gibbard said. “We weren’t going to be that indie band that signs to a major label and gets really precious about everything, or decides that we want to go about our lives the way we did when we were on Barsuk [Records], and then wonder why we didn’t sell any records.
“That’s usually the end of ‘indie band signs to major label’: things don’t happen the way they wanted it to,” he continued. “Because nine times out of 10, people don’t want to do the work. We said to ourselves, ‘We’re going to do all the work, all the touring, all the press,’ and that’s what we did.”
Simply put, Death Cab earned the right to make Narrow Stairs, and you can hear them rejoicing in that fact throughout. The much-discussed first single, “I Will Possess Your Heart,” is eight and a half minutes long, just because the band wanted it that way. “Pity and Fear” floats along on a layer of skittering Tabla drums. “You Can Do Better Than Me” kicks off with a massive timpani roll, explodes orchestrally, and then ends abruptly. It’s very much a record that pushes the limits, and the band is clearly relishing in it.
“We could see the light at the end of the tunnel throughout everything we did for Plans, and we knew that we were going to get to that point,” Gibbard said. “So, by the time we got to December 2006, we knew we were there. It wasn’t as if we were like, ‘If we’re feeling it, we’ll get back into the studio this summer.’ It was, ‘OK, on August 15, 2007, we’ll get back into the studio and start working on a record.’ And that’s what we did.”
And though there never was a conscious decision to blow people’s minds (I mean, when is there ever?) Death Cab ripped through Stairs with a reckless abandon that’s typically unheard of for a major-label act following up a platinum album. It’s less from the brain and more from the gut — recorded in just 44 days in three studios — and there’s an energy that crackles throughout. Part of that comes from being free of expectations, and part of it comes from knowing they’ve earned the right to be that way.
“I think that at this point, I feel — for better or worse — that a lot of people have made up their mind about whether or not they like our music. I mean, you never want to give people a loaded gun, but the gun’s been loaded for a long time,” Gibbard laughed. “So I feel like the same things a lot of people like about this record, a lot of people will take issue with — and that’s totally fine. I’m really at peace with anybody’s take on this album, because we had such a great time making it. I feel like there is an honesty and inspiration on the album that’s undeniable. And even more undeniable is the fact that nobody can come at us and say that we didn’t try to do something different.”