All four members of [artist id="710356"]Death Cab For Cutie[/artist] grew up in and around Seattle, during a time that outsiders have since deemed “The Grunge Explosion.” But for those living around the city — particularly those not old enough to get in to most shows (thanks to the city’s now-abolished Teen Dance Ordinance) — they didn’t know anything about an explosion. They just knew there were a ton of really great bands they were missing out on.
And back then, as is still the case today, most of those bands played Seattle’s Crocodile Cafe, with gigs being advertised in the city’s late, lamented free paper The Rocket. And for kids on the outside, like DCFC’s Ben Gibbard and Nick Harmer, both of those things were the source of never-ending frustration.
“We both grew up in the Northwest, and we’d look at the shows at the Crocodile, seeing them in this weekly music magazine The Rocket, and be like, ‘Aw, I wish I could go to that show,’ ” Gibbard told MTV News. “But it was a 21-and-over venue at the time, so we couldn’t go, and all our favorite bands were playing [at the Crocodile], and we could never come see shows there.”
But, as they got older, and formed Death Cab for Cutie in the college town of Bellingham, Washington, things started to change. The band started coming to shows at the Croc (Gibbard remembers seeing Bedhead with DCFC guitarist Chris Walla at the club in 1998) and even managed to score a gig or two there. And finally, at the end of ’98, they played a sold-out show at the legendary venue. It was, to say the least, a highlight, and the reason Gibbard and Harmer took MTV News to the Crocodile as part of our “Seattle Sonics” tour : The club played an integral part in their lives, both before and during Death Cab.
“Every once in a while, people will ask, ‘Oh, what are the highlights of your band’s career?’ And without fail, I always reference the first time we ever headlined the Crocodile Cafe. … It was in, I think, December 1998, and it was on a weekend, a Friday or a Saturday, and we sold the club out,” Gibbard said. “There used to be a wall they’d put in that would diminish the capacity down to 300, from 600 or so, so we played a wall-in sold-out show, which still for us was a huge deal. And I remember coming offstage in the little backstage area that used to be here, between our main set and the encore, and becoming flushed with emotion, like, really, it was too much for me to handle, because I couldn’t believe we had done it. We had actually sold out and headlined the Crocodile Cafe.
“And it was this turning moment, I think, for all of us. … We had this realization that, ‘Wow, we can really do this. We’re a real band. We’re not just four guys in a college town goofing off on the weekends and practicing after class. If we could get 300 people into this room to see us play, we can do it in Portland, we can do it in San Francisco. It can happen,’ ” he continued. “So not only was it kind of the fulfillment of a dream I’ve had since I was a teenager — since we were all teenagers — but it was a powerful moment for me, because I finally felt like we were on to something.”
And while the band’s first-ever headlining gig at the Croc was a milestone (made even more because, as Gibbard beamed, “Afterwards I got to meet Peter Buck from R.E.M. in the bathroom”), there’s another venue in town that holds an even dearer place in their hearts: the legendary OK Hotel, one of Seattle’s most celebrated all-ages venue, since shuttered and reopened as a gallery space. Located in a decidedly seedy part of town — beneath a viaduct near the piers on Alaska Way — it was one of the few places where kids could actually go to shows and a stop for any band not yet big enough to sell out a 21-plus venue. Not surprisingly, Gibbard and Harmer spent plenty of time there, and they made sure to take us to the spot on their tour.
“I saw Superchunk and Sunny Day Real Estate here, Low, bands I loved. This was a really important place for me, because as a kid, it made a real impression on me, seeing bands loading their own equipment and setting up their own stuff, because before coming to places like this, the only places you saw rock bands play were in arenas and large venues. I wasn’t used to seeing bands do it themselves. You heard about it, but you actually never saw it,” Gibbard said. “The only options to see shows as a teenager in Seattle were this place or bands that were so big they were playing arenas or a venue that was large enough to take out an insurance policy. So this was a venue where a lot of touring bands came through, because this was the only place you could do all-ages shows, legally.”
But since he was still living with his parents across the Puget Sound in Bremerton, Gibbard never really got to see full shows. His curfew saw to that. But sprinting across the street to catch the last ferry home is part of the reason the OK Hotel will always hold a special place in his heart: It was a piece of his youth.
“There’s a ferry terminal right across the street, and I had to be on, I believe it was a 10:50 ferry to be home by curfew,” he laughed. “So if the show started at 8 or 9 here, it meant I was running across the street to catch the ferry at 10:40 … so I have memories of going to see Superchunk here when I was 17 and hearing the beginning chords of ‘Package Thief’ and just running out from the venue, across the street and just barely making the ferry.”
“Death Cab for Cutie: Seattle Sonics” concludes Friday on MTVNews.com with a look at the iconic Seattle studio where the band put the finishing touches on their brand-new album Codes and Keys.