The little band that could, Death Cab For Cutie have defied expectations — with a little help from The OC and Zooey Deschanel, writes Ed Power
Chris Walla and Day & Night are having a bit of a stand-off. We've just asked the Death Cab For Cutie songwriter about bandmate Ben Gibbard's high-profile divorce from boho It Girl Zooey Deschanel.
They broke up after a whirlwind two-and-a-half years and the story, a proper tabloid firestorm, is the biggest Death Cab have yet been engulfed in.
It seems only reasonable to inquire as to how Gibbard is doing.
The problem is, Walla won't go there. At all. We rephrase the question, pointing that, on the group's most recent album, Codes and Keys, Gibbard sings at length about the joys of settling down. Surely it will be bittersweet performing those songs in Dublin in June, given his marriage is now in the thrash compacter?
"Not really," Walla mutters. "Not ... really."
Okay then -- what about Deschanel's effect on Death Cab's career? Did their audience change when the singer started dating a global style icon? Walla shrugs.
"No," he mutters. "The same people were coming to the shows all along."
The thought occurs he might call time on the interview altogether. Fortunately, as soon as the 'Z' word is off the table, Walla brightens and begins conversing in full sentences. At one point, contemplating the impact of the internet on the music industry, he even embarks on a fairly impassioned rant.
"It's one of the things I feel most bad for about young bands right now," he says, of the speeded-up fame cycle which the web, with its thousands of breathless bloggers, has facilitated.
"You run the risk of being ignored completely or discovered overnight. In their own way, neither of those is good."
Now that they're all in their mid to late 30s, he's grateful Death Cab, surely the world's most effacing arena outfit, had an opportunity to do things the old-fashioned way. In the era before internet cheerleaders and insta-hype, they could develop at their own pace, rather than be thrust into a spotlight they weren't ready for.
"We learned how to do what we do in our first three or four years, when nobody was paying attention. We were focused on our job, being musicians rather than some sort of genius marketing machine. We didn't even get our first website until 2004."
It's a cliche, but Death Cab For Cutie really are the little band that could.
Starting out as archetypal indie no-hopers, for the first half of their career they seemed destined for cult obscurity. In the early years of the last decade, if you wanted to buy one of their LPs, your best chance was to peruse the imports section at Tower Records. Mention their name in a more mainstream record store and all you got were blank stares.
But around the time they figured out how to write anthemic pop and the TV show The OC took to championing them, success came knocking in a fairly massive way.
However belated, their rise was confirmed in 2008 as their sixth album Narrow Stairs topped the US album charts.
As is the way of well brought up young men in trendy spectacles, Walla is eager to downplay this achievement. Don't get him wrong. A number one record is sweet. Just not as sweet as it used to be.
"It's hard to say how major a deal it was," he says. "It was a number one -- but a number one in a world with so many entertainment options.
"It doesn't have the pedigree or ring it used to. I think it's more important as a metric for your parents and grandparents than it would be for us."
What about The OC? In Europe, especially, it was the teen melodrama's relentless cheerleading that put Death Cab on the map.
Seth Cohen, the show's resident geek character, repeatedly reaffirms his love for the band; in one episode they actually turn up at the Bait Shop nightclub and hammer out a tune. Would they be where they are today without its televisual imprimatur?
"I think it helped more overseas than in the States," says Walla. "It was a shot of adrenaline. At that point, we'd already sold like 600,000 records. We found it a good experience and it helped our trajectory. Was it a defining moment? I don't think so. At least not for us. Maybe for some of our fans."
They were fortunate to strike it big in the dying days of the mainstream music business, when people were willing to part with hard cash for records. To make a living nowadays, bands, including Death Cab, have to tour all the time. With wives and kids and lawns that need mowing, the financial imperative to be on the road all the time gets to be a drag.
"It's tough to maintain a sense of routine sometimes," says Walla. "It can be difficult to connect with friends and family. The thing is, we've been doing it for years now and it doesn't feel as foreign as it used to. It's part of the landscape."
Walla, Gibbard and the rest of the band grew up in greater Seattle. If you've ever been there, you'll know how cut off from the rest of America the region can feel. That was certainly the sense Walla had as a kid.
"In the Pacific northwest, we're kind of on an island," he says. "If you're a touring rock band, you can play Seattle, Portland -- Vancouver if you get across the border. That's it. The next city in any direction is a 10, 11-hour drive.
"Musically Seattle has always made its own weather. Maybe we're not so enlightened as Portland. But it's home. It's a good town."
When Walla was 16, Nirvana released Smells Like Teen Spirit and their sleepy home town became the centre of the music industry.
He has conflicting memories of grunge.
"It was this huge movement and it was unavoidable," he says. "At the same time, there was a lot of bitterness. The liquor laws in Washington state are among the tightest in the nation. In Seattle, there were no all-age venues to speak of.
"So if you were under 21, there was nowhere to go see shows. The police had the power to shut down any gig they felt shouldn't be happening. So promoters wouldn't put on concerts [for under-age audiences].
"We felt exactly like people in the rest of the world -- that this incredible thing was happening but we couldn't participate."
He may not have had a ringside berth during the rise of grunge. But Walla could sense it was turning sour in the months before Kurt Cobain's suicide. "By 94, 95 it was obvious it was changing. The chemistry that had developed was falling apart. Something was going to happen. And of course, what did happen was awful."
Death Cab For Cutie headline Forbidden Fruit main stage on Sunday, at Royal Hospital Kilmainham, Dublin
Day & Night