Seminal indie rockers Death Cab for Cutie performed tracks from their new release and old favorites for a small live audience at Berkeley St Studios and we broadcast that session, including an interview with host Anne Litt at 11:15am.
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KCRW's Berkeley Street Sessions featuring Death Cab for
is sponsored by Demand Media and BetterWorks
Anne Litt: Hey everybody! Ya'll, Death Cab For Cutie, here at Apogee, thank you. Guys, thank you so much.
Ben Gibbard: Thank you.
AL: I have to say, the last song that you played, “You Are a Tourist”, from the new album Codes and Keys, which came out back in April…you know, we've been waiting a really long time to hook up with these guys, and schedules have finally made that happen tonight and I'm really honored to be the person who's here getting to talk to you guys.
BUT, that song in particular, I was really excited that you were ending the first set with it. So much of your music, to me, is about a sense of place. I actually wrote down the lyric because I wanted to say it out loud. The lyric “and if you feel like you're, and if you feel just like a tourist in the city where you were born, then it's time to go.”
That resonated so much with me because I'm from Virginia, and I think there's a reason I ended up 3,000 miles away. I think I felt like a tourist in the city where I was born, when I was born, somehow. When I heard that lyric, it just sort of…I don't know… I can't tell you how many time I played that song in my car. Can you talk about a sense of place and what that means?
BG: I mean, I think that, my entire life I was brought up, my dad was in the Navy, I moved around a lot.
I always kind of had the sense that…it was always somewhat difficult to kind of define where home was, or what it was. I think that, given the life, the lives that we lead as musicians, we're always traveling, we're always touring, we're always away from home, and you kind of miss things in the places where you’ve called home for so many years. And that could be the town you were brought up in, the town you currently live in.
I think the lyric is kind of a reference to that as much as also a sense of, you know, I think that tourists spend very little time in the places they visit, so it's like-
AL: But, you must feel sometimes, like a tourist, right?
BG: Well, exactly yeah. I think it's the kind of sense where you come home after being gone for so long, sometimes the place you still call home or used to call home feels so foreign because you’re away so much.
AL: That was sort of poignant, that was poignant for me when I heard that. And I was really sort of intrigued by what that meant for you. And I also feel like there are a lot of songs about places, over the years, listening to your body of work. And you famously have the song about not liking Los Angeles, I'm sure everybody brings that up, but is now a place that…
BG: Well, that's not actually what that song is about.
AL: No! I know! I know! But that sort of-
BG: You have to dig a little deeper than just the title.
AL: I have to say that's a horrible takeaway-
BG: Well, I think that song in particular is more a story about somebody just complaining about all of the obvious things about Los Angeles, that anybody who's lived there their whole life would never dispute.
BG: The context of this song is a love song, about somebody who doesn't want someone to move away, and the town happens to be LA, and so they're finding every reason wrong with it. Like I've said a million times, I don't think anyone born and raised here would dispute anything with the song.
AL: No, I think you are exactly right. Ok. Another thing I wanted to ask you guys about… I have this bizarre habit of listening to albums backwards to forwards, for some reason, which is probably way more about me than any of you wanted to know, but it’s something I often do.
It’s just something I started doing a few years ago and I just keep doing it. So the last song on your last album, Narrow Stairs, is something about thin ice.
BG: “The Ice Is Getting Thin.”
AL: “The Ice Is Getting Thin!” And then “Stable Song,” which is the last song on Plans. These are two bummed-out songs! So then I get to, I get to “Codes and Keys”, and the last song on “Codes and Keys” is “Stay Young Go Dancing”. And I listen to it and I was like, waaah?? And so talk about what has changed. What’s changed?
BG: Well, I think we realized that we have seven records and all of them except for- you know, the first, amongst the first six -- I think there’s only one that doesn’t have a huge downer at the end of the record. We seem to kind of, we seem to want to end every record on a down note. And you know, I think we realized with this record, let’s actually end on an up note, you know. And I think also that song, it’s a very simple song, I’m very fond of it.
And I think it’s kind of nice to end with something kind of…a palette-cleansing song if you will. Something that’s kind of a little up beat and that doesn’t bum you out at the end of the record.
AL: No! I like it. I was surprised, because I had sort of had that, “Oh, that’s a bummer song,” but in a good way! I mean, I think that heartbreak is a great muse.
BG: I like bummer songs, I love ‘em. Always loved ‘em.
AL: You’ve written a lot of them, right?
BG: I love ‘em. Yeah.
AL: One thing I’ve read about you guys -- this band is the longest relationship you guys have ever been in.
AL: And I think that’s an interesting thing because, you know, as we get older in our lives and we think of the relationships we’ve had...I mean, this has been a gigantic relationship for you, sort of like a marriage. And I guess, my question for you is, how do you make it work? How do you keep it fresh?
BG: Date nights! (everyone laughs)
AL: No but I’m serious! It's been a long time and you guys have been together through a lot.
Chris Walla: Well, we're moving in on - Ben and Nick and Jason have all in some combination or another been playing music together for almost 15 years now and this band’s been a band for almost, it'll been 14 years in December.
You know, when you start a band you all jump in the van together and it’s the thing that you do to, like you have this sort of, like a young band sort of makes its own gravity.
Like everybody quits their job together and everybody jumps in the van together, because you know it's, that’s a respite and that’s a relief from your day job, it's something that you get to look forward to and its something that just completely changes your life. And it forms like this kind of…that itself is this glue that only lack of communication and frustration and anger and time can blow apart. And it does blow apart for a lot of bands. But if it doesn’t, I think very much with the old adage of -- if it doesn’t kill you it makes you stronger. I think that it's definitely made us stronger, cause we've had, I mean, there have been a few little places at points where it's been really tough for whatever reason.
AL: No, I get it, I mean R.E.M. broke up after 31 years, which made me feel incredibly sort of old and bizarre, but you know it's like that, those guys, I mean that’s a heavy duty marriage right?
BG: I mean I think that, you know this is not unique to this band by any stretch of the imagination, but I think that there's something that happens when you get in a room with people and you're playing music and it works.
We had all been in bands before we were in Death Cab for Cutie and we tried and tried and tried to sound good and it never sounded right. And we sounded like us in the first song we ever played together. And I don’t say that to mean we were the greatest band from the moment we picked up guitars, but we all were playing whatever the first song it was played and we were like ‘this actually sounds really good, this sounds better than any band I've ever been in and we've only been in a band for five minutes’.
I think that what happens sometimes along the way, as Chris was saying, is you have to kind of move through the fire together. I think, also, you can never lose…I think that when bands break up or when bands kind of fizzle apart, it’s because they lose track of that. They lose track of what made them so special and that cracks them for the very first time… that the sum of the parts is what makes the band you know, work. And everybody's talented in their own ways, but when you put these particular people together, this thing happens. And it's very specific and it's valuable, so it's probably one of the main reasons we've been together as long as we have.
AL: You know, it's a miracle, as somebody who's been married twice (everyone laughs), it is a union of sorts.
BG: But somebody, was it Kim from Soundgarden?, said something along the lines of, it's not a marriage amongst four people, it's Jason and the three of us, and Jason and Nick and the two of us, and the three of us and Chris. It's like any permutation, any mathematical permutation of four people that you can fit together, that's the relationship. So it's much more complicated than just two people, you know? It's like if there's four of us, that means there's sixteen different relationships.
CW: Yeah, that’s right.
CW: We can pair off in a lot of different ways. It's amazing.
AL: Here's the thing, if you guys break up after tonight I'm gonna feel really bad so, and Nick hasn’t said anything and I sense the silence….
BG: We're gonna get an earful on the way home.
AL: I'm sorry about that. Okay, shifting gears, the Mariners.
BG: We're going there? Do we have to go there?
AL: I mean not will they ever win, but will they? But that wasn’t really my question…
BG: Okay, if you want to turn this into a full on sports radio show we can do that. I mean, I'm the only one who really cares about that as much as anybody else and I care too much.
AL: Well, here's my question, here's what I want to ask you is that I had heard, and now if this didn’t happen then this will not be a question, but I had heard you had sung the national anthem at a Mariner's game
BG: No, I sang the national anthem at a playoff game and the Giants were playing, cause I got asked to do that. But I did throw out the first pitch at a Mariner's game.
AL: Okay, okay alright
BG: And that was really thrilling, I was really thrilled.
AL: Alright, so how does throwing out the first pitch at a Mariner's game in front of 30,000 drunk Mariner's fans…
BG: Oh no, there's never that many people at a Mariner's game. (everyone laughs)
AL: Okay, how does that compare with playing for three, four, five hundred people at a club in the early days? Like did you get nervous, were you scared, did you practice?
BG: Let's put it this way, I think what's interesting about that is you just get a sense of how big a sports stadium is when you're on the field. When you're watching something on T.V., when you're watching a sports event you're in the stands and it's supposed to look closer because they've kind of made it that way, but when you're on the field your looking up at the place like ‘this place is huge’. And, I think that when were playing a show, we have…
AL: What's the biggest place you ever played? At like Coachella or something right?
AL: Some giant festival.
BG: Maybe with the Foo Fighters.
CW: Probably opening at that the Foo Fighters, that was 65,000 people. Who tolerated us playing….
BG: Yeah, the thing was there could have been, there could have been 10,000, well there weren’t, but there could have 10,000 Death Cab fans and we wouldn’t have heard them…
CW: We'd never have known.
BG: Just the dinge of just 55,000 other people drinking lager waiting for the Foo Fighters.
AL: But there is something special about that.
BG: Yeah, oh, it was amazing.
CW: It was awesome.
BG: I mean, honestly, that show was incredible if only to see, just to watch the Foo Fighters play to that many people and entertain them in that manner was just a really inspiring thing to see.
BG: Not so much that we feel that's within our ability as a band to play to that many people at one show, but just that it's nice to see a band go out and do their show and just own it. And I feel like after we played with them, I kind of, it made a real impact on me…
CW: Me too.
BG: …not so much in what I wanted the band to achieve, but more so like it's great when you see somebody just get up there and own it and I feel that being, coming up through indie rock you know, your own instinct…
CW: You don’t own it sometimes, you rent it. You borrow it
BG: Yeah, your instinct is to shrug it off.
CW: I mean, I hadn’t seen that band since one of the first shows in like 1994 or something, so for years and years and it was kind of the awesomest rock show I've ever seen. I mean that band is kind of the best band playing rock and roll right now.
AL: I think they're playing across town tonight.
CW: I think they're playing as we lionize them right now.
AL: Okay I have about 18 other things to ask you but I sort of feel like we should get back. But I want to talk about books real quickly…is that weird?
BG and CW: No, that’s awesome.
AL: Okay, so before we go back to your second set, can you quickly tell me what you're reading right now cause I know you guys are readers.
BG: I just read, I'm gonna get the author's name wrong because it's in cursive and I never read that hand on the book cover.
AL: You were out of second grade that day.
BG: Yeah I was, I never learned cursive, but I read this novel recently called The Art of Fielding which I really love. And the author's name is escaping me right now 'cause I'm on the spot but I guess…
BG: Anybody? It's really great, it's about baseball so I kind of love it already, but it's kind of like the great American novel set to a college baseball team.
CW: I just read a book called The Information by a fellow named James Gleick that has completely changed my life in a way that only a book can change your life, like every five or six or ten years or something.
It's a book about where we are in terms of… its about the journey from, like over the course of human civilization, from knowledge to spoken language to written language to, like the further and further and further abstraction of knowledge down to the most infinitesimal form and how that has impacted how we think and communicate with one another.
And it's absolutely amazing and it has really changed how I think about everything, especially my creative work and how I approach doing anything -- drawing pictures, playing the guitar, kind of everything. It's awesome.
AL: Wow, amazing. Nick do you have a book, Jason do you have a book?
Nick Harmer: I've been pretty busy reading all of the new DC comic reboots.
AL: There we go, yeah! Nice.
NH: I have actually and Lev Grossman's new book The Magician King.
Jason McGerr: I'm Kind of a sucker for turn of the century poetic type writing so I just finished East of Eden, which somehow I missed a long time ago.
It was my spouse here Nick that told me that if you really like Cormac McCarthy, cause we were talking about The Border Trilogy, and he was like you should read East of Eden. And I was like yeah, I tried once, alright I'll try again. I don’t think these guys saw me without a book in my hand for the last week so…
AL: Nice. Appreciate it. Well the band's now with the highest SAT scores I'm gonna say of probably anybody, certainly anybody at KCRW.
BG, CW, NH, and JM: Naw, no, it's probably not, It's probably not true.
CW: We're not very good test takers.
BG: If the Decemberists are in that mix I think they probably got us beat.
BG: I'm sure Colin's got me by like 400 points
AL: Here's what were gonna do, the next meeting is gonna be like a debate, we're gonna have a forum, you all set up on either side of the stage. No I, thank you guys so much I appreciate y'all talking to us.
BG: No problem. Thank you guys
AL: And let's play music!
Death Cab for Cutie
Death Cab for Cutie