Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard is all about change. The singer/guitarist, currently on tour with his bandmates in support of their seventh album, Codes and Keys, once wrote a driving, gritty, guitar-fueled pop tune about the ills of Los Angeles called “Why You’d Want to Live Here.” Gibbard now lives in L.A. with his wife, actress/musician Zooey Deschanel. It’s quite a change for the man who once penned lines about the city’s “jet fuel stenches” and “almost see[ing] a skyline through a thickening shroud of egos.”
Death Cab bassist and Gibbard’s former college roommate, Nick Harmer, is amused.
“As he puts it — and I totally agree — people change,” Harmer says with a laugh.
Death Cab has also evolved, and Codes and Keys, which was released in May, is an apt reflection. Gibbard, Harmer, guitarist/ keyboardist Chris Walla and drummer Jason McGerr took an unusual approach to the disc. Gibbard started the process as he usually does, by sending out a bunch of possible songs. The guys listened to the demos — around 30 possibilities — made lists, then met together as a band to make the final selections. However, once they hit the studio to start the album, the recording process was reinvented. Harmer uses the phrase “very non-linear” to describe the unusual nature of the sessions.
“I was constantly unsure of what it [was] we were making, because it was very rare that we would completely finish a song and then move on to the next one,” he says.
Instead, the quartet would jump around from song to song, adding parts here and there. They would also take time off, sometimes weeks, and then resume recording. Harmer put faith in the fact that they would wind up with a finished disc, since he was enjoying the work and how well the songs were coming along. “Eventually, through the process,” he says, “about 11 or 12 of the songs sort of grouped themselves together, and we said, ‘You know what, that would be a really good album — this little nucleus of songs right there. Let’s just wrap these up together in a big package and call them the next album.’” Codes and Key’s 11 songs vary directionally, but they blend together well.
Keyboards are more prevalent. Guitars are often subdued, and bass parts are more rudimentary at times. But the melodies remain engaging.
“Underneath the Sycamore,” perhaps
the standout track, is a classic Death Cab rock tune with ringing guitars, inventive drumming and an addictive chorus, but the highlight, strangely enough, is the bass part during the bridge. Harmer chuckles at a Paul McCartney comparison, but his explanation of the way he writes and executes his parts details why they work.
“It’s really important for me to leave space for things,” Harmer says. “I try to be pretty economical about my note choices. I like writing bass parts, but I don’t like writing giant bass fills, and I don’t like a lot of variation over time, because I feel like sometimes that’s distracting what’s happening melodically around it. So [I] just step back a little bit in that way.”
“You Are a Tourist,” the first radio single, is almost equally as engaging as “Underneath the Sycamore.” Gibbard’s lilting vocal part, the lead guitar line and a mesmerizing repetition of key words and melodies is a pleasant, addictive listen, aided by an undulating rhythm.
Oddly enough, it almost wasn’t recorded for the album. Walla wasn’t thrilled with Gibbard’s demo, but he was able to offer some suggestions and make some modifications, and the band wound up loving the results.
“Doors Unlocked and Open” is another memorable cut, albeit with a bit more energy. The bass part leads a driving rhythm section that helps to build a composition strangely reminiscent of October-era U2. Colorado fans will be able to hear and see for themselves when Death Cab performs at Red Rocks on Aug. 23. The band is certainly looking forward to it.
“It’s just gorgeous,” Harmer says of the world-renowned amphitheatre. “It’s a very unique venue in the way that it feels, just kind of emotionally, spiritually in that space. Everything about it feels very uncommon and kind of reverent in some ways. We will play there as many times as we’re able to be invited to play there.”
On the Bill
Death Cab for Cutie plays Red Rocks Amphitheatre on Tuesday, Aug. 23. Doors at 6 p.m. Frightened Rabbit opens. Tickets start at $47.45. 18300 W. Alameda Pkwy., Morrison, 720-865-2494.