The members of Death Cab for Cutie see their chart-topping rock band as something of a strange fit. Despite having racked up fiercely loyal fans, Grammy nominations and a gold-certified record with last year's "Narrow Stairs," the four-piece outfit remains uncomfortable with the notion of mainstream success.
Death Cab for Cutie bassist Nick Harmer is still bewildered that his group has joined the ranks of such superstars as U2 and Coldplay in having a album debut at No. 1 on the Billboard charts.
"We're kind of perplexed by a lot of that," he said, with a disbelieving laugh. "I don't feel we're a part of that group of musicians at all. I guess that is what continually surprises me. This small, quiet, humble band from the Northwest sometimes finds itself in the same rooms of bands that we've always been on the outside looking in at."
But Death Cab leapfrogged beyond cult status long ago, doing so without compromising the quirkiness that attracted legions of fans in the first place. The group " Harmer, guitarist/lead singer Ben Gibbard, guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Chris Walla and drummer Jason McGerr " still creates music that's sensitive, brainy and even a bit geeky. Buoyed by Gibbard's choirboy vocals and gentle melodies, Death Cab for Cutie wears its insecurities on a tearstained sleeve.
FELLOW INDIE DARLINGS
The act headlines a sold-out 7:30 p.m. Sunday concert at Tulsa's Brady Theater. Fellow indie darlings Cold War Kids and Ra Ra Riot will open the show.
Formed in 1997 in Bellingham, Wash., the act first generated wide notice when it achieved "Most Favored Band" status from the fictional Seth Cohen on TV's "The O.C." Atlantic Records paid attention and signed the group in 2004. "Plans," Death Cab's first record for the label, eventually went platinum with the help of modest college-radio hits "I Will Follow You into the Dark" and "Soul Meets Body."
"Narrow Stairs" was released last May. The group's sixth full-length effort boasted such dark gems as "Cath," which describes a nervous young bride holding "a smile like someone would hold a crying child," and a brooding, eight-minute-plus love song for stalkers, "I Will Possess Your Heart." The disc debuted at No. 1.
Harmer said he is especially thankful that Atlantic gave the onetime indie darlings wide artistic berth.
"We've always been really proud of the fact that almost all of the creative content in the band we've generated ourselves," he said. "We were a little worried about this new environment and what that was going to mean for our creative process, but we also have enough wisdom handed down to us, as well as our own internal savvy and skepticism. We kind of knew what we were getting into creatively. We wouldn't have even signed with Atlantic had there been a legitimate threat that they could really come in and tinker with how we worked creatively."
MANNED THE BOARDS
If there's one thing the band isn't lacking, it's creativity. Gibbard is one-half of an electronic-pop duo called The Postal Service. Walla, who has produced all Death Cab's records, has manned the boards for such acts as The Decemberists, Nada Surf and Tegan and Sara. Harmer also dabbles in filmmaking and is currently working on a crime novel.
"Sometimes the danger is when you have a lot of free time away from the main thing you're doing. You're going to stop exercising those creative muscles, and they're going to atrophy," he said.
"We're kind of realizing there's a repetitive nature to the music business that caught us all off-guard: making records, going on tour, doing interviews, all of that. And I think what we're realizing is that to keep that part of our career interesting."
Harmer said he and his Death Cab bandmates are starting to make plans for future projects and to take ownership over their own trajectory.
"We're sitting down and figuring that out now," he said. "It's the first time we've ever had some real frank discussions about the kinds of things we want to do. It's exciting, for sure, but it is new." "Phil Bacharach