Death Cab confessions

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

As soon as Death Cab for Cutie had finished its 2005 CD, Plans, the band members knew they wanted to make a decidedly different kind of album the next time they went into the studio.

"That's not to say recording Plans was somehow terrible or awful," bassist Nick Harmer said in a recent phone interview. "I think it was just a very transitional time for us as a band and there were a lot of growing pains that we weren't really aware of while we were going through it."

The growing pains stemmed mostly from Death Cab's move from independent Barsuk Records to major label Atlantic Records. It was a step that, as Harmer suggested, involved more of an adjustment than the group anticipated.

"I know we put on a pretty brave face, saying that stuff wasn't going to affect us or really change the way we work creatively," Harmer said. "And it really didn't, but there certainly was enough psychological pressure kind of soaking in, and I think we were carrying a lot of that stuff around with us, whether we knew it then or not."

The pressure may not have been apparent, but Plans sounded like the work of a band that didn't want to shake things up on its major-label debut. Like the group's final CD for Barsuk, Transatlanticism, the disc was weighted toward relaxed, mid-tempo pop.

Harmer, in an interview with this writer in 2005, said he viewed Plans very much as an extension of Transatlanticism, and that it was the kind of CD the band needed to make at that time.

Today, Harmer remains proud of Plans, and fans obviously liked the CD, considering it sold more than one million copies in the United States.

But the band, which includes Harmer, guitarist (and producer of Death Cab's albums) Chris Walla, singer-chief-songwriter Ben Gibbard and drummer Jason McGerr, was ready to try something new on its next CD, Narrow Stairs.

The album was touted as a departure even before its release, with a January Billboard article quoting Walla's prediction that Narrow Stairs would be a polarizing album, one that fans would either love or hate.

While darker and more rambunctious than the previous two discs, Harmer believes Narrow Stairs is not the drastic departure that some press accounts suggest.

"You see words in the press like 'it's bloodier,' 'there's more teeth,' things we were using early on to describe the record," he said. "If you liked Plans, there will be plenty for you to like in this album. It's not like there's this radical departure and suddenly we turned into this free-jazz Zappa experiment."

The rockier sound of Narrow Stairs, Harmer explained, is partly due to the different approach the band took to recording the CD, their sixth studio album since forming in 1997 in Bellingham, Washington.

Previously, especially on Plans, songs were recorded with an eye toward getting performances note-perfect, with each part recorded separately.

"[ Narrow Stairs] is a departure from that because it's scrappier in a lot of ways," Harmer said. "We recorded live, the four of us playing these songs in a room."

That, the bassist believes, will make the songs translate particularly well to the live stage. "A lot of the spirit and soul of these songs will remain intact from the recording."

Death Cab for Cutie

8 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 8

LC Pavilion, Arena District