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Death Cab's Transatlanticism On The Way

The fourth full-length album from Seattle-based indie-rock icons Death Cab for Cutie will be released by Barsuk Records on October 7. Titled Transatlanticism, the 11-song album, marks a distinct change in the approach the band has taken to recording. Since they've been the hard-working touring band for their entire existence, Death Cab's records have largely been documentations of songs that they've long been playing live. This time around, the band broke from their own traditions, first taking a long break, then reconvening in the studio with a bunch of half-formed ideas.

"It seems like in the past we've played songs for so long that by the time the record comes out we've already played most of the songs for, like, nine months, and then we have to go and tour them for a year, and that can be a drag," offered singer/guitarist Ben Gibbard, during a phone interview. "We've never been able to have enough restraint to not work on new songs when we got bored. For me, this time around, it was awesome to write songs, hold on to them, then hand them over to the other guys and have them put them together in a way that was very different from the original demos."

So, the band showed up to start recording with lots of their own bits and pieces, having all spent the time off constructively enough to show up with sounds or songs or tones, or even just ideas. "It seems like usually, with every record, we're sliding into home plate with just enough songs to make a record. Like, just enough," Gibbard said. "But I feel like, this time, we had enough songs to choose from that we were able to really go through them all, because I'd written a lot of songs in the last year or so, because we didn't tour for about a year."

"This is far and away the biggest batch of songs we've had to choose from," agreed guitarist/producer Chris Walla, whose role was often trying to find a consistent tone to draw all the disparate ideas together. "We had 30-odd songs that we went through. And the album just sort of distilled itself from that collection. I guess that's oversimplifying it a little bit; but, usually, from a collective of songs, an album will make itself apparent, somehow, be it either, like, musically or lyrically or whatever. There'll be a series of songs that will make sense when they get strung together, when they get put together in a particular order. It seems to happen pretty naturally. Something will feed back a certain way, and you'll see that it kinda works with the beginning of this other song, and then you start piecing things together. It's like a little puzzle."

This "batch of songs" came about entirely through the more communal, nearly experimental process of assembling tunes. "Historically," Gibbard said, referring to the band's tenure, he's brought songs in that he's written to "different levels of completion," and the band has fashioned them into songs for their live set. This time, though, "we just held onto them instead of playing them live," he explained, "and wrote and wrote and wrote, and then, when we went in the studio, we went through the batch of them, what we thought was good and what was bad, and we were able to deconstruct what we had, then build it back up into an arrangement that we had to learn to play live. Even to this day, with the record coming out in October, we haven't played more than a couple of these songs live, because we're waiting to figure out how to put it all together."

Nick Harmer, the band's bassist, said: "We wanted to construct them, and rearrange them, and fuck with them as much as possible in the studio. We wanted to really push our ideas, and let our ideas just take us in any direction that they wanted to go. We didn't want to be asking ourselves questions like 'well, how are we gonna play this live?,' and then have that censor some crazy idea we may have about a sound or a presentation of a bank of sounds. So we went into this with that notion in mind: that we didn't ever went to hem ourselves in."

Such said, "it's not like Death Cab for Cutie have gone and made a giant free-jazz record," the bassist cautioned. "In fact, it's not really a huge departure from anything that we've ever done. But I feel like this is a really realized record."

The band initially entered such an improvisational scenario with trepidation, wondering if all that they would generate would be "mounds of shit." Instead, this process ended up being "extremely liberating and inspiring," the band finding constant reassurance from the ghost of Brian Eno, which lingered over the record in a kind of comic fashion.

"We bought these 'Oblique Strategies' cards that Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt developed," Harmer laughed. "In the '70s, when Eno was recording David Bowie sessions, he was getting really frustrated because Bowie kept running into these creative and artistic walls. So, he developed this deck of cards that all have little sayings on them. The idea is that you draw a card, and whatever the sayings on the cards say, you take them as directions. Some of them say things like 'Drink more water' or 'Start completely over.' And then they get more obscure and oblique, like 'It's not so much building a wall as it's building a brick,' and you're supposed to take that as what it is.

"So, a lot of times we would be recording something, and we'd say 'Let's see what the Oblique Strategies think we should do!' So we would [pick a] card, and whatever it said to do, we'd do it," Harmer continued. "If it said 'Scrap everything but keep the kick-drum,' we'd do it. We'd erase everything we'd done that day, and keep the kick-drum. It was very fun to go along that process, and we kinda felt like we were being guided by some extra force. I don't want to sound all hippy-dippy — 'It was spiritual, man, Jah was in the studio!' — but when we pulled these cards, it felt like there was really an extra voice in the band, a fifth member telling us to do things the four of us would've never thought of." — Anthony Carew [Tuesday, Aug. 12, 2003]

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