Death Cab for Cutie were an unlikely success story in the 2000s, a band that started on a small Seattle-based label and gradually became standard-bearers for a style of sweet indie rock that emphasized gentle melodies and vulnerable, emotionally candid lyrics. Unlike many of their contemporaries, their relatively slow ascent mirrors the pattern set by bands like R.E.M. in the 1980s, they first built a foundation among a dedicated fanbase and then graduated to more commercial appeal.
Taking a name from a 1960s rockabilly song about a girl name Cutie who gets in a taxi accident after cheating on her boyfriend, the group started as an outlet for the singer/songwriter Ben Gibbard. In 1997, while attending Western Washington University and playing guitar with the group Pinwheel, Gibbard wrote and recorded a series of songs that he eventually recorded with friend Chris Walla. He titled the resulting cassette You Can Play These Songs With Chords, and soon generated a small amount of local buzz. Heartened by the success, Gibbard and Walla recruited college friends Nick Harmer and Nathan Good for the group’s first proper full-length, Something About Airplanes. Because they had little money with which to record, Walla, who was a barista at Starbucks, cashed in his stock in the company to buy recording equipment. The album was the first to be issued by Seattle independent label Barsuk. It was during this time period that the band sold out a show at Seattle’s Crocdile Café, an instance Gibbard would later cite in interviews as the moment he knew the band was starting to take off.
Shortly after the release of Airplanes, drummer Nathan Good left the band, and was replaced by Michael Schorr.
Their next album, 2000’s We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes (the title came from an old thrift store T-Shirt), was yet another leap forward, cementing their place as one of the most beloved bands in indie rock and garnering them a small amount of attention in mainstream circles as well. 2001’s The Photo Album was similarly successful (although in later interviews Gibbard has said that he considers it the band’s weakest record, since they were primarily completing it in order to tour), and the following year Barsuk issued You Can Play These Songs on CD for the first time. .
After a turbulent 2002 tour that ended with Gibbard and Walla nearly breaking the band up after a tense show in Baltimore, the band members decided to take a temporary hiatus. It was during this time that Gibbard, with Seattle local Jimmy Tamborello of the band DNTL, recorded the record Give Up under the name The Postal Service (so named because the two members wrote songs by mailing DAT tapes full of ideas back and forth). The record was phenomenally successful, and would go on to sell close to one million copies.
Death Cab reconvened in 2003, with Jason McGerr replacing Michael Schorr on drums for the album Transatlanticism. More successful than any of its predecessors, the album landed the group’s music on television shows like “The O.C.” and “Six Feet Under,” and cracked the Billboard Top 100. In the aftermath of this success, the group signed with major label Atlantic, and in 2004 they released Plans, which continued the group’s successful run, cracking the Billboard Top Ten and selling over a million copies. It was followed in 2007 by Narrow Stairs, which hit Number One on the Billboard charts, and proved to be the band’s most adventurous to date. Boasting longer songs that drew on odd influences like Krautrock, Stairs found Cutie upending assertions about their skill and artistic vision. Walla mixed and produced the record as a single continuous whole, rather than as a collection of songs, forcing the listener to confront the record as an album. Gibbard has said in interviews that the opening track was chosen specifically for its line “I descended a dusty gravel ridge,” and that the remainder of the record carried out that journey.