In a bleak decade for the recording industry, Death Cab for Cutie stands almost alone, making the jump from beloved indie rocker status to major record label success without losing its critical acclaim. Since signing to Atlantic in 2004, each tour has been bigger than the last, culminating in last summer's arena tour after the release of Codes and Keys in May. For those of us who remember when no one knew who Ben Gibbard was, it seemed amazing to think that could still happen, especially in these days when it seems like nobody is buying records anymore.
A friend of mine worked on the tour, and she told me that when Codes and Keyscame out, an Atlantic rep told the band the label was looking to position it as the next U2. But when I ask drummer Jason McGerr about that statement, he brushes it off.
"I don't think we will become the next U2," McGerr says. "I just don't think it's possible in this day and age. I mean, Adele's basically become a household name, and she will never sell as many records as U2. I don't think anyone can."
Still, the band's success doesn't displease them. McGerr says he's thrilled with the opportunities the increasing fame has provided.
"It's amazing to show up in some place like Manilla, and have people treat you like the Beatles, even though you're playing to a crowd of maybe 3,000 people," McGerr says. "There were a series of doors that continued to open for us, and we took advantage of them. I'm happy that I'm able to be in the position to talk about this to a complete stranger on the phone."
McGerr became Death Cab's drummer in 2003, joining singer, songwriter, and guitarist Gibbard, guitarist and producer Chris Walla, and bassist Nick Harmer. He was the band's third drummer, but the first one who lasted longer than a couple of years. Even though we're chatting in the afternoon, McGerr sounds exhausted, and he admits touring takes its toll on the band.
"What I do is emotionally taxing every day," McGerr says. "It's like I'm about to go hunting. Each night, even though I know these songs, I go on stage and have this heightened sense of anxiety before the curtain lifts."
I ask if it doesn't just get exhausting playing such emotional songs over and over again, because Death Cab's songs are nothing if not straight sentiment poured out of Gibbard's throat.
"It's the same thing in every job and career," McGerr says. "Some nights are fairly loose and fun and some are clinical and some are a steep incline that you have to climb."
Right now, however, more nights are better than not, as Death Cab tours smaller venues with the Magik*Magik Orchestra from San Francisco. The latter group played on parts of Codes and Keys, and, after a live performance with a string quartet on VH1's Storytellers, they all decided it was so much fun they should do it for more audiences. There are now eight string players; conductor Minna Choi also plays piano and bells.
"It's a really special way to present your album," McGerr says, calling the performance a "cinematic intoxicating event." He says the seated venues have led to a more introspective audience. "There's a lot more listening going on."
McGerr says the band has been recording and filming parts of shows, so there's a chance a larger audience might one day get to see or hear the show, although he notes it's mainly for the members' own archival purposes. He also acknowledges Death Cab has "some material" written for its next album, but McGerr cautions that a release is unlikely before the end of next year or possibly 2014.
"Codes and Keys took us 11 months to do. At this point in our career we don't have to work with a strict timetable," McGerr says.
Given that Gibbard's known for his emotional, cathartic songwriting, it seems plausible the next album might reflect his recent split from actress Zooey Deschanel, who filed for divorce from the singer in December after a two-year marriage. But when asked if the celebrity gossip surrounding the breakup had affected the band, McGerr clams up.
"I'm not going to talk about that," he says. "You know, we've been playing together for longer than any of our other relationships have been going on, so we're a very solid unit. Not much comes between us and doing our job."
McGerr himself leaves his two small children behind when touring, which he says is hard at times.
"But this is my job and my passion, and if you were to raise your children living a life where you were unhappy and hated your job, what kind of mentor are you to them?" McGerr says.
And while this leg of the tour will wrap up in a few weeks, the road will continue on for McGerr and the rest of Death Cab for Cutie for a long time, whether or not they ever play stadiums like U2.
"Next year we'll have been playing together for 15 years, and what's five more after that to make it 20?" McGerr says. "As long as it's fun an we continue to evolve, we'll do it as long as we can."