"I love bummer songs," Ben Gibbard said with a smile last night, talking from a small stage in Santa Monica, California during a break in an intimate Death Cab for Cutie performance taped for KCRW-FM. In an onstage interview, DJ Anne Litt responded, "You've written a lot of them, right?'
He certainly has, as the band's 10-song set fully demonstrated. The performance drew heavily from Death Cab's newest album Codes and Keys, released in May. For an audience of barely 150 guests, the quartet unfurled layers of sound and feeling while squeezed onto the corner stage at engineer-producer Bob Clearmountain's Berkeley Street Studio. The show was taped for broadcast and online video streaming November 1st.
After a quick hello, Gibbard began strumming the urgent "Crooked Teeth" (from 2005's Plans) with its tale of uncertain, surreal romance, later turning wild and noisy. The warm, sweet melancholy of "You Are a Tourist" came soon after, with quick emotional lines from guitarist Chris Walla.
After that, Gibbard jokingly described the rare upbeat song "Stay Young, Go Dancing" as a "palate-cleanser" from the wounded and downbeat messages. But the mood onstage was warm and celebratory. Most of the band were dressed in Seattle plaid (bassist Jason Harmer wore black), and locked in together for Death Cab's driving emotional swirl.
In the show's second half, Gibbard sat behind a keyboard for the new album's "Portable Television," then reached further back for "Blacking Out the Friction," a gentle epic from 2001's The Photo Album. "It's trippy to think we have an album that's 10 years old," Gibbard said, then added, "It's even trippier to think we have a couple of albums older than that."
"We sounded like us the first time we ever played together," Gibbard said, and then remembered thinking on that first day, "This sounds better than any band I've ever been in, and we've only been a band for five minutes . . . The sum of the parts makes the band work."
After 14 years together, Death Cab for Cutie (which also includes drummer Jason McGerr) are about half-way into a year of touring behind the new album. Hours before their Santa Monica set, Harmer told Rolling Stone that the smaller gigs are still the toughest.
"Shows like tonight are when I get far more butterflies than a show Red Rocks in front of 9,000 people," said Harmer, who hopes to see the band back in the studio late next year. "Those are fun and exciting, but when you're standing in a little room with 150 people right in front of you – there is such an immediate thing that happens that you have to be so present for that it's nerve-wracking for me. I'm kind of nervous. That's also what makes them so rewarding."
"Movie Script Ending"
"Doors Unlocked and Open"
"You Are a Tourist"
"Blacking Out the Friction"
"St. Peters Cathedra"
"Stay Young, Go Dancing"
"Home is a Fire"
"Sound of Settling"