Ben Gibbard knows what you're thinking about the new Death Cab For Cutie album, their last to feature founding member Chris Walla. He's thinking it too.
"Oh, there is undoubtedly a line in the sand here," he says. "The position we're in – it's a blessing and a curse – is that people feel very strongly about the period of this band in which they got into us. We're fighting against people who say 'Why can't you make a record like the one I heard when I was 20 years old?' And the answer is we can't. We can just move forward, and create a new period."
But this is a little different than debating the relative merits of, say, Transatlanticism or Plans. Walla's decision to leave the band after 17 years not only shocked fans, but represented the end of an era. Death Cab For Cutie is now a three-piece, and their latest album is the first not to be produced by Walla. But, as Gibbard puts it, neither of those things are necessarily bad.
"I make no comparisons as far as cultural significance with this band, but I think about Wilco, and the changes they've gone through over the years, and how there have been moments in that band where people have left and you've thought 'How are they ever going to continue?'" he says. "I look at them and I think 'We've lost a very talented musician, but there are other very talented musicians with new perspectives and new ways of looking at creating music.' It's on us to make this a good period."
If Gibbard sounds callous, that's not his intent. Footage of Death Cab's final show with Walla made it clear it was an emotionally charged moment for the band. But these days, he's filled with a desire to move forward – "There were a lot of emotions on all sides," he says of the way things ended. "But there was no 'Fuck that guy.'" – and thrilled by the prospects of reinvention, beginning with the man chosen to helm the new album, producer Rich Costey.
"Working with Rich exposed our strengths and weaknesses. This is the eighth record we've made as a band, and we're all at-or-nearing 40 years old, so I was fearful we'd think we knew better than the producer on how we should sound, or how a guitar part should go," Gibbard says. "But Rich was the kind of guy who will tell you 'Yeah, that's not working; you guys have to come up with something else.' And that really united us. We were united by the idea of 'Look, we want to make a really good record.'"
"We were all really excited to work with someone who could give us a new view of our band and the music that we make," bassist Nick Harmer adds. "It's the first time I've ever been produced by an outside guy. We had to forge a relationship of trust very quickly; we knew he was going to push us into new territory, we were hoping at the end of it we'd still be recognizable."
They are. Walla plays on the entire album, and despite what some may have feared, his absence behind the console did not allow Gibbard's dance-y leanings to run roughshod ("If I was looking to cash in on the Postal Service, I would have fucking done it in 2005!" he shouts in mock-outrage). Instead, it feels like the next logical step in Death Cab's career. New songs "Beverly Drive" and "Good Help" are earnest forays into pop, just like earlier singles "Soul Meets Body" or "Crooked Teeth," while the foreboding "Black Sun" and the somber, spacious "No Room in Frame" sound like natural evolutions of the expanses they explored on Narrow Stairs or Codes and Keys.
"I feel that this band has worn two different hats over the years; the albums tend to be fairly lush and atmospheric, and the live shows have tended to be rock shows. I'm really proud of how Rich captured us playing together," Gibbard says. "Everything has an attack and a punch to it; the right things are crisp, and the right things are ugly, and he's done such a wonderful job of making high-fidelity sounds and low-fidelity ugly sounds exist together. There are keyboard elements on it, but this is more of a rock record than the last one."
There is still no title or release date for the new album – Gibbard did say it would feature 11 tracks – though, presumably, both will be announced shortly. After all, it's apparent that the new version of Death Cab For Cutie is raring to go. For a band that's always discussing its past, the departure of Walla presents a rather unique opportunity: the chance to create an entirely new history.
"If this has done anything, it's galvanized the relationship between the three of us, and changed the dynamic of the band," Gibbard says. "And I would hope that our reputation is a function of the work we do moving forward. Chris was a huge part of this band for years, but a lot of bands have lost members and evolved in ways that are exciting and new. And we want to be one of them."