Seattle-based Death Cab for Cutie have been snowed in at Long View's farmhouse studio in rural Massachusetts for a solid month to record Plans, the follow-up to their breakthrough album Transatlanticism, due in September. "We are virtually in the middle of nowhere," sighs singer-songwriter Ben Gibbard, who has been living with his bandmates in a converted barn. "I think this is the kind of place a label sends a band if the singer's a junkie and they need to get him away from the bad things in the city. But being able to spread out while recording has been really nice."
The workday begins around 10 a.m., with drums, bass and some guitar being laid down at Long View, and vocals and mixing to be done back in Seattle. But in spite of what Gibbard dubs the band's "boy scout" work ethic, the isolation can be intense, driving him and bassist Nick Harmer to take frequent excursions to the liquor store (the only local attraction) and take up gambling. "We've been playing a dice game called, unfortunately, 'Nazi,'" he confesses. Recently, the two were even inspired to go on a spree in the nearest town. "One of the only spots there was this huge Halloween store," he says. "So we blew $300 on 'Knights of the Round Table' costumes for everybody. There's a stable here, and we were hoping to take some pictures with the horses -- that's how bored we've become."
The only bandmate without the luxury to slack off, it seems, is guitarist/producer Chris Walla. "I'm the one working for twelve hours a day," he says. "I haven't left the property since we got here." But Walla, who once nearly gave up touring altogether, thrives behind the tracking board. "Oh, I get really happy in the studio. Four years ago, I would have been totally happy to never play another show," he admits. "But now I think they both feed one another: Rock shows are like primary colors, big and bold, and then you can get away from that and come in and put things under the microscope."
Even though Walla finds himself producing his own band (as he did with Transatlanticism), things seem to run smoothly. "He's gotten good at switching hats without it being too controversial," says Gibbard. "I can definitely see how in other bands it could get nasty: 'Why don't you change that?' 'Why don't you go fuck yourself!' But it's not like that. Basically, he works all day, and we feel guilty." Walla says of his process, "I've always approached each song like it's its own little thing -- like the foundation and the frame are already there, and it's my job to put the walls on, and paint and decorate each little piece."
Plans is named for Gibbard's favorite joke, "How do you make God laugh? Make a plan." In keeping with its black title, the record brings more melancholy tracks about love. "I was telling myself, 'I'm going to stop writing depressing songs. This record's going to be really upbeat,'" says Gibbard. "Like, 'I Will Follow You Into the Dark' is a love song I wrote for my lady, really sweet and romantic. It's about someone dying, and the person they love saying, 'I'm close behind, I'll follow you into the dark.' But then I played it for her and she was like, 'This song is fucking sad!' Best to run with what comes naturally. I tried."
The song "Soul Meets Body," also written for his girlfriend and possibly a single, features the lyric, "And brown eyes, I'll hold you near/'Cause you're the only song I want to hear/A melody softly soaring through my atmosphere." Other tracks include "Brothers on a Hotel Bed," "Someday You Will Be Loved," "Your Heart Is an Empty Room" and the potential opener, "Marching Bands of Manhattan."
Unable to write while on the road, Gibbard penned the songs for Plans on short breaks during nearly two years of touring. "I took a cue from Nick Cave and rented a little apartment and moved the piano there, a couple guitars and my laptop," says Gibbard, who lately has been listening incessantly to German electronica and the new (bootlegged) Fiona Apple record. "When I was home, I'd treat it like a job and just go to my office. It has a view of the Space Needle and the mountains."
One of his boldest experiments since Death Cab's last album may not even make it onto the new record. The track "Walking the Ghost" refers to Gibbard's frustrations with President Bush's re-election -- especially considering the band toured with Pearl Jam for months as part of the activist Vote for Change Tour. November 2nd was crushing: "We had to play Vegas that night, in a fucking casino! The next morning, on the bus, our sound guy cracked open a bottle of Jack." "Ghost," however, remains a subject of debate, as Gibbard is self-conscious about bringing national affairs into his work. "It's my first foray into political songwriting," he says. "I know I'm not Billy Bragg, but it does have a killer guitar part."
"Ben's always so nervous when he gives us songs," says Walla, "but this is probably his best bunch ever. They're more linear, and the language is more direct." The many differences between the two, close friends for ten years, feed into their collaboration. "Ben balances his check book and knows where his pencil is all the time," Walla says. "I can record a full record without a piece of paper in front of me -- but that's because I can never find a piece of paper! Sometimes I have no idea where he's coming from -- but I like that. There's always that little bit of mystery when we go in to record."
With Plans, Death Cab's major-label debut on Atlantic (after four albums on indie Barsuk), the question remains whether the record will keep up the momentum the band gained with Transatlanticism -- and through a series of plugs from Fox's The OC. Given a big boost by the popular teen drama, Death Cab are set to appear on the April 21st episode, performing live at the show's fictional music venue, the Bait Shop. "Radio, for the most part, is not so helpful to bands," says Gibbard. "And, frankly, I don't see much difference between performing on Letterman and on The OC -- you're just playing your songs. I'm sure it's not cool to some people who've liked us in the past, but I could really give a fuck."
The band insists that working with a major has changed little. "A couple people from the label came to the studio last night," says Gibbard, "and they're not fucking around with the controller. They're just hanging out." And maybe it is about time for these indie darlings to start racking up the perks. "I guess we're recovering from indie-rockitis," Gibbard adds. "You know, Atlantic works with Fat Joe, and his Cristal budget is, like, $300,000. Then we walk in like, 'Oh, wow, they gave us a bottle of vodka!'"