“I am tempered for the Northwest, so I don’t do well in this kind of heat,” said Death Cab For Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard, hiding out in the icebox-cold back lounge of his tour bus several hours before his band took the stage at Coachella Saturday evening. The deep freeze paid off, and Death Cab played a stellar thirteen-song set packed with old favorites such as “The New Year” and “Sound of Settling,” alongside their new single, the eight-minute “I Will Possess Your Heart.” That tune is included on the band’s upcoming Narrow Stairs, their second album for Atlantic Records since leaving longtime indie home Barsuk in 2004 — a transition that, Gibbard says, was way more difficult than the band ever let on at the time.
Narrow Stairs was recorded differently than your previous albums. Why the change in approach?
We did so much of that record bit by bit, and it became more of a construction project than a record. I like writing on piano and a computer, and a lot of Plans came out of samples and vocal lines. We had a couple sessions for compilations that we recorded together live, which made us realize that that was the way we wanted to do the next record. Get out of the computer world and get back on tape. For Narrow Stairs, the majority of the songs I brought in were guitar songs — songs we could sit in a room and just play. I can honestly say I had more fun and felt more inspired on this record than anything that we had done in a long time. The period when we were transitioning from Barsuk to Atlantic was the most difficult thing that will ever happen to us.
You guys never really acknowledged that at the time, though.
We tried to tell ourselves it was business as usual. But there was an elephant in the room that nobody really wanted to acknowledge for fear it would pull us in a direction that was uncomfortable after seven years on an indie label, never having to answer to anybody else’s opinion or expertise or professional opinion other than Josh, the guy from Barsuk, who was one of our best friends. I guess we never realized in advance that this is going to feel uncomfortable, and this is going to feel weird. The only people we know or knew at that point who had been on major labels — people like Spoon and Harvey Danger — had a series of really horrific experiences. But Plans sold a million copies. Like, we had accomplished what we had set out to do in signing to a major label. So where does that leave you?
Where does it leave you?
Well, it leaves you with your friends in a room trying to make good songs. It doesn’t leave you with this notion of “We have got to get back out there and make a really hot video.” It was more, “We’re four friends who just happen to be in this band that somehow, at least over the last couple of years, has gotten really popular, and let’s just have fun.” You just pick up where you left off. I think it’s great that we can all get in a room and just enjoy playing music with each other, and still feel like we have something to discover.