In four days, Death Cab for Cutie have to be totally, completely, 100 percent finished recording their fifth full-length, Plans, to meet their September release date. The deadline is making everyone a bit antsy and angsty. ”We’re in the insanity phase,” says singer Ben Gibbard. ”It’s an intense period of self-doubt.” So, on a warm April day, we join the earnest anthemic-rock band in a suburban Seattle studio as they put the final touches — ”the bells and whistles,” as producer-guitarist Chris Walla explains — on the much-anticipated CD.
The period before turning in a record is always tense. But for DCFC, the stakes are particularly high: The longtime indie quartet recently left Barsuk to sign a lucrative multi-album deal with Atlantic, after 2003’s epic emotionally weighty Transatlanticism sold more than 300,000 copies, became a recurring reference on The O.C., and turned them into a must-have for every sensitive guy in a cardigan and glasses (which happens to be Gibbard’s outfit today). Adding to the pressure is the fear that their major-label debut will gain them new fans while alienating the cred-obsessed old ones. ”Time will tell whether this is a good thing or not,” says Gibbard, sitting behind the studio mixing board. ”I hope it is. But if not, hey, we’re on the same label as Led Zeppelin!”
Which might be where the similarities end between the two acts. Unlike Zeppelin, Death Cab don’t fit anyone’s idea of hedonistic rockers. Gibbard, bassist Nick Harmer, and drummer Jason McGerr sit around the studio discussing the merits of this season’s America’s Next Top Model (thumbs up!), while Walla runs around setting up gear. After an hour or so, Walla is ready to record some vocals. ”If there was a One Take University,” jokes Gibbard, before stepping into the vocal booth, ”I would’ve graduated magna cum laude!” Harmer leans over. ”He usually doesn’t like anyone around when he tracks vocals,” he whispers. ”Even band members.” But despite the presence of a stranger, Gibbard runs through a song called ”Talking Like Turnstiles,” a brisk shot of caffeinated pop rock with a jumpy guitar line. Today’s not a one-take day: Walla has Gibbard repeat specific lines until they’re perfect. But the singer is pleased. ”It’s coming together,” he says, before adding with fake bombast: ”It will be something that people throughout the land will enjoy!” And not just those in cardigans and glasses.