With his perfect side-part, thick spectacles, and cherub cheeks, Ben Gibbard looks more like a geeky comp-lit major than the world’s next big pop star. In fact, on this scorchingly hot August afternoon, the only groupies hanging around the 29-year-old lead singer of Death Cab for Cutie — and his three baby-faced emo boy bandmates, who are right now shooting their first big-budget video for ”Soul Meets Body,” their dreamy, unabashedly gooey first major-label single — are the legions of hungry mosquitoes swarming this dusty ranch house deep in Topanga Canyon. But that’s about to change — at least if all goes according to Plans. After five buzz-generating independent albums, the Seattle rockers are releasing their first on Atlantic Records, an ambitious move that could position them as the R.E.M. for the O.C. generation.

”We were growing as a band and we basically had two career options,” says Gibbard. ”Happily continue the way we were or venture out and take that chance.” But the band’s departure from their tiny boutique label Barsuk, on the heels of their breakout success with 2003’s Transatlanticism, sent some Death Cab loyalists and indie purists into a tailspin: ”’Death Cab sells out!’ That’s the big angle, right?” asks Gibbard, clapping a bug between his palms. ”I understand that feeling of betrayal…but is it so wrong to want as many people as possible to hear your music?”

Depends on who you ask. ”Death Cab are a perfect package,” says Atlantic Records chairman and CEO Craig Kallman, who signed the band last year. ”They have this completely unique sound and a solid fan base. Grassroots following is a great asset.” And one of Death Cab’s most enduring qualities: The band has enjoyed nearly two years of mantra-like mentions on the sudsy teen hit The O.C. (and an on-show appearance last season), not to mention Gibbard’s profile-amping second job as one-half of the electro-pop duo the Postal Service (with producer Jimmy Tamborello), whose lone album has sold a sizable 635,000 copies since Sub Pop released it in late 2003.

An obsessive fan base has its flip side, however. Before the ink was even dry on their new multi-album deal with Atlantic, Death Cab’s devotees were burning up the message boards: Will the big, bad label try to dilute Gibbard’s savvy, sensitive-guy lyrics? Will guitarist-producer Christopher Walla, 29, still be able to craft their lush sound? Can 31-year-old drummer Jason McGerr — the band’s fourth in eight years — shake off Death Cab’s Spinal Tap-like curse? Will oh-so-earnest bassist Nick Harmer, 30, survive the annoying Coldplay knockoff accusations? ”This is where they put the rubber to the road,” says Josh Schwartz, creator of The O.C. and die-hard fan. ”But they’re extremely smart and they’ve got integrity. It’s not like they hired the Matrix [Avril, Britney] to make them a hit.”

”’Death Cab is the next blank’ — whether they mean Nirvana or Coldplay — is my least favorite phrase,” sighs Gibbard, flopping down in a green plastic lawn chair. He and the rest of the band are killing time under a tree on the set, eating tofu salad, drinking fruit smoothies, and fretting over the increasing comparisons to Chris Martin and Co. ”I see the dot-connect to Coldplay because we [both] have soft songs and piano, but we already have way too many records. We have a catalog.”

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