Death Cab for Cutie: Fragments from the Decade
At first, it seemed like any other slightly mundane promo opportunity. Death Cab for Cutie were gearing up to release Asphalt Meadows, their 10th full-length studio album, and were tasked with reworking some of their highly produced, electric new music for a stripped-down setting. But then, what could have easily been a forgotten press exercise turned into much more—a completely rerecorded, acoustic version of Asphalt Meadows that serves as its own entry in the emo-tinged indie-rock group’s already rich catalog.
“The project started from a slight position of obligation,” admits frontman Ben Gibbard. “We were asked by our label to record acoustic versions of some of Asphalt Meadows’ singles. In 2023, the music industry is partially about ‘gaming’ algorithms on streaming platforms. So to have acoustic versions of these songs helps place the music in some playlists that they would not necessarily qualify for in their original form.”
As he walks through the unexpected twists that led to Asphalt Meadows (Acoustic), the Seattle-based Gibbard is driving through Tacoma, Wash., to see his friend Steve Fisk, with whom he created an original score for a 2008 film, Kurt Cobain: About a Son. Death Cab recently wrapped up a series of winter dates in support of the John Congleton-produced Asphalt Meadows, which spawned several Adult Alternative Airplay singles and earned the group critical praise, thanks to the tunes’ more experimental tendencies.
“The seeds of the [acoustic] album were first planted around when the first single from the record, ‘Roman Candles,’ came out,” Death Cab guitarist/ keyboardist Dave Depper—who joined the group in 2016—adds, while checking in from his home in Portland, Ore. “That song was intentionally picked as the most extreme sonic example of what we were doing with the new record to throw people for a loop and get them to pay attention. People loved it or hated it, but it definitely got them paying attention to the record. But when we started doing promo, we started playing an acoustic version of that song and it really brought out the depth of the songwriting, beneath the production.”
Setting up shop at Seattle’s Avast! Recording Co. with co-producer Andy D. Park, known for his work with Pedro the Lion, Joseph and Noah Gundersen, the members of Death Cab arrived with few preconceived notions of what the sessions should sound like, besides a new arrangement for “Roman Candles.” Yet, once the group—which also includes founding bassist Nick Harmer, longtime drummer Jason McGerr and keyboardist/ guitarist Zac Rae, who also signed on in 2016—convened in December 2022, the idea quickly ballooned and the members of Death Cab decided to knock out an acoustic version of their new LP in just four days. In addition to variations on the record’s 10 tracks, they also whipped out a bonus take on Low’s “The Plan” in honor of the influential group’s drummer Mimi Parker, who passed away in November following a battle with cancer.
“We all had faith in the arrangements,” Gibbard says. “Unlike some records in the past, where we’ve gone into the studio and figured it out once we got there, we came into Asphalt Meadows knowing how to present the majority of the songs in the studio when we recorded them the first time. And then we’d come off of six, seven weeks of touring the album so we knew the songs frontward and backward when we went in to make the acoustic album. We initiated a ‘first-thought, best-thought’ mentality for the arrangements so we could get them to a good place. To pat ourselves on the back, we were really confident in the songs. They didn’t need much adornment or reinterpretation. We could play them as if we were playing them for the first time together.”
“We challenged ourselves to radically reinterpret the songs as they came,” Depper adds. “We basically did two or three songs a day and arranged them right then and there. We recorded them fast and moved on.”
However, one thing the quintet did not want to do is simply strip Asphalt Meadows down to its core. “We didn’t want MTV Unplugged,” Depper says. “We wanted something weirder than that. One early rule was that Jason could not play a drum kit; he’d play percussion, whack on metal boxes, cardboard boxes. Nick used an acoustic bass with rubbery nylon strings that had this weird but beautiful sound, like the upright bass. I played a high-strung, Nashville-tuned acoustic that’s basically just all the high strings from a 12-string guitar, but none of the low ones.”
They also utilized the studio’s Hammond organ and a harmonium for the stark, lonely sound on “Fragments From the Decade,” and recruited Seattle string player Abby Gundersen to embellish some special parts. At first, the group was worried about how they could rework signature moments like the big middle section of the rocking “I Miss Strangers,” but, ultimately, they looked back on their own early inspirations. “We treated it like Echo & The Bunnymen,” Gibbard says. “We made it crude and strummy. And, thankfully, the arrangement was able to hold that.”
Gibbard performing solo acoustic at Newport Folk’s Folk On event in 2021. (photo: Dean Budnick)
Of all the albums that Death Cab for Cutie have released since Gibbard started the project in 1997, Asphalt Meadows is among the less obvious choices for an acoustic presentation. Not only is the album fueled by a loud, post-punk energy that seems to channel the COVID-19 era, but also much of the LP was written remotely in a piecemeal fashion due to the global pandemic. Traditionally, Gibbard will work on a set of songs on the guitar or piano and present them to the other members of his band, who will help with the arrangements. But, during the remote era, he decided to try something different.
“Early in the pandemic, I was spinning my wheels a bit creatively and suggested to the rest of the guys that we attempt this songwriting round-robin,” Gibbard says. “We just took the days of a traditional work week. It might start with Nick writing a bassline through a drum machine on a Monday and then passing it off to Dave, who then passes it onto me. So something that was conceived on a Monday as an Achtung Baby-style U2 song might end up sounding like Massive Attack by Friday. It got me out of my harmonic ruts, in the sense that it wasn’t my hands on a guitar or a piano, going to the places that they wanted to go. And it allowed us to arrange songs almost like building a house. That made for some tight arrangements and allowed us to find space throughout each individual song. We could have five individual players on it, but no one was eating up too much of the sonic feel.”
“It forced Ben to write his parts in a different way,” Depper says. “Obviously, he’s immensely talented and so good at what he does but, like all of us, he relies on a certain bag of tricks that he’s comfortable with. He still wrote the melody and the lyrics but he would be getting a piece of music that he hadn’t written. And he would have a different day of the week for each song as well. So a lot of the more interesting, weirder songs on the record are ones that somebody in the band started and he finished, lyrically.”
As the world started opening up again, Death Cab reconvened in the studio with Congleton to record their new material in a proper setting. Though Gibbard ended up bringing in some concepts that he composed in a more traditional fashion, they also drew heavily on the 90-plus ideas that they started during their round-robin process. Each member of the group also scored a co-write on at least one tune, a result of the highly collaborative brainstorming sessions.
“This hybrid-working style is something that we’ll continue in the future,” Gibbard says. “It serves the best of both worlds. I’ve been writing these songs the whole time for the most part. I have songs that are very much rooted in the traditional Death Cab guitar shapes and melodic, lyrical ideas. But at the same time, the round-robin workshop stuff gets us out of our headspace. We can give directives at the beginning of the week. I might be like, ‘This week, everybody plays an instrument that they’ve never played before on a recording.’”
He takes a breath and continues, “I don’t think that this particular working arrangement would have flown in earlier periods of the band or different lineup iterations. That’s not a slight or a dig at anybody that used to be in the band. But, as we’ve all gotten older—certainly Jason, Nick and I, who have been the constants—we have matured to a point where we don’t need to have our fingers in everything to feel like we’re a part of the creative process.”
Gibbard admits that he missed the camaraderie of playing live with the band during the quarantine. Yet, he also saw some silver linings of forcing the players to alter their approach.
“During the pandemic, everybody got to know their home studios,” Gibbard says. “The individuals in this band work best when they can spend time with the material and come up with ideas—smoke a little weed and just let their minds float around, versus being in the studio where you’re burning money and time and everybody’s looking at you to come up with a cool guitar part. And, creatively, I’ve realized that I need a lot more time than I’ve allowed myself in the past. We’ve never been a band that’s been particularly good at jamming in a room— where you have five people who are trying to figure out what their part is against an amorphous arrangement. That’s incredibly frustrating to me, and it hasn’t worked in my experience.”
Asphalt Meadows and its acoustic sibling also mark the beginning of a new era of sorts for Gibbard’s veteran outfit. Co-founding guitarist Chris Walla left Death Cab in 2014 while working on 2015’s Kintsugi, citing a disinterest in the group’s musical direction. He stuck around to finish the album, and Depper and Rae were brought on as touring members to help promote the project. By 2016, they had signed on in a more official capacity and contributed to 2018’s Thank You for Today, though they have since become far more integral to the process.
“When it came time to make Thank You for Today, I came in with a lot of songs that were virtually as complete as I could make them,” Gibbard says. “I wasn’t sure how well we were all going to gel in the studio. And I wanted to make sure that we had a base camp to get back to in case Dave and Zach were not bringing good ideas. But that was dispelled immediately once we started making that record. And since that record, we’ve been like, ‘We’re gonna make some music moving forward.’”
Depper first befriended Gibbard through the Death Cab founder’s then girlfriend and now wife Rachel. Both long-distance runners, the future bandmates would train together whenever Gibbard visited Rachel in Portland. From 2006- 2012, Depper describes himself as “a very employed Pacific Northwest collaborator,” who played with Fruit Bats, Menomena, Corin Tucker and others. “I would join different bands for a while,” he says. “Somebody would leave or they’d need an extra hand.”
For much of the same period, Depper had been creatively contributing to the Portland scene with his own projects, recording “Aughts Decemberists/Shins-adjacent acoustic-y pop vocal-harmony stuff.” He says, “It was an amazing education. I played so many different genres on all these different instruments. It made me ready for anything. I wasn’t the best at any of the instruments, but if anybody needed a guy that did a lot of stuff, I was that guy. And I definitely appreciate the long gestation period that my musical career had in my 20s.”
He also toured as a multi-instrumentalist with Ray LaMontagne after the singer-songwriter’s manager heard his solo recreation of Paul McCartney’s Ram, elevating his profile before linking up with Death Cab.
“One day, we were hanging out, and Ben told me that Chris had quit the band and he asked me to join,” Depper says. “It was completely out of the blue. It was a very organic process. Chris said, ‘Once this record’s done, I’m not going to tour— figure out what you need to figure out.’ So he was able to gracefully bow out while recording that record. That gave me time to learn the catalog, learn Kintsugi as they were making it. I also had a grace period of just being a touring member with those guys. I was there to play Chris’ guitar parts and make sure the shows were able to happen. I’m grateful because the pressure of joining the band as a full creative member—being in the photoshoots, doing interviews, all that stuff—would have been pretty overwhelming for me at the time and a big ask for fans, who were attached to this guy for good reason.”
Looking ahead, the members of Death Cab for Cutie are hoping to showcase their rearranged acoustic material on the road, allowing the new songs to let loose onstage. Depper even gives a “straight-up acoustic tour of the band’s whole catalog” a 99% chance of occurring.
But, Death Cab for Cutie’s next major live undertaking is a massive run with Gibbard’s beloved electro-pop band The Postal Service this fall. Death Cab will perform their breakthrough album, Transatlanticism in full and Gibbard will pull double duty for The Postal Service’s first live shows in a decade.
“We’ve been playing a lot of that material live for some time with this iteration of the band,” Gibbard says, when asked about Transatlanticism, which they actually performed in its entirety in 2018 as a surprise to mark the record’s 15th anniversary. “But I think that going from a four-piece to a five-piece allowed us to cover a lot more ground. The sound is a little fuller.”
Gibbard is also already excited to work on Death Cab’s 11th LP, guided by the collaborative nature of their recent sessions.
“At the end of the day, our goal is to write the best songs that you can and to make the best record you can,” Gibbard says. “I have become a musical utilitarian throughout the years. I appreciate and want other people’s input. I want other people to be involved in the creative process. It’s our names on it, but I’m singing. It’s my lyrics. And oftentimes, the best possible thing we can do is not something that I’m capable of doing. I’m proud of my work. I have a lot left to write and a lot left to create. But at the same time, it’s also important to recognize that you can lean on your bandmates. They are very talented and, oftentimes, they’ll take you to a place where you might not have gone to.”