Death Cab for Cutie Lets the Meter Run Death Cab for Cutie stopped by to chat and rock out at the Bryant Park Project studios, where they played a few classics and "I Will Possess Your Heart," a riveting song from their new album, Narrow Stairs.
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Death Cab for Cutie Lets the Meter Run

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Death Cab for Cutie Lets the Meter Run

Death Cab for Cutie Lets the Meter Run

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(Soundbite of song "No Sunlight")


We're listening to "No Sunlight" by Death Cab for Cutie. It's from their new record, "Narrow Stairs," which was released this week. Over their six studio albums, the band has charted an unusual path. They've gone from roughing recorded demos on a tiny indie label all the way to a platinum selling album on a major. No instant Internet hype, no crushing backlash, just steady touring, increasing exposure, fans and record sales.

On the very date "Narrow Stairs" dropped, Death Cab for Cutie came by BPP studios to do acoustic versions of songs from the new album, just before a trip to "Letterman," we might add. And then Mike and I sat down to talk with the band's lead singer and songwriter, Ben Gibbard, and their guitarist-producer, Chris Walla.

I'm going to start with you, Ben, a little bit about how this whole thing came together creatively for you. You took a trip and you went to the coast of California, and you decided that you needed to kind of hole away for awhile and write these lyrics in a place that had a lot of significance to you, right? Can you explain?

Mr. BEN GIBBARD (Lead Singer, Death Cab for Cutie): That's partially true.


That's all we go for.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GIBBARD: Partially true. I mean, you know, the process of writing this record wasn't really that different from the writing for any other record we've ever done. I mean, I write songs in holes of time that I kind of, you know, carve out for myself to do it. And with every record I try to take some sort of writing trip, to kind of go somewhere and just change my environment for a couple weeks and finish the songs I need to finish, and then hopefully write a couple more while I'm there.

And I took part in this kind of, you know, soon to be completed, I would imagine, documentary about Kerouac and got to see the cabin that Kerouac stayed at back in the, I guess it would be early '60s or late '50s. And I just was able to rent it. I decided to go down there for three or four weeks and spend my writing trip there. So I just kind of spent a couple weeks in Big Sur and finished the songs on this record.

MARTIN: I want to ask Chris, when he comes back - so he goes away - this is a question about the writing process. You draft out kind of the bones of what you want a song to sound like. And you come and present it to Chris and the rest of the band - I'm assuming this is how it goes down - in a stripped-down version.

When he puts these songs to you, do the other textures of how you want this to be come immediately to your mind? I mean, one example, "You Can Do Better than Me." Did you hear that and think, oh, yeah, we're going to make a big sound, we're going to have big drums and big organ in this?

Mr. CHRIS WALLA (Guitarist and Producer, Death Cab for Cutie): Sometimes Ben brings stuff and it's definitely just bones, and then sometimes he brings stuff in and it's like bones and muscle and skin, and it's like already wearing a suit and has a feather in its cap.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WALLA: Yeah, it's like...

PESCA: Went to college, has strong opinions about the deficit.

Mr. WALLA: Totally. And it's like it's every - like, every song's a little different. Sometimes it's like you just take the picture, just the arrangement makes sense, everything's working and then we just do it like that. And then sometimes it's like it's just wearing the wrong suit, and sometimes the bones are in totally the wrong body. And like, it's just a matter of trying to determine which is which. And "You Can Do Better" came in as - it was just piano and vocal, right? When it came in?

Mr. GIBBARD: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It was one the more sparse vocals than I (unintelligible).

Mr. WALLA: Yeah totally and it was the whole like sleigh bell, timpani send-up was definitely -like, that was Ben's idea but it was something that I - it made perfect sense to me. As soon as he said it, it was like, right, right, got it.

PESCA: And from that, when he says sleigh bells timpani, did you hear like 80 percent of the final version?

Mr. WALLA: I kind of did, yeah, like, right at that moment. I think that that was a place you and I just sort of went...

(Soundbite of snap)

Mr. WALLA: Totally locked that together. So...

Mr. GIBBARD: But that was also - that's an interesting song to kind of note because, I mean, that song, I think, kind of showcases more Chris' production on the editing that it does necessarily the arrangement, so to speak. When I brought the song in it had a verse and a chorus and a verse and a chorus, and Chris, you know - and it wasn't a song that was really in contention for the album, I don't think.

I mean, it was just one of many songs and Chris was like, well, why don't you have it be the first verse and first chorus? I mean, you say everything you need to say in that minute and a half. Let's just cut the other half of the song off and, like, just let it be this long.

Mr. WALLA: It's a two-minute song, like, yeah.

Mr. GIBBARD: Yeah, exactly, and to me that, it just was perfect because that's - like, the sentiment throughout the song, that's about as long as the thought goes through your head. You know, you kind of - you find yourself having a really dire thought about a person you're with, and then by the time you have come full circle to it, you realize you were a foolish to think about it in the first place, and there's no point stretching that sentiment out. And to me, that's one of the biggest calls that Chris made on the record, because it really saved the song and made it something really special, I think.

Mr. WALLA: Well, and, too, with that song, I mean, like it felt - I don't know if it's true or not, but it felt to me like they just spilled out and they happened and it was like that all glued together, and then the second half of the song felt really like - that there needed to be a second half to the song and like you sort of really worked on it, and it...

Mr. GIBBARD: Yeah, that's the way it went.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WALLA: And you can just tell, like - and it just - I don't know. I love how it turned out, like just as a - just like it is.

MARTIN: Well, before we get any further, let's listen to a little bit of music. We're going to hear the whole band. We're going to hear a song off the new album. The album is called "Narrow Stairs." The song is called "Talking Bird."

(Soundbite of song "Talking Bird")

Mr. GIBBARD: (Singing) Oh, my talking bird, Though you know so few words, They're on infinite repeat, Like your brain can't keep up with your beat.

And you're kept in an open cage So you're free to leave or stay. Sometimes you get confused, Like there's a hint I am trying to give you.

The longer you think, the less you know what to do.

It's hard to see your way out When you live in a house in a house, 'Cause you don't realize That the windows were open the whole time.

But oh, my talking bird, Though your feathers are tattered and furled, I'll love you all your days 'til the breath leaves your delicate face.

It's all here for you as long as you choose to stay. It's all here for you as long as you don't fly away.

MARTIN: That was "Talking Bird" off the new album, which is called "Narrow Stairs." So we were talking about how Ben can come in with a fully-formed song. We used the metaphor of the body, it's got muscles.

PESCA: And the metaphor worked, by the way.

MARTIN: It did, and so we're carrying it on.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: That was good. Sometimes it's a mixed metaphor and you just go with it, but that was nice.

Mr. GIBBARD: Thank you, thank you.

MARTIN: We're using it. Speaking - this is my segue - speaking of muscles, speaking of muscular...


MARTIN: That's how this album has been defined by - some critics have used that word floating around there, muscular.

Mr. WALLA: Yeah.

MARTIN: Does that suit this?

Mr. WALLA: I think it's got some sort of brutish, kind of muscular, qualities about it, yeah. I think after eight months off, we all had a series of introspective, distinctively not muscular experiences. It was kind of weird. Like we all got back together...

MARTIN: What's an example of a not muscular experience?

Mr. WALLA: Well, like a solo acoustic tour...

Mr. GIBBARD: Right, right.

Mr. WALLA: Or like, working on a solo record where everything's in overdub.


Mr. WALLA: Well, Jason's, I guess, was kind of muscular, actually, because he built the studio that we tracked a bunch of the record in.

Mr. GIBBARD: He physically built the studio.

Mr. WALLA: Yeah he physically built it.

MARTIN: So it was very muscular.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WALLA: Yeah, a lot of power tools. So, yeah, I mean, it was - everybody was really ready. I mean, after a year and a half of just playing scrappy rock music every night on big stages, and then going away and doing, like, sort of solitary things, it was really nice to come back and just plug in and play rock music.


Mr. WALLA: Back to basics, like, everybody in the room together, recording the tape, just totally doing it the way that bands used to make records before we were looking at all the sounds.

MARTIN: Last question, then I'll let you go. What about this album gives you the most satisfaction, each of you? What are you most proud of?

Mr. WALLA: I am most proud of the fact - OK, two things. I'm most proud of the fact that we played the thing as a band. I mean, save for some really isolated instances, it's the first time that we've really done that, sort of, as a theme for making a record all the way through. And I'm totally thrilled with the artwork. I'm so excited about it.

MARTIN: Oh, yeah.

Mr. WALLA: Yeah, and I mean, that's not something that's, like, directly related to the record, but it's exactly related to the record.

MARTIN: No, but it's a part of it.

Mr. WALLA: It is a part of it. And I love how the artwork glues together with the music, and that doesn't always happen, you know?

MARTIN: Yeah. Ben?

Mr. GIBBARD: You know, I feel kind of the most proud of the fact that this record, the writing, and particularly the recording on this record, felt more like something that we did ten years ago than we did in recent years.

MARTIN: Right.

Mr. GIBBARD: Like, where it never - it didn't feel like every day I was going into the studio, I was going into make the second major label record for a band that had just went platinum. It felt like I was going into a room with my friends, and just making a record and...

MARTIN: And you guys have been friends a long time now.

Mr. GIBBARD: Exactly, yeah, we have. And it just - and I just really like the fact that it was just a very fun process.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, we're going to get one more song out of you. It's called "I Will Possess Your Heart," and again, the album is called "Narrow Stairs." Thank you, guys, very much for being here, we appreciate it.

Mr. GIBBARD: Thanks for having us.

Mr. WALLA: Thank you.

(Soundbite of song "I Will Possess Your Heart")

Mr. GIBBARD: (Singing) How I wish you could see the potential, The potential of you and me. It's like a book, elegantly bound but In a language that you can't read just yet.

You've got to spend some time, love. You've got to spend some time with me, And I know that you'll find love. I will possess your heart.

You've got to spend some time, love. You've got to spend some time with me, And I know that you'll find love. I will possess your heart.

There are days when outside your window, I see my reflection as I slowly pass. And I long for this mirrored perspective, When we'll be lovers, lovers at last. You've got to spend some time, love. You've got to spend some time with me, And I know that you'll find love. I will possess your heart.

You've got to spend some time, love. You've got to spend some time with me, And I know that you'll find love. I will possess your heart.

You've got to spend some time, love. You've got to spend some time with me, And I know that you'll find love. I will possess your heart.

I will possess your heart. I will possess your heart.

You reject my advances and desperate pleas I won't let you let me down so easily, so easily...

PESCA: Death Cab for Cutie live in the BPP studios. You can see video of that performance on our blog,

MARTIN: Coming up on the show, NASA found a supernova and all they got was a lousy t-shirt that said, we found a supernova and all we got was this lousy t-shirt.

PESCA: It was a mobius strip.

MARTIN: But while you may not care if they found a supernova, there are lots of people who really do care a lot, and one of them will try to make you care. An update on a flying mammal, that's coming up next on the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.

(Soundbite of song "I Will Possess Your Heart")

Mr. GIBBARD: (Singing) You've got to spend some time, love. You've got to spend some time with me, And I know that you'll find love. I will possess your heart.

I will possess your heart. I will possess your heart.

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