Mon, May 19, 2008 - Page 13 News List

A band That's paid its fare

By Rj Smith  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , SEATTLE

Chris Walla, the guitarist, keyboardist and producer for the rock band Death Cab for Cutie, still feels guilty about something he did a long time ago.

The band was staying in a hotel, and instead of the usual Bible in a nightstand drawer, "there was a book of the teachings of the Buddha," he said. "I started reading it, and I got really into it. I felt like I wanted to keep on reading it." So he took it with him when he checked out and "read it cover to cover three times."

It was "one of the only things that I've ever taken, as in stolen, something that wasn't mine," he added as he sat on the floor of a band mate's apartment here. But unlike most of us who feel sheepish about things we have taken, as in stolen, Walla, 32, had a chance to do something about it. The day after the interview he was scheduled to meet the Dalai Lama, the leader of Tibetan Buddhism. Walla could apologize directly if he wanted. (More on that later.)

His band is named for a 1960s rockabilly parody by the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, about a gal, Cutie, who hails a taxi for a fatal night of cheating on her boyfriend. "Baby, don't do it," the lyrics go. "Someone's gonna make you pay your fare."

Death Cab for Cutie is all about paying the fare. On the new Narrow Stairs, its sixth studio album and second on a major label (Plans, from 2005, was the first), the band ponders the cost of giving up on hope and decides that depression is just not worth the sticker price. On the surface this is Death Cab's darkest, noisiest music yet. One love song gets going with the lyric "I'm starting to feel like we're staying together out of fear of dying alone." By the song's end, though, the narrator realizes the problems are his, and fixable. By the album's end the listener will probably realize that hope is peeking out of a meerkat hole.

No Web-Site wonder

The band paid the fare in its career too. Death Cab emerged before blogger buzz could help a nobody get an overnight record deal and a guest spot on Saturday Night Live. The members built an initial fan base the way earlier Seattle bands did in the 1990s, schlepping their way across clubland and honing their sound on indie releases. But a few albums in, blogs and social networks began crossing wires and sparking careers, and Death Cab saw both a boost and a backlash.

Nowadays the second release on a major label is often the end of a plot arc for bands that parlayed Internet buzz into a deal. But there's no flop sweat apparent on Narrow Stairs, an unsettling, confident album that reaffirms Death Cab as an increasingly rare thing: a career rock band.

In a postgrunge Seattle, where eclecticism rules - as if there has been a decree that no unifying trend should ever again emerge and bring national attention and thousands of Los Angeles residents to town again - Death Cab's misty chords and cold steel hooks are as much a musical center as the town has these days. "I marvel at people from other places who identify themselves as rock stars in the press," the bassist Nick Harmer, 33, said. "Because it is an insult - an insult! - to be known that way here."

Ben Gibbard, 31, the band's frontman, agreed wholeheartedly. "You can roll into town and try to be, like, the biggest English rock star ever," he said, "and it's like, 'I don't care who you are, man, your coffee still costs US$3.'"

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