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Cover Story: Death Cab For Cutie

| August 1, 2006

Death Cab For Cutie
By The Time We Get To Lollapalooza

When Lollapalooza returns to Grant Park from August 4th through 6th, last year’s attendees will note a few subtle changes: an extra day and a billion more attractions.

One of the few familiar faces will be Seattle-based indie rock success story Death Cab For Cutie. Charged last year with a closing set as Widespread Panic played simultaneously, DCFC return to headline Friday night (oddly enough, up against another W band, Ween). But the difference for the band between then and now is significant. Last summer, Death Cab were reaping the exposure of Ben Gibbard’s Postal Service side project while experiencing a minor backlash due to a contract signing with so-not-indie-it’s-not-funny Atlantic Records. Plans had yet to be released and world-tour bugs had yet to be worked out. To boot, they were performing in front of a weary audience who had just endured Chicago’s hottest weekend of the summer, which neared triple digits with zero cloud cover. Now they’re seasoned pros, magazine cover boys, and in full command of their repertoire.

Plus there’s the hope the week of July 10th sapped Mother Nature’s stifling microwave and it won’t be nearly as uncomfortable as Lollapalooza 2005.

“I won’t be able to forget it,” muses Death Cab bassist Nick Harmer, simultaneously filtering background noise somewhere in Australia. “It’s wintertime here. I’m wearing parkas and layering up.”

While it’s amusing Death Cab For Cutie brought Seattle’s weather with them to Mick Dundee’s island, it mirrors the steadiness in the band’s musical climate. Constantly evolving but never so quickly as to catch anyone off guard, it also seems to be uncannily synchronized with their success. Everything goes according to, um, plan.

“Early on, when we were playing ‘Your Heart Is An Empty Room’ off the new record,” Harmer says, “we weren’t sure if it was working or not, so we stopped playing that. We recently resurrected it and found a new place in it live, and it’s been making all of our set lists now and we’re having a great time playing it. Songs come and go because we change our set list every night. We’re not playing the same set for each tour or something like that. So, nothing that has been working isn’t working now, it’s just there’s stuff from the past that we haven’t really tried and we’re realizing we can maybe bring new life to.”

One of the best ways to chart a band’s course is to watch them play live and take hints from old songs’ new directions. But Death Cab make that a challenge because they hold their cards so close to their chests. Last year’s Lollapalooza set, though featuring “Soul Meets Body” and “Crooked Teeth,” tipped little of Plans‘ somnambulant character.

“We don’t really change the core of the songs drastically from any of the songs we’ve ever written,” says Harmer. “We bring some songs out and find some new places and moments in them. We’re not gonna rewrite parts and change the arrangement or even the lyric or the melody of a song too often. There’s certain songs that have more open parts in them we sort of experiment [with what to do] in those parts. The bulk of what our songs are pretty much on the map. We’re not changing them to the point of unfamiliarity, like ‘What song is this, again? Man, I don’t recognize this at all.’ It’d be like, ‘That was cool — they played the outro really long on that.’ That’s more our style.”

It sounds like a recipe for getting sick of your own songs.

“No,” he pauses, “not really. It’s such a show-by-show kind of thing. I’m pretty good at being able to get onstage every night and see each song with as fresh eyes as I possibly can and hear with as fresh ears as I possibly can. I think that’s part of the discipline of being a touring musician is that you have to have a stomach and headspace for a lot of repetition. There’s not much that I feel like I’m fighting to rediscover or having to uncover or getting tired of. Most of the time I’m just excited to be onstage and play some music. Whatever’s on the setlist — let’s do it.”

One way to reinvent enthusiasm under such parameters is to hit the über festival circuit, as Death Cab did in Europe before swinging across the world to Australia. Headlining your own shows allows a band to stretch out and lend a set some character, even forgive a slow start. But when you get to competing time slots and tightly controlled stage times, fun can end quickly, and you’re forced to be creative.

“It’s kind of a mind shift,” Harmer says. “It’s a hard situation, actually. You have to get a gauge on the crowd and how the day’s been moving. Sometimes people — if it’s a super-hot day and it’s ridiculous — by the time you play you know people are really tired and exhausted. If you come out swinging and play the most high-energy set you possibly can, you might not get any feedback from the crowd because they’re tired. You take each situation as it comes and figure it out from there. There’s no formula for it.”

The same goes for testing new material.

“Like anything, it’s difficult because it’s nobody’s favorite song yet, so everybody’s really attentive and they want to listen. They’re not dancing and having a good time. It gives you weird feedback right away. You’ll play something and be like, ‘I don’t know if they liked it or not.’ But then it’s like, ‘Well, they don’t even *know it,'” he laughs. “You typically prepare yourself for having people be honest right away with their reactions. Our records are records and songs are songs that kind of grow on people than are immediate, and so it’s always really fun to play new material and then know when the record comes out people start to form connections and attachments to the music. We’ve been doing the very beginnings of hashing some stuff out, but we haven’t got any of the songs any place — at least where we’re at right now. By the time we get to Lollapalooza, who knows?”

If Death Cab For Cutie have the moxy to return for a third year in a row, we’ll know for sure.

Appearing: 8/4 at 8:30 p.m. on the Bud Light stage in Grant Park.

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  1. oscareli says:

    If you are a fan of Live music festivals, then you will want to check out this coming weekend when Lollapalooza 2006 is webcast LIVE!

    You can also listen to all your favorite Lolla artists on “blue room Radio” only at

    Here is a partial lists of the acts that will be webcast live 8/4-8/6 (Friday-Sunday)!


    Ryan Adams

    Secret Machines


    Theivery Corporation


    The Editors

    Panic! at the Disco

    The Subways



    Umphrey’s McGee

    Living Things

    And Many More!!!