"I'm really sorry," says Death Cab for Cutie guitarist Chris Walla down the line from Los Angeles. "I know you're in Toronto and that you're thawing out for the first time in months, and the last thing you need is another vestige of winter to come back and haunt you one last time, but this is totally a winter record."
Two days after his band took to the stage at the Coachella Music and Arts Festival in nearby Indio, if Walla seems a little sad that the group's latest CD - "Narrow Stairs" - is hitting shelves in May (it's in stores next Tuesday) he's quick to point out nothing could be further from the truth.
Started in Bellingham, Wash., where Walla and frontman Ben Gibbard formed the band in 1997, Death Cab's 2005 major label debut "Plans" was a success, going nearly platinum after a series of indie releases with Barsuk. Yet Walla calls "Narrow Stairs" the most unhinged music-making session the band has had in years. "It was a return to the living room way of making music, which was really, really fun," he says.
Recorded in Seattle and San Francisco last year, Walla, who also doubles as the band's producer, says the success of "Plans" encouraged the foursome to experiment. "It was total creative freedom," he exclaims.
"I don't know if we surprised ourselves though," he continues. "The music that's on this record is music we have always known we can do. But for people who have seen us live, the album is much more of a translation of what we do onstage than anything else."
While "Plans" flirted with introverted emotive pop ("Your love is gonna drown," Gibbard panted over a swooping guitar riff on "Marching Bands of Manhattan"), the new CD - their sixth - is lean and spacious. "I Will Possess Your Heart," the first single, clocks in at over eight minutes, the first four of which begin with an appealingly trippy bass line before Gibbard's soothing vocals slip in.
"There are definitely other singles on the record," says Walla, "but it felt like, and continues to feel like, such a good calling card for the album."
Fresh from the seemingly never-ending tour Death Cab mounted in support of "Plans," the band, rounded out by bassist Nick Harmer and drummer Jason McGerr, had a fairly good grasp of what worked for them musically.
On "Cath…," raw guitar riffs and brutish percussion snap a Polaroid of a marriage doomed to failure. Gibbard spots the girl in a "hand me down wedding dress" and then he deviously points out the obvious: "You closed the door/
On so many men/ Who would have loved you more."
"It's total fiction," Walla assures. "Completely made up; Ben's good with that shit."
Gibbard is just as blunt on "You Can Do Better Than Me." "I'm starting to feel/ We stayed together out of fear/ Of dying alone," he starts liltingly against a waltzing organ before following through with the sober: "There's times I think of leaving/ But it's something I'll never do/ 'Cause you can do better than me/ But I can't do better than you."
"I'm telling you," says Walla, "there's one breezy, summer jam and that's all. The rest is pretty bleak and bleary."
With over a decade under their belts, when Death Cab hits the road in support of "Narrow Stairs" they'll do so in the de rigueur amphitheatres and arenas that comes after early-hype translates into real world success.
Still, Walla seems surprised by all the fuss.
"I don't think we even realized that we were in a band till about three or four years ago," he laughs. "We always liked it; but really accepting and understanding that this is what we do for a living came only pretty recently actually."
So how long can they keep their melodic melancholy going then?
"As soon as we start to recognize we're making shitty music, we'll stop doing it because that's a fate worse than death," he says. "There are so many bands that have not been able to recognize when that's been happening in their own careers."
Walla's not naming names, but he knows the drill if and when Death Cab starts to go downhill.
"I feel pretty strongly that one of us will just go, 'Guys this isn't very good, we should stop,'" he says. "And we'll be friends and it'll be great. We'll still have barbeques on the weekends and hang out with one another. But we won't make music anymore because we won't be any good and the world won't need us anymore."
Death Cab for Cutie play Toronto's Olympic Island Saturday, June 7.
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