In celebration of the 20th anniversary of Barsuk Records and Death Cab For Cutie’s KCMU Live Room session on July 11, 1998, we’re looking back at key moments in both the band and label’s history. Follow along for more features, interviews, retrospectives and more here.
KEXP's Midday Show host Cheryl Waters first started with the station in 1994, back when it was still KCMU. Waters began as a volunteer and within months of her arrival she was tapped to produce the station’s weekly live performance segments called The Live Room. KCMU’s live performances format was a direct predecessor to the live in-studio performances KEXP hosts today. The main difference being that KCMU sessions lasted for an entire hour – 25 minutes of music, 10 minutes for an interview, and then another 25 minutes of music.
“A few times that became funny because, as you know, new bands don't always have an hour of music so there were lots of covers, the quality of some of the sessions was you know up and down,” Waters recalls. “It helped us put together the format that we have now. But it was just such a fun show and such a great way to showcase live music and to give them an hour of airtime was incredible. And it was all local bands.”
These weekly live sessions were recorded at Jack Straw Cultural Center – a non-profit educational recording studio that is still functioning today. The weekly sessions were the brainchild of local promoter Greg Fergel and KCMU general manager Tom Mara and hosted by Fergel's cousin Abe Beeson – a DJ from KPLU (Beeson still works at that station, which is now known aas KNKX). There wasn’t a formal viewing area like KEXP has these days, but Waters recalls bands would often bring their friends to sit in the studio and watch performances – sometimes bringing beers, one time even bringing a keg. At one of these sessions, Waters was approached by a young local songwriter – Ben Gibbard.
“I can't remember what band it was that Ben came down for – probably sometime in 95 or 96 – and he told me about his band Pinwheel and he probably gave me a cassette of it and I loved it. So I booked them,” Waters says. “And I remember he gave me a bumper sticker for Pinwheel and I didn't have any bumper stickers on my car. I'm sort of like one of those people who keeps everything neat and straight on my desk – I love music and I wear band shirts and stuff, but I've never been someone to plaster my car bumper stickers. So it was a big deal... I think I might be the only band bumper sticker I've ever put on my car.”
If you’ve ever stumbled onto Pinwheel’s music, you’ve most likely been struck by how sonically different it is than anything Gibbard did with Death Cab For Cutie. The guitars are furious – channeling a youthful, angsty aggression that was en vogue with the Seattle of the early and mid-90s. Waters says she was immediately struck by the music’s beautiful melodies and insightful lyrics. Being so taken with the music, she booked Pinwheel for a KCMU in-studio. She even remembers the date: June 22, 1996. This wasn’t the only time Gibbard would approach Waters with a cassette for one of his projects. The second time was with a collection of demos for what would become Death Cab For Cutie. Again, Waters was immediately taken with the music and that same beautiful voice and songwriting that first grabbed her with Pinwheel. She says, for the second time with one of Gibbard’s projects, they “had her at hello.”
Waters wasted no time and booked Death Cab for a live session on July 11, 1998. The session aired just a month before the band would release their debut album, Something About Airplanes, on Barsuk Records. As you’ll hear in the recently unearthed archived performance, the setlist plays through the majority of Airplanes.
“Something About Airplanes is still one of my favorite records of all time and I love that we can play with everyone here on KEXP because I go back to it all the time,” Waters says. “One of my favorites is "Pictures In A Exhibition." I remember I just used to play that over and over and over over – in my own life on repeat but then on the air. Every time I was on the air for months I played that song. It's just just a brilliant album and it just still holds strong today. It's just kind of crazy to believe that that was their first studio album.”
Waters adds, “It's been really really rewarding to watch their career. I'm so proud of what they have created for themselves. They're so talented and hardworking. I knew it was something special the first time I heard it.”
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