With Rewind, KEXP digs out beloved albums, giving them another look on the anniversary of its release. In this installment, KEXP writer Dusty Henry delves into Death Cab For Cutie's debut album Something About Airplanes, coinciding with the album's 20th anniversary next month as well as the 20th anniversary of the band's 1998 session on KCMU.
I’m definitely shaking.
Sitting cross legged in the back of The Paramount Theatre, I'm delirious and embarrassingly nauseous. I can hear, but not see, Ben Gibbard plucking the notes to “I Will Follow You Into The Dark.” Moments earlier I was in the thick of the pit, a speck in a sea of flannel and corduroy and knit caps. All of us maybe looking for some profound moment to have with these aching, beautiful songs. It’s 2005 and Death Cab For Cutie were fulfilling their destiny to become the "next big band out of Seattle." A man in front of me lights a joint to celebrate the occasion of the hometown boys playing their homecoming show. My young, impressionable lungs hold in the smoke and my stomach turns in on itself. My years of skirting teenage rebellion were finally turning against me. I’m a sheltered 15 year old and I’m definitely shaking at the smell of some really dank weed.
My memory is foggy and the Internet isn’t serving as the omnipotent source I hoped it would be, but I have vague recollections of the band playing “Pictures In An Exhibition,” a standout track from their debut album Something About Airplanes – which turns 20 next month. In the song Gibbard repeats the line “I’m definitely shaking,” his voice itself shaking and shaking again. I would’ve first heard this song on You Can Play These Songs With Chords – a collection of Gibbard’s earliest demos before the band was really a band – but it’s not like I was an early adopter with the band. I didn’t even know who they were a week before this show. A friend had an extra ticket to the show and sold me on the band by telling me “it’s the guy from The Postal Service.” He sent me the expanded version of Chords over AOL Instant Messenger – the download inching along at dial-up speeds – and after I got it, I just didn’t “get it.” I got distracted by the bouncy, synthesizer-laden pop punk of “Tomorrow” and the truly bizarre “Flustered / Hey Tomcat!”, an odd hodgepodge of samples that sounds like DJ Shadow run through a blender. There is a line in “Flustered / Hey Tomcat!” that did stay with me – an old timey voice that sounds straight out of a health class video saying, “It’s somewhat like eating an apple and trying to describe how it tastes.”
And that’s a bit how I feel about trying to write about Airplanes. In many ways, it’s an unknowable record. At the very least, it’s the murkiest entry in the band’s catalog. A twisted knot of wobbly guitars and banging drums held together by Gibbard’s most obtuse poetry. Even the title is curious. Why is it called Something About Airplanes? And why is there a rowboat on the cover? The band would quickly begin to give audiences a clearer focus almost right away with their follow-up We Have The Facts and We’re Voting Yes, but that’s also what makes Airplanes such a fascinating and thrilling listen in the Death Cab canon. It’s not a benchmark for the band to be measured against. It’s a mystery covered in other mysteries but transcended by a feeling that’s hard to put into words. Like biting into an apple and trying to describe how it tastes.
When I listen to Airplanes, I feel like myself when I was 15 years old. Shaking and on the verge of vomiting, sitting in the back of the room with no intention of leaving until the band plays their last notes. I want to hear it all. I want to feel all of it. Even when it doesn’t make sense or disorients me or I feel ill and self consicous, it’s sinking its teeth in me and not letting go.
The beginning of a band is hardly ever the best era of a band, but it is the time where you can often feel the most magic.
There’s nothing quite like the moment when you’re first jamming with a group of musicians and you can all feel like you’re connecting. It’s like a spark in the air, sizzling through your bones and filling up the room. Maybe you get lost in the moment and forget where you are or who you’re with. Then you look around your shitty, makeshift practice space waiting for the static and buzz of the amps fade out. It’s quiet for a moment until someone speaks up to say something incredibly profound like, “Woah, that was kinda cool.”
It doesn’t even matter if the music you just created was actually good (and often it’s not), the purity of that moment is intoxicating. The difference with Death Cab is that the magic wasn’t a fluke. Well, okay, that’s a little projecting. I wasn’t in the room when the band first got together, but last year the band did release a recording of their first ever show from 1997. Gibbard and eventual guitarist/producer Chris Walla had just finished the You Can Play These Songs With Chords tape (parts of which would eventually be re-worked for Airplanes) and put together a makeshift band for an acoustic house show, bringing in bassist Nick Harmer and drummer Nathan Good to round out the lineup. By Gibbard’s own account in the Bandcamp description, “None of us thought we were starting a band nor did our ambitions for DCFC extend very far past this particular evening. We simply thought it would be fun to play these songs for our friends before moving on to other things.”
Even in this rickety recording, you can feel that magic. You can feel it in each ringing note of Walla’s guitar. You can feel it in Good’s steady drumming, doing its best not to overpower the room. You can feel it in Harmer’s murky bass tones. You can feel it in the way Gibbard sings and the way he tells the audience they can buy a tape for three bucks. And then there’s the clip of Glenn W. Turner on “Amputations” echoing at the end and the pause that comes after before the crowd lets out a collective laugh. At one point Gibbard mentions the band has only practiced twice, making it about as close as you can get to that “first practice magic.”
Even in these early stages and stripped down, you can tell there’s something special about songs like “Your Bruise” and “President of What?”. There’s a sense that the band is tapping into something that most musicians covet. You can feel it in their 1998 KCMU session as well, plugged-in and refined but still defining themselves as a young band who doesn’t realize their on the cusp of becoming a big deal. It’s an unknowable something. A feeling that connects between creator and consumer. I just call it magic.
“In this modern day and age we have instant coffee and instant tea
Instant disbelief, that's the reason we will never become anything
It is because we will never believe in ourselves
We will always listen to the mass majority
If everybody's making fun of you and criticizing you
Then you know you're on the right track '
Cause most people ain't got it"
- Glenn W. Turner from the speech “Instant Disbelief”
Turner was a con man, even if he didn’t intend to be. Once upon a time, he was a sewing machine salesman who built up an empire with a cosmetics company based on a multi-level marketing model. Essentially, he was running a pyramid scheme. Turner’s pursuits were also marked with a certain level of earnestness. As a child he’d been born with cleft palate, making him to source of teasing in school. When he attempted to join the Airforce at age 17, he was turned away due to a perforated eardrum. Despite constantly getting knocked down by circumstance, Turner used his shortcomings to establish a profitable brand. It wasn’t just Turner’s promises of money making that had people flocking to his business – it was his rhetoric that told people, “I did it, and so can you.”
At the height of his fame, Turner began giving motivational seminars dubbed “Dare To Be Great.” His words were stimulating. A sharecropper's son from Florida, his howling drawl could fill a room and his colorful Southern metaphors made you believe that you too could be richer than Croesus. But ultimately what Turner was selling was still a pyramid scheme. By his account, it was never his intention to break the law or cheat anyone out of money. But as he sold his own company for $15,000 (once valued at $100 million) and was convicted of fraud in 1987, his ambitions to motivate people to believe in themselves and “be great” were crushed.
It’s curious and surprising that Turner’s voice shows up on Death Cab’s “Amputations.” On its face, Turner’s words seem antithetical to what many assume about Death Cab. For two decades, the band has danced around the “emo” title. Emo itself is a hard concept to pindown. The closest you’ll get to an answer is “it’s punk, but sad.” Which… is insanely ambiguous. So, yes, by those qualifications Death Cab is definitely an emo band. Lead singer Ben Gibbard’s lyrics, especially in the band’s first decade, were downtrodden, aching, and knotted up like dread trying to push its way out of your stomach. That’s all a fancy, music journalist way of saying, “it’s music about feeling bad.”
But there’s a through line from Turner to Death Cab. These days, “earnest” can be a dirty word, but it’s not meant to be. Just like how Turner didn’t mean to be a con man. Or maybe how Death Cab didn’t mean to be emo. More than anything, both Turner and Death Cab dared to be great. Don't get it twisted, I'm not making the case that Death Cab for Cutie is a band of con men. But there is an element to their first record of a band grappling with inspiration that sometimes is out of their own hands.
"What the fuck am I talking about here? This song makes absolutely no sense," Gibbard told Paste Magazine in 2008 when talking about Airplanes opener "Bend To Squares." He fesses up right after that in this era of the band he was simply trying to write lyrics that felt profound, without a subject or person in mind. And while maybe that comes off as dismissive of his own work, it also speaks to a young artist stretching himself in new ways. As Turner's sensational voice proposes at the beginning of "Amputations," "If we seem nutty to you and if we seem like an oddball to you, just remember one thing: the mighty oak tree was once a nut just like me." Sometimes we can't feel or recognize our own greatness. Maybe we don't even understand the motions we're pushing ourselves through, proppelled by some sense of purpose rumbling in our gut. Sometimes it doesn't work out, like it did for Turner. Other times, you can blossom. It just takes that action to dare to be great.
10 years after the release of Airplanes, Death Cab would have the number one album in the country with Narrow Stairs – inching out records by Frank Sinatra and Jason Mraz. Another 10 years after that, the band is prepping to release their ninth album Thank You For Today on August 17 – just one day before the 20th anniversary of their debut. Walla departed the band in 2014. Good left even sooner, back in 1999.
Death Cab is a band that’s easy to get nostalgic about. The music practically calls for it with the meditative tone of Gibbard’s songwriting, often looking back and reassessing past moments both good and bad. Nostalgia’s fickle and memory is unreliable. We can lock in an idea of what a band means or represents without considering what it means to progress forward. In a literal sense, Death Cab For Cutie isn’t the same band they were in 1998. They couldn’t have predicted becoming the definitive band of primetime teen drama The OC or getting nominated for Grammys or selling out stadiums across the globe. And you can feel that on Airplanes. It’s a band that’s just getting started, exploring the great expanse of their creativity. It wasn’t meant to be an end point. It’s a beautiful and enamoring beginning, but it could never be where the band ended. They were predestined to take on more and be more things. If they never moved an inch, we would never have We Have The Facts or The Photo Booth or Transatlanticism or Plans or anything but a single flavor.
Last month I had the chance to see Death Cab play at The Paramount again. I’d seen them numerous times since 2005, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say returning to that space carried some extra, internalized significance. This time I sat up in the mezzanine, watching the band from afar. I looked down at the crowd in the pit and saw so many young faces. I wondered if this was the first Death Cab show for any of them. Maybe this was the first time they were really hearing the band. The band didn’t play anything from Airplanes that night, but it didn’t matter. The band is so many more things now with so many other songs to sing and new kids to enrapture with their astounding melodies. There’s plenty of new feelings for old fans to feel with their music. But anytime I want to feel that same shaking feeling, that magic, and that sightline to greatness, Airplanes will always be there, waiting.
KEXP’s Midday Show host looks back at the station’s early days as KCMU, getting demo tapes from Ben Gibbard, and one of the biggest Seattle band’s earliest days.
A free show for The Paramount's 90th anniversary highlight a changing Seattle from one of its most stable and established musical landmarks.
On the heels of the 10-year anniversary of Death Cab for Cutie's sixth studio album, we look into the criminally underrated Narrow Stairs.