Sixteen Again: Death Cab For Cutie, Phantom Planet, and More Look Back on The O.C. Soundtrack

Columns, Interviews
04/15/2020
Jasmine Albertson

Sixteen Again is a brand new monthly column in which KEXP’s Jasmine Albertson delves into influential soundtracks from teen shows and movies in an attempt to dissect the impact it had on the artists featured on the soundtrack, as well as the overall cultural music landscape.


On August 5, 2003, a pop culture phenomenon was unveiled to captivated American teens lusting for a taste of drama and glamour. Titled The O.C., on paper the show didn’t seem that far off from previous teen television dramas like Beverly Hills, 90210 or the daytime soap operas that focused on the lives of the rich and beautiful. In truth, creator Josh Schwartz was more inspired by shows like Freaks and Geeks and My So-Called Life to subvert our expectations and create a more complex, character-driven storyline. Plus, he had a secret weapon: Alex Patsavas.

As music supervisor for The O.C., Patsavas worked tirelessly to bring small indie artists to the forefront, even messaging bands on Myspace to find the perfect song for a scene. Beyond The O.C. she’s supervised for shows like Gossip Girl, Chuck, Grey’s Anatomy, and Hart of Dixie, as well as The Twilight Saga films (we’ll likely touch on some of these in upcoming pieces).

By releasing the soundtracks as “mixtapes,” thoroughly cataloging every song played on the show on their website (a big deal in the early 2000s), even writing real bands such as Death Cab for Cutie and The Walkmen into the script as well as bringing those bands onto the show to play the fictional venue the Bait Shop, Schwartz and Patsavas made music integral to the show.

Who can forget the recurring use of Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah” during multiple emotional season-ending episodes or Imogen Heap’s widely-memed feature of “Hide and Seek” when Marissa shoots Trey? “The OC was where music really jumped out at me on TV,” Chris Mollere, music supervisor of shows like Pretty Little Liars and The Vampire Diaries, told Rolling Stone in an interview about how music placement was helping save the music industry.

 

 

Easy Rider was one of the first movies to have a song soundtrack, but The OC was the show that changed that format on television and showed that you could do things like have a song with lyrics play during a scene with dialogue,” Mollere continued. “Before The OC, that was not an accepted thing...A placement on that show took bands to another level.”

KEXP spoke with members of four of those bands who benefitted astronomically by their placement on The O.C. about their experience on the show and how it affected their career long-term: Phantom Planet, The Walkmen, Youth Group, and, of course, Death Cab for Cutie. These are their stories.

Welcome to The O.C., Bitch

 

 

Having your song as the theme for a show can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, the exposure is beyond anything you could garner simply through touring and releasing records. On the other, your song is forever intertwined with a television show, whether you like it or not. Alex Greenwald, frontman of Los Angeles band Phantom Planet had those exact concerns in mind when he was asked by Josh Schwartz if he could use their song “California” as the theme song.

“To be honest, at first I didn't want our music on a TV show at the time,” Greenwald admits. “I thought it would be bad for our integrity as artists. However, I was convinced by my band pretty much by saying, ‘Don't be an idiot. This is a great opportunity.’ And I watched the pilot and I was like, ‘Oh, this is actually decent.’”

Hamilton Leithauser, frontman of The Walkmen, had similar reservations about their second season appearance on the show, the first of several high caliber artists including The Killers and Death Cab to play The Bait Shop.

 

The OC EPK (THE WALKMEN) from Mark Olson on Vimeo.

 

“I think our first reaction was that nobody wanted to do it," he said. “We didn't know the show and I think we didn't understand...we didn't know what it was when we were told initially. And then I remember discussing it and thinking that I didn't want to do it and then being persuaded by someone to do it.”

Australian indie band Youth Group’s experience was a unique and career-altering one. After they'd already had Skeleton Jar standout “Shadowland” placed on the show, Patsavas reached out to see if they could record a cover of the '80s song “Forever Young” by Alphaville for an important scene between characters Ryan and Marissa.

 

 

“At first we were a bit like, ‘It's a bit of a cheesy song, I'm not sure,’” recounts frontman Toby Martin. “And then we started thinking more about it. We sort of started jamming it and tinkering around and thought, ‘Actually it might just be kind of fun. We could do something cool with it.’ So, yeah, we were reticent, but we were seduced.”

The members of Death Cab for Cutie had no idea what was in store for them when the people behind The O.C. decided to not only feature the Seattle band’s songs in the show but work the band into the show’s narrative. Frequently cited as character Seth Cohen’s favorite band, Death Cab’s posters hang on his walls, their music blares from his car on road trips (in which Summer memorably describes them as “one guitar and a whole lot of complaining”), and their CDs are gifted to friends and family in his legendary Seth Cohen Starter Pack.

 

 

“We had no knowledge that it would be such a touchstone for the Seth Cohen character,” says bassist Nick Harmer. He goes on to explain that when Patsavas reached out, they expected it would just be a simple licensing deal, with maybe one or two snippets of songs played on the show. At the time, the band was still on local label Barsuk Records and licensing offers were few and far between so the opportunity to reach a different and/or bigger audience seemed like a good idea.

“And then we heard that they actually started writing our band name into the script and into the voice of the character and it became the character Seth Cohen's favorite band,” Harmer continues. “That was all sort of organically happening at the show with the writers and the actors. They didn't, like call us to ask us if that was okay or anything like that. And they didn't need permission to do it anyway. They were just referencing stuff in the world. It was very surreal! It was just like, ‘Woah, this is above and beyond! We'll have to see how this works out for us.’"

It’s a Chrismukkah Miracle

 

 

With a viewership that averaged 9.56 million people per episode, what kind of tangible effects did these artists get from their placement on The O.C. and how quickly?

“It seemed like everybody on Planet Earth watched that show,” recalls Leithauser. The Walkmen were promoting their sophomore record, 2004’s Bows + Arrows, when they appeared on the show to play album tracks “Little House of Savages” and “What’s In It For Me.” Four albums and 16 years later, “Little House of Savages” as well as “The Rat,” which was featured in a season one episode, remain the band's most successful singles to date.

 

 

For Phantom Planet, who had arguably the most to both gain and lose with their placement of “California,” the feedback was quick and astounding.

“When it actually aired, I wasn't sure if it would be popular or not,” admits Greenwald. “We'd get trickling texts and things as the weeks went on like, ‘I'm addicted to the show, congratulations. I love hearing your song every time the show comes on.’ And then the song got popular in England and Europe because of the show and all of a sudden maybe like a season later there were people in Japan and China and places we've either been through once or twice or never even been to before that heard the song and knew the band. I never would have expected that when I agreed to attach my music to the show.”

 

 

When Youth Group tackled “Forever Young” at the behest of Patsavas, they didn’t think a whole lot of it. Assuming it would just be a song that was used for the show and then forgotten, they had no idea how much the cover would resonate with people. After releasing the song as a single, it hit number one on the charts in Australia, leading them to include “Forever Young” on their 2006 record Casino Twilight Dogs.

“In Australia, they used that cover of ‘Forever Young’ on the ad for the episode as well and they slogged the ad so it was just everywhere,” recalls Martin. “But we were on tour in the States so we weren't even really aware of that going on. And then eventually 'Forever Young' got released as a single and became number one in Australia. But once again, we were actually recording in the States at the time. Friends of mine in Australia at the time were telling us like every single car, every single shop was playing it. It was just like, so annoying. And it's like, ‘I'm very glad I wasn't there to hear that.’”

 

 

For Seth Cohen’s favorite band, things moved a bit slower. Harmer’s hesitant to attribute Death Cab’s ascension to The O.C., instead citing signing to a major label after Transatlanticism as well as an overall cultural shift that favored indie music and bands that had yet to be broken. He notes the Garden State soundtrack and a McDonald's commercial featuring a Shins song as examples of changes bubbling up in the general consciousness of the music-buying public during the mid-2000s.

“We're all kind of like bubbling up in profiles and things are starting to shift,” Harmer recounts. “But it wasn't an overnight thing. It wasn't like we went to bed one night and then there were, you know, 500 people coming to our show. And the next week there were 10,000. You know, it didn't happen like that at all. It was very small, like gradual and very kind of predictable for us in that sense.”

I Can't Change Where I'm From, But I Can Change Where I'm Going

 

 

On February 22, 2007, The O.C. aired its final episode aptly titled “The End’s Not Near, It’s Here.” With a swift downturn in viewership, as well as quality, sometime during season three, the show burned out almost as quickly as it blew up. Other teen dramas have tried to fill its shoes but few have captured the same heart and quirky magnetism as The O.C. And even less with a soundtrack as consistently killer (but stay tuned because we’ll get into the ones that did!).

The question is, do the artists, for whom The O.C. will likely always be intertwined with their name and music, regret being a part of it? The answer is an overwhelming no.

Leithauser, who just released the critically acclaimed solo record The Loves of Your Life, found the whole experience to be funny and strange but ultimately rewarding and beneficial for the band.

“We were on tour when we watched [the episode] in Austin, Texas,” he remembers. “Me and some friends were watching and were just laughing just howling. It was just such a hoot for us.”

 

 

“No regrets whatsoever,” proclaimed Greenwald, who’s gearing up to release Phantom Planet’s first record in 12 years, Devastator, on June 19. The band reformed last spring following a seven-year hiatus and have shared the singles “Time Moves On,” “BALISONG,” and “Party Animal.” He continues to say:

“Everybody and their grandma now knew that song. I think one of the reasons you get into playing music is being able to share it with as many people as possible to bring joy or bring healing. All of a sudden, this song that I wrote in 1999, on my couch at the first place I ever moved to after moving out of my mom's house and all of a sudden this little song that probably took me an hour to write suddenly just became a thing.”

 

 

Martin’s relationship with “Forever Young” is a bit more mixed, calling it a double-edged sword because of the covers annoyingly overwhelming presence over the band’s original catalog. At the same time, the song has afforded them the ability to self-fund their records ever since, including last fall’s Australian Halloween. The album was their first in 11 years, following 2008’s The Night Is Ours.

“I think getting a song on a television show or a film or internet stuff is incredibly important,” said Martin. “Particularly bands like us who are independent and on independent record labels. It's a major source of income which is also really not to be sneezed at. If you're struggling to make money on tour or you’re struggling to sell records because everyone's downloading it or streaming it for free then seeing us on TV can really help economically.”

 

 

For Harmer, what separated The O.C. from other shows and makes him look back on Death Cab’s visibility on it with fondness is Patsavas. “She was definitely and still really is just a super big fan of music,” he stated. “And she was also in that really great spot where she realized, ‘A lot of these bands that I know and love can also tie into this other thing that I do and they could benefit from that and I can sort of spread the word about all this music that I like.’ It came from a real honest place in her and that's what made it feel really good to us as well.”

 

 

The Seth Cohen’s Favorite Bands’ Soundtrack Starter Pack

I can’t speak for everyone, but I think there are a lot of us that are constantly itching to feel even a fraction of the kind of joy and excitement we felt when we discovered music as teenagers. Emotions are high, hormones are raging, and the whole world is this adventure you’ve yet to fully experience or unravel. A new song can quite literally change your life.

That’s what the O.C. soundtrack was for me as a 16-year-old girl who, up until that point, had only been exposed to Christian music and pop. Sure, there were others as well, but I’d never scoured the internet hunting down songs and albums like that until this show which is why I had to start this column with it.

I thought it might be interesting to ask the artists whose music changed my life if there were soundtracks that changed theirs during those formative years of adolescence. Turns out I’m not the only one who gets excited talking about those years.

Alex Greenwald:

Top Gun: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack - “It was the first cassette I ever bought with my own money. I just loved it but also it was like I bought it, it was mine to experience. No one could take that away from me which I think probably was influential, going into music. It transported me to another place.”

 

 

Pulp Fiction: Music From the Motion Picture - “That was life-changing too. Really really loved it. All these songs I’d never heard. Found out about Dick Dale. I feel like it changed a lot of music - it changed musicians' minds about what might be cool to play.”

 

 

Toby Martin:

Back to the Future: Music From the Motion Picture - “That obviously has got a real 50s soundtrack, but it's also got 80s stuff. So I really got heavily into 50s music, like Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry and stuff, mostly through film soundtracks at the time. Back To The Future was a big one for me.”

 

 

Pump Up the Volume: Music From the Original Motion Picture - “Christian Slater stars as a radio DJ. And the soundtrack for that was like the Pixies and I guess sort of more alternative underground music that I hadn't listened to. So that was kind of a great gateway into exploring Pixies and Sonic Youth and Pavement and bands like that.”

 

 

Topless Women Talk About Their Lives Soundtrack - “The title's got nothing to do with the actual subject matter, but the soundtrack is all like New Zealand Flying Nun bands like the Clean and the Bats. That was like I mean, it's a completely forgotten show but the soundtrack is absolutely amazing and I got heaps of bands that way too. There's definitely those soundtracks which become actually more important on the film itself.”

 

 

Nick Harmer:

Pump Up the Volume: Music From the Original Motion Picture - “Was super meaningful. With the Pixies' "Wave of Mutilation" UK Surf Mix. That was a big deal, there were a lot of sort of alternative bands and more underground bands that particular soundtrack kind of be a little bit more of a collection and representative of the bands that we were all listening to kind of on the fringes. Like a lot of those bands that ended up becoming really big or more household names, especially as once grunge kind of broke wide open. They were still pretty small and unknown bands at that point. I mean, Soundgarden was on that. There was a lot of really early stuff that was cool.

 

 

Singles: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack - “Just growing up in the Northwest this was like the hometown pride soundtrack. We just were so proud of all those bands and we loved every single one of them. And finally, there was a movie that was being shot and set here about the culture and the musicians that we knew and loved them. I mean, gosh, it was just such a cool moment.

 

 


The O.C. is, unfortunately, no longer streaming on Hulu but is available to rent or buy from Amazon.

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