Michael Schorr:Formerly Drums
"Transatlanticism" is a made-up word. At least, Death Cab for Cutie singer-guitarist Ben Gibbard thought so when he penned the song of the same name. He's since stumbled across evidence indicating otherwise. Whether this particular conglomeration of vowels and consonants merits inclusion in the dictionary is an argument better left to etymologists than musicians. Suffice to say, when Ben coined it, "Transatlanticism" was meant to relate to distances so vast and daunting - "such as a body of water creates between people" - that they seem impossible to breach.
Negotiating spaces and distances - be they emotional, geographic, or chronologic - is a recurring theme throughout Transatlanticism, the fourth full-length (excluding 2002's reissue/archival release You Can Play These Songs With Chords +10) from the celebrated Seattle rock quartet. And this theme is not just a lyrical conceit, but also characterizes the band's entire creative process. Carefully mapping out, from a new perspective, what elements did - or did not - belong in each of the eleven tracks. Allowing more time to pass between studio sessions. And introducing a new player into the intra-band dynamic.
The first thing one notices about Transatlanticism is the distinctive character of each of its eleven songs, from the glacial guitars of the sweeping opener "The New Year" to the poppy bah-bah-bahs of "The Sound of Settling." Piano forms the basis of more than one moment during the melancholy midsection of the disc. Bizarre sound effects flutter down like the first snowfall behind the folky, fleetingly dissonant closer, "A Lack of Color." No two songs are alike ("there's nothing more boring than a record with twelve of the same song," opines Ben), some are dense and others spacious. Yet taken as a whole, they constitute DCfC's most thought-out album yet, as Ben's songwriting and guitarist/ keyboard player Chris Walla's nuanced production complement each other better than ever.
Unlike the selections preserved on their previous albums, DCfC has deliberately kept these new songs out of their concert repertoire until now. "Almost everything we've done in the past has been based on touring the material before we recorded it, so by the time it gets to the studio, how it's supposed to sound is cemented in our heads," says Ben. This time, there was no set template to follow, which opened things up considerably.
As in the past, Ben submitted stacks of demos - most composed during a period of exile in San Francisco last year - to his band mates for consideration. Only this time, the other members found themselves less smitten with the initial arrangements. Ultimately, that turned out to be very beneficial. "We ended up doing a lot more surgery," explains Chris. "Stripping songs all the way down to the melody and the lyric - knowing that those were totally right on - and then building up around that. For me, from a producer's perspective, that was great. And it was really good for Ben, too, to trust us to really tear it all apart and put it back together."
Oh it was, was it? Yes, insists Ben. "I loved it! As we've continued to grow as a band, we've been able to focus on our strong points more, and trust each other. On almost every song on this record, I was much more excited about hearing what Chris, Nick, and Jason, had in mind for the arrangements and production, mostly because I had been sitting on so many of the songs for so long."
"The greatest danger for any singer/songwriter is closing the circle in on themselves, to the point where they are rewriting their own songs," adds bassist Nick Harmer. "Which is not to say that Ben had hit some sort of creative dead end, but that by asking for, and allowing more input from all of us, we could all help each other to explore new territory and take a few more risks."
"All of us," in this case not only refers to Chris and Nick, but also new drummer Jason McGerr (who the guys knew from their school days in Bellingham, WA, where Nick and Jason were the rhythm section of Eureka Farm). "We've known him for so long, and had such respect for him before we started playing together, that it makes for a much more communicative environment," says Ben. "Not only amongst all four of us, but between Nick, Chris, and me as well."
In Chris' opinion, Jason - who "turned so many of these songs upside-down, in the best possible way" - has restored a sense of balance to the line-up that has been absent the last few years. "I feel like we're back to a place where we haven't been since [the second album] We Have The Facts, where we're four people, in a really insular little unit." (Indeed, the only guests on this album are Sean Nelson and John Roderick of The Long Winters, and Phil Wandscher of Jesse Sykes & the Sweet Hereafter, all of whom contributed vocals to the choir in the epic title track.)
Another crucial change was the leisurely pace at which the band made the album. Splitting studio time between the Hall of Justice in Seattle and Tiny Telephone in San Francisco, the album was fashioned over half a year, beginning in December of 2002. "We'd record for a week, then take a week or two off, and then we'd come back and do more," recounts Chris. "We figured out that Day Five or Six was our saturation point. If we took a week off after that, then came back and listened to things, we could go, 'Oh, we did a bunch of good work - now we can elaborate on it.' Instead of working and working, and getting to Day Eight, and going, 'I hate all of it!'
"The end result? "This record was about evolution," concludes Nick. He's right. It is also very different from its predecessor, which is fine. "The Photo Album is more to the point, both in the songs and the production," adds Ben. "While I am very proud of that record, I see it now as more of a transitional album. We needed to make it to realize the direction we're now heading in, which is sonically more experimental." With Transatlanticism, Death Cab for Cutie has made a great leap, and crossed over to the next phase of its musical career.