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How The Isolation Of The Pacific Northwest Shaped Death Cab For Cutie Into A Beloved Indie-Rock Staple

On an early summer day in 1999, Death Cab for Cutie were gathering for band practice when a sudden jarring explosion in the distance halted them in their tracks. The band was preparing to head out on the road in support of Something About Airplanes when something shifted. “We were playing music in the house and the house just shook,” Ben Gibbard said of the event, which turned out to be a nearby pipe explosion that claimed the lives of three people, two of them children who were swimming at a beloved town park.

“It was this kind of utopian little area in Bellingham where if you knew, you knew,” Gibbard explained. “People would swim there and skinny dip and they’d go there at night. And it was destroyed. So not only was it the loss of life, but because of the need for a f*cking pipeline to go through the middle of this thing, these kids lost their lives, and this beautiful place that we all loved was destroyed.”

To this day, a sign at Whatcom Creek warns visitors that the park is a “sensitive area” due to the destruction caused on that day. Gibbard revisited the event for their 2019 The Blue EP for the introspective “Kids In ‘99.” “I kept thinking about those kids and being like, those kids need a folk song. They need to be remembered. And of course, their family remembers them and of course, people remember that event, remember them. But I just felt that I’d written songs about Bellingham after I’d left it because I wanted to squeeze that version of Bellingham in my mind.”

Gibbard grew up in Bremerton, right across the water from Seattle, where his parents would frequently bring him to Olympia national park as a kid. The backdrop of Washington became a central trope in Death Cab’s essential discography. There are frequent references to the mountainous surroundings, dreary weather, and skyscraping trees that Gibbard felt weren’t present in music from other parts of the country. “You live in Seattle and you go 20 to 40 minutes, and you’re in the mountains. You go over those mountains and it’s a whole other world. It really feels like you’re on the edge of the earth at times.” This sentiment mirrors a chunk of Death Cab’s discography, where high-energy rock songs are immediately followed up by sorrowful introspective tracks.

“I think we’ve always been really interested in our environment and the way that our environment shapes us emotionally and otherwise,” bassist Nick Harmer explains. Harmer and Gibbard met in Bellingham and eventually became college roommates. “There’s a lot of rain and clouds. And I think for me, it can be a brooding place to be, and a real introspective place to be.”

In “Foxglove Through The Clearcut,” the latest single from the band’s 10th studio album Asphalt Meadows, Gibbard abandons his signature crooning vocals for a spoken-word monologue about a man who traveled across the country before reaching the edge with nowhere left to go. The lyrics began as a fictional story, but while writing Gibbard soon realized he was the narrator.

“[Ben] always left himself open to being affected and being impacted by the things that are happening around him in his environment, and channeling that either in a particular instrumentation choice or in a direct lyrical narrative that he’s exploring,” Harmer adds when asked about Gibbard’s lyrical evolution. Throughout the band’s entire discography, the lyrics are sprinkled with location-specific anecdotes: driving down the 405, pining in the city of seven hills, passing by the dusty storefronts of Holly Street.

Gibbard cites Modest Mouse frontman Issac Brock as the driving force behind the evolving sounds that have echoed throughout the Northwest and beyond since the late 90s. “Especially on early Modest Mouse records, he was writing about, quite literally, the loneliness of the West and the gentrification of it. He was just writing these incredible songs about the sense of alienation and just kind of vastness of where we live,” Gibbard remarks that the sound coming out of other music hubs just didn’t resonate with the band.

“It seems like there’s this period in pop music [over] the last 20 years, where every other song seemed to be about how tonight’s going to be the best night ever,” Gibbard explains, “That was just not really a sentiment that felt appropriate coming out of the Northwest. You’re looking out your window, it’s gray, it’s dreary, the sun’s going up and going down before you realize it, and it just lends itself to slow music, perspective music.”

The slow but introspective music is what launched Death Cab to gather recognition across the country, where most Top 40 stations were still thriving on the late-’90s grunge and the early-2000s pop frenzy. Because of the area’s isolation, the subsequent music scene became a small but strong pool of a specific PNW-inspired sound: reverb-heavy guitars sprinkled with melodic riffs paired with often existential lyrics.

Not only is the band heavily inspired by the area’s geography, but also by its welcoming community. The band gushes about employees at local venues, radio stations, and record stores as the main supporters of the flourishing music scene. “There’s Vera Project, there’s Crocodile, Showbox,” Harmer mentions. Not only have these venues supported the band in their early days, but Death Cab also raised funds to help keep them afloat during the early days of the pandemic.

Harmer adds that you can’t go anywhere in the immediate Seattle area without finding someone who wants to sit and chat about music, which is not always the case in other music-centric cities. “I mean, going into a local guitar shop and sometimes you run into somebody there. You’re just always around the music. And I think because we play music, we love music, it’s worked its way into every corner of our lives. We’re connected in a variety of ways to the ongoing community of music making. If you’re paying attention and you’re curious, you will come across all kinds of music. I mean, there’s so much amazing music up here, right?”

Gibbard also mentions Wall Of Sound Records, a local store in Seattle, which is his favorite place to discover new music. “They’re the rare kind of dudes who are into that kind of music and they’re not snobby about it. They really want to share it. And if you go in and you say, yeah, ‘I love Depeche Mode’ or something and [they say] ‘You got to hear this Turkish darkwave band. They’re incredible.’ They’ll just hand me the record. I’ll be like, holy sh*t. This is f*cking great.”

Wall Of Sound is just one of the many local places that take pride in their extension of music knowledge in Seattle and beyond. Jeffrey Taylor and Michael Ohlenroth, the curators at Wall Of Sound, say that the area has always had a healthy music scene stemming from diverse musicians and artists, which began to gain more recognition after the ’90s grunge phase. “It seemed natural that a more introspective, genteel, singer-songwriter approach to music would make inroads with PNW music fans and slowly spread to the rest of the country and the world,” Ohlenroth says. “That said, talents such as Ben Gibbard’s or Elliott Smith’s would have grown in any soil.”

Perhaps that’s why Death Cab has resonated beyond the area, their appeal was just heightened by the Northwest of it all. Gibbard continues, “I really feel that one of the many reasons that Seattle kind of developed the scene that it did, and the kind of aesthetic that it did, was because we were so isolated.” In the isolation, the tight-knit music community flourished.

Though he is now a “proud Cascadian,” Gibbard has lived in and written about other places, too. He sings of frustrations on “Bixby Canyon Bridge,” and talks about California’s blazing heat waves in “Why Would You Want to Live Here.” But he always found himself coming back to Washington. “I lived in LA for a couple of years and I enjoyed it to a certain extent, but when that relationship disintegrated, I told myself I’m never leaving this place again. I needed to leave it to recognize how much I love it. So to me, I’m so proud to be a Seattle artist.”

Death Cab For Cutie is a Warner Music artist. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.