By Steve Reno
“Holding fast until the rent checks wear thin,” Ben Gibbard sings in “State Street Residential.” “Well it’s a drab routine / the dust starts building / until it’s hard to come clean.”
Cold days, cheap living and heavy drinking are all themes in Death Cab for Cutie’s first release, 1997’s “You Can Play These Songs with Chords.” Song titles like “Champagne from a Paper Cup” sum up many peoples’ college experience.
Twelve years later, speaking from a hotel room in Chicago before Death Cab’s sold out show at the Aragon Ballroom, bassist Nick Harmer still remembers the band’s early days as Western students.
“Those cold winters when you can’t get your landlords to turn on the heat…everybody chipping in for a giant box of Top Ramen from Costco…all of that stuff now seems hilarious, but at the time it was a big struggle,” Harmer says.
Harmer worked for AS Productions when he met Gibbard, who was then a member of a local powerpop band called Pinwheel. Gibbard recorded “You Can Play These Songs with Chords” as a solo project when he was still an engineering student at Western. The eight-song cassette created a local buzz and Gibbard decided to form a band to play the songs live. Harmer joined on bass, Nathan Good joined on drums and Chris Walla, who helped record Gibbard’s solo music, joined on lead guitar.
KUGS provided a headquarters for the band during their infancy. Harmer was a DJ at the radio station and later became the program director.
“We would all go hang out and play music,” Harmer says. “It became this kind of hub for music dorks at Western.”
In 1998, the band released “Something About Airplanes,” which featured five re-recorded songs from “You Can Play These Songs with Chords.” The band continued to gather a local following with “We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes” in 2000 and “The Photo Album” in 2001.
With the release of “Transatlanticism” in 2003, Death Cab’s music started appearing on MTV and the teen drama series “The O.C.” As often happens, the mainstream attention brought criticism from the indie crowd.
“We haven’t sold out,” Harmer says. “We’re still making the same music that we’ve made. Yeah, it’s on a bigger scale and we’re involved with a major label but right now…you can’t really get away from the corporate influence in music. I think what’s ultimately important is just artistic integrity. I feel really proud of the career we’ve had. We’ve been able to fight pretty hard to keep our own little corner of the world clear and protected…I’m proud of the fact that we are fundamentally still the same band we were when we recorded our first album in a living room on Ellis Street.”
The last time Death Cab played in Bellingham was January 2004. “Transatlanticism” had just hit stores a few months before and the band had yet to sign with Atlantic Records. Today, the members of Death Cab are the subjects of local legends. The doors to the balcony on the west side of the VU MPR are rumored to have been indefinitely locked because of the band’s antics.
Harmer denies that any member of the band drank, smoked pot or peed over the edge of the balcony. However, he does recall a member of Portland band Sweaty Nipples throwing chocolate at students from the same balcony during Harmer’s time with AS Productions.
Harmer says the band plans to spend the time between shows visiting old haunts like The Little Cheerful downtown. Brendan Canty, a friend of the band and drummer for punk rock legends Fugazi, is filming both of the band’s performances and accompanying them around town on the second day.
“We all don’t live in Bellingham anymore, but that’s where all of this sort of started,” Harmer says. “All of those seeds were planted in Bellingham, so it is a nice homecoming of sorts. I’ve got a lot of friends that still live up there. I’m actually really excited to be back in town.”