A main story line about Death Cab For Cutie's current album, "Kintsugi," has revolved around how guitarist Chris Walla decided to relinquish his longtime role of producer for the project. He also decided to leave the group after the recording of the album was complete.
Working with new producer Rich Costey on "Kintsugi" did create a different dynamic in the studio than had existed on other Death Cab For Cutie albums, but it was another person from outside the band who influenced a key facet of the new album as well, according to Ben Gibbard, frontman and songwriter of the band. Death Cab plays a show on Sept. 28 at Grand Sierra Resort.
Gibbard said that a long time friend, singer/songwriter Jenny Lewis, helped him confront personal topics in a notably different way on "Kintsugi." This came at a time when Gibbard was also well known as the husband of actress and singer Zooey Deschanel.
"At the time when I was living in Los Angeles, I was living a life behind gates," Gibbard said in an early April phone interview. "I mean, literally and figuratively. Like kind of the outside world was to be feared and there were crazy people out there and they wanted pieces of you. So I feel like looking back on that time in writing that album ("Codes and Keys"), I veiled a lot of things in that album. Some of (the lyrics) were not to the liking of long-time fans, because that's not the type of writing I'm particularly known for."
Gibbard, over the past five years or so, had been through several life-changing events. He had overcome an addiction to drinking and drugs. He had gone through a divorce from Deschanel, and he had moved from Los Angeles back to his previous hometown of Seattle. Yet, if Gibbard wanted to open up lyrically on "Kintsugi," he needed a push in that direction. That's where Lewis came in.
"With this album . . . I found myself struggling with how I was going to approach writing about a lot of these things," he said. "And spending time with Jenny Lewis, who is a long-time friend of mine, she said to me; No, you don't change how you write. You don't change your work because you're fearful of somebody mocking it or reading too far in between the lines. You have to do your work your way. "That really had a huge impact on me."
Gibbard appears to have landed in a good place after his period of change, saying that he looks back on his time in L.A. as a "very strange chapter in my life, but an important chapter. I think I needed to leave the Northwest and have this series of very unusual kind of experiences to realize how important my home and my true friends in the Northwest were."
It's clear, though, that parting with Walla was also a big deal for Gibbard, as well as for his Death Cab For Cutie bandmates, bassist Nick Harmer and drummer Jason McGerr. An original band member, Walla shared writing credits with Gibbard on many Death Cab For Cutie songs and became the band's producer on its 1998 debut album, "Something About Airplanes." Walla went on to produce all of the band's releases before "Kintsugi."
Walla actually started out producing the new album as well, but decided early on in the project to step aside and let the band work with an outside producer. On previous albums, the fact that Walla would have to play the songs live meant that Gibbard had to be sensitive to Walla's opinions of the songs and visa versa. An outside producer could be honest and blunt with his opinions, which Gibbard said he found helpful.
"I'm not going to sit here and kind of revise our history and say that we could have made better records if Chris hadn't been producing them," Gibbard said. "I don't think that at all. But I do think in working with Rich, I think that we could have benefited along the way by having somebody else in the studio with us that had a different perspective, for the betterment of everybody, for the betterment of the album and the songwriting. I think Rich Costey was able to tell me some things about the songs that Chris wouldn't have been able to tell me about them. I think his ability to kind of be really straight-forward and coarse at times is not possible coming from Chris, given our relationship."
Even with Costey's input, "Kintsugi" sounds very much like a Death Cab For Cutie album. In fact, it's gaining early comparisons to a pair of albums — 2003's "Transatlanticism" and 2005's "Plans"— that are considered definitive albums by the group.
Like those albums, "Kintsugi" is spare in its sound, as Cotsey leaves space for each instrument to occupy its own place in the mix. The album leans decidedly toward mid-tempo material — a setting that has long been a strength of Death Cab For Cutie. Songs like "Black Sun," "You Have Haunted Me All My Life" and "No Room In Frame" are good examples, with their deliberate beats and stark lead guitar lines giving Gibbard plenty of room to unfurl his vocal melodies.
Although Death Cab For Cutie is officially a trio, two additional musicians are in the fold for touring, guitarist/keyboardist Dave Depper and keyboardist/guitarist Zac Rae. While praising Walla's skills as a guitarist, Gibbard said he likes how the new Death Cab sounds live.
"I feel like Dave is doing a wonderful job of playing Chris' part, down to like the tones he's choosing. I also feel like he's bringing his own flair to it as well," Gibbard said. "And having Zac as a backup guitar player and also keyboardist, I really feel that this version of the live band is the best we've ever sounded.
Gibbard added that a fifth person also picking up missing elements from the album versions has been helpful, as well as having some new perspective on their longtime favorites.
"I think that playing the same music with the same people for so long, you take some of it for granted a bit and lose a little bit of focus and you don't listen as much as you should be listening," Gibbard said. "Re-learning all of these songs with new people, you're kind of forced to pay a little more attention, which I think is good for all of us."