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Death Becomes Them

Death Cab for Cutie returns to Bellingham to rock the Mount Baker Theatre

Story by Zoe Fraley

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| Photo by Mark Malijan
| Photo by Mark Malijan
| Photo by Mark Malijan

Sidebar: Know your Death Cab

Know your Death Cab

Sidebar: Songs you must listen to

Songs you must listen to

A lot has changed for Death Cab for Cutie since its members met at Western Washington University more than 10 years ago: They’ve traded Red Square for international tours, Grammy nominations and legions of screaming fans.

But Death Cab never forgot its Western roots. One of the band’s two April sold-out shows at the Mount Baker Theatre was reserved for WWU students.

And judging by the crowd that screamed itself hoarse that night, students haven’t forgotten Death Cab for Cutie, either.

“Why has it been, like, five years since we’ve played here? What’s wrong with us?” lead singer and guitarist Ben Gibbard (’98) asked the crowd. “It feels good to be back in this town.”

Bassist Nick Harmer (’98) credits the sleepy peacefulness of Bellingham for part of the band’s success.

“We had the time and space to explore music and do it in a way that there weren’t a lot of eyes and pressure on us,” Harmer says. “We were really content making music in a small city.”

Western’s student programs helped bring together the guys who would eventually make the world swoon with their music.

“I was really, really involved with campus stuff,” he says. “When I first arrived on campus, right away I walked into Associated Students Productions and started volunteering.”

Harmer booked shows for Western, working for the same program that would just a few years later bring his own band back to town.

“My memories and experiences at Western are almost too many to mention,” he says. “Western was a really fantastic place for us to form as a band.”

It was through booking that Harmer met Gibbard, who was then in a band called Pinwheel, and the two became friends and roommates. Through school, they came together with guitarist and instrumentalist Chris Walla (’97) as well as their former drummer, Nathan Good (’99), whose spot is now filled capably by Jason McGerr.

During the band’s April 22 show, Gibbard reminisced about the day they sat on their porch on Gladstone and tried to figure out if they should cut 500 or 1,000 copies of their album, “Something About Airplanes.” A thousand seemed like so many. But nervously, they did it. “Airplanes” went on to be a break-out hit, catching the attention of many more than 1,000 people. By 2009, the album had been played nearly 3 million times on the global online music service Web site Last.fm.

With the 2005 album, “Plans,” the band measured sales in the millions as they hit platinum. They received a Grammy nomination for Best Alternative Music Album and put out the chart-topping single, “Soul Meets Body.”

It was official. The band was big, and with their latest critically acclaimed album, “Narrow Stairs,” they’re poised to get even bigger.

But whether they were performing on “Saturday Night Live” or playing a show in Japan, the band never forgot the campus where they got their start.

“In the middle of it all, I still feel like we’re four guys trying to pay the rent. I can still see us as four college students,” says Harmer, who majored in English.

“There are moments when I can feel the amount of travel and time and wisdom after the last 10 years,” he says. “Then I feel like I’ve just been on this extended vacation and I’ve fallen behind in my classes.”

Harmer says they were thrilled to perform at Mount Baker Theatre, a venue they’d never played but had always been fond of.

“It seemed really great to do,” Harmer says. “To extend that to the students, it was a no-brainer.”

The return to Bellingham was a homecoming of sorts for the band members, a chance to get their feet on solid, familiar ground. Harmer was excited to see his old haunts, meet up with old advisers and teachers who helped him at Western and visit old roommates and friends.

“There’s really a sense of tranquility up in Bellingham. It’s a nice place for a lot of introspection,” he says. “It does have this real foundational feeling of bedrock. When I do go back, it provides a really good sense of how I’ve changed. I can stand in Red Square and think about how time has passed and where I’ve changed and where I’ve stayed the same.”

Appropriately enough, the band ended both shows with a crescendoing, heartfelt performance of “Transatlanticism,” a song about the birth of an ocean that separates two people. As in the song, the world will likely swallow up the band once more as they hit the road for more shows, and likely more acclaim.

But for those two days in April, the band that calls Bellingham home was just a few steps away from Red Square once more, and it was lovely.

Zoe Fraley is a reporter for The Bellingham Herald. If forced to pick a favorite Death Cab song, it would have to be “Transatlanticism.”