How'd a tiny little indie-rock band with a strange and stupid name become a massive success? The same way R.E.M. did: write good hooks and nobody cares what your name is.
"Actually, I always thought that our band name helped us," says Death Cab for Cutie bassist Nick Harmer. "Once you hear our name you don't forget it. You never say, "Hmmm, have I heard of them before?'"
To paraphrase the Bard, names don't mean shit. If they did, we'd have never heard (or heard of) Toad the Wet Sprocket, Sixpence None the Richer and Stone Temple Pilots, which actually would have been nice. Death Cab could be named Sonic Bugger and still have a million fans because leader Ben Gibbard knows how to write nifty pop music.
But just because Gibbard doomed his band to stardom through his radio-friendly hits, it doesn't diminish the astonishment that both the band and its fans feel about the gold records and sell-out tours.
"I don't think you're born to be famous, so it's a trial-by-fire thing for every band," says Harmer. "And it comes in extremes. It has its difficult moments when you read a mean-spirited review of a show or a song. Then it can go the other way when you get an e-mail about how great you are. But both of those feelings you need to keep in check."
Over the past year, Death Cab has dealt with lots of new highs and lows. As the band becomes America's Coldplay, many old fans and formerly-adoring critics are jumping ship and swimming towards lesser-known, still-underground cuties. Meanwhile, mainstream critics are raving and hundreds of new fans are converted daily.
And things are likely to get better and worse. Last year the band signed to major label Atlantic after a decade on Seattle indie, Barsuk Records. The change has been massive. Death Cab hasn't changed its pretty, whiney pop sound, but it now has an army of PR, A&R and marketing people selling this sound.
"I've yet to grasp or understand the level of perks that come with being on a major label," says Harmer. "I guess the main difference is the amount of people that are working on your behalf around the world. Coming from Barsuk where there were six employees and we knew every one of them, now there're probably a hundred people that we've met that are working on our behalf. We discovered we have people like Australian press liaisons. It's pretty mind boggling to think about."
But Harmer says the day-to-day stuff remains the same-just four guys hanging out and playing tunes. He's occasionally recognized in airports but he's not being asked to negotiate African debt relief. Of course, that's entirely possible in the future.
Maybe they'll fizzle out at Wilco level; maybe they'll be using platinum records as coasters. Harmer says he and his bandmates try not to think about where all of this is going. Instead they try to keep help each other present-focused.
"I don't feel like we're the type of band, that we make the type of music that would put us on a stadium U2 level. But who knows?" he wonders. "You don't get to decide how big of a band you become. You can decide how small of a band you want to be by quitting. But you don't ever get to decide on the growth trajectory."