Wednesday, August 13, 2014

When is a Band Not Itself Anymore?

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Bummer news today– Death Cab for Cutie's Chris Walla announced he'll be leaving the band after their current North American tour.

Walla is a founding member of the 17-year-old band, and has produced all their albums, with the exception of their 8th, untitled record which is slated for early 2015, according to Atlantic Records.

This got me thinking about what DCfC might be without him, and when a band is no longer itself anymore. On one hand, you can look at a case like the Shins, where frontman James Mercer essentially cut lose the original lineup in 2011 and still put out an album that sounded like the Shins.

Though, in instances of significant departures or personnel changes with limited impact, there seems to be one central figure who you realize is basically the band, whether it's James Mercer or John Fogerty.

Or, you wind up with a situation where the band is comprised of parts that function to maintain what was, more than will ever be– if you ever catch the Temptations, you'll be paying to see one original member and four other guys lacking in any cultural currency. You might have a good, time, but you're not really seeing The Temptations.

Death Cab's situation is tricky, though, because Walla shares the bulk of the creative weight with frontman Ben Gibbard. If you listen to Gibbard's solo album Former Lives, it's easy to see the aesthetic composition of the group– on his own, Gibbard is a great songwriter, but far folkier and far quirkier than that quintessential indie rock sound that made Death Cab one of the most important bands of the '00s.

None of this is to say that all hope is lost, as a friend pointed out on Facebook today, but it is undoubtedly a signal that Death Cab won't quite be Death Cab anymore. Whether they'll be better or worse off is about as pointless and counter-productive a speculation as talking about whether Gibbard is miserable enough to write a proper DCfC record.

Of course, in 17 years, who can say what a "proper" Death Cab record is? Just because Narrow Stairs didn't sound anything like the more stark indie rock of We Have the Facts and Are Voting Yes, didn't mean that anyone would reject it as part of their discography. Walla's not even the first member to split the band.

And yet– there's that pang of worry, the reluctance to say goodbye, the impulse to pour one out as if they flat out broke up.

The biggest fear, in my mind, especially for those of us who grew up with them, is to hear Death Cab without Walla, and run into the very sentiment Gibbard wrote about in "You are a Tourist," the sensation of being somewhere that should be familiar, and still feeling like you don't know it at all.

Bonus round: Here's that one time in 2008 when I was an uber spunky college journalist fresh from getting to conference call with Chris Walla. 

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