But the Death Cab drummer certainly has a case in this regard. Once a genre that was largely underground and commercially marginalized, indie rock has become in an increasingly prevalent presence in mainstream popular culture. “It’s what got licensed in movies and television and commercials. The jingles you’re hearing for car commercials are indie rock songs, so to me it is the new pop, the new popular music,” says McGerr.
Add to this practice of commercial co-opting the fact that Death Cab just notched their first no. 1 album with the recently released Narrow Stairs, and it would seem that indie rock, in the traditional sense of the word, has now been fully embraced by the arms of the masses. Admittedly, when this subject is broached, I expect a particular kind of reaction from McGerr – one that voices his displeasure with his band’s music being proliferated past hipster music halls into the arms of soccer moms and their suburban children. His actual take on the situation, however, is quite the opposite.
“Our demographic is really, really broad, and I’m very thankful for that. There are very intelligent lyrics, which a lot of adults can relate to. The music is a little intense and crazy at times, which a lot of youth can relate to, and then just the subject material, you know, questioning relationships, of course that’s a youth topic,” McGerr responds.
After I tell him that my mother enjoys his band’s music almost as much as I do, he laughs affably. “We totally go for the moms!” McGerr says. “I think it’s a testament to the fact that hopefully we’re playing good music in general.”
Much has been made of the potential challenge Narrow Stairs might present to the broad demographic McGerr refers to. Critics have pointed to this latest album as being darker and more complex than the band’s previous records. The first single, “I Will Possess Your Heart,” a gorgeously unsettling, nine-minute-long track that focuses on the obsession of unrequited love, has been cited as a prime example of the disconnect between Narrow Stairs and the band’s first major-label release, Plans which was recently certified platinum.
But McGerr emphatically dismisses the notion that the band has discarded its past influences in favor of a completely new sound. “People are talking about [Narrow Stairs] as challenging, but I don’t think it’s that challenging. If you really listen to where we were coming from in the past from record one – you know, anyone who buys this record who only has Plans might be challenged. Especially if you’re coming from ‘I Will Follow You Into the Dark’ as the only song you ever listened to from the last record and you went out and bought this record and you heard the very first track, you might be a little bit challenged or upset. But if you’re really digging back through the catalogue, this should all make sense.”
McGerr goes on to poke a little fun at the somewhat pretentious idea that any band can completely change their identity for the sake of one record. “Whenever I read articles or interviews with bands, they’re always like, ‘Man, we totally went off the rails with this one. We isolated ourselves for 18 months and did something we never thought we could do, and it’s crazy, and I don’t know how people are going to like it, and it’s going to be galvanizing, and people are going to be having debates. And I go and listen to that record, and I’m like, ‘You know, it sounds like your band, guys.’”
As for McGerr and his bandmates, they still pride themselves in making their music in a particular way, one that emphasizes a production that is, in McGerr’s words, “organic in its approach and nature.”
“I think there’s an approach when it comes to recording music where if you’re in L.A. with a big slick producer and you’re recording a picture perfect, glassy, wet, big, heavy-duty record, it’s a different thing,” he explains.
He is kind enough not to cite any examples at this juncture, but his description certainly brings to mind a bevy of ultra-glossy smashes from attractive young singers and faux-brooding, eyeliner-caked boy bands, who seemingly crank out a new radio-ready single at every change of the tide.
Such is not the case with Death Cab, notes McGerr. “You can hear our looseness. You can hear the fact that we’re just in a room. You can hear the squeak of our bass pedal. You can hear people getting the switches on their guitars right before and after the song starts. All of those little imperfections make for that sort of homegrown sound.”
But for all discussions people on the outside looking in may have of genre and growth, of production and paydays, it is clear that Death Cab’s central musical aim remains the same as it was from long before they unwittingly found themselves at the apex of commercial viability. “People like Death Cab because Death Cab is really good at saying the things that most people are afraid to say,” says McGerr.
And that crucial element of their repertoire isn’t one that is likely to change any time soon.
By Erin Gaetz