Why Death Cab for Cutie is the most Midwestern of emo bands—despite not being Midwestern

Photo by David Lee

Despite the insistence of eggheaded men who wear Chuck Taylors well into their fifties, the punk rock splinter genre known as “emo” is a wholly Midwestern affair. Strains of the genre centered around politics, extreme haircuts and veganism came and went on the coasts while the affable and understated emotional punk music made by average English lit majors with thrifted western shirts and scuffed-up Telecasters remains as relevant as ever.  No region is more proud of its averageness than the Midwest, and no modern emo band is more aggressively average than Death Cab for Cutie. And for that reason, we are proud to crown the band, which headlines the Midland on February 6, as Honorary Midwesterners.

Founded in 1997 in the very normal Washington state college town of Bellingham, Death Cab for Cutie quickly seeped into the burgeoning second-wave emo scene by releasing four LPs of introspective guitar pop in just five years’ time. Sensitive college students who cowered at the aggression of contemporaneous acts like Cursive, Thursday and At the Drive-In found solace in the group’s milquetoast anthems, and in frontman Ben Gibbard, they found a more relatable hero than the erratic manchildren that fronted most other bands of the era. The quartet cut their teeth a mere ninety miles north of the most important sub-cultural movement of the nineties, yet they had little interest in adopting the baggage of being a Pacific Northwestern band in the post-grunge era. Death Cab was placeless from the get-go, and in doing so, Gibbard became the poet laureate of people who considered themselves to be the most interesting people from the most uninteresting places.

Death Cab turned a corner on 2001’s The Photo Album. Bolstered by the sterling production of guitarist Chris Walla, highlights include the only moshable song in their catalog (“We Laugh Indoors”), a gentle “fuck you” to Los Angeles (“Why You’d Want to Live Here”), and the bittersweet slow-burner “Styrofoam Plates,” which paints a desperate picture of a single mother whose misfortune forces her family to consume a holiday meal in a way that many Midwesterns sincerely enjoy on their own volition. The touring cycle for the Photo Album era is when Death Cab showed a flash of something bigger to its loyal fanbase and critics alike, not unlike when a ho-hum neighborhood is transformed by a shiny new coffee shop that boasts a fancy espresso machine manned by indifferent staff with angular haircuts and unused liberal arts degrees. It wasn’t until 2003’s Transatlanticism, however, that the promise of Death Cab became real.

Like the same hypothetical city’s buzzy, cheffy bistro that attracts The New York Times and a flock of culture vultures following close behind, all of them threatening to anoint that third-tier metropolis as “the next big thing you’ve never heard of,” Transatlanticism was universally hyped by fans both old and new. Gibbard and Walla gave their wimpiness a wallop on the sprawling title track, and in no time at all, Death Cab was inescapable. The saccharine melodies of “Death of an Interior Decorator” blared in Hollisters across the country, “We Looked Like Giants” soundtracked a million make-out sessions in suburban culs-de-sac, and Seth Cohen—the proto-softboi fan favorite of the Fox teen soap The O.C.—adopted Death Cab for Cutie as his favorite band. Finally, the existence of flannel-clad introverts was validated, and Gibbard emerged as a Tyler Durden-esque hero for guys who consider Taco Bell and a tasty mixtape in their Honda Accord to be an excellent first date.

Their 2005 follow-up, Plans, was embraced by alt-rock radio, but longtime fans greeted its sticky-sweet themes and lack of grit with suspicion. 2008’s Narrow Stairs dialed back the pop sugar but remained on a middling path, and 2011’s Codes and Keys sealed the deal on Death Cab’s regression to the mean. Still, the group staved off the temptation to hitch their wagon to the same star that propelled Seattle acts like Fleet Foxes and The Heart and the Heart to modest fame in the early 2010’s. Gibbard’s brief marriage with actress Zooey Deschanel came to an end in 2012, Walla left the group a year later, yet Gibbard soldiered on. His band was the hot new thing for a fleeting moment, and then it wasn’t, and here they are twenty years later doing what they do best: churning out dependable Midwestern emo with a work ethic that’s unmatched by most modern emo bands that are actually from the Midwest.  

GO: Death Cab for Cutie plays the Midland on Monday, February 6. 8 pm. $40–$80.

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