Death Cab for Cutie believes in Magik

Orchestra’s string players bring exciting touch to indie band’s tour

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One of the first projects Death Cab For Cutie undertook after finishing its current CD, “Codes and Keys,” was to film a “VH1 Storytellers” episode.

To make things extra special, the band invited members of the San Francisco-based Magik*Magik Orchestra to play strings on some songs -- a natural decision, considering the band had used string players from the orchestra on “Codes and Keys.”

“It was just so much fun,” drummer Jason McGerr said of doing the VH1 special with Magik*Magik.

From that point on, McGerr said, the band began toying with the idea of playing again with the Magik*Magik Orchestra, thinking at first it might make sense to do a handful of shows in a few key markets, such as San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles and Boston. Then a few months ago, that modest idea expanded.

“We had the idea to …bring them on the road and do the thing we do every night, but have (string) arrangements not just for ‘Codes and Keys’ songs, but songs from the back catalog that have or don’t have string parts,” McGerr said. “So we got excited, got behind the idea, pitched it to them, and they loved it.”

By the time the details were worked out, the original thought of a few shows had mushroomed into a full five-week tour, and McGerr is sure these shows will be unlike any played before by Death Cab For Cutie -- which also includes singer/guitarist Ben Gibbard, guitarist/keyboardist Chris Walla and bassist Nick Harmer.

“We’re bringing eight string players on the road,” he said. “And there will be moments when they’re very much featured and playing by themselves. And there will be some times when we strip things down, and it’s just going to be the four of us in the band. But for the most part, it’s going to be one big group, like a new band every night onstage for this whole tour.”

This spring run figures to be the last full U.S. tour behind “Codes and Keys,” and it seems like an excellent way to cap off the American portion of the touring cycle behind a CD that was more enjoyable to make than the two CDs that preceded it.

As Harmer noted in a separate phone interview, the 2005 CD, “Plans,” was Death Cab’s first CD under a new deal with major label Atlantic Records. It followed the band’s fourth CD, the independently released 2003 album, “Transatlanticism,” which was widely hailed as a creative breakthrough for the band, which formed in 1997 in Bellingham.

The move to a major label concerned the band members far more than they let on at the time.

“There was always so much pressure,” Harmer said. “With ‘Plans,’ there was the, ‘Oh, you’re on a major label. What’s it mean, and are people even going to like our band now that we switched to a major label?’”

Then came “Narrow Stairs,” a CD that was a little too much self-loathing lyrically for the band’s tastes.

“With ‘Narrow Stairs,’ there was just so much darkness in all of our personal lives at that moment in our lives,” Harmer said. “Really we brought in a lot of that extra baggage that was happening outside and carried that around through the tour cycle and everything.”

By the time “Codes and Keys” rolled around, the band members were in better places in their personal lives, and this was reflected in Gibbard’s more upbeat lyrics and the adventurous nature of the recording sessions.

The process for recording “Codes and Keys,” though, was almost the polar opposite to the one used on “Narrow Stairs.”

For the 2008 CD, the band recorded live in the studio to analog tape, often using single performances of the songs and adding minimal overdubs to complete the tracks.

“Codes and Keys,” by contrast, was recorded into computer, and finished takes were assembled from a variety of performances and overdubbed parts. The approach made sense in light of the kinds of songs that were written for “Codes and Keys.”

“Knowing how the demos were coming together, and kind of knowing where we were at as individuals and what we wanted to bring to this album, early on we made a decision that it would be better for us to approach this as parts and pieces and assemble this very much like Lego projects,” Harmer said.

The digital recording also worked out well when Death Cab For Cutie decided to allow several artists to do remixes of songs from the latest CD, which were released as the EP “Keys And Codes.” The band pretty much gave the remix artists, which included Cut Copy, Yeasayer, Dillon Francis and Ulrich Schnauss, cart blanche to remake songs from “Codes and Keys.”

“Just letting the reins go produced, I think, some really great results,” McGerr said. “I love that everybody’s take on our songs is something entirely different than any of us would have ever imagined or recorded. And that, to me, is what a remix album should be.”