Not long after Death Cab For Cutie transformed from Ben Gibbard's solo project into a full-time band, the Seattle indie rockers got a hand up from fellow Seattelite and friend Sean Nelson of Harvey Danger.
Nelson, whose band was one of the city's major exports in the mid to late '90s, helped Death Cab get a gig at the Crocodile Cafe, which was a big deal for the fledgling act.
"It's strange because my girlfriend now is the publicity and booking person at the Crocodile Cafe," Gibbard told Pollstar. "It's weird how things change."
Not long after, Harvey Danger invited Death Cab to join them on a tour of the West Coast.
"They took us out for what must have been, like, a six-date tour - what we thought was a really big deal," Death Cab's singer/guitarist/songwriter said.
That was the band's first taste of the big time but the next tour, which was booked by now-manager Jordan Kurland, was a near disaster, Gibbard said.
"It was just the worst. It was the tour that everybody's first tour should have been. Like, a really bad one - there's no money, the shows are shit, you find out that you're playing a coffee shop to nobody and they still want you to turn down."
Luckily for the band members, everything has been uphill since, with a few years making all the difference. The band no longer has to play to nobody (it can now sell out, say, multiple nights at Chicago's Metro) and it's a good bet that no one makes the musicians turn down their amps.
Still, Gibbard & Co. (Chris Walla, Nick Harmer and Michael Schorr), keep level heads about their prospects.
"We realized that the first tour was a lie and, since then, we've sort of set our compass correctly and we're not expecting anything going into tours. And we're pleasantly surprised when 15 people show up."
That, of course, is an understatement. The band has solid numbers in nearly every market it plays, though, as with most indie bands, the metropolitan cities bring in far more fans than smaller suburban markets.
"I think touring and being in an independent band in the States, or at least not being Evanescence, we've definitely seen it, playing from 1,500 people to playing to 250 the next day, an hour and a half away," Gibbard said. "That happens a lot when you want to play everywhere."
The last couple of years, in particular, have seen the band's audience grow exponentially on the strength of its past two albums, 2001's We Have The Facts And We're Voting Yes and last year's critically loved Transatlanticism, as well as its frequent touring.
Death Cab For Cutie
April 5, 2004
Knowing full well that tours can often put a band in the red, Death Cab made a practice early on of saving money before an outing so it wouldn't have to spend every penny it made from the shows. That strategy paid off in 2000 during a national tour.
"We actually made money on that tour - not a lot by standards now, but we made money. We each walked away with like $2,000 after a six-week tour. It was fucking great. That was more money than any of us were making at our jobs. And this was after a tour where we came home with $150.
"Every tour seemed to be better than the last one. It's the way you want touring to work. You go out and the five people who are there tell five people and they tell five people and that's the way it's supposed to work."
As word began to spread and Death Cab's audiences grew, it became apparent that the band members would have to delegate management duties (which went to Kurland) and booking.
Just before its 2001 album was to drop, Gibbard said, the band was courted by, "without naming any names of course, this larger indie booking and management agency out of Chicago."
He said the band waited months for an answer, "but the record was coming out in March and we needed to be on a fucking tour. And it wasn't until the middle of January or early February that they finally got back to us saying they weren't interested.
"We were like, 'What the fuck? Who's going to book our tour?'"
The answer was Aero Booking's Trey Many, who had played with Gibbard's cousin in Velour 100 and also toured on drums with Pedro The Lion. Many booked the tour while on the road with Pedro The Lion and "called in a lot of favors. A lot of favors.
"And that was a tour where we actually made some money," Gibbard said. "The routing was shit ... but the tour was great. Ever since then, he's been our agent."
Currently the band is on a co-headline tour with oddball star Ben Kweller, playing multiple gigs in several cities including New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Dallas, San Francisco and, of course, Seattle. Death Cab has received a lot of interest from major touring U.S. and European festivals for the summer, Many said, and another headlining tour or co-bill is likely for the fall.
"The main thing is that they're excited to work for this record," the agent said. "They're a band that would prefer to play than have a day off. A lot of their tours will have average six shows or more a week. They're happy to do eight or nine in a row. I've booked tours for them where there are no days off except for one or two drive days."
Many said that the current tour is only the second on a tour bus for the band, "even thought they probably could have afforded that before.
"They're a really frugal, organized bunch of guys. ... They're the kind of band who likes to come home and pay themselves and their crew, rather than coming home and being in the hole on a tour. They're just a good that works really hard." cover photo: Tom Seyss / flashlightimages.com