When you think of "political" artists, folk troubadours like Steve Earle or sloganeering punk rockers like Anti-Flag most often come to mind. Indie-rock icons Death Cab for Cutie don't fit either of those molds, but over the past decade the group has become increasingly politically active. Death Cab toured alongside Pearl Jam and Tim Robbins on 2004's Vote for Change tour. More recently, frontman Ben Gibbard and guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Chris Walla performed at the Democratic National Convention, and the group is currently participating in the Ultimate College Bowl, a contest that rewards the university registering the most voters with a free Death Cab concert.
Back in 2004, Gibbard says he felt "the world was going to end" when George W. Bush was re-elected. Today he's cautiously optimistic as he continues mixing music performances with political rallies. "I don't want to start getting this cocky attitude about how Barack Obama is a lock," he says, "but even people who voted for Bush four years ago are starting to realize what a horrible job that administration did for our country."
This election, Walla spent his time at the convention meeting with senators and lobbyists and tirelessly reporting from Denver for RollingStone.com. In Colorado, the band's apocalyptic feelings subsided substantially. "There was definitely a palpable spirit of optimism," Gibbard says.
No matter his political beliefs, though, Gibbard doesn't want Death Cab's involvement in Democratic efforts to overshadow the music. He'll speak out about the election in interviews, but he doesn't feel comfortable asserting those same strong feelings in his songwriting. "I feel like one needs to have a history of writing a particular kind of song," he says. "I'm best at analyzing and writing about human relations. Even if I were to write a great political song, I don't think it would necessarily sit very well within [Death Cab's] collection at this point."
Political issues aren't the only causes embraced by the band. Death Cab will perform on the Saturday date of the upcoming Bridge School Benefit organized by Neil and Pegi Young. Now in its 22nd year, the weekend festival is a fund-raiser for the Hillsborough school for special-needs children. The event has also become a mixer for some of the biggest names in the music business. This year boasts headliners Wilco, Cat Power, and Jack Johnson, among others. Death Cab performed at the 2006 concert, when Gibbard had the opportunity to rub shoulders with a couple of his idols. "By the second day I was saying hi to Brian Wilson," he says, "and I somehow had the balls to ask Neil Young onstage to play a Graham Nash cover."
So many social causes could use a musician's support that even a minimal commitment to activism eats into a band's downtime. But Gibbard doesn't seem to mind. "You can always do more," he says, "but at least we're doing something." He adds that although Death Cab isn't leading by example "by any stretch of the imagination," being a spokesman for change has its rewards: "In finding something we can do that directly relates to our line of work, I'll feel good regardless of the outcome."