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Formative, Chapter 1: Death Cab For Cutie

This is the first chapter of my new Formative series, in which I recount in long form how certain artists or bands have had significant impact on my life, from a variety of vantage points: musically, personally, and through my career. In Chapter 1, I look at Death Cab for Cutie.

We Have the Facts And We’re Voting Yes

I believe it was either the summer of 1999 or 2000. I can’t remember exactly, but I’m pretty sure it was the former…right after I graduated high school in Vancouver, Washington. I spent the summer nights working at the Post Office just across the river in Portland, and the days hanging out with high school buddies and causing mischief.

Not really.

Vancouver was a boring town back then.

Causing mischief; those words are misleading, as I’ve never been much of a troublemaker. Misleading like the cover of Death Cab’s Sub Pop Singles Club 7″ from 2000: nope, it’s not a death metal album.

Death Cab For Cutie Sub Pop Singles Club Instagram by @fense

We would bum around Pat’s house, listening to music and doing who knows what. Erin was typically present, as was Shannon, who lived down the street. We four were fairly inseparable that summer. Over the years, we would grow apart.

Shannon and Erin went to the University of Washington in Seattle while I traipsed off to rival school Washington State University out in the Palouse wheat fields in Eastern Washington. Pat went his own way as well; he ended up at my second choice, Western Washington University in Bellingham, up near the Canadian border.

Over the years we would see less and less of each other. I haven’t seen Shannon in probably 12 to 15 years. It’s been at least 5 since I last saw Pat. My wife and I swung by Erin’s house in Vancouver a few years ago on vacation, but we only talk on the phone about once a year.

I’m bad at keeping in touch. It’s the recluse in me. That, and life gets in the way.

Death Cab said it well in “Steadier Footing”, the opening track to 2001’s The Photo Album:

But we just talk about the people we’ve met in the last 5 years.
And will remember them in ten more?

That summer was a hot one. I recall hanging out in Pat’s room, listening to Counting Crows–that was the default with Pat, and my guess is not much has changed in the 18 years since.

He had dozens of albums by the band. There were the studio releases–all of them, of course–and then there were the bootlegs he somehow got his hands on. These bootlegs spanned from traditional collections of songs recorded at live performances from around the globe to entire concerts split onto two or three CD-Rs.

He was the one that initially introduced me to Death Cab For Cutie.

If my memory serves me correct, Pat had been introduced to them on a recent visit to the college, or by a friend who was currently attending WWU. “You have to check out this band,” he told me. “They’re from Bellingham.”

Now, I don’t know when Death Cab left Bellingham, but frontman Ben Gibbard has about 4 years on me which means their exodus was likely between 1998 and 2000.

Pat pulled out their latest CD, Something About Airplanes, and put it into the CD player. Little would I know, this would technically be my first love in indie music.

These were the days before the band would land a major label deal and release Plans. Prior to the wide success of The Postal Service, Gibbard’s electro-pop side project with Jimmy Tamborello. Prior to Ben Gibbard being, at least to some extent, more of a household name in even independent music.

I do not recall if it was at that introductory Something About Airplanes moment that I fell in love with the band, or if that came later. While my introduction was Something About Airplanes, I that didn’t album strike me as much as their follow up in 2000: We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes.

A favorite from that album has always been “405”, named after the highway that branches off Interstate 5 to bypass Seattle. It is a core route from towns along I5 south of Seattle on the way north to Bellingham.

The obsession, the love, likely come later, after getting my first computer, a Dell Optiplex GX110. The thing had one of those larger monitors that sat atop the computer, which wasn’t so much a tower, but a horizontal box. It was unique and cool compared to the computers other college kids had at the time, as least that’s what I thought.

That computer and I became fast friends in early 2000. From the influence of Pat, I would download live concerts of bands off Napster, many of whom I was at the time unfamiliar with and others that were slightly more well known. Artists like Modest Mouse, Built to Spill, and a variety of Seattle based independents from the 90s.

Those concerts, long ago burned to CD-R, have left my collection in some waste bin or another over the years. Though gone, the impact of these artists have remained. Most of those bands have found their way back into my collection, almost always in physical form. See, there are instances where Napster helped the artist.

Napster fueled my desire to discover new music. And that, in one way or another, led to my joining KZUU, starting FensePost, and landing my current weekly radio show on KSVR, KSVU and KSJU.

In turn, FensePost has had significant impact on my career. I credit FensePost, which I started in 2006, to my first two post-graduate jobs at award winning lifestyle marketing and branding agencies.

FensePost also led me to the Capitol Hill Block Party in 2007, where I met my wife (also named Andi…more on that in another Formative chapter). In a way, you can say all of this began with Death Cab For Cutie.

Yes: those, folks, are the facts.

The Photo Album

I’m gonna just go ahead and lay it all out. Early 20-somethings are immature as all hell, one step up from teens.

For many, at least many that I’ve met, that world-revolves-around-me mentality hasn’t yet slipped away. I was no different.

Death Cab For Cutie Photo Album Instagram by @fense

But it was me in my early 20s that first began to pick up vinyl. An original pressing of The Photo Album on Barsuk Records, along with Built to Spill’s 1998 LP Keep It Like A Secret, were among my first true new vinyl purchases.

Wikipedia notes that may of Death Cab’s early songs reference times and places from the band’s life in Bellingham. You can hear it here on “Movie Script Ending”…

Whenever I come back,
The air on Railroad is making the same sounds,
And the shop fronts on Holly
Are dirty words (asterisks in for the vowels)

The intersection of Railroad and Holly is a known location in the heart of Bellingham. I know it well, living about half an hour south of the town in a city called Mount Vernon. My wife and I visit frequently.

There’s some good eats around there. Fiamma Burger is a favorite and about two blocks up the street is our go-to restaurant, the now defunct Rudy’s Pizza. We often swing by Clark’s Seed & Feed to look at the fish. And there’s Avalon Records (which burned down a number of years ago) and Everyday Music on the Railroad intersection one street over from Holly.

I’ve always thought The Photo Album wasn’t a very happy album. There’s a depressing air to it that cannot be dismissed, from the earliest notes of “Steadier Footing”. But it’s also calming and reassuring; “Information Travels Faster” is among my favorites from the release, and it refrains, for the most part from that sadder tone:

Each song paints a vivid picture, a glimpse in a moment of a life. You can frame it. I guess that’s why they called the release The Photo Album.

It is, in a way, similar to what I’m doing with Formative.


Ben Gibbard would have been 10 in 1986, or too young to date someone. So it’s not about love. But what is “Expo 86” off Death Cab For Cutie’s 2003 LP Transatlanticism about? In part, that’s what makes a song like this both confusing and exciting.

Like most songs, the listener is left to conjure up their own meaning despite the vivid imagery the lyrics present.

Sometimes I think this cycle never ends
We slide from top to bottom and we turn and climb again
And it seems by the time that I have figured what it’s worth
The squeaking of our skin against the steel has gotten worse
But if I move my place in line I’ll lose
And I have waited, the anticipation’s got me glued

Initially, this says roller coaster to me. But that’s not the memory that sticks.

See, I remember Expo 86. Rather, I remember a specific snapshot from it.

The World’s Fair came to Vancouver, British Columbia that year and my family hopped in our white 1982 Chevy Malibu Wagon and took I5 north for 8 hours.

I do not remember the drive. I do not remember where we stayed. I do not remember what all we did or saw.

I do remember the cars.

My memory tells me they were concrete, though I do not believe that’s true. In one memory, I recall them being extremely realistic and lifelike, silver in color. In another, I remember them only somewhat resembling an actual automobile, hard and rough as concrete. In truth, I’m pretty sure they were the real thing, just painted silver.

(A quick search tells me my speculation is more likely the case. It was called Highway 86 and it was an audio-visual conceptual piece by choreographer Jean Pierre Perreault, composer David MacIntyre and architect James Wines. You can watch it below…)

I remember it being hot, and there was water. I dipped my feet in it, splashing around, and sat in a realistic 1960s convertible mustang.

These memories surface when I hear “Expo 86” along with the realization that those times are gone. Both myself and my parents are now more than 30 years older. Their brown and black hair has turned gray, quirks and imperfections now vivid and stark compared to the adulation and deification from a boy of six.

There’s a sadness to that realization; a sadness and to a certain extent a longing to go back.

I’m thinking I should take that volume back up off the shelf
And crack it’s weary spine and read to help remind myself

Amidst it all, memories like these also help snap me back into real time. A reminder to live in the present and not take it all for granted. Enough with looking too far into the future, or too far into the past.

Six-year-olds, ten-year-olds, even 36-year-olds take way too much for granted.


I remember the day vividly. It was the first day of the year, 2014. Just like the opening track off Death Cab’s 2003 LP Transatlanticism:

So this is the new year
And I don’t feel any different
The clanking of crystal
Explosions off in the distance

When I was in grad school, I was a DJ at WSU’s indie station KZUU. It was a cool bunch of kids. I always felt a little out of place, being older and overly self-conscious. One of the bunch was a dude named Scott Johnston.

We were on a first name basis, but we were just acquaintances. I ran into him a few times at KZUU parties. We had beers, we exchanged a few friendly words. He dated a good friend of mine for a while.

On January 1, 2014 he was murdered by a pair of teens during a home invasion.

The following weekend, I spent the day wandering around Whistle Lake just outside Anacortes with a handful of friends after a very restless night that included some of the worst heartburn I have ever had in my life.

After only about two hours of sleep, tromping through the icy forested trails was a godsend. Honestly; it may not sound like it, but it was precisely what I needed.

Eating a post-walk breakfast in the late morning at one of Anacortes’ fine dining establishments, I recall looking at my phone and seeing a slew of alerts on Facebook by friends. News was spreading of Scott’s death. It’s a painful memory, one in which I recall feeling shock and horror at what happened.

About six months later, his longtime girlfriend Jody, who was present at their home when Scott’s life was taken, took her own.

I never met Jody, but I remember the sadness I felt when I heard the news. The next morning on my way to work, a song came on the radio: “I Will Follow You Into the Dark”…

That day I was teary-eyed on the way to work. I hit repeat more than a few times. I don’t cry often, but it was the perfect storm of emotion. There are times in life where a song comes on, and it’s the perfect song for the moment. This was one of those times.

Though I didn’t know you well, Scott, and I didn’t know you at all, Jody, I have no trouble saying the world misses you. I miss you and hope you’re doing well in whatever comes next.


I feel like Death Cab for Cutie is among the most prevalent bands that have lent me such experiences: moments in time that are vivid, that I can pinpoint to specific events in my life as noted above. They are, in themselves, a definitive and personal photo album that lives in my head.

And now they are here; a formative and somewhat autobiographic reference to how one band, Death Cab For Cutie has impacted my life from time to time.

While all of their albums have to some extent found their way into my collection or made an impact in some way, these are the ones that stuck out as most memorable. Sure, I may prefer Something About Airplanes over their major label debut Plans, but the latter was there for me when I needed that emotional breakdown.

And now, anytime I hear that song, I think of that moment. I think of driving down Kincaid here in Mount Vernon. I think about Scott’s quirky smile and that curly perm-like mop of hair. I think of a photo I saw of him and Jody, and how they looked so happy, captured in that moment.

So we conclude with Death Cab For Cutie’s most recent release, 2015’s Kintsugi, in which Gibbard sings the following in “Black Sun”:

How could something so fair
Be so cruel
When this black sun revolved
Around you!

It seems like the music of Death Cab continually surrounds moments of negativity. Of cherished memories of friends that have now taken different paths. Of youth now long in the past; innocence lost. Of the death of an acquaintance. Of sounds that strike sadness in my heart when I hear them, yet bring forth memories that I cherish and respect nonetheless.

It may be Karl Pilkington who said it best in An Idiot Abroad:

Happiness is like cake. Have too much, and you get sick of it.

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