"Rand McNally," the fourth song on "Asphalt Meadows," Death Cab for Cutie's excellent album from last year, is a nostalgic reflection on a relationship that happened in a time before we all became connected online. Singer-songwriter and Death Cab founder Ben Gibbard sings wistfully of payphones, living on whiskey and Twizzlers and of road trips guided by the titular atlas, describing it as "dog-eared and frayed/like Old Testament verses that don't make sense this decade ... ."
Gibbard formed Death Cab in 1997 at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash., and most likely wore out more than a few Rand McNallys in the band's early days of touring. He and the rest of the group — Jason McGerr, Dave Depper, Zac Rae and Nick Harmer — are bringing their "Asphalt Meadows" tour to The Hall in Little Rock on Saturday for a sold-out show. LA-based Momma, whose latest album is 2022's "Household Name," will open.
The band has had lineup changes over the years, but bassist Harmer has been in Death Cab since its earliest, pre-smartphone days.
"On our first tour we had one cellphone in the van that we all chipped in for," Harmer says from his home in Seattle. "We left it off most of the time and only used it for emergencies. We would make calls from payphones at truck stops and call ahead to venues to let promoters know we were coming through."
Those pre-social media days were a different time for the band.
"It's so ubiquitous now and such a part of everybody's life," Harmer says. "If you have any notion of being in the arts at all, every moment of your life has to be documented and shared. I think in some ways we were fortunate not to have that kind of extra pressure. It allowed us to fumble around and figure out how to be a band. Hats off to the young musicians and bands nowadays who are figuring out ways to integrate all of that into their lives."
Harmer was booking campus shows in the mid-'90s when he met Gibbard, who was in a group called Pinwheel.
"We met and started talking and became friends and then later on became band mates," he says. "Music has been a thread [in my life] all along, but it was never something I thought I'd do as a career."
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Death Cab's thoughtful, achingly tuneful indie pop-rock found an audience the old-fashioned way — through good songs and steady touring. After four well-received albums — the 1998 debut "Something About Airplanes," "We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes" from 2000, "The Photo Album" a year later and the 2003 breakthrough "Transatlanticism" — the band signed with Atlantic Records for 2005's "Plans," which included melodic classics "I Will Follow You into the Dark" and "Soul Meets Body."
Gibbard is also part of the Postal Service, which he formed with producer Jimmy Tamborello and singer Jenny Lewis. The band released one album, "Give Up," in 2003. This fall, he'll be doing double duty as Death Cab and the Postal Service set off on a co-headlining bill to commemorate the 20th anniversaries of "Give Up" and "Transatlanticism."
"Asphalt Meadows" is Death Cab's 10th studio LP and was recorded in part when the pandemic forced band members to hole up separately in their own studios. Gibbard, who recently composed the theme for "Shrinking," the Apple TV+ series starring Jason Segel and Harrison Ford, came up with a Monday-Friday schedule to work on songs.
"There are five of us in the band and there are five days in the work week, so we just kind of rotated through," Harmer says. "Someone would start on Monday and then pass it on to the next guy and by the end of the week everyone had added a part to whatever song or idea we were working on. That was a really fun way to generate ideas and feel connected to each other musically."
About half of the songs that make up the 11-track album were conceived this way, and the album has been a critical and commercial success. Spin called it the band's "best album in years."
With an ample catalog of older songs to choose from, as well as top-notch new material, Harmer says fans can expect a little bit of everything from Saturday's Little Rock set.
"We'll dip into everything at some point. It will definitely be focused on the new album, but you can't show up and not play some of the all-time favorites."
Death Cab for Cutie “Asphalt Meadows Tour”
- Opening act: Momma
- 8 p.m. Saturday, The Hall, 721 W. Ninth St., Little Rock
- Admission: $89.50-$129.99 Sold-out
- Information: (501) 406-1364 | littlerockhall.com