Death Cab for Cutie began as a solo project of Ben Gibbard while he was the guitar player for the band Pinwheel (he has also recorded solo as All-Time Quarterback). As Death Cab for Cutie, Gibbard released a cassette, titled You Can Play These Songs with Chords; the release was surprisingly successful, and Gibbard decided to expand the band into a complete project. He recruited Christopher Walla, who also recorded "Songs with Chords", as an electric guitarist, Nicholas Harmer on bass, and Nathan Good to play drums; this configuration released the LP Something About Airplanes in the summer of 1998. The album got favorable reviews from the independent music scene, and in 2000, the follow-up was released: We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes. Nathan Good left the band at some point during the recording of We Have the Facts. His playing on "The Employment Pages" and "Company Calls Epilogue" were kept, but Gibbard played drums on all other songs. New drummer Michael Schorr would first appear on The Forbidden Love E.P., released in fall of 2000. The following year, another LP was released, entitled The Photo Album. Limited editions of this album contained three bonus tracks, which were later released separately as The Stability E.P.
In 2003, there was another change of drummer, with Jason McGerr of Eureka Farm replacing Schorr. McGerr would play drums on the next release, Transatlanticism, which came out in October of 2003.
Transatlanticism received critical praise and also became the band's top-selling album, with 225,000 copies sold during its first year out. In addition, tracks from the album appeared in the soundtrack of television shows The O.C. and Six Feet Under and the 2005 movie The Wedding Crashers.
In spring of 2004, the band recorded a live album titled The John Byrd E.P., named for their sound engineer. The E.P. was released on Barsuk Records in March of 2005.
In November, 2004 Death Cab for Cutie signed a "long-term worldwide deal" with Atlantic Records, leaving their long-time label Barsuk Records and the rank of indie record labels. Gibbard stated on the official website that nothing would change except that "Next to the picture of Barsuk holding a 7", there will be the letter "A" on both the spine and back of our upcoming albums."
The first and second singles off the band's Atlantic Record release Plans were "Soul Meets Body" and "Crooked Teeth", respectively. The full album was released in August of 2005. Plans was well-acclaimed by critics and fans, and received a nomination for the Grammy Award for Best Alternative Album of 2005.
The band released a touring DVD called Drive Well, Sleep Carefully in 2005.
The band's song "Photobooth," is featured in the soundtrack of the Xbox 360 racing game Project Gotham Racing 3.
In early 2006, the band announced the upcoming release of Directions, eleven short films inspired by songs from the Plans album, each directed by a different person. The videos were posted one at a time at the band's website and the DVD went on sale April 11, 2006. The iTunes Music Store began selling the videos (formatted for the iPod) early on March 28, 2006. Lance Bangs, P.R. Brown, Ace Norton, Jeffrey Brown, Lightborne, Autumn de Wilde, Rob Schrab, Laurent Briet and Monkmus, as well as Aaron Stewart-Ahn are among directors that have contributed to the project. An episode of MTV2's Subterranean played these videos for the whole hour plus discussion with members of the band.
Ben Gibbard formed the side project The Postal Service, with Dntel's Jimmy Tamborello. They released the album Give Up in 2003, with the help of Chris Walla and guest vocals from Jenny Lewis of Rilo Kiley and Jen Wood.