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There might not be a more self-aware musician than Death Cab For Cutie songwriter Ben Gibbard. Across nine albums with the Seattle, Washington indie rock legends, not to mention his efforts as vocalist for The Postal Service and a spattering of solo and collaborative projects that have settled into niche audiences, he’s made music that soundtracked big emotional moments for a generation be it on CDs, iPods, The OC, or Spotify. Because of that, he’s held dear like a childhood stuffed animal, an icon of an era that will forever have his place on the shelf, still worth returning to for comfort or inspiration whenever needed.
And Gibbard is aware of how important his music is to people. Since signing to a major label in 2004, his career has been based on walking the wire of the songwriter performing at house shows and dingy clubs to the band that was now playing on radio stations and television shows. The ensuing years have seen the band maintain the pop culture spotlight (every Death Cab album since Plans has offered up at least one radio hit), even as their sound took on more of a studio sheen than some fans would prefer.
“As I look back at some of our more recent albums, I get a sense of what we’re attempting to do,” Gibbard says by phone in early August, hours before his band is scheduled to headline a minor league baseball stadium in Boise, Idaho. “The goal of any band is to stay true to what you are good at while also pushing forward. You don’t get nine albums in without having a few bumps in the road. Not every album can be your best record and not every record can be the truest expression of who you are in that moment. Or, sometimes it is an expression of who you are in that moment, but you’re a little lost. Maybe you’re off the path.”
But it’s not with a false sense of hope that he adds this final part: “I hope for this album, that this reminds people what they love about the band, and they find songs on here that connect them to the larger discography that this band has.”
More than 20 years into Death Cab’s run, this could sound diluted, the words of a musician who knows what he has to say to get people to keep listening. But the truth about Thank You For Today is the band’s strongest effort in a decade. The now-five-piece sounds more relaxed and self-assured than they have in that ensuing time, perhaps thanks to welcoming in a pair of new members (Dave Depper and Zac Rae) to replace the group’s longtime guitarist and producer Chris Walla. Sometimes addition comes through subtraction, and despite Walla’s foundational contributions over the years, this seems to be the case.
Gibbard as a songwriter is approaching his middle age fully aware of how to accentuate his strengths and obscure his weaknesses. The record is ripe with grander statements that will sound great on car stereos, beaming from towering radio antennas (“Gold Rush,” “Autumn Love“) and also more tender, inward-focused moments that find Gibbard’s always-precise lyrical and melodic gifts underscored (“When We Drive,” “I Dreamt We Spoke Again“). But mostly, Death Cab just sound like Death Cab again, like a band with little to prove to the outside world and everything to prove to themselves, that losing one member wouldn’t sink them, and that maybe there is greatness yet to come.
I spoke with Gibbard about Walla’s departure from the band, about the sense of nostalgia that permeates this album, and about the key to surviving 20 years without having to sacrifice your core values.
Are you naturally a nostalgic person?
I think that creatively, I like standing at a distance from people and scenarios in my life. When I experience something that I think might be in a song at some point, something to file away, I usually like to let things sit for a long time. The longer that I let a memory sit in my hard drive, I grant myself more poetic and situational license with it. In the same ways, I start to misremember things a bit, and they start to feel like a dream. I think that’s a really advantageous place to be creatively, where I have this echo of a real experience and it feels like a dream, and allows this distance for me to work on it creatively.
Yeah, you have a line on the album’s first song, “I Dreamt We Spoke Again,” where you say “only in a dream is anything the way it used to be.” And the record’s first songs all deal with similar themes about people and places and how they change and how we hold onto them and grapple with it. You’ve already spoken a lot about how your home of Seattle is changing, but how else in your life are you fighting or embracing change?
As I have crested into middle age, I don’t miss my 20s or my 30s. Even if I write from this nostalgic place, it’s not that I want for a period that I’m not in anymore. On a personal level, I want to age gracefully and I’m willing to accept the changes that my mind and body are putting me through, even if it’s frustrating at times.
That being said, I’ve never been fearful of change. More than anything, as it pertains to the album, it has to do with the rapidity of change. As one gets older, life feels like it is shifting and changing quicker than you remember it when you were young. And that might be just a function of getting older, but I also think that nobody would deny that we’re living in highly accelerated times. The way we live our lives is changing at a much quicker rate than it was 30 years ago or 40 years ago, just based on the advent of the technology that we have at our fingertips.
I did an interview yesterday with someone where I had to rate our first eight albums, and talking about the first couple records is talking about an era before the internet. I mean, obviously there was an internet in 1998 or 2000, but it’s certainly not what it is now. And the access to music and culture wasn’t anything like what it is now. That wasn’t that long ago, really. But yeah, I think many people my age or older have become very aware of the rapidity of that change and that we’re living in very accelerated times.
I think my favorite thing about the new record is how it feels like you are reconciling both how Death Cab sounded in its earliest days and how it has evolved. It feels like a very generous album in that sense. Is it a happy accident that some of the sounds, structures, and songwriting style mirrors the subject or were you trying to rekindle some of these elements that drew people to your earlier work?
In some ways, yes. I think over the past two or three albums, I’ve tried to reconnect with what is it that I love about this band? And what is it that the fans love about this band? Those tend to be a lot of the same things. When we play shows, we’re playing songs from the last 20 years, and when we play something off of We Have The Facts… or The Photo Album, we get a similar reaction. The songs that are fan favorites, they’re also some of my favorites, or else I wouldn’t put them on the setlist.
We couldn’t make We Have The Facts… or The Photo Album or Something About Airplanes today if we tried, for a myriad of reasons. But there is certainly a style of guitar playing and writing and melodic arrangement structures that were a lot more present on those early albums than if you look at the Narrow Stairs, Codes And Keys, Kintsugi-era. I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that we had access to all this new technology and I wasn’t playing a lot of guitar and I was leaning on other approaches for songwriting that wasn’t starting with guitar, playing more this arpeggiated, melodic guitar stuff. I did approach this record wondering what someone who was a long time fan of the band, what would they like?
But also, what would I like to do? It’s not that I was approaching the making of a record for anyone other than myself, but at the same time, just recognizing that when I’m doing something that’s reminding me what I like about this band, it’s probably going to resonate with someone that likes this band a lot, as well. And when some of these songs were brought into the studio with Dave, Zac, Nick [Harmer], and Jason [McGerr], we’re making records in 2018 and we have particular skill sets and a particular coffer of technological advancement that’s happened from 2000 to 2018 to pull from. So the record is naturally going to sound like a modern, later-era Death Cab record in some ways, but at the same time, I feel like a lot of the guitar work and lyrical content pull from an era of the band that’s almost 20 years old.
You mentioned “aging gracefully,” and once you hit the 20-year mark, you approach this sort of legacy status. Is there anyone in particular that you look to as a roadmap or who you hope people might see your band as in a best-case scenario?
Going through this transition of Chris leaving the band and bringing in new members, we’re kind of buddies with them but I was really looking to Wilco. Looking back at their career from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, A Ghost Is Born, and onward, how these new members at the time affected it. There’s something that’s always been very Wilco about that band because obviously Jeff [Tweedy] is writing the songs and he’s had a fairly consistent voice for 30 years at this point. But bringing in Nels [Cline], Michael [Jorgensen], and the everyone else, I could tell how those new additions breathed a new life into that band, and I’m feeling that in my own band right now. It feels like we’re just getting started now.
The 14 years with Chris were wonderful at times and difficult at times and we certainly made the record that will be on my tombstone, but at the same time, as the frontperson and songwriter of this band, I’m so excited about what the future of this band holds. With Dave and Zac’s skillset, their musical brilliance, we haven’t even scratched the surface of what I think this band can accomplish creatively.
With this being the first album made completely since Chris left the band and you mentioning the good part of having these new members, what’s been the most difficult part of making a Death Cab album without him? And, have you sent him the album or asked him what he thinks now that it’s done?
I’m not trying to sound like a cheerleader, but there wasn’t a hard part about making this record. After 14 years of being in a band with Chris, he’s really a brilliant guy. He did some unbelievable work. However, when you’re in a creative relationship with someone that long, there are moments that history starts to work against you. And I think we’d certainly gotten to that point. His decision to leave was bittersweet, but it was certainly the right decision for him and ultimately the band.
To your second question, I would never want to appear as gloating. I want to be sensitive to the fact that his feelings about the band continuing on without him are probably complicated, and I certainly wouldn’t want to kick a hornet’s nest on that one. We talk from time to time, we’ve spent a lot of time together, and our relationship is at the status where eventually our lives will come back around and everything will be peachy-keen. Like any relationship, we spent a lot of intense times together and then you have to give a little space, and if you’re meant to have a fruitful friendship after the fact, time will indicate that.
One of the biggest topics of conversation in the music world of late has been album length. There’s Kanye West’s seven-song albums or Drake’s 25 song album, but Thank You For Today lands at that pretty ideal ten-song, five-songs-on-each-side length. This sounds pretty intentional and like something on which you have a pretty firm opinion. Tell me about that in how it relates to trends around you.
With the advent of CDs, records could be 72-minutes long. A lot of acts thought they were giving their fans value by adding more music to a record. In the streaming age, there is no limit to how long a record can be. We recorded 13 songs for this record, and as we were putting running orders together, we realized we should cut it down to ten songs. Let’s make a record that people want to hear again once it’s over.
Obviously, that’s a very personal thing, I’m sure some people will hear three songs and realize they hate this thing. But if you’re into it, if you’re a fan… Look, even my favorite bands, if I’m listening to it and I’m on song nine and there are seven more songs and it’s like an hour-and-15-minutes long, I just don’t have time for that. It’s hard to make time to listen to that much music from one artist in one sitting.
I don’t like to give Kanye credit for too many things, but at the same time, I’m intrigued, even if I don’t necessarily want to make it the modus operandi for my band. A seven-song album every year-and-a-half is better than a 21-song record every four years. It’s just better. It’s easier to distill down what’s really great and what is working. I love that Pusha T record for that reason alone — well, for many reasons. Yeah, seven songs. And it starts over again after it’s finished and I’m like ‘yeah, I love this first track. It’s coming right back.’ I’m glad that someone is trying to rethink and redefine what an album can be in this streaming economy, leading away from just adding everything on it and getting down to what’s really working.
The last Jay-Z record was the same way. It was like, what, 8, 9, 10 songs? 38 minutes? That’s perfect. That’s as much Jay-Z as I want at this point in his career, no offense Jay-Z. I want 10 killer Jay-Z songs, I don’t want 37 skits. I don’t want skits or instrumentals, and guess what, he did it. That was certainly our goal. We’ll see how it shakes out.
Death Cab For Cutie has been on a major label now for 14 years, but I’ll always associate you with the indie rock scene. Hearing a song like “60 And Punk” at the end of the album, you sound like a songwriter still very much in touch with your roots and where you came from. It seems like a tightrope to be this alternative radio rock entity and still hold on to your indie bona fides. How have you traversed that and have there been things you’ve had to say no to along the way?
It’s one of my pet peeves for the indie culture when someone makes a flagrant attempt to go pop. Maybe it is just my gut feelings here, but when someone decides they want to be a pop star or they want to be U2 or whatever. So much of what is appealing about indie culture is how approachable it is. It’s the ‘I just climbed out of the crowd on stage and am going to play some songs for you, and then when I’m done, I’m going to climb back in the crowd and we’re going to have a beer.’ It’s the fans helping you load the gear on your early tours. It’s the roots of all your heroes being people who work day jobs. It is a musical humility.
I would like to think that even though we’ve been on a major label longer than we were on Barsuk… I mean, Plans was a really big record for us, it went platinum. But if our goal was to become U2, what would it have taken for us to do that? It would have taken us flushing all of our credibility as four dudes who look like they are in Pavement. We’d take that and throw it all away and rebrand ourselves as some kind of superheroes.
For us, that’s always felt so disingenuous. It would have been an anathema to why we started doing this in the first place. Even though we’ve had radio hits and records that the hardcore fans haven’t liked as much or gotten angry about — they’re angry about it because they’re passionate. They’re angry about it because they feel an ownership and kinship to us. And that’s really important.
If instead of making Narrow Stairs, we would have made some attempt to become Coldplay — and no offense to Coldplay, I like Coldplay — but if we’d gotten a stylist in and brought in guys to help us write the songs and seen if we can get Beyonce on a track, it would have been laughable. It would have been laughable because we’ve always presented ourselves like approachable people who just happen to do this thing just like you do this thing. We just happen to have gotten successful at it. But at the core, we’re just like you.
I still feel that way and I think that’s a large part of why people have stuck with us, whether we’ve made good albums or great albums or bad albums. I pride myself and I think we all pride ourselves in being true to who we are as human beings throughout the process. We’ve made mistakes along the way — personally, musically, and otherwise — but at the end of the day, it’s really important to me that I’m as much the same person on stage as I am off the stage.
And I don’t care to sacrifice that for the sake of becoming famous.
Thank You For Today is out today on Atlantic Records. Buy it here.
Death Cab For Cutie is a Warner Music artist. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music.