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Pieces of Benjamin

The Death Cab for Cutie singer returns from Los Angeles carrying a retrospective solo album, hope for the future and a refined sadness inside.

We were losing him.

We, the college radio listeners with abandonment issues, the broken-hearted bedroom dwellers and provincial music fans of the Northwest. We had watched Benjamin Gibbard and his scrappy, young Seattle pop band play sweaty little clubs, singing along to angst-filled songs brightened by intricate guitar and keyboard hooks, imagining ourselves as brilliantly sad and hopelessly romantic as the characters who inhabited them. We listened to his music and heard ourselves in it. 
We imagined he was one of us.

Then things started to shift. The band moved from its small independent record label to a big major label. The music became less intimate and more epic, venues got larger, and before long the band’s swelling fanbase included a lovelorn character on The O.C., a wildly popular teen soap opera. By the time Gibbard and Death Cab took the stage at the Sasquatch! Music Festival in May of 2008, it was impossible to deny that the band had changed.

Standing on the festival’s main stage before 20,000 screaming fans, Gibbard was dressed in all black. His hair was long. Swaying back and forth with his mic, the frontman seemed at times to snarl his lines. Death Cab’s sixth album, Narrow Stairs, had been released just two weeks earlier; on the record, the band sounded distant, Gibbard’s usually intimate voice obscured by filters and lengthy instrumentals. On stage, the band had become something else, dramatic and muscular, its mood stormy.

It was also spectacular. More than a decade after Gibbard first recorded under the Death Cab name as a college student in Bellingham, his band was putting on the tightest set of the massive music festival. When Gibbard stood alone and played “I Will Follow You Into the Dark,” the hit single from 2005’s major label debut, Plans, the performance was Gibbard at his most vulnerable, pouring a bucket of melancholy into a thimble of happiness. And yet, the fact that we were singing this sweet song with 20,000 other people left no illusions. Death Cab had become a rock ’n’ roll machine.

Other changes were in the air at that time. The singer had reportedly given up drinking—a familiar subject in his songs—and replaced it with running. And there was talk of Gibbard moving from Seattle to Los Angeles. Those rumors were confirmed a year and a half later, along with news that Gibbard had married Hollywood starlet Zooey Deschanel. Gibbard wasn’t just growing up and getting his life in order; he was getting famous. And the more famous he got, the less relatable he seemed.

Last fall, a celebrity news site leaked the news that Gibbard and Deschanel had separated after two years of marriage. Two months later a major American gossip rag confirmed the reports: The couple was divorcing.

Death Cab for Cutie finished touring for its latest album, Codes and Keys, in the spring of this year and went silent. Then something unexpected happened. In August, Gibbard released a solo single, along with notice that a full-length album would follow. Titled “Teardrop Windows,” the song is a simple swinging pop ballad and a paean to an old Seattle relic, Smith Tower. “Teardrop windows, cryin’ in the sky,” the song begins, “he is all alone and wonderin’ why.”

Rumors began to swirl. Gibbard was back.

***

Gibbard does not pull up in a Maserati.

He walks to our interview, entering the small, crowded café in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood looking clean and trim in a gray collared shirt and a fresh haircut, slimmed from a strict running regimen and five years of sobriety. As we sit down to eat, he admits to being slightly on edge—not because his debut solo full-length, Former Lives, is being released in a week, but because he’s running his second marathon a few days from now. Per his training, Gibbard must rest his legs for a week before the big event. Without his daily run, he’s left with a lot of unspent energy.

He orders a sandwich and a salad and begins talking about his quiet relocation from Los Angeles back to Seattle, where he took up residence in a house he’s owned since 2007. He’s the one who brings up the absurdly expensive sports car he does not drive.

“I’ve always liked how this city regards success,” he says. “I like the fact that, if I pulled up in a Maserati for this interview, you would be like, ‘This guy pulled up in a Maserati?’ Ostentatiousness and large displays of success and wealth are frowned upon in this artistic community. That’s something I find very valuable, because it keeps everyone low to the ground. It reminds everyone where they came from.”

His propensity for five-syllable words aside, Gibbard is the least ostentatious person in the room. Staring at the menu, the 36-year-old Bremerton native doesn’t look like a rock star who has played to arenas of screaming fans around the world. Nor does he look like a moody 23-year-old indie rocker who’s been living on mustard sandwiches for a week. What he looks like is a modestly hip high school English teacher.

This is not his Clark Kent get-up. In just a few days he will appear on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon wearing an identical outfit, plus a thin brown sweater, playing a new song called “Oh, Woe” with only his acoustic guitar as accompaniment.

Gibbard’s man-of-letters persona isn’t an affectation; his love of literature is clear. While radio stations were playing a song Death Cab had written for the 2009 blockbuster movie Twilight, Gibbard collaborated with Americana legend Jay Farrar on One Fast Move or I’m Gone, the soundtrack to a film inspired by the Jack Kerouac novel, Big Sur. Around the same time, he appeared in a film adaptation of a collection of short stories by David Foster Wallace, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, in which his character gives what is likely the most depressing monologue about the female orgasm in the history of Western literature.

During our hour-and-a-half long conversation, Gibbard quotes Ernest Hemingway while talking about emotional pain. He digs out a bit of wisdom from Fyodor Dostoyevsky when talking about the complications of happiness. I ask him about “Bigger Than Love,” a Former Lives duet with chanteuse Aimee Mann, and he reveals that its origins are in Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda, a collection of letters between F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald—and an unlikely inspiration for a propulsive monster of an indie rock duet.

“I really like the arc of the book,” Gibbard says. “I wanted to take scenes from throughout it, of these two people writing back and forth. He goes through their entire courtship and their marriage and the decay of her health and his drinking. Then there’s a letter that she writes him that is a point-for-point take on their entire relationship. It was so beautiful, so heartbreaking, but also so eloquently written.”

Given the personal context surrounding the album, listeners probably won’t hear the song as an update of a literary classic; Gibbard knows that they’re more likely to search its lyrics for veiled references to his own failed marriage. If they do, Gibbard says, it’s not his doing. The songwriter states clearly, without equivocation: This is not a breakup album.

The truth is that Gibbard started creating Former Lives long before the dissolution of his marriage. In fact, much of the material on the record was written before Gibbard even met his future ex—and all of it was committed to tape before he signed the divorce papers.

***

The seed for Former Lives was planted back in 2000 when the members of Death Cab for Cutie received their first royalty checks from the small local independent label Barsuk Records: $4,000 each for sales of the band’s second album, We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes. The band used the cash to support a national tour, selling enough T-shirts and CDs to sustain a few months at home. Then they hit the road again. The band had become a full-time job.

“There was no idea that you could make a living doing this,” Gibbard recalls. “Or if you could, it would be for a brief period of time; you would be interloping between adolescence and real life and, at some point, you would have to go to law school.”

While working temp jobs to make ends meet, Gibbard had been casual about his songwriting, penning his pop songs whenever inspiration struck. Sometimes months would pass between compositions. Faced with nine months off following the band’s 2001 release, The Photo Album—Gibbard decided to change his approach.

“I had this realization that everyone I could call was at work until 5 or 6 p.m.,” Gibbard recalls. “So I’m gonna go to work too. I’m not going to hang out by myself and not do anything or sleep in late and just waste away. I don’t want to say that that’s not how I was raised, but that’s not how I was raised.”

Gibbard’s prolific songwriting career started there and then. He began to branch out, recording both an EP with fellow songwriter Andrew Kenny and Give Up, his much-heralded collaboration with Jimmy Tamborello as the Postal Service. When it came time to record the next Death Cab record, Gibbard brought a couple dozen demos to play for the band. Many of those songs ended up on the band’s next album, Transatlanticism, but more of them landed on the cutting room floor. As the band recorded more albums, more of Gibbard’s unused songs piled up. Such was the case with “Broken Yolk in Western Sky,” a twangy and brutal ballad now on Former Lives.

“That song was written around the same time as Plans,” Gibbard says. “In the presentation, but also in terms of the lyrical content, it wouldn’t fit on that record. At the time, I was less able to see that, and I may have made a stink about it. But I wasn’t even finished with it; I didn’t have a third verse. It was a very simple sketch.”

When Gibbard moved to Los Angeles, he arrived with heaps of songs and scraps. He had no intention to do anything with them. Then LA started to get to him.

“One of the things I find very inspiring about Los Angeles is that everyone is on a hustle,” he says. “Everyone had so many projects that I felt like I would be inadequate if I was resting on my laurels and not working. Not necessarily harder than I had before, but definitely spending a little more time in the studio.”

So while Death Cab set out on an ambitious recording process for its seventh album, Codes and Keys, zigzagging between studios in LA, San Francisco and Vancouver, B.C. for weeks-long sessions, Gibbard began a more modest process, holing up in the small Silver Lake studio of an old friend, Aaron Espinoza, recording the songs that would become Former Lives. For a year and a half, the two friends worked on the album, spending a couple days recording each song, taking breaks to go for runs or eat burritos.

“He was really cool and open through the whole thing,” Espinoza says. “I think that was because Death Cab is a little more scientific and he wanted to get away from that. So whatever our first idea was, that was the one we usually ended up using. A lot of times you’re right the first time and you really don’t need to over-think things. Not that Death Cab over-thinks things, but sometimes if you just don’t give a shit and have fun with it, you make something that feels right.”

In March of 2011, Death Cab released Codes and Keys, its third record for Atlantic Records. The album was closer in sound to the band’s material before Narrow Stairs, but it was still different. Some critics said that it was the music of a band that had found happiness—and the band didn’t deny it. Gibbard told the press he preferred the term “balanced.”

“I love that record,” Gibbard says now. “These were things in my life that I wanted to write about. This is where I was. I wrote more when I was married and living in Los Angeles than I had in years. And at that time I was happy, I was happy that I was writing a lot.”

But even in the happiest times, a sadness remained with Gibbard. The evidence is on Former Lives, an album released on the same small label that gave Death Cab its first paycheck, an album filled with pieces of Gibbard’s life that couldn’t quite fit onto the big stage that Death Cab afforded him.

***

Former Lives doesn’t sound like any Death Cab record, old or new. Sonically, the album is a mixed bag, held together by Gibbard’s distinctive vocal and literary lyrics. There’s the aforementioned personification of a skyscraper in the form of a ballad and the electrifying and elegant give-and-take of famous married authors. There’s also a nimble tune about being lost and lonely in Los Angeles, accompanied by an all-female mariachi group. There’s a shambling, sweet torch song to a true love named Lily, a tender ballad about a stranger’s unspoken loneliness and a harmony-rich ode to a troubled friend. And then there are the confessional tracks about the murkiness inherent in any relationship, “A Hard One to Know,” “Oh, Woe,” “Broken Yolk in Western Sky,” “I’m Building a Fire.”

Within these songs is the kernel of what has made all of Gibbard’s musical ventures so successful. He has the ability to write a lyric that is specific enough to make the listener care and yet vague enough for him or her to imagine that the song could be about his or her own life. The problem with that formula is that a universal song can easily be applied to Gibbard’s own personal woes. For that reason, Gibbard refuses to entertain questions about when, where or who these songs are about.

“Any songs that are about anger or love or loss or joy, any of those songs, I want to float in the ether before I discuss their origins,” Gibbard says with slight chagrin. “It will give people who are fans of this particular soap opera something to talk about and debate.”

He brings up a recent interview with a journalist who asked him about “Oh, Woe,” a difficult song to ignore in this context. It sounds the most personal and topical of the bunch.

“It’s been a basement of a year,” Gibbard sings in his pinched tenor over the chugging strum of an electric guitar, “and all I want’s for you to disappear.”

The reporter mentioned divorce. Gibbard stopped her there.

“I don’t mean to come down on you or anything,” he recalls telling her, “but what makes you think this song is about divorce? There is nothing in the song that is about divorce at all.”

He’s right. The song is about the deception of appearances. It is about the things you think you want and how they might destroy you. Gibbard won’t get that specific. As usual, he hones in on the emotion and leaves the details for us to sort out.

“In my mind, that song has more to do with this ennui, this sadness that writers carry with them,” Gibbard says now. “They live with a particular sadness and they hold the sadness within because they need a fire; it’s an important flame that any writer has.”

***

The check has arrived and the coffee is cold, leaving only enough time to gloss over the future. Gibbard claims never to think more than six months in advance, so he has no long range plans to report. He will go on a brief tour in support of this record before coming home to write the songs for the next Death Cab record—likely generating a few scraps for his next solo album, which he jokingly predicts will come out in 10 years.

And what about his love life? Has he given up?

“Would I like to be potentially remarried and have kids?” he asks. “Of course. It’s rare to meet someone who doesn’t want that. But I feel like I’ve learned a lot about myself in the last year. I’ve learned a lot about relationships. Everything will happen in its own time.”

Gibbard stands outside the café, a pair of lightly tinted sunglasses shielding his eyes from the October sun.

“When I moved to Seattle, I made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t live in fear,” he says. “In Los Angeles, I lived in fear. I was scared about my security, and not just because of who I was with. I was afraid of people walking down the street, afraid that they might recognize me. Here, no one cares. I’m not afraid anymore.”

Photo by Ryan Russell.

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