Ben Gibbard Opens Up to Director Lance Bangs About Seattle, the Postal Service and His Formative Years
As part of Noisey's new show, Made In Seattle, we talked extensively to Death Cab singer Ben Gibbard about his early years and the formative effect of Seattle's music scene.
All photos: Angela Boatwright
In case you missed it, today Noisey kicked off a new series, Made In America, where we focus on particular cities and a clutch of artists—established and rising—whose careers and creative output are inextricably linked to the city they’re either from, or indeed, the metropolis they’ve chosen as their home.
For this first episode we headed to Seattle, one of the bigger, more established musical cities on our list. You can watch the full Lance Bangs-directed episode here, which includes, interviews with Seattle natives and residents Ben Gibbard, Tacocat, and La Luz.
Of course whenever we go on shoots, we end up talking to the interview subjects for upwards of an hour, and only a fraction of that ends up in the cut. Below is an extensive conversation between Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie and The Postal Service, and Lance. Ben kindly let us bust into his recording studio where he’s midway through laying down track for the new Death Cab record, the first since 2011’s Codes and Keys.
As a music writer sometimes it’s easy to get caught up talking about the artist’s latest release in order to pump out that info into the ether before anyone else can. Sometimes you get stuck trying to find that new, scandalous angle, desperate to upturn a stone that has yet to kicked over, while trying to do it in a way that makes you, the writer, seem clever too. One of the brilliant things about the interview below is, yes, Lance had an angle and that was Ben’s relationship with Seattle and his formative years there, but it’s also just a conversation between two music lovers. It’s clear that Ben felt totally at ease. (In fact Lance directed DCFC’s “Talking Like Turnstiles” video and their 2008 concert recording, Live at the Hall of Justice, so of course that pre-existing relationship helped). Sometimes its funny how the simple questions can uncover so much more than expected.
Lance Bangs and Ben Gibbard.
Lance Bangs: Let’s start with when you first had music enter your life. Were you in the car driving with your family or driving with your friends?
Ben Gibbard: Well, you know, my dad always had records on when I was a kid. My earliest memories of music were my dad putting on Beatles records and AC/DC records, Madness, and stuff he was into. I feel like whatever the music your parents were playing when you were just old enough to be aware of is the music you fall in love with.
Where was this when you were growing up?
I grew up in a town called Bremerton, which was a ferry ride away from Seattle. It’s like a small, navy town since my dad was stationed there. We moved a lot as I was a kid, but I was born there and went to elementary school and junior high, high school there. Seattle was the big city across the water that we would go to on the weekends sometimes.
What was your sense of Seattle at the time? What did the city seem like before you really got to know it?
Having now traveled the world and been to massive cities, it’s funny to think of Seattle as “the big city,” but as a kid who was getting into music and wanting to go to actual record stores that weren’t Sam Goode, Seattle might as well had been Mexico City. It seemed like the biggest place in the world. I have so many fond memories of being on the ferry from Bremerton to Seattle and the boat would take this turn around the inlet and the city would be in front of you on the water. Coming into the city at night and seeing it lit up, it’s just really beautiful.
What was it like be in Seattle and 14 years old in 91?
My dad was in the Navy, so I'd moved back to Bremerton to go into what would be junior high. It was a pretty exciting time to be coming of age as a music fan and to have the spotlight on so many things that were happening in my backyard. The larger, more mainstream bands like Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam—I liked those bands. They were ubiquitous and nationally recognized, but for me, there were a lot of other bands that were playing at clubs at that point that I was starting to get into.
It was really exciting to be a teenager, going to Seattle shows and to be that close to actual bands that had actual records out. As a kid, until you kind of interface with an underground or punk rock scene, I just assumed that bands had Learjets, played in arenas, had groupies, and guys that tuned their guitars. That’s what a band was because I just watched MTV and saw Warrant videos and figured that’s how you do it. So, to go to the OK Hotel—the only place in Seattle that did all ages shows at the time—and see Treepeople loading their gear and setting it up, which is kind of silly to even say now, at the time it made a real impression on me. Just to see the guy who sang for the band put his own amp on the stage, plug it in, and tune it, and say, “OK, we’re ready to go!” and start playing a set of music.
Were other kids around you getting excited about music and learning how to play?
Yeah. I was starting to learn how to play guitar and my friend was learning how to play bass. I'd learned how to play a couple songs then he had learned how to play some Joy Division songs. He knew a drummer who could play, so it was like, “Oh, we’re a band now!” It’s fun to start a band that young when the only criteria for being in the band is having the instrument that the band requires. It’s like, “I have a drum kit. I am now the drummer in your band!” That’s a really fun time to be discovering music and your abilities and discrepancies and things you want to get better at and things you’re already good at.
We would play in our shitty little punk band and go to Seattle and see what we called real bands playing at clubs and dream of being that. For me, the biggest rockstar in our world as teenagers was Rob Skinner from this band called Coffin Break. He was Bremerton and had gone to our high school. He was on a band that was on CZ then they were on Epitaph. Rob represented the guy who got out because Bremerton—I don’t want to throw my hometown under the bus—but Bremerton was a great place to leave. It was one of those towns where you have fond memories of living there, you have experiences that you’ll take with you the rest of your life, but you also know that as soon as you are old enough, you are definitely going to leave. For me, as a teenager going over to Seattle to see shows and going to record stores, just bumming around, that represented where I wanted to be.
Did that trigger other illicit behavior among the kids? When there’s a giant music scene that’s exploding, did more kids start to smoke cigarettes, do drugs?
I think so, but when I was in high school, I rolled with a lot of straight edge kids and I didn’t drink or do drugs until I was a little bit older. So, for me, all me and my friends did was go to one of our friends houses who could get KGRG, which was the Green River Community College radio station. He lived in a valley and somehow he got the signal, so we would go to his house on the weekends and just tape hours of the radio. We were all amazed that you could call the radio station and someone would pick up the phone, because if you called KZRK or The End or a huge radio station, nobody’s picking up. But, if you called the radio station and we’re like, “Can I hear that new Hammerbox record.” They’d be like, “Yeah, totally. We’ll put it right on.” Then they’d play it ten minutes later, it was just fucking crazy.
Tracking: the new Death Cab for Cutie record as it comes together in the studio
When you started writing your own songs, what were you interested in exploring and what were you going for?
It seems like the prevailing story about people getting into music is that they discover punk rock. This may be a shocker but I didn’t really have a really intense relationship with punk. There are records that still mean a lot to me that I grew up listening to, but I always gravitate toward a more melodic side of music.
I wasn’t rebelling against much as a kid, so I kind of went along to these shows and found things to enjoy, but for the most part I was more interested in the bands from Seattle that were like pop bands. I loved Flop way more than I loved Tad. I could listen to Flop all day long. Tad was never my thing. I’d watch 120 Minutes and see what was happening in other places in the world, but then going to see Flop, going to see Hammerbox, and a couple of years later going to see Hazel—I love Hazel, they’re still one of my favorite bands from that era. As I started listening to that and going to see bands like that around town, as a teenager, you’re just ripping off everything that you hear. Then I discovered Treepeople and fell in love with Doug Martsch’s music [Built to Spill] and wanted to play guitar like he does. I mean, I still want to play guitar like he does, but it’s fairly obvious in reference to our music.
When you began recording and releasing stuff, was there a sense that you were a Seattle band? Was that part of your identity at all?
When Death Cab first started, we were living in Bellingham and going to school up there. The idea was always once we were done with school to come down to Seattle. I think we still take great pride in being a Seattle band. But, one thing I think is very unique to Seattle is… it’s very important to me that no matter how successful the band was to get over the course of our career to this point, that I could come back to Seattle and re-enter my life in a way that was as removed from the success of the band as possible. Seattle keeps you humble in a very unique way and it’s something I’ve always loved about the city. Even if you became the biggest rock star in the world and you came back to Seattle, you could go back to the coffee shop and say hi to the people, or go out to a show and not need to be in a VIP area—to not feel like you need to be shuffled around and protected from people on the street.
That’s something that has been really interesting to see, especially with someone like Macklemore who has become so fucking famous and it’s great because he’s such a good dude. There is no better dude to be that successful right now that is from Seattle. For him, it’s the same thing. I just want to be able to go do the things I do, in the city I live in. I like living in a city that doesn’t reward notoriety.
In order to live in Seattle, you have to have humility about yourself. Seattle doesn’t give points for fame. They don’t care and they’ve never cared. I think was something in the 90s that was one of the big points of contention among the outside rule and Seattle. People didn’t understand that there’s an ethic and idea in the city, the vast majority of the people that are from it are hardworking people that are not doing their work to get famous. I’m certain people in other cities, certainly Los Angeles and New York, I’m sure there are a lot of people who’s main goal is fame. I’ve never heard anyone from Seattle say that they want to be famous. I’ve never heard anyone say that unless they were fucking joking, or unless they were about to move to Los Angeles.
What did you learn going and performing in front of crowds after that ten year gap between the releasing The Postal Service record and playing it again live?
When the record came out, we did a short tour and things just started to heat up when we were done with the tour. The last show of the tour was in LA and we had jumped up four venue sizes from the beginning to the final date, so that was weird. And then with the success of the record, we just kept hearing numbers like 100,000, 200,000, and then it sold 300,000. I mean, Jimmy and I were friends, but we weren’t doing anything musically together. So, when we got back together to play these shows, I didn’t have any doubt that it was going to work and that people were going to be excited, if only because for the vast majority of people that got into this record, there just wasn’t an outlet for it live. We never expected to make something so amazing that people would shit their brains when they saw us live. They never had the opportunity.
Over the years it became apparent how much people like the record because people kept asking about it. I had a sense that it would go well, but the amount of catharsis coming back from people who were getting the chance to hear these songs live for the first was pretty amazing.
To make a strange comparison, sometimes it was like when I went to see Slint when they did their reunion shows in 2005 or 2006. Spiderland meant so much to me when I was in late high school, early college, but at that point there was no band. So, to be able to hear these songs live, after so many years, it was such an incredible feeling. I’m not making a direct comparison, of course, but that same idea was in play for a lot of people that were coming to those shows because they had never had a chance to interface with the people who made this record that they love. It was a lot of fun.
It was kind of a thing that will never be repeated: we will never do it again. I think that those reunion tours, you get one pass, you get one opportunity because once people have seen it once, they don’t need to see it again. I should say, I don’t need to see it again.
Tacocat - "Hey Girl"
What should we check out in Seattle? What bands are you interested in?
Two of my favorite bands from Seattle right now are Tacoat and La Luz. [Both bands feature in the Made In Seattle ep.] Those are two bands I enjoy so much. Tacocat, hit that pop receptor in my brain. That shit is my bread and butter. Super, super catchy melodies and great songwriting. I think the lyrics and the songwriting don’t get enough credit with that band. They’re phenomenal and I think that Emily just writes great, great lyrics. The songs are catchy, funny, and smart. I love them. I love La Luz as well. I’ve never met them, but I really like their record a lot.
Why do you think Seattle has sustained different forms of music for so long? I can’t think of other cities that have had that range, from the 60s onwards. It’s not just something that’s great in the local sense, but it’s being recognized by the rest of the world as well.
I think that there are a lot of factors. It’s been said a number of times that since the weather is shitty from October through May that it just drives people indoors and makes them create things. That’s been a popular narrative for years and I think there’s a grain of truth to that. But, I also think that there is a grain of truth to the position that Seattle and the Northwest—until the last ten years or so—has really existed in it’s own little world.
Before we lived in the world of the internet, Portland and Seattle and Olympia, the closet city to those cities was fifteen hours away. So, I don’t remember a lot of bands coming to Seattle when I was a teenager. It was not like we went and saw a lot of touring acts when I was kid because if you’re in a band and you’re touring a van and you’re make $200 bucks, are you really going to drive another two hours north to play two shows to maybe nobody. And then after those two shows, you have to drive for two fucking days to get to the next place that anybody’s going to know anything about music. So, you have to go from Seattle to Minneapolis. You have to skip over like five states.
There are very few people there that are going to get you a show. Even in the late 90s, we tried to book shows in Montana and the Dakotas, but it wasn’t possible. There was nobody doing it, so if you look at it from a purely economic standpoint, it made sense why bands never came up there.
I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that people in the Northwest kind of had to make their own fun. People had to start bands because there was no one coming to entertain them, so they had to entertain themselves. I think there's that coupled with the fact that people go out and see live music in Seattle: they always have, and continue to.
Back in the day, it was KCMU, but today is KEXP has been very, very supportive of local music, certainly now with indie alternative, underground music. We’re very unique in Seattle because we have a radio station that plays music that corporate radio stations don’t play. So, the difference is now, as opposed to when I was a kid, bands have to come to Seattle because KEXP is such a cultural juggernaut at this point with a far-reach because of the inernet. Nobody skips Seattle now.
Is Seattle a place that’s conducive to writing?
Yeah, I think it’s always conducive to writing, but I’ll go on writing trips from time to time. But really, when it’s October, November and it’s shitty outside, that’s kind of the best time to write a song. It’s like well, I guess I’m going to sit in and write a song today. For a while when I lived in LA it was really difficult for me to focus because I was conditioned to being a Seattlite, so when it's nice outside, you go outside because you don’t know how many nice days you’re going to get. It took me a while to realize okay, every day is like this. You’re still going to have to get some work done because it’s not going to be not nice. The days it was rainy or overcast, which is so rare, I was so thankful for, for those brief periods of shitty weather because it reminded me of Seattle. The gray, the rain—it sets a particular mood.
I definitely think that I’ve written to that mood time and time again because when you’re sitting there with a pen and a piece of paper and you’re trying to think of something to write and you’re looking out the window for a distraction, it’s kind of gray, overcast, cloudy, and dark, that’s going to be reflected back in what you’re writing. At least it certainly does for me.
My sense of your writing is that it’s a broader thing—there’s imagery of other parts of the world, travel, and all of that—but are there any Seattle or Northwest spots that have cropped up or settings?
Yeah, on our third record, The Photo Album we have a song called “The Movie Script Ending” (above) which is like my love letter to Bellingham. Bellingham is an hour and a half north of Seattle, it’s a college town where I went to school and where our band formed and started playing. I think wherever you spend your formative years creatively will be very close to your heart, so I’ve written about Bellingham a lot.
I’m not sure if I have songs specifically about Seattle, but I think there’s one thing, a thread that goes through a lot of things that I write: it tends to usually be from a point of slight alienation and confusion because I’m away from the place I love so much. The older I get, my wanderlust is starting to die off a bit. There was a time in my life when I couldn’t wait to go out the door and go somewhere else. As I get older, I start to look around at the city that I live in and this beautiful area of the world and just never want to leave. It’s like I never want to leave Washington State, I never want to leave Cascadia. I just want to stay in the Northwest forever and I will be here for the rest of my life.
The more that I travel around the country and the world, the deeper I fall in love with Seattle and the Northwest. I was at home all weekend and I had to come back down to Los Angeles and coming back to Seattle with the mountains, Lake Washington, and everything so green and beautiful, and then landing at LAX with the lights and the grid, smoke, highways… There are wonderful things about Los Angeles, but it’s not my home. I don’t want to get snobby or elitist about it, and I want to err on the side of pride, not arrogance—pride in where I live and to take the time while I’m here to recognize what a unique and beautiful place Seattle and the Northwest is.