An Oral History of Indie's Golden Years Told By Two Indie Legends
Death Cab For Cutie's Ben Gibbard and Teenage Fanclub's Norman Blake reflect on 30 years at the helm of the genre's songwriting.
Before iTunes meta tags and Spotify algorithms reduced "indie rock" to a catch-all term for "music with guitars", the genre was a cultural force to be reckoned with. Forming the template for the guitar-bass-drums bands we still cling to today, its emergence in the late 80s took pop music and rock 'n' roll and forced the two to settle their differences in a flurry of emotion and headphone-filling guitarwork.
Two prominent bands of the genre, Death Cab For Cutie and Teenage Fanclub, were born a decade apart: Teenage Fanclub were the Scottish darlings of the early 90s' jangly indie boom, while Death Cab rode the slipstream of the 00s' first indie "revival" to arenas and iconic guest spots on The OC. Look, if you didn't at some point shout-sing along to either at an 00s indie night idk what you were up to. Despite their difference in age however, both frontmen share a similarly rich tone of songwriting, making it little surprise to hear Death Cab's Ben Gibbard was heavily influenced by Norman Blake's Teenage Fanclub.
Earlier this year Gibbard released his self-produced take on Teenage Fanclub' Bandwagonesque, his favourite album by his favourite band. So, as Death Cab enter the studio to record their ninth (!) full-length and Teenage Fanclub ride their 11th into the sunset, there has surely never been a better time to bring these two musicians together for one giant DIY conversation about their indie rock past, present and future. Read on below.
THE BANDWAGON DEPARTS
Ben Gibbard: I was a kid, 13 or 14, living in this little town across the water from Seattle called Bremerton. Everybody listened to Southern Cal punk-rock, like Bad Religion and Circle Jerks. That stuff's fine, but it wasn't my music – I wasn't a punk rock kid, I wasn't an angsty kid; my dad brought me up on The Beatles and the Stones. Hearing Bandwagonesque, it not only scratched that itch of like, 'This is familiar to me: melodically familiar, structurally familiar, the harmonies feel familiar', but at the same time, it has this energy to it. The production is kinda gritty and dirty, but within that production are some really beautiful love songs; really dense lyrical material. I fell in love with it. I don't know if I've ever told you this, Norman, but I had a photo of you and Raymond [McGinley, Teenage Fanclub guitarist] from a guitar magazine in my locker in high school! Everyone would open up their lockers and there'd be picture of women, and punk bands, and metal bands, and I had a photo of Norman and Raymond in my locker. I was learning to play guitar when I was 12, 13, and [in those magazines] it was all Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, the guy from Extreme, all that shit! It was funny, after 1991, they had to begrudgingly acknowledge bands that didn't play ripping guitar solos.
Norman Blake: That signalled the sea change, didn't it? When you could tell that that era was over. All of a sudden J Mascis was in there, and Sonic Youth. Sonic Youth were very interesting in terms of what they were doing with guitars, and different tunings, and stuff like that. It wasn't about how fast they could pull off their licks, it was just about the detail, and the intricate nature of the interplay between two guitars in different tunings.
Ben Gibbard: Even at a young age, I remember the metal guys at the music store were really furious that a Dinosaur Jr. song was being transcribed in Guitar Player! I've often thought of that sea change as like, people were just eating dessert for every meal. At a certain point, they realised that they were full, but not nourished. And that was musically what was happening – then in '91 all this nutrient rich music comes to the forefront.
FROM SEATTLE TO SCOTLAND, AND BACK AGAIN
Ben Gibbard: What always struck me about playing in the UK was that it always seemed like an 'every band for themselves' mentality, certainly in London. There never seemed to be a sense of community; it always seemed very careerist. My impression of Glasgow was always that it feels like a community of musicians that is most similar to the American indie-rock aesthetic: a lot of bands that are all friends, we grew up together, we play on each other's records, we tour together, we stay on each other's floors. My experiences as a touring musician, going to Glasgow, were like that. Immediately, the sense of humour, the motivation for playing music seemed very similar. Like, 'I'm doing this because I love it – if I get successful, that's great; if not, I'm not gonna stop doing it.' As I delved deeper into the Glaswegian scene, I just fell in love with everything I heard.
Norman Blake: There are actually connections, too. Stephen Pastel [owner of Glasgow's Monorail Records] owned a label called 53rd & 3rd Records in the mid-80s, and he signed The Vaselines, and put out an album for Beat Happening. Kurt Cobain heard The Vaselines through Calvin [Johnson, Beat Happening], and I was there the day they met! Nirvana were touring Bleach, and they had asked The Vaselines to reform to play with them in Edinburgh. I went from Glasgow to Edinburgh with them – we got drunk in the back of the bus on cheap wine – and we get to the venue and walk in, we meet Krist [Noveselic, bassist], and we go up to the dressing room and Kurt was wearing really heavy eyeliner. It was amazing – Kurt turned around and went, 'Woah, Eugene Kelly, I can't believe I'm meeting Eugene Kelly! I'm such a big fan!' He was a total fanboy. Those connections were quite strong – they were very similar scenes, no doubt about it.
Ben Gibbard: I had the same reaction when I met Eugene as well – and you, Norman, back in the day!
A MEETING OF MINDS
Ben Gibbard: We had emailed a bit, before that, but I remember we met face-to-face in 2005 in Japan. I remember this moment – which, for me, is still very special – where you and I were standing watching The La's. I remember they were playing "There She Goes" and you turning to me and saying, 'Oh, a classic pop song – it's weird that it's about heroin.' It blew my mind! I'd never thought of it that way before. The singer of my favourite band was schooling me on a song that is one of my favourite songs of all time, which I'd never really had a deeper understanding of. So thank you for that!
Norman Blake: A pleasure! Oasis were playing that too, right?
Ben Gibbard: Yeah, they were playing the enormodome across the way – that must have been one of the last Oasis shows, actually... Me being a real fan of Norman's work, it's been a real treat to get to know him more.
Norman Blake: For me, what I find interesting about these kind of projects is that when you go and look at someone else's music and then you reinterpret it, it gives you an insight into other people's process. I always find that interesting. I've been listening to Ben's Bandwagonesque recently – I haven't listened to ours in a good few years! I'm extremely flattered that he chose to do it.
Ben Gibbard: When I announced that I was doing this, I got a Direct Message from The Cribs – Gary [Jarman, Cribs bassist] was like, 'I hope you're not gonna do that super-long outro on "The Concept"', and I wrote him back saying, 'Oh, I'm gonna make it even longer'. He said: 'Then my reverse psychology has worked!' I want that part to go on forever in my mind.
Norman Blake: It's been going on forever for me for years, mate.
PASSING THE TORCH
Norman Blake: I recently went to see a great band, the Canadian band Alvvays.
Ben Gibbard: Oh, man! Oh my god! That band is so good – god dammit, she's such a great songwriter. It's insane. That new record [ Antisocialites] is so wonderful. I'm just really astounded by her wordplay, and her songwriting is just absolutely amazing. You sing on that first song, right, "In Undertow"?
Norman Blake: I do, yeah! They're totally the real deal. It's great how exciting young bands can be.
Ben Gibbard: But there's a lot of new music that I shouldn't understand. For example, this guy Yung Lean – this vaporwave guy from Scandinavia. I'm not saying I don't think it's good, I just have no frame of reference for it at all! And I was kinda pleased that I felt that way, because I shouldn't get it. Death Cab was in Vancouver, and we walked down the street, and he was playing this theatre... The line-up of kids down the street, it was like, 'I'm scared of all of these kids. These kids are scaring me.' And they should scare me! I don't understand the fashion, I don't understand what they're talking about, I don't know what drugs they're doing – and, yeah, at 41 years old, I shouldn't get that. To me, that's a positive marker of time moving forward. Kids should have their own music.
Ben Gibbard: I've often felt like our back catalogue is our worst enemy. We're about to make our ninth record, and it's very likely that we've made the record that we're known for – that we'll be remembered for. Even if you could scientifically determine that our next record was the best record we ever made, it wouldn't be seen as such, because Transatlanticism or We Have The Facts... or whatever, they were so pivotal in a lot of our fans' lives. You can't recreate that moment. I'm totally OK with that – that doesn't bother me at all. I think it's a good problem to have.
Norman Blake: I feel the same way. Your favourite record within yourself is always the one you're working on, but I always say to people that it's almost masochistic to listen to your own music. You're right in that this could be the best thing you've ever done technically, musically or whatever, and it won't be perceived that way – that's just the way it goes. I'm turning 52 this year, and I'm aware and I've realised that we're not gonna have a hit again. Well... actually, we never had one!
Ben Gibbard: What makes that music transcendent is when you hear a song that you swore you could have heard before, but you are reacting to it as if it's the first breath you've taken in life. I felt that way when I heard Bandwagonesque; I felt that way when I heard "Archie, Marry Me" by Alvvays. That, to me, is the beauty of pop music, and the beauty of guitar music. It can feel so familiar, and yet so new at the same time.
Norman Blake: Absolutely, and people are going to keep doing that. People are going to keep coming up with those little moments.
Ben Gibbard: I think that's one of the beauties of what Teenage Fanclub does – they construct these really meticulous, intricate harmonies, but they sound so simple. That, to me, is the mark of what makes a band or a record great: the ability to make something very complex sound simple and attainable.
Ben Gibbard's 'Bandwagonesque' is out now via Atlantic / Turntable Kitchen. Teenage Fanclub's 'Here' is out now via Merge.
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