Ben Gibbard Has a Cold
The Death Cab for Cutie frontman sits down to talk 'Kintsugi,' divorce, and the struggles of living as a creative person.
Photo courtesy of Atlantic
Here comes Ben Gibbard now, sauntering into the lobby of a hotel in Midtown, looking exactly how I’d expect Ben Gibbard to look: light blue Patagonia jacket, knit hat, his brown hair peeking from below, red cheeks, and seemingly very tall. He shakes his head, snow falling to the red-patterned carpet that would fit nicely in a banquet hall for a wedding reception, and he sticks out his hand. “Hi,” he says through an exhale, his voice a bit high-pitched but not piercing, “I’m Ben.”
It’s about 2 PM on the Monday of the last week of January. Snow is falling so hard that, looking out the window, you can’t see the other side of West 52nd Street. We’ve found ourselves on the cusp of a blizzard named Juno that’s set to destroy the Big Apple and take the rest of the East Coast with it. My interview with the lead singer of Death Cab for Cutie has been moved to earlier in the day because, apparently, just in case we all actually do die, his publicist wants to ensure the last conversation we both have is about independent rock and what that means in the year 2015. But, that’s the question, though, right? As I wrote when Noisey premiered the band’s video for “Black Sun” back in February from their upcoming record Kintsugi (out March 31), the cultural climate is now one in which hip kids in their early twenties have moved from wearing horn-rimmed glasses to fashion sweatpants. If anyone should understand the full spectrum of independent music's appeal, it's Gibbard, who watched his own band go from being a tiny band from the Northwest to one of the defining bands of a cultural shift toward indie music in the mid-00s to the kind of band that plays arenas even though they still write songs meant for coffee shops. (Plus, don't forget about his side project Postal Service.)
The new album is the Death Cab for Cutie's first record as a three-piece—Chris Walla left the group on amicable terms this past fall—but Kintsugi is a return to what made many fans fall in love with the group originally. Honest songwriting. Catchy refrains. Great music for both making out with that person you love and, at the same time, wishing you could still make out with that person who no longer loves you.
Ben and I sit down and the waiter arrives. I order black coffee. He orders espresso. “I really should be drinking tea,” he says. “I’ve been fighting this terrible cold, so forgive me.” But it doesn’t slow him down. What begins is an hour-long conversation about indie rock, selling counter-culture, confessional songwriting, the struggle of being a creative person, and divorce. Ben talks fast. At certain points, his thoughts move so quickly out of his mouth that his lips can’t keep up. “We create things in art because we can’t have them that way in life,” he says at one point. “Part of unpacking something that’s specifically painful is about seeing all the pieces that make it painful, and then trying to assemble them into something more eloquent and at times beautiful than what actually caused you to want to write in the first place.” Below is our conversation in full, lightly edited.
Noisey: You recorded this record last march March and it’s coming out in March. A whole year seems like a long time to wait.
Ben Gibbard: Yeah. It’s crazy. But it also feels like I’m working off the timeline. It’ll have been four years since a new record by the time it comes out. But this is the eighth record in our career, it’s not like if we don’t have a record out every year, half of people will forget we exist. It’s kind of benefitted us to go out in our corner and reemerge a little bit later. There’s a real benefit to going away; I don’t think new bands are afforded that luxury. But we’ve been around so long no one’s going to forget us if we don’t put out a record every two years. At least I hope not. [Laughs.]
How do you think it would be if you were a new band now—like could Death Cab exist now if you just started?
I think about it in this context: if we were the band now when we were back in 1998, there’s no way we would’ve survived two or three records. Because we were kids and didn’t know our asses from the hole in the ground. We had the benefit of no one really paying attention to us, and no one had their eyes on us. First shows were 25 people, then 50, then 60. We had the benefit of making mistakes without people paying attention. We learned how to be a band. And I don’t mean on stage playing instruments; I mean interacting with one another. How do you build a loft for the van, who’s house we staying at? It’s been so interesting to me. Knowing our personalities there’s no way we would’ve survived. But it’s interesting because last time Death Cab was in Barcelona for Primevera sound, there was this band playing on stage before us. Nice kids who were from Brooklyn, and I was like, “You guys have a record out?” “Nah man we’ve got a single and our website going. Yeah, we’re here man.” It was, like, you’re on a huge stage with 40,000 people with just a song? I was more jealous, like, fuck man that’s cool. But these days the unfortunate element of the times we live in is you have to be perfect immediately, a perfectly formed entity immediately. It separates the weak from the rest, but we’re probably losing some people who would probably have something to contribute if they just had the ability to fail a little first before everyone wrote them off for failing. There was a band that comes out of nowhere, three great songs, and then they put an EP out and everyone’s like “oh that band’s over” when they have only eight songs in the world! Live by the sword; die by the sword.
Working for a music website, sometimes it feels like a waterfall of content—songs, videos, interviews, profiles, and more. It’s got to be hard to be 19 and play music and succeed.
Well, it depends on how you define “succeeding,” too.
That’s true too. How do you define succeeding?
I feel like when we were first started, I looked at bands that I think were the “biggest rock stars.” Like Built To Spill, Sleater-Kinney, bands in the northwest that we assumed didn’t have day jobs and could go on tour and not have to work for a couple months, just being able to play music for a living for at least the period of time you were doing it. That was making it. I, and nobody in our band had a delusion—like I thought of music as something that we could do for a period of time if we were lucky enough. We could make a record, go on tour, and then do that for a period of time, but eventually I’d have to go back to grad school. I viewed it as a chapter of my life that was interstitial, something I did in my 20s for fun that I could tell my kids about.
Ha, yeah. Like, “Hey son, I was in a band for a while. One time, there were 100 people at our show!”
And in the late 90s, that was the ceiling for indie rock. There was no OC, Garden State, Coachella, none of this stuff that exists. There wasn’t a real career to be had in terms of playing indie rock and you do it thirty years from now; it’s just something you do in-between things. That’s always been my marker of success, I don’t know how the fuck we ended up here 17 years later, but I figure that’s most people’s goals in music. I’d like to think most bands that start out now just want to make enough money to live. Make records, live cheaply. When is the last time you met a band that wanted to be rich and famous? I never met anybody that wanted to be U2.
I don’t think anyone wants to be U2. [Laughs.]
Man, I love U2, but if you met a bunch of guys who wanted to be the biggest band in the world, you’d laugh them out of the room.
When did it change for you? Was there every this realization where you were like, “Oh maybe I can make this last a little while longer, and make this a living.”
In some ways it still doesn’t feel that way. Like someone can come along and take it all away from us. My girlfriend worked for St. Vincent and I was out with them in Europe and Annie and I were talking, and it was funny. I was like, “Doesn’t it feel like someone can just take it all the way?” She was like, “Yeah, absolutely.” No matter how successful you get doing something creative, there’s never a point where you can be comfortable and think this is what your life is gonna look like forever. It’s not like going to school to be a dentist, where it’s like, “Hey I’m a dentist and unless I’m disbarred I’ll still be a dentist anywhere.” It’s not like a job you get a skilled and you’re pretty much guaranteed a position. But having said that, I’ve made a good living making music. I don’t think there’s a time where I’m going to have to go back to grad school. I think I pretty much established myself, “This is what I do for a living.”
There’s always that voice in your head saying someone can take it away.
Well it’s like if you’ve ever been broke, or sleeping on some shitbag’s floor in some weird part of the world, and they ask what you’re doing there and you have ten dollars for the week to eat. It’s like, if you’ve ever lived a small bit of that, and I’m not trying to be woe is me, but if you’ve ever had that “what are we gonna do and how am I gonna pay my rent” feeling, if you ever experience that, it doesn’t just go away. And we had enough years of living close to the bone that there aren’t a lot of things I take for granted.
A professor of mine once described being on the creative path as permanently climbing a mountain. You get to the top of the mountain—like you’ve written a successful novel or record or whatever—and then you have to climb another, and another.
But you, as a writer, you’re living with your work all the time. You don’t just go to the office and be like, “well that’s it!” I go and try to write songs, and I’m either successful or I fail at it. Then I go home and think about it all the time. There are days I realize life would be easier if like I went to the widget factory for work for eight hours, now I’m home with my family having dinner. But for creative people, you’re living for the work; you’re not working for the life. You’re not just like “I go to work all day so I can have a boat I tool around with on the weekends.” No, I have to do this; I can’t not do this. The biggest lie I could tell myself is that I don’t have to do this anymore.
Your music can be qualified as “confessional.” Do you have to get into a certain headspace in order to convince yourself to bare things a bit more?
If it was so painful, I would never share things so painful. So many of the things I choose to write about, I choose because I want to take them out of myself and pull them apart, and in some ways reassemble them in a fashion I find more appealing, or that works for dramatic effect. I’m never writing non-fiction or “this is what happened exactly how it happened” because no creative person can have that objectivity when trying to express anything. Part of unpacking something that’s specifically painful is about seeing all the pieces that make it painful, and then trying to assemble them into something more eloquent and at times beautiful than what actually caused you to want to write in the first place. I think people like to use the term “confessional songwriting” and whatever else, and I think if people consider what I do confessional I’m doing my job right. Not everything I write is like, “This is what happened to me exactly in this time, with exactly whom you’re thinking about.” One of my favorite moments in Annie Hall is when at the end he’s rehearsing that play, and the male actor is like, “Well if that’s how you like it, fine! It ends all here at a health food restaurant in Sunset Blvd.” And then it cuts back to Woody Allen and he’s like, “What do you expect, it was my first play?”
We create things in art because we can’t have them that way in life. So not only creating endings that are more appealing to us, but also highlighting and embellishing parts of it for dramatic effect. If somebody’s doing that effectively, it feels like they’re telling you a very personal story.
How do you operate in the world where you want to be honest as an artist, but might have to write some non-PC lyrics or things that might come off misogynistic.
If you think there’s a certain song that dives into that territory, and you want to talk about it, let’s do it.
Let’s look at “Tiny Vessels,” and that line “she’s beautiful but she doesn’t mean a thing to me.” It could be interpreted like I’ve been there, I’m sleeping with someone, and I don’t really care about them. And some people could perceive it as misogynistic.
With that specific question and that song in particular, if somebody focused on that one line, and I’m not saying you are, but if someone did and wrote a think piece titled “Ben Gibbard is a sexist prick because he slept with a girl and she didn’t mean anything to him.” You can only do that if you discount the entire bridge, like “I wanted to believe in all this stuff.” That song to me has always been, like, we project. Beauty is so intoxicating that we want and make concessions about every other thing about a person because we find them so attractive. And we’re able to kind of ignore parts of their personality that don’t work for us, or aren’t compatible with who we are because we find them so attractive, like “oh my god I can’t believe how beautiful this person is.” And then you wake up one day and you realize, “Oh my god this person doesn’t mean anything to me; I’m just attracted to them physically that I’m now disgusted with myself.” And that’s what that song was always about. Being so attracted to a person physically that I ignore all the qualities that are important to me, and I’m disgusted with myself for falling pray to that superficiality. So yeah, there are moments throughout all the songs I’ve written that touch on themes like that, but I feel like if people delve a little deeper into the songs, there’s always a qualifier.
I remember when that record came out, somebody wrote a piece that was shocked I admitted to looking at pornography. And it was like “he admits to looking at pornography!” and it’s like... yeah, OK. I’m not ashamed to admit that. I don’t know, I think more than ever artists in any medium just have to, making art in 2015 requires a level of fearlessness not necessary 20 years ago. Because people have direct access to you. If someone makes something that someone deems offensive, the person who thinks it’s offensive has a number of ways to contact that person. I feel like moving forward I’ve gotten more confident in what I’m doing, regardless of quality waxing and waning, I’ve gotten more confident as a creative person, like, “Look, if I feel uncomfortable sharing something with someone. I’ve had multiple opportunities to jump off that train.” I could’ve stopped, never shared after I wrote it, never given it the band as a potential demo. There are multiple points I could’ve jumped off it made me uncomfortable. I appreciate there’s people in my close circle, like if I were to do or say something unintentionally offensive, or did not translate to what it meant, then they would tell me. Nick Harmer would be like, “Hey, what’s this song about?” “Pole-vaulting.” “Oh, it comes across as this horrible sexist thing.” It’s like if there’s a public outrage about something, and I feel like the snap-judgment morality works both ways. It always tends to be swift and sometimes over the top, but there are moments where you see that snap morality like, “Oh that’s what I thought would happen.” Hopefully I’ll never bare the brunt of that.
How conscious are you of that? I mean, if I send one bad tweet, it could end my career.
Yeah, it’s weird you can end up in a Twitter fight with fucking Ice-T out of nowhere. My friend Aimee Mann ended up in a Twitter fight with Ice-T over some random bullshit. I made a tweet about the Sixpence None The Richer cover of “There She Goes” while I was somewhere, and made some tweet like, “I wonder if these guys know it’s about heroin.” Kinda snarky, I’ll admit. And I get a tweet back from the singer of Sixpence None the Richer like, “Actually we do, we just love the song!” And I felt like a dick! I find it interesting that someone like myself, like I was most ashamed in that moment because for somebody who’s to some extent in the public eye, I want to be treated with the dignity and respect any human being would like to have, and not be turned into a caricature. But I literally did it to a band of nice people! So it’s a very odd world we live in, and I’m kind of retracting from social media a bit for that same reason, like I don’t trust myself when I have some stupid thought in my head when I’m all alone.
What do you think about places like Urban Outfitters or whatever packaging up counterculture and marketing it to the masses. It seems like it’s happened dramatically over the last two decades, and your band has benefitted from it, obviously. But in the same vein, what does it even mean to be alternative anymore? My mom wears skinny jeans.
To take it back even a couple more generations, I think it’s interesting how—like, I’m 38 and the majority of my parents’ friends stopped listening to rock and roll after they got married and had kids. Rock and roll and counterculture became something young people took a spin with, and took it but people aged out of counterculture. You marry and have kids, and age out. My parents in the mid-70s were adults. My dad in ‘68 had long hair driving a beat up van, five years later is in a suit and going to work. I think to me, as a teenager in the early 90s, the vast majority of people that came of age in the late 80s early 90s realized, “Wait I love this, I’m not going to just stop paying attention to bands or fashion just because I have a kid.” And then some of those people ended up like, “Hey wait I have a TV show, and I should get this band I loved their records back in college. Let’s get the Shins for our movie because I fucking love them.” So for people who grew up where counterculture was such a huge part of their lives took that with them and brought it into adulthood. It’s interesting now for people my age and older, outside of some crow’s feet and grey hair, are dressing like kids who are 25. And they’re both going to see Sharon Van Etten and are stoked about whatever James Murphy is gonna do next. And the kind of overall rock and roll culture and counterculture, the entire history of it, now is available for all people to enjoy and for very few people I know there isn’t that “if it’s not new I don’t care!” mentality.
People are like “have you heard this Emmit Rhodes record from 1960?” It’s like if you were living downtown New York, with all the no-wavers, you fucking hated Fleetwood Mac. There’s no way you’d be caught dead listening to them; they represented everything you hated. Now you can’t go anywhere without hearing Rumours. Somebody’s playing whatever Pitchfork’s best new music is that day, going right into “Dreams.” If it’s good and it has a timelessness quality to it, people will bring it into their lives.
It has been strange to see, though. I was under the assumption when we first got something like, “Oh, Fox has a show and they want to use one of your songs and it’s gonna be on at eight o’clock.” It was like, “Oh shit, let’s watch it; we’re gonna be on the TV!” And then we watched and the characters are talking about our band, and it’s fucking weird, man. But it felt like an isolated incident. Because we felt like, a.) no one’s gonna catch that reference aside from our friends, and b.) this isn’t indicative of any kind of movement culturally. I don’t know; I’m not even sure if I’m answering your question, but I never would have expected counterculture, as I knew growing up would culminate in where we are now. A place like VICE isn’t just some zine in some dirtbag’s apartment; it’s a mega billion dollar media company. And that’s fucking awesome, man. It’s crazy to see some band make weird ass music in front of three thousand people. It’s crazy that Pitchfork has a music festival and 30,000 people come out to see some pretty fringe shit.
It may seem like to some people that counterculture in indie rock is overexposed, and Urban Outfitters and Hot Topics are things: you can buy individuality in a kit at a store. It doesn’t change the fact there are always people pushing against that. There’s always kids fighing agaisnt that and do new and crazy stuff. And if you’re a kid today getting into music, everything is at your fingertips. I really don’t like the idea that people in my generation are sometimes like, “I had to go to Seattle to buy records; I had to take a ferry and a bus and I love my records more because I had to work harder than you!” It’s bullshit man, fucking bullshit. It doesn’t matter if you find something you love by clicking on a button or trudging through the snow, it’s demeaning to young people for anyone in my generation or older is that their connection to art and music is not as strong as mine because I had to work harder to get it.
It’s that “get off my lawn mentality.” I was going to ask if you think there’s been anything lost with the growth of everything we’re talking about, if there’s something that wasn’t how it was.
Well, of course you lose things, but you also gain things. I forget who coined this term, but I remember hearing a couple years ago someone writing a piece about the Brooklynification of indie rock. I felt we kind of lost regional scenes. They exist less frequently because everyone’s listening to the same stuff, so it’s rare to see another Elephant 6 kind of thing, or Omaha, or Chapel Hill. Or Seattle, those insular music scenes that almost exist outside of the world. Those scenes will pop-up and burn brighter and faster than before. But living in Seattle the last couple years there’s been a really cool punk rock scene popping up. I’ve been referring to it as snark rock, and they play pizza fest. It’s like the attitude is they’re in bands cause they hate it. And it’s cool and way hipper and younger than I am, but it’s like I fucking love some of these bands. And these are these scenes I’m definitely not apart of, but as an observer seeing these scenes that almost go out of their way to not be heard.
We’re getting something much more valuable, kids playing music now. My generation would’ve been isolated and would have no idea where to find culture and inspiration who they were creatively, and now it’s right here, everywhere. One of the wonderful sides of social media is people don’t need to need to feel as alone anymore. There’s certainly downsides to all that, but I feel like that’s what everyone searches for in their devices, to not feel alone.
You’ve had a big life. What is life about?
Man, that is a huge question.
Yeah, I know. I asked Robert Plant that question and he made a joke about how life is about not faking organisms, and then he quoted a king.
Ha, yeah, I was going to make a joke that I was gonna steal Robert Plant’s answer. But circling back to what we were just talking about, all you have in life is the relationships you have with other people. They’re romantic, friendships, bands, they’re frienemies, but I think through my entire life there have been people who’ve been constants throughout all the weird fucking shit. I don’t know how I’d get through these trying moments in my life without my family, or band mates, or people who’ve been around this whole time. I can count on one hand the kind of people who were those people for me when I was living in Los Angeles. I had to leave and come back to realize I had no reason to leave in the first place.The reasons for leaving were too personal and complicated for here. But I had to leave and comeback to think, “I’m never leaving Seattle. This is where I belong.”
I’ve gone to crazy places in the world; I feel so fortunate. Like how lucky am I, I got to be in not one, but two successful bands, and that’s not fair. But it’s how it is and I feel grateful for that. But having gone all over the place, I’m like, “Man this is where I belong. This is where I need to double down on this.” For me, it was like losing some of that; it was only the distance from those people that made me realize how they were the most important people in my life. The Cascadian landscape, the mountains, the water, the trees, everything. Even while I wouldn’t trade my time in LA for anything and as painful as divorce is, I would do it again and all of those cliché answers. But it was only waking up in a southern California landscape every day was where I realize where it’s not my home. The only way you can realize where your home is, is by leaving.
Sometimes you have to walk into a wall multiple times, over and over again, until you widen your perspective and realize there’s a door to your left.
I learned a lot in my time there in LA. I’m like, it’s one of those weird things you say when you go through some really dark, shitty times. There is that realization like “I never want to do that again but I’m glad it happened.” But only when you get some distance from it, bringing it back to some of the stuff on the record, only after you take it out and apart and reassemble it can you realize why it fell apart or didn’t work. And you were an active participant in that, sometimes for reasons you weren’t even aware at the time.
It’s always funny when you have those moments—whether it’s a relationship romantic or otherwise—and something falls out, but later you’re like, “Oh that was my fault too.”
It happens in relationships of all sorts. Like, you two are not meant to be friends or in a band together. There’s an element of it, too, sometimes, where it’s like one person didn’t do a thing to someone else. I mean, sometimes that happens. But I was going to therapy, and my therapist had been talking about this couple who had come in after three months, and they didn’t think it was going well and contemplated going to couple’s therapy, and he was like, “Maybe you guys just shouldn’t date.” Sometimes people feel like if they’re doing all the work, clearly this has to work and they can make it work. But sometimes it just isn’t a good fit.
Final question: if you could go back in time, what would you tell 19-year-old Ben Gibbard?
I’d tell him to take more pictures.
Eric Sundermann will follow you into the dark. He’s Noisey’s managing editor, and you can find him on Twitter.