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A First Date in a Chain Bookstore with Death Cab for Cutie

Romance is... Kensington High Street Waterstones.

by Lauren O'Neill; photos by Chris Bethell
Aug 8 2018, 12:39pm

All images by Chris Bethell

I don’t know about you, but when I’m looking to impress a date, I like to take them to my favourite, unknown corners of London so they can see how *lowers glasses* cool and unique I really am. Cocktails at an unknown rooftop bar, perhaps; or a stroll along a secluded pathway lined with sweet little stores. You know. Real London.

So obviously, when my very important date with Seattle’s best-loved indie rockers Death Cab for Cutie (scheduled on the day of their sold-out Meltdown Festival show, which they were asked personally to play by The Cure’s Robert Smith) came a-calling, I had to pull out all the stops. The band’s Ben Gibbard and Dave Depper sent a request to go book shopping, so I dove into my mental Filofax to dig out the best darling independent stores and limited print run sellers. Eventually, I settled on one of the most romantic places I know: a little spot called... Kensington High Street Waterstones. Maybe you’ve heard of it? [Ed note: Waterstones is essentially the British Barnes & Noble; Kensington High Street is a west London thoroughfare where rich people go to shop.]

Waterstones actually proved pretty well stocked, and Ben and Dave were both able to find something they were into. Afterwards, I quizzed them about their purchases, the band’s seemingly always fated friendship with Smith, and the literary influences on their upcoming ninth record, Thank You For Today, out next Friday 17 August.

Noisey: First thing’s first: how does being asked by Robert Smith to play a show work? Does he just get on top of a building and send the bat signal?
Ben: Yeah, it’s a big mascara-covered eye. He just sings the intro of "Pictures of You."

Did he send a personal email?
Yeah, I think there was like, a forum-y email to a lot of people he was asking to play. But then our manager wrote back to say thank you and that we were trying to make it work, because obviously coming over from the States with a full band and crew is expensive, and we needed to figure out if we could add a couple of other shows, and make it not lose money. So then I emailed back saying, “Thank you so much, this is really cool,” not expecting to hear anything back, and all of a sudden: now we’re pen pals.

Oh my god.
I mean, we don’t talk about what we had for breakfast, but it was really kind of—"Oh, he’s a real guy who really likes music." Whether or not he’s at the show tonight or whatever, it’s irrelevant. To have one of your idols not only know you exist but to invite you to participate in something they’re doing is amazing.

And it’s cool that so many albums in that sort of thing is still happening, right?
Oh my god, yeah.

Dave: I hope he’s at the show tonight, personally.

So do I! I’ve never been to the Meltdown event before – I wonder if he has a special curator’s box, or like, a throne.
Ben: Right? Like Statler and Waldorf in the Muppets, he’s just up there heckling.

Dave: I’m super excited about the Meltdown thing because I actually lived in London during the summer of 2002 for a Study Abroad thing, and it was the year David Bowie curated. So there were David Bowie’s Meltdown posters everywhere, and I couldn’t afford to go to it, and I walked by the Southbank Centre the night he played all of the Low album apparently. And it’s just something I’ve always thought about since then, so it’s a dream come true to be playing it.

Tell me about the books you guys got today.
I got Dancing in the Dark by Karl Ove Knausgaard. It’s funny: over here, they have different titles, but in the original Norwegian I think it’s called My Struggle parts one through to six. This is part four.

Ben: I always think he could have called it something other than My Struggle. I think that title’s been taken?

Dave: I think that was his point. He’s being a bit of a rabble-rouser.

That sounds really cool. So you’ve been reading the rest of the series and couldn’t stay away?
Yeah, which is bizarre because they’re kind of about nothing. You usually read an autobiography because the author has done something that you care about and you’re interested in learning more about them. But this guy is just writing about his life and I don’t know anything about him. He just has a very interesting perspective on the world, and I don’t agree with him a lot of the time, but he helps me understand the world through that lens.

Right. What else did you guys get?
While Ben was looking unsuccessfully for the new Can bio, I picked up Future Days by David Stubbs basically on Ben’s recommendation. It’s about Krautrock, which is some of my favourite music ever made in the world, and I know a large part, I think, of the individual stories involved, but I’ve yet to read a comprehensive summation.

Well here we go. I think it’s helpful to have a book contextualise a genre in its history.
Definitely.

Ben: This period of music is my favourite period of rock and roll. Post ‘50s, ‘60s, in Germany there was no youth culture, and I just love how defiant these musicians were about following the footsteps of American and British artists. They had no interest in it whatsoever, and the music that came out of this era was just so much more interesting.

Dave: There was no antecedent.

Do you guys find yourselves reading a lot of music books in general?
It’s kinda like comfort food for me.

Ben: Yeah, me too. That’s a good way of putting it. I just finished the new Paul Simon biography, and I’m a longtime fan. And books like that one, or Future Days—I want to just devour them, but I have to just actually tell myself to slow down. I want to take my time with them. And I do this thing where if I’m reading a book that’s kind of like, a chronological life story of an artist or band, I’ll be putting the records on as I’m reading the book. Or going on runs, putting them on, driving around listening to them. The story behind the record helps me get a little further into it.

Tell me about the books you got today, Ben.
I got two books by Mikhail Bulgakov, who is a Russian writer. For the last maybe nine months I’ve just been on this huge Russian kick. I realized that I only had read the books I had to read in high school or college, and a friend of mine who is the drummer in The American Analog Set—who are still great friends of ours, and are a band that we toured with and were really good buddies with when we were first starting out in the late 90s—is now a PhD in Comparative Czech and Russian Literature. So last time I was in Austin he brought me a stack of books as if he was like, my teacher, like “You need to read this stuff.” And I really fell in love with Bulgakov. I didn’t even start with The Master and Margarita—that’s like the required reading. I started with some older ones. And these ones, you couldn’t walk into a chain bookstore in the States and pick them up.

Well that’s what the UK has given you this time.
Yes. Thank you UK. I theoretically would have the new Can biography as well. But in Seattle we have a great bookstore called Elliott Bay, and that’ll be in Elliott Bay when I get home. And at this point now in the world we live in, sometimes you go to a store to buy a book or a record, and they don’t have it, and they say "Well we could order it for you!" and I think, "Well I could order it too!" But Elliott Bay is one of those places where I’m like "Oh you can order it? I can wait, because I want to buy it from you guys." Same with Wall of Sound Records in Seattle.

Do you find yourselves reading on tour to pass the time as you’re going between cities? What stuff do you like to read in those situations?
Dave: It’s hard for me to go too deep on difficult literature for whatever reason. My brain is in a learning mode, so I tend to read non-fiction. I’ll even read like, synthesiser manuals sometimes. Rock bios are perfect for being on tour, things you can pick up and put down according to the herky-jerky schedule every day.

Ben: Because being on tour just sucks your intelligence out of you, I try to be reading something somewhat challenging, with like, a back-up rock bio if that becomes something I just can’t handle. There’s just so much time to kill on tour, but at the same time, you are working at the end of the day, and at the end of everyone else’s work day. You have to be ready to work at 9PM, so you can’t spend the day sightseeing. You have to hold back something for the show. And thankfully we’re in a place now where we don’t have to load the gear, or set up the stuff, but we’ve never really been the kind of band that plays PlayStation on the bus. We watch dumb movies like every band, but just in my life in general, I’m feeling a hunger for nutritious media. Like, watching classic films that are somewhat challenging that I haven’t seen, or reading books that are maybe translated into English. But I’m also peppering in like, Jackass movies. I don’t wanna give the impression that I’m all highbrow all the time. My wife and I always talk about the importance of the balance of high and lowbrow. I want to read Bulgakov and then watch somebody get a kick in the nuts.

All of life! A buffet!
I just never want Jackass to not be funny to me. There’s something about lowbrow humor and silliness that is a real spice of life. I don’t ever want to be too old for it.

The new record is out soon and I was wondering if there were any specific literary references or things that you were reading that influenced that this time around?
You know, I mean, there has always been like, go-tos, like people that I’m always picking up and re-reading. There aren’t a lot of writers that I’m always re-reading, but Raymond Carver is one of them. I have an anthology where the pages are like Bible paper, and I find myself just picking that up. If I’m in between books, I find myself picking up Raymond Carver, and just choosing a story and re-reading it, because there’s such a depth to his writing in such a simple language, and there’s so much unsaid in those stories—there’s a lot of negative space in his writing, and that’s the real meat of it.

What was the last thing you read and enjoyed?
I just yesterday finished a book called Lawnboy by Jonathan Evison, he’s a writer from where I grew up, or at least he lives in that area, and the book takes place there. It’s a simple story, not like a really heavy read, he’s just a fantastic writer and I liked that it takes place in all the places I grew up in, and I liked that the geography holds.

Dave: The last thing I read that really knocked me out was called Moonglow by Michael Chabon. His last few books really didn’t do anything for me, so I was really surprised that this book was so wonderful. It’s historical fiction that takes place in World War II, and it’s set up as a memoir of his grandpa being on his deathbed telling him stories. And the setting is something I didn’t know a lot about, which was the Allied rush to grab German scientists, as it became clear that the Allies were going to win the war, to get the scientists before the Russians did.

You can send Lauren reading recommendations on Twitter (only joking, please don't), and you can find Chris on Instagram.

This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.

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