Catching Up with Death Cab For Cutie's Ben Gibbard

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Catching Up with Death Cab For Cutie's Ben Gibbard

It didn’t start out as anything ponderous. According to bandleader Ben Gibbard, it was just a playful little in-joke benediction he and his Seattle outfit Death Cab For Cutie would share with producer Rich Costey each day they spent together in the studio. “Thank you for today,” Costey would purr like a schoolmarm as they wrapped each session—wink, wink, nudge, nudge—and the group members, chuckling, would respond in kind. But gradually, the ritual took on added significance until it had enough heft to become the disarming title of DCFC’s new album, its ninth. Because being grateful, Gibbard now firmly believes, is a great way to go through life. And he should know.

The singer—who, courtesy of Costey’s clever miking, reaches such heights of disaffected, grammatically precise diction here that he sounds like a long-lost Pet Shop Boy—has been buffeted by the winds of change, first with his two-year marriage to TV actress Zooey Deschanel, which took him out of his Seattle comfort zone for two surreal years in Hollywood. Longtime band guitarist and producer Chris Walla had departed the band, too, leading to the hiring of fill-in musicians, Dave Depper and Zac Rae, untested in the studio. Gibbard was now fully in charge of DCFC’s future, like it or not. But where would he go, artistically?

The answer is strangely comforting. Thank You can transform a chanted Sam Cooke/“Chain Gang” processional like “Gold Rush” into a chugging kinetic force that’s subtly relentless, creating tension from the suggestion of movement itself. Add in a chilly Neil Tennant aloofness from Gibbard, and it’s Death Cab, Mach Two, recognizable but strangely new. Ditto for the other quietly inventive cuts, like the wobbly “60 and Punk,” the hurtling “Summer Years,” a chiming potential mega-hit “Autumn Love,” and the disco-thumpy “I Dreamt We Spoke Again.” Gibbard swears he doesn’t subscribe to the theory that tragedy inevitably produces great art. But thanks for today, indeed, he reaffirms.

Paste: What did you used to covet that you’ve learned to live without?
Ben Gibbard: I don’t know if it’s necessarily that. I think it’s a struggle that a lot of musicians, or artists, have. There are a number of years through the growth of this band were I found myself focusing more on the people that didn’t like us than the people that did like us. Or the accolades that we weren’t getting, rather than the ones that we were. It’s the old adage of the band that is critically lauded curses the fact that they don’t have commercial success, and the band with commercial success wishes they had that critical acclaim. So I think that over the years, I sometimes was looking for validation in a lot of the wrong places. And certainly over the past few years, I’ve started to really focus on how unique our story is, how much people care about this band, and what a valuable part of my life it’s been. And I do not want to squander the time I have left or concern myself with the people that never cared for what we did, if that makes sense—being concerned about the awards we didn’t win.

Paste: Are you more conscious of mortality now? The brevity of life?
Gibbard: Eh. I feel like we are all somewhat conscious of it. So it’s not so much that I feel a clock ticking per se. But I’ll be 42 this week, and if I’m lucky, I’m halfway through my life—I’m right in the middle. And when I was 20, I was only looking forward, you know? But as I’ve gotten older what I’ve noticed about being middle-aged is, now I find myself looking forward to see the rest of my life backwards. At how I got here. But I find myself looking forward to the rest of my life and looking backward in equal measure. And in some ways, that’s kind of driven me, creatively. Certainly for this album it has.

Paste: It feels like you’re addressing someone in these new songs.
Gibbard: Well, I always find inspiration in speaking to someone, lyrically. As you get distance from a person or a relationship, or even a scenario, I think everybody has those things that they wish they’d said to someone, or their perspective that they don’t feel like they were able to articulate properly. Or enough time has gone by—and sometimes this is years and years—where some people that I write about in angular fashion, your version of events always tends to be somewhat fictionalized and it kind of takes over. And that’s a place I always enjoy writing from—it’s like the statute of limitations to accurately depict a series of events has expired. That window is gone, and you can just write about it in any way you feel you want to write about it.

Paste: Like, say, your rapid-fire romance with Zooey Deschanel, wherein you got married and actually tried living in Los Angeles.
Gibbard: I wouldn’t put it in term of trying . I moved to Los Angeles with the best of intentions. But I think that when you make a crazy, impulsive series of decisions in life, sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t. I have friends who met and were married three weeks later, and they’ve been together for 20-some years. But when I look back, I know I made a number of hasty decisions with the best of intentions, and I truly felt the way I felt. But you know, it didn’t work out. And you realize—as I’m sure she has, as well—that this was this intense thing that burned hot and fast and was over. And you come to peace with those decisions. So I personally feel—be it moving back to Seattle, getting back to my community, marrying someone that I’ve known for a long, long time, I feel like I ended up where I belong, in the end. And getting that perspective of leaving the Northwest and then coming back to it with not so much fresh eyes, but where I could see how valuable this place and these people were in my life, I’m never leaving again. I’d never do that again.

Paste: Then there’s the old zenlike adage, don’t be sad that it’s over—be glad that it happened.
Gibbard: Yeah. Which is an adage that I love. I love that. And that certainly applies to me as that chapter of my life fades into my rear-view further and further, it becomes this very wacky chapter. I mean, if I had a biography, that would be the chapter of the book that kind of spices up the story a bit.

Paste: How did your new missus Rachel pop up on your radar?
Gibbard: Well, we had been friends for a really long time, and it was just one of those things that’s happened to friends of mine before, where all of a sudden, a light pops on over someone’s head and you realize, “Oh, my God—you’re kind of amazing!” We’ve just been friends for a long time, and when we finally got together. ... Well, I will say this—we just ended up hanging out one day, and before we knew it, we realized that we were both on the best first date either of us had ever had before. So she has been a great influence on me, not only in the sense that she is a straight shooter. But when I’m writing songs, she’ll say, “You need to make that darker—just let it be dark.” And I appreciate that kind of feedback from someone I’ve known for a time, like, “Yeah, you can do that better.” As you play things for people you care about, it’s nice to have those really honest exchanges.

Paste: But you and Walla’s relationship was often quite the opposite, almost antagonistic?
Gibbard: Well, I will say this. The records in our catalog that people tend to think are the best records—Transatlanticism [2003] being Number One—these records were made during times in which we were all getting along really well. Chris—and he’s said this himself—he didn’t realize he was in this band for four years—he thought he was just helping me out with a solo project. So there were a number of times during his tenure in the band where we just weren’t sure if he was going to quit or not. So when he finally did leave, I wouldn’t say it was a relief. But we all knew this was coming for some time, and now at least we had an answer. And at times, with the friction we would have in the studio, we weren’t able to communicate that effectively, because you’re always worried—worried that you’ll finally push the other person too far, and that’s going to be the line for them. So when you have the feeling that someone could leave at any moment, you don’t want to trigger them.

Paste: Free of all constraints, it must have felt fairly liberating.
Gibbard: It felt like it was a much more free and creative environment than we’d had in some time. And that was due to a lot of factors. Obviously, when you’re in a band with someone for 14 years, you might be having an argument about the guitar parts, and then you realize it’s not about the guitar parts, it’s about that thing that happened six months ago, like, “You always do this to me when I say this!” And I’m not putting that just on Walla—I’m saying it as much for myself, and in any relationship—a marriage, a friendship, a band. But after touring with Dave and Zac, I wasn’t nervous about how this was going to go.

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