Ten years ago, Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard retreated to the rustic California town of Big Sur to write songs for his band’s new record, Narrow Stairs, and to commune with the spirit of his idol Jack Kerouac, who’d visited Big Sur almost a half-century earlier. For the cover story of Paste issue #42, we sent Gibbard back to his cabin in the woods to meditate on life, art and solitude. Today, to mark the 10th anniversary of the release of Narrow Stairs, we’re revisiting that story here.
Why did I think I was going to come here and have this place change my life? I wanted it so badly, as I’m sure Kerouac did. I wanted to cleanse myself with this place. I’d spent years wondering what it looked like, wondering what it would be like to be here. And now here I am, sleeping in the same room Kerouac slept in. I’m walking the same path he walked when he came to the beach and wrote. Jack Kerouac sat here and wrote poems about the sound of the ocean. He sat right here.
There’s something ominous about venturing into this canyon. The first line of the first song I wrote here is, “I descended a dusty gravel ridge”—it’s like the whole album is a descent. Being here for two weeks was productive, but it was also very reflective in a not-so-comfortable way. I realized some things about myself that I don’t really like, and to come back here and be reminded of all that made me feel really anxious from the moment I first turned down the driveway. The epiphany never came. I’m just as confused now as I was when I got here six months ago. And when I returned to start thinking about this essay, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to be back.
I’d totally idealized what I’d be able to accomplish down here. I thought I needed to go somewhere to finish this record, figuring it wasn’t something I could do from the comfort of my own home, like the other 30 songs I wrote. I wanted isolation, which in a way is odd. It’s not like I have a drug problem, or I have a hard time concentrating, or I’m lazy. I idealized coming here for sentimental reasons.
I read On The Road in college. I was 18 or 19, and I had a particular quarter where I was taking biology, calculus and physics. Those were my three classes. It wasn’t a well-rounded schedule at all. It was hard, hard work, all the time-—hours and hours and hours of homework. My brain was just full of all these specific equations; there was no fun whatsoever. But I pulled On The Road off the shelf and found myself reading it between classes, and at that time in my life it was exactly what I craved, exactly what I needed to hear. I thought, “That’s the way, that’s the ideal life, that’s great. You get in a car and you drive and you see your friends and you end up in a city for a night and you go out drinking and you catch up and you share these really intense experiences. And then you’re on the road and you’re doing it again.” The romance of the road, particularly from Kerouac’s work, encapsulated how I wanted to live. I found a way to do it by being a musician, which is what I always wanted to be. The traveling and the being on tour and being away from home set a precedent for me where I thought, “Oh yeah, this is how it works.”
But then in reading Big Sur, it’s the end of the road. You end up with a series of failed relationships and you end up being an alcoholic and in your late 30s, and not having any kind of real grip on the lives of the people around you. That’s the potential other end of the spectrum when you’re never tied to anybody or anything. I run the risk of losing touch with the people in my life that mean the most to me because I have made the decision to live like this.
If you tell certain people that you like Kerouac, they assume that’s all you read, like you don’t know anything else about literature. I recognize all the things that people dislike about the way he writes—his tone and the sentimentality of it all. But those books were there for me at a very important point in my life.
And moments in Big Sur are starting to become very analogous to my life, where I show up in a town and call up my friends, and I’m like, “Guys, we gotta go out. Let’s hang out, I haven’t seen you in forever.” And their response is “Yeah, well, our baby needs to be going to sleep and I can’t be out all hours of the night anymore. It’s time to move on in our lives into another phase; we can’t live in this perpetual adolescence forever.”
Because of my age and what I do for a living and the amount of time that I’ve spent away from my family and loved ones, I’m starting to relate more to the late-period Kerouac stuff in the way that I once related to the fun and excitement of the early material. There’s a darkness inside of me that I’m only now starting to come to grips with and accept. And it’s starting to scare me.
At some point I thought that, as I got older, I’d come to terms with a lot of things. I’d solve some big problems, and eventually I’d become content. It’s almost more depressing to think that the older you get, the more your problems multiply. When I’m old, I’d like to wake up in the morning and not really do anything—just be happy to exist. I’d like to look at my accomplishments and sit back and revel in my own achievement. But I don’t think that’ll ever happen.
Before I made a living playing music, I used to work shitty job after shitty job and think “Man, as soon as I’m able to make a living in music, it’s really going to come together then, it’s really going be amazing.” I remember hoping there’d be 10 people at a show in 1998 when there was an incredible write-up in the local weekly. I don’t want to go back to that period of being obscure and having nobody know who I am, let alone have to struggle to get people to come to the show. I remember what it was like, and it was shitty.
Since then, Death Cab has become one of those weird cultural fenceposts—people align their tastes on one side or the other. It’s weird when people come up to me, music people, snobby, critical kind of people. It’s almost like they’re confessing to me that they like my band: “I gotta tell ya, I really, really like that new record. I heard the first record, and I kinda thought that was OK, and I kinda tuned out. But your band is really a lot better than people give it credit for.”
Sean Nelson said it best: “No one likes what I like, that’s how I like it.” It’s as though people think, “I’m such an individual that I like things that nobody’s even heard of before. I went out of my way to find music and books and movies that are so obscure that I am an individual, and I am interesting because I like interesting things.” But that’s not true. Liking interesting things doesn’t make you interesting.
You can’t have it both ways. You can’t be successful and critically acclaimed by everybody who likes the cool things you like. Would I want to go back to our first album? I remember what it was like to have one record out and have there be 10 journalists at these alt-weeklies around the country being like, “This is the greatest band that nobody’s heard of. You have to hear this Death Cab for Cutie record, Something About Airplanes, it is mind-blowing, it’s so good.” And the reality is, no, it’s not. It’s a decent record, but it’s by no means our best record. It’s our first record.
I’d like to think I’m a far better writer now than I was 10 years ago. When I first started the band, and I began writing in the way that has marked the trajectory of how I go about making music now, I was convinced that my writing was wildly descriptive and very dense and interesting, and people were really going to have to chew on this stuff. But now I’ll play a song like “Bend To Squares” and it’s like, “What the fuck am I talking about here? This song makes absolutely no sense.” I would just write what I thought were very profound, dense lyrics. They may be about something in my head, but they don’t translate to being about anything that anybody could understand just listening.
I decided a handful of years ago that I just want to write songs that you can understand as soon as you put the record on. There’s no need to veil what’s happening in the song the way I used to.
My goal as a songwriter now is to simply write some memorable turns of phrase. The reaction I’d like from every song I write is, “Wow, I listen to this song, and it’s about such-and-such, and there’s this lyric in there that’s just awesome.” At the end of the day, that’s what I want.
That’s what I’d like the reaction to be when people hear Narrow Stairs, our new record. The first song, “Bixby Canyon Bridge,” is about something very specific: The first time I came here to Big Sur, I was waiting, I was sitting here waiting for something to happen, to have this epiphany about my life and how it relates to Kerouac, one of my idols, who I have the utmost respect for and who changed my life.
Whenever I finish writing a song, I get that satisfaction of finishing something that nobody’s read or heard yet. And that moment of self-satisfaction is the most valuable type of satisfaction for one’s own work. It’s amazing to have people singing a song back to you on a stage. It’s great to finish recording a song and play it for your friend, and they love it. That feels good. But nothing feels better than when you’ve finished something and you know it’s good, and you know that those other responses will come in time.
I feel that songwriters are held to a different standard than almost any other type of writer—some fans get genuinely upset if I admit that a song that they held close to their heart was not based on actual events in my life. Like “What Sarah Said”: I was never in a waiting room in a hospital waiting for news that somebody was going to die. I’ve been in hospital waiting rooms before, waiting for a doctor’s appointment, and I got a sense of the general vibe of the room—not a joyous place—and I decided to set a song there.
With this record, if I didn’t have something to write about that I’ve experienced, if I couldn’t visualize myself in that scenario and really put myself in the shoes of the narrator, then I felt I shouldn’t be writing it. I’m having my own experience here, and I’m writing about it. I’m not writing a song about Kerouac at Big Sur; I’m writing about myself at Big Sur.
The single on our record is a work of fiction that was inspired by things that happened to some people close to me. It’s called “I Will Possess Your Heart,” and it’s eight-and-a-half minutes long. It’s five minutes of build and then a three-minute song. The song is basically about a stalker. It’s about this nice guy who wants this girl he can’t have, and he believes they’ll be together once she realizes how great he is—he just has to wait it out. That’s the part that makes the song really creepy, the delusion of thinking that they were meant to be together. It’s a really dark song. A lot of the material is about the inevitable disappointment people feel as they move through life, and things don’t feel the way they expect. No experience will ever match up to the idealized version in your mind.
I played a solo show in New York in May, and there was a really nice review in The New York Times. The writer said something that I’ve even co-opted to refer to myself: The thing that some people dislike about my music is the exact thing that other people like about it. The subject matter, the words I choose, the way my voice sounds, the specifics in my writing—those are the kind of things that make some people think, “Oh, I fuckin’ hate that guy.”
Our band is very polarizing. There are people who absolutely can’t stand us, and people who absolutely can’t live without us. I’d rather spark those kind of polar-opposite feelings than have people be indifferent.
Because of this approach, I feel this is a more honest record than anything I’ve made in a long time. Elements of it are kind of embarrassing, but I’m proud of that. I don’t spend my time perusing message boards to find out what people think about me or if people think my songs are good or if people love that lyric or this or that. I just want to be happy with it myself—and if other people like it, that’s great.
I can unequivocally say that I’m so glad we were one of the last bands to break before the Internet got crazy. We actually had some time to develop. I hate hearing people say, “I went and saw this band—everybody’s saying they’re really great—but I went and saw them last night and they weren’t any good live.” You know why they weren’t good? Because they’ve never done more than five shows in a row, and now they’re two weeks into a tour—their first national tour. They don’t know how to get to the shows, they don’t know how to sleep right, they don’t know where to find food. They don’t understand how to make a set list somebody cares about. You can’t blame these bands for not being great yet. We were terrible when we first started playing. Our shows were so fucking boring.
I feel very fortunate that we were able to get in before the Web really took off. But I don’t want to go back to that period where we were literally eating mustard sandwiches in West Texas because we didn’t have money. There was nowhere to get anything vegetarian. And even if there was, we didn’t have any money anyway. I remember being hungry and skinny.
At this point in my life, I find myself obsessed with alternate paths I could’ve taken. I don’t think about this with a sense of regret, but with a sense of wonder—I wonder if I made the right decision by going to the college that I went to, where I met Nick and Chris and we started this band and my life has become what it’s become. What would’ve happened if I would’ve gone to a different college? What would my life be like?
My first serious adult girlfriend got married three years ago. She and her husband have a child now. I went to the wedding, and I was thinking how great it was, how happy I was to be here. I was happy that she was where she was in her life, and that I was where I was—maybe things do happen for a reason. But for every one of those scenarios where I think things happen for a reason, I find myself regretting decisions that I never really had.
I find it very hard to accept the wonderful things in my life. My life really is great: I do exactly what I want to do for a living, I have a wonderful person to share my life with, I have a great family, I have great friends. But somehow there’s a void. I’m the last person who should be complaining or wondering why I’m perpetually unhappy. I would like to think that my lack of contentment is part of what makes my work the way it is, and for the better.
I would rather make great records than make great relationships. When I’m at odds with myself, I would rather fuck up every relationship I’ve ever been in and write great records. And not because I need a breakup to provide me with material. Not like that.
It’s hard enough having a relationship with one person, but to have a relationship with three other bandmates that you are so intimately tied to and you spend so much time with—and to have that actually work and function—is just astounding. I have been in a band for more than 10 years now. I never thought I’d be doing anything for 10 years straight, let alone a band, and I feel so fortunate for that. I have been allowed for some reason to do that. But it’s even more amazing that we get along better now than we did 10 years ago.
An ex-girlfriend once got upset when I told her that music is the most important thing in my life. It’s more important than anyone else could ever be. I don’t want to be overly dramatic and say it’s the only thing that gets me up and keeps me going. But people in your life come and go. As you go through your life, you make friendships, you break friendships, you have relationships. Music is the one thing I’ve always been able to rely on. So why wouldn’t it be the most important thing in my life?