You can blame it all on Ol’ Blue Eyes.
In Frank Sinatra’s prime, there was no one like him. He was the crooner who could make you feel the power of every lyric, the man who could be singing in an auditorium of 10,000 people and still make you feel like you were the only one he was addressing. It was a rare power possessed by a one of a kind performer.
Ben Gibbard is no Chairman of the Board though. You won’t see him performing at the Met, much less on American Idol; his voice just isn’t designed for those things. Instead, he possesses a rough-hewn everyman charm, an indispensable charisma that shines through in both his songs and his everyday conversations. You could talk to him for five minutes and you’ll feel like you’re old friends with him. Play just about any Death Cab for Cutie song at random and you’re likely to hear a tune that will serve as a three-minute shortcut to personal catharsis. Gibbard has been plugging away at his art for over a decade, but it’s only now that Gbbard (along with guitarist/producer Chris Walla, bassist Nick Harmer, and drummer Jason McGerr) is finally seeing his band enjoy the fruits of success.
US: 13 May 2008
UK: 12 May 2008
Of course, at this moment, that’s the least important thing on my mind: I find myself racing home at a rate that’s well above the speed-limit, rushing through traffic because the only free time I have conduct this interview is during a lunch break at work. Yes, this is the most rock star thing that I will do today. As I’m driving, “No Sunlight”—one of the poppiest moments on Narrow Stairs, the band’s just-released sixth album—is bouncing in my speakers, feeling like some cast-off New Pornographers track as covered by Death Cab. It’s a good track from a good album, but still releasing great material a decade into your career isn’t the only major accomplishment that Death Cab has pulled off this year. Just a few days prior to our interview, Gibbard and company learned of something even more remarkable: Narrow Stairs had just topped the Billboard charts, an incredible feat for an “indie-rock” band.
Well, maybe not all that incredible. After all, last year Modest Mouse pulled the same trick, and albums by the Shins and the Arcade Fire both debuted at number two, all signaling a gradual paradigm shift in pop music, proving that “indie rock” isn’t really all that underground anymore. Gibbard jokingly acknowledges this when I speak to him, describing how it was called “college rock” in the ‘80s, “alternative rock” in the ‘90s, and “indie rock” today: all different words for the same thing. Death Cab themselves are indebted to “alternative rockers” like Built to Spill, carrying on a lineage of six-string emoting that’s as immediate as it is direct. Perhaps it’s symbolic, then, that Narrow Stairs beat out the latest Frank Sinatra greatest hits compilation on the charts the week that it came out ... or perhaps it’s just coincidental and nothing more.
Gibbard himself speaks at a machine-gun rate, thoughts flowing out at speeds that even he has a tough time keeping up with (he found himself getting verbally traffic jammed at a few points during our conversation). What was remarkable about talking with him, though, is how unprotected he was: he sounded like some average guy who just so happened to have the number one album in the country. His pre-release press rounds featured a remarkably disarmed article for Paste that Gibbard actually penned himself, a rarity in today’s publicist-driven world of promotion. I tell him that I sincerely hope I’m not repeating any questions he’s not answered a million times before, to which he instantly quips back, “And if you do, I’ll answer them gracefully.”
It’s refreshing to talk to a rock star this humble, this detached from the “rock star” stereotype. In many ways, this article isn’t about him or about me or even about the noble steed named Doug who bravely covered my too-long lunch break at work, making this interview possible. Ultimately, this article is about the music and how you (and only you) relate to it. Really, that’s all that Ben could ever hope for.
The first thing I wanted to ask you about is simple: Narrow Stairs hitting number one. Dare I ask how you feel about that or even what the band’s reaction was?
Well we’re delighted. I mean, it would probably go without saying that when we started this band over ten years ago, the idea of having a number one record was completely laughable. So I don’t think it was ever one of those things where we saw [it] in the realm of possibility early on, to the extent that we “made a goal” of someday we’ll have a number one record, ya know? But as the years went on and the stakes kind of changed as a band, I think, certainly going into ... with this record coming out I think that we all were certainly thinking that this would be a possibility. So given that fact that it did, we’re all really excited. Ya know we beat Sinatra, which was nice. (laughs) And it’s interesting—it’s great. I mean we’re not going to have a parade down Broadway or L.A. or anything like that but we’re certainly ... ya know, it’s a nice little boost as we head out on the road again.
Absolutely. There is, however, another milestone we need to celebrate: by my count, this is roughly the 1000th interview you’ve given to promote Narrow Stairs.
(laughs) I’d say it’s probably not that high, but it’s certainly getting there at this point. But ya know I think [that] with each interview [and] as many interviews as we do, as long as people keep them interesting, I feel like I learn how to kind of talk about the album and talk about the band ... ya know you get out of practice of that when you don’t do it for a year and a half at a time.
Being the fan that I am, I read through a lot of those pieces, so I’m praying to god that I’m not asking questions that you’ve answered a million times already.
Well, if you do, I’ll answer them gracefully.
(laughs) Fantastic. Actually, of all the pre-release stuff that you’ve done, I think that my hands-down favorite was the piece that you penned for Paste Magazine. One of the things that I found particularly interesting is how you described how upset some of your fans were upon finding out that [Plans’ tragic song about being at the hospital bed of a loved one slowly passing away] “What Sarah Said” was not actually based off of a real-life event. With all your interviews prior to this album, you kept describing on how you’re really focused on characters instead of just writing as yourself. Now with this intensely personal connection that your fans obviously have to your work, are you still afraid of misinterpretation like that or has it gotten to the point where you’re writing songs just to satisfy or challenge yourself?
Well I think the misconceptions ... I think it’s predominantly because I write almost exclusively in first-person, and for some reason that tense has always felt [like the] best for me as a songwriter. So, I think there’s going to be a misconception that everything that I write is true to my life and I ...
Gutting yourself out.
Yeah, and I guess for some people maybe setting up the disappointment that a particular event in a song that somebody relates to is somehow not as pure if I haven’t experienced it exactly the way they have. But I guess, ya know, with any writer of any kind of work, it’s like you have to have a kind of understanding of the situation to be able to write about it. I think I said on that Paste article—if I can elaborate on it—I’ve spent a lot of hospital waiting rooms over the course of my life for a number of reasons, some as obviously simple as just waiting to see a doctor as much as, ya know, waiting for somebody who just hurt themselves and you have to drive them home, you know? I’ve always been, sometimes, almost too aware of surroundings. Sometimes it works to my detriment, socially; that I walk in a room and I feel I have a really good read of it. My parents tell me [that] even as a little kid I’d go into a room and just kind of have a real sense of what was occurring in the room, and that works, I think, to my benefit as a songwriter but sometimes to my detriment as a human being, you know? I kinda think too much about stuff.
I don’t know if I’m dancing around your question, but I think [that] at the core of it I feel responsibility to myself to kind of ... when I’m writing a song, the most important thing to me is that I see myself in the song. Like when I’m in the midst of writing it, ya know, I can kind of be watching the scene occurring in the song either because some version of that has happened to me or [it’s] something that I’m close with or I immediately fall into the story and can kind of see all the characters and kind of see all the minor details of the surroundings of the characters and then find myself really in them and be able to expound on them and feel like the song has an honesty to it.
It’s like you’re an actor.
A little bit! At times, yeah.
I got a chance to review Narrow Stairs for PopMatters. Immediately after I finished writing it, I went out to rent [the 2005 DCFC tour documentary] Drive Well, Sleep Carefully. After watching your trails and travails on the road (and seeing you guys during the Plans tour), it suddenly felt like the sonic shift for Narrow Stairs became much clearer. I know you guys wanted to connect as a band in the studio instead of having an album be a “construction project” as you put it before, but it feels like Stairs is much more of a “tour” record: you got the guitar solos at the end of “Bixby Canyon Bridge”, the rhythm-guitar fight during “Long Division”, the rawk you bring to “Pity and Fear”, etc. It just feels like more of a live concert album than anything else in your discography. Was that part of the intention from the get-go?
I think that after we kind of ... I feel like it’s best to kind of talk about Narrow Stairs and how different it is from Plans sometimes. The songs that I’d written [for Plans] were a lot of songs I’d written in my computer that were tied to little bleeps and glips and samples and things like that—and there weren’t a lot of guitar songs I’d written for Plans hardly at all—and I think compounded with the nervousness [of] the elephant in the room that nobody really wanted to acknowledge about Plans being our major-label debut, it just ... I think [that] record has a hesitation and kind of a self-awareness about it that I think works to its detriment at times; but as we kind of toured through Plans and when we signed to Atlantic and we were putting out Plans, we told ourselves that we were gonna tour our asses off and do all the work even in a time [when] it’s not fun , ya know? All through December 2006 and then we’re gonna break and be able to kind of work on other stuff and just fall back into life as normal human beings.
Throughout that year and a half of touring and talking about how we’re gonna make the next record, I think we kind of set a precedent pretty early on that we were going to try to record this record just spending less time looking at screens and sitting in front of consoles and more time just in a room playing music ‘cos that’s I think what we do best. I mean, I think that regardless of anybody’s opinion about our music, I don’t think there’s any denying that we play really well. We play really well together and we’ve never really highlighted that on an album.
Well there’s something to be said for the fact that [guitarist/producer Chris] Walla mixed the album as a continuous piece…
...and for me, it seems to say something more in the sense that you guys are moving away from the notion of an album being just a “collection of songs”, you know what I mean?
I would hope so. I think that with every record, we always try to make it be not so much a “collection of songs”, but I think that if that’s the perception on some of the older records I think that’s probably a testament, hopefully, to how we’ve grown and how we’ve been able to kind of “build” albums.
For me, I think the whole idea of trying to make more [of an] “album piece” is most evident in the lyrical journey that you take this time through. I love the starting image on “Bixby Canyon Bridge”: you’re standing in a stream, barefoot and vulnerable, apparently discovering that your Kerouacian muse has disappeared somewhere along your way, etc. But by the time we get to [closing track] “The Ice is Getting Thinner”, you’re standing on a dissolving ice floe: your beloved in your arms, your future uncertain ... do you think the arc of Narrow Stairs is more of a journey that way?
I think that there are definitely … ya know, I think [that] early on it becomes pretty apparent what the first song and last song are gonna be on any album. I think it was [bassist] Nick [Harmer’s] suggestion early on that “Bixby” should be the first song on the record solely because the first line is “I descended a dusty gravel ridge”. Like there’s a descencion, kind of a delving into some kind of either physical or metaphorical space in that first song and towards the end of the album ... I like the fact that the last song on the record is such a sparse, kind of very direct song. It kind of encapsulates a lot of the lyrical content of the album. I mean, we’ve never—and certainly not with this record—sequenced or picked songs solely based on a lyrical arc but I think we’ve gotten really lucky that ... well not lucky, but I think it’s just a matter of fact that I write songs about certain chunks of my life and I kind of seem to have my own fiscal periods where it’s like I talk about my life, my adult life, based on what album we were supporting at the time, you know what I mean? And that certain events in my life—and those of the people around me—tend to kind of fall into certain albums and those albums tend to have a certain theme about them and this one is no different, but I think that hopefully given the fact that some of these songs are a lot more direct and—upon first listen—lyrically, I think that maybe that what you said will hopefully come through to people.