"Megalomania Doesn't Have a Tax-Bracket": An Interview with Ben Gibbard
I think you're, obviously, totally on point with the theme thing. A lot of critics focused on Plans that was haunted by themes of death, just as how Transatlanticism was very much oriented around the dissolution of relationships. This album, however, seems to be about disappointment. The thing I like most about it, though, is how it's not just about disappointment with yourself; it's not succumbing to this whole "woe is me" mentality. It's also about the disappointment that you see in other people with the choices that they make, like the titular hero of "Cath…" or the uncertain girl of "Your New Twin Sized Bed". You say you're writing as characters, but I feel like you're shying away from the "I/me" template because you've -- perhaps -- found a bit more stability in your life, almost to the point where you can give insight into other people's situation.
Well you know, I feel like I -- to address the first part of your observation -- I'm 31 years old now and I don't have any kind of, ya know, I didn't turn 30 and turn into a "Oh woe is me, I'm getting older" type, ya know? I don't really think about my age in any kind of negative light whatsoever ... or that of those around me. You grow older with your friends, we're all around the same age, and you don't ever really think of anybody you know [as] being old, per se, ya know? Older. But I do feel like I've seen ... over the last 10 to 12 years I've seen some of the people around me who don't necessarily play music for a living or had to play music for a living or had done art in some capacity who now are being forced into some kind of career change, so to speak. I think that certainly I'm entering a point in my life where we all are people of this general age where the decisions that we've made throughout our late teens [and] through our 20s are starting to kind of, ya know, we're starting to kind of see the fruits and sometimes the rotten fruits of those endeavors, ya know? I think for myself and a lot of people around me -- I think we're all starting to see the fallout of the choices that we've made in our lives, and I think that there are certainly some moments on the album that kind of treat those with a level of melancholy and despair like with "Cath…" But I also really like that song [because] even though that song's a really simple kind of story, I like it as a metaphor for just a lot of people I know in general, just in the sense that I think we kind of make a series of decisions and we find ourselves stumbling down a certain path and sometimes we very rarely question how we ended up there in the first place.
It's kind of like in the Paste piece when you talk about how you wonder what would've happened if you didn't go to the college that you went to [to meet Chris Walla] and didn't form this band and where your life would be, et cetera.
Yeah! I should perhaps say for the record that I feel so incredibly fortunate that I get to do this for my life and I realize how fortunate I am. However, I think that I am a human being and I have all the same the same types of regrets and musings of alternative paths in my life and it doesn't change the fact that you have the number one-selling record of the week, you're on your sixth album and you've been doing this for ten years or if I'd have become a teacher and wondered what it would be [like] if I'd kept doing music stuff, ya know? As we get older, the distance between those paths in our lives becomes further and further, and that -- at times -- can also affect the way we relate to the people closest to us because we've split off on different paths and the distance between those paths becomes harder to reverse.
I sincerely hope that when you do finally get around to publishing your autobiography, it will be in Choose Your Own Adventure-format.
Right! Wouldn't that be great? That's be amazing! Yeah, on one of them I'm playing shortstop for the Mariners and the Mariners are actually winning ... but that'd be in another Choose Your Own Adventure.
A whole separate book.
The Walla Chronicles.
You mentioned a bit earlier about the whole pressure of signing to a major label and proving yourself and I remember one of the very first pieces of press that came out upon signing with Atlantic was [paraphrasing]: "The only thing that's gonna change is that Barsuk Dog [the logo for the label] is not going to be on the spine of our album." The thing I like about the packaging for Narrow Stairs is how you have the copyright/FBI warning right in the center, you have the Atlantic logo to the left, and Barsuk Dog almost the size of the Atlantic logo jumping out at you.
Well you know, it's interesting: when Emy [Storey] was doing the artwork for the record -- and Walla was really good friends with her 'cos she did the artwork for the Tegan and Sara record [The Con, which Walla produced] and she's kind of part of their family -- [and] one of our biggest frustrations with ... (pause) really one of the only things that is unfortunate -- [and] thankfully it's not; it's not a deal-breaker of any sort -- with Atlantic is that we have to have that stupid fuckin' FBI logo on the releases, like it has to be on there. When we were doing the artwork for Plans, [we were like] "Seriously: this is disgusting, we don't want this on there." They're like "Sorry, it's non-negotiable." So I think with this record, Chris' suggestion was like "Let's just make that logo as big as possible! And let's make the Atlantic, the Barsuk, and especially the FBI logo as big and ugly as possible on the back of the album." You can't hide ... it was only because of the FBI logo. You can't hide that thing, so it's like you might as well just try to deal with it.
One thing I really like about you guys through the years -- and in talking to you right now -- is that you've been incredibly humble and honest about your success. I liked the interview that you did for American Songwriter Magazine preceding the release of this album in which you admitted that you'd be lying if you said you didn't want to become more successful -- that's why you signed with Atlantic in the first place. Of course since then, you've scored a Grammy nomination, released a chart-topping album in a day when rock albums don't usually top the charts, et cetera. With all of these huge changes, how does this make you feel about your future? Do you have any idea of what you'd like to do after touring the hell out of Narrow Stairs?
Well, it's weird. I think some of the accolades that we get, I think that after everything that was occurring through Plans ... I always kind of felt like the way we're able to kind of ... our goal kind of changes around what seems feasible and possible for us. Like, a month ago it was not unreasonable to expect that we'd have the number one record, ya know? We knew what else was coming out that week, we've been doing a lot of work, we've been getting played on the radio ... it's like all signs were pointing [to] "Yeah, this is a possibility." I think that even with Plans selling a million copies and even with the band being more popular than we've ever been, it's like I still walk around Seattle and nobody bothers me, you know what I mean? I think that world that we've come up in and -- for lack of a better term -- just being an "indie-rocker" and having ... ya know, we always like to say that it was "college rock" in the '80s, it was "alternative rock" in the '90s, and now it's called "indie rock". It's the same general kind of aesthetic, and I just don't think that "indie rock" -- even though bands like us and Modest Mouse and the Shins and Arcade Fire have sold a lot of records and are doing big shows -- it's like (I think with the exception of the Arcade Fire) none of our bands are gonna become U2, you know what I mean? Like Death Cab is a very successful band but we don't have a "celebrity" component to what we do. Like we don't have like a "rock star" component. We have very few "rock stars" left in today's music culture. I mean like Jack White. It seems that he's the only one left. You know it's like when people who don't necessarily follow music would [happen to] see him in an airport, they'd be like "Oh my god: that's Jack White!" ... It never happens to us, even after as many records as we've sold.
We go about our daily lives [and] to me it kind of depends on where you go, but [we have] more anonymity than I ever thought we would have if our band had ever gotten successful. I think the humility comes from the fact that throughout the years, we have been with each other and around each other for some really lean times. We have been a band through some very trying personal times and some really kind of ... ya know we've seen each other at our very best and our very worst and when we're struggling to pay rent and when one of us is buying our first house ... and we've always been very good about checking in with each other and making sure that ... it's like that old adage: "Success doesn't change you, it just emphasizes who you already were." Billy Corgan was probably as much of an asshole 20 years ago than he was in 1995 or whatever. Megalomania doesn't have a tax-bracket, you know what I mean? And I'm sure you deal with people all the time as a journalist [and that] some of the biggest rock star assholes you've met haven't sold 10,000 records. But I don't know: I have my days where I'm too precious about stuff and I can be difficult and ... [it's] like I said earlier: we're human beings and I have my good days and my bad days but for the most part I think [that] across the board we're all really good at just trying to maintain our core values and who we've always been but also kind of always adjusting to what our lives have become in this band, ya know?
It's like the on-road family. Not exactly the Partridge Family but I know you guys look out for each other …
No man, seriously! I mean that this band has outlasted every relationship I've had in my entire life. Seriously: I don't have anybody in my life with the exception of the people I'm related to, that I've spent this much time with, and am as close to. So it's like ... and some people are gonna be like "Oh, that's so sad!" (laughs) But it's true! I think that we've been fortunate enough to grow and become adults together and be able to "talk it out" instead of falling down on the ground in a fistfight.
OK, last question: so far in your career, what's been your biggest regret and, conversely, what's been your proudest accomplishment?
It's such a ... I'll do my best to give you a good answer, but it's such a hyperbolic question, ya know? I'm not trying to be overly dramatic saying this but my fondest moment in this band is when we sold out [Seattle rock venue] the Crocodile Café in 1998, because that was this moment where I knew it was really happening, you know what I'm saying? Like this [band] wasn't just like a project, 'cos I have been in bands before Death Cab, and these bands maybe played around town and bitched about how nobody knew who our band was...
"Nobody understands us, man!"
Yeah: "We can't get a show in Seattle!" Well we weren't actually trying to get shows in Seattle. We're [just] complaining about it. You know: you're young and you don't really know what you're doing; but throughout my teenage years and going into college I was always like -- [and] it seems silly to say it now, ya know? -- "That's the coolest place to play and, god, maybe someday we'll get a chance to play there." And we played a couple shows there and then we sold out like a show there, and I think even with the wall in there's maybe only [room for] 300 people, but in '98 I came around and was really kind of emotional because it was just this moment, like, "Wow, this is really happening. Like this is a real band. This isn't some little college band where like we get together on the weekends and play songs: we have an album out and people are really liking it and we were able to put 300 people in a club on a Friday and that seemed crazy at the time. Aside from the fact that I met Peter Buck for the first time and almost lost my mind, ya know? And now it's like Peter and I are buddies and we see each other around town...
Well nothing that friendly. (laughs) But I like dealing with people who are just like (mockingly): "I don't have regrets," ya know? But ... I'm sure I do, but nothing is really, uh ... nothing really jumps out at me right now. You know I think in hindsight, I think I could've been a little more civil to people -- who will go nameless -- who used to be in the band ... and I won't say who, but I think we ganged up on somebody one time that was really unfortunate, but you're young and you do dumb shit and you hopefully learn from your actions and become more of an adult, ya know?
You don't mope over it: you just move on.
Yeah, and I think this person in question ... we've come to terms with each other and have kind of moved on.
With that said, Gibbard had to soon get ready to kick off their big tour to promote Narrow Stairs, the band undoubtedly bristling with excitement. A decade in, it's already been a strange, bizarre, and exciting journey for Death Cab, but even with the instantaneous success of Narrow Stairs, one can't help but feel that this is just the start of bigger, brighter, crazier things to come. Indeed, you can blame it on Ol' Blue Eyes: he set up the template for how to truly connect performances to the populace, a template that's been imitated time and time again since its inception. Really, Gibbard's just following a grand tradition chalked up decades before he was born, and you know what? There ain't a damn thing wrong with that.