“Megalomania Doesn’t Have a Tax-Bracket”: An Interview with Death Cab for Cutie

Death Cab for Cutie
Narrow Stairs
Atlantic
2008-05-13

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.

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.

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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…

Yeah!

…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.

Part 2

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.

Right, exactly.

The Walla Chronicles.

Right.(laughs)

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…

Play Scrabble.

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.

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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.

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