Death Cab for Cutie songwriter Ben Gibbard has long been known for creating music gilded with lilting melancholia and subdued charm. In addition to his guitar-led work with Washington-based Death Cab, Gibbard’s career has ventured into electro-infused pop with Jimmy Tamborello as The Postal Service, soundtracking with Steve Fisk, and backing Uncle Tupelo/Son Volt veteran Jay Farrar.
Consequence of Sound recently spoke with Gibbard about his first solo album, Former Lives, the origin of the record’s material, and how “songs are very rarely what people think they’re about.”
Former Lives is being called your solo debut. If that’s the case, then what was All-Time Quarterback?
That was a one-man band; that’s different.
At the time I made that All-Time Quarterback thing, it was kind of fashionable to do lo-fi soundtracks and side projects under different names. We all had them in Bellingham [Washington], our strangely named side projects, so that was mine. If people want to get technical about it, they are more than free to do so.
You’ve said the material on Former Lives covers eight years, three relationships, two cities, and drinking. You also stated, “I think people would be surprised when these songs were written or who they were written for.” Is that your way of telling naysayers that not everything on this album is about your most recent relationship [Zooey Deschanel]?
Songs are very rarely what people think they’re about. I’ve never given a road map for who my songs are about when they were written in the past; I’m certainly not going to start doing it now. I honestly don’t see how going through an album and telling everybody what every song is specifically about is beneficial to the listener. I think it actually takes away from the experience, because what makes a song resonate with somebody is not the fact that you know that a song’s about a particular thing. It’s about how it resonates in your life and how you contextualize it. I honestly feel and I’ve felt this way before. It doesn’t do the listener any service to be given a road map for any songs.
I was reading the lyrics of the album, and I was drawn at how poetic they were. When I was reading the lyrics to “Bigger Than Love”, I wasn’t sure if this was an autobiographical song or not, and then I read you based it on love letters between F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, which was rather interesting.
In that song, that’s an important detail in knowing and understanding the song. I don’t know who could have tied it all together. Who could have figured out what the song was about given the geographical locations and a very deep knowledge of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s work, probably not many. I’ve been so fond of those letters that they wrote back and forth for a long time. There were so many beautiful stories within them, and I wanted to tie a little piece of them together to do a song.
Were they published in a novel somewhere, or did you stumble upon them in a store?
There’s a book called Dear Scott, Dear Zelda, which is all their correspondence throughout their lives. It’s a pretty great read. It’s really romantic and tragic at the same time. I’m very fond of it, and I’ve been trying to figure out a way to pull from it for a while, and I ended up writing that tune.
Some of these songs on Former Lives have been around as either pieces or complete tracks for years. “Broken Yolk in Western Sky” you’ve been playing as far back as 2004. What took so long to record these songs, and what is it about now that prompted you to finish the project?
The last three records that Death Cab has made, I write a lot of songs, and with every album there might be a couple that just don’t fit in with the context of the record. It’s like a deleted scene from a movie. The album, like a movie, is trying to tell a story and keep a particular tone throughout the entire piece. Sometimes you can end up with a great scene that has to get cut because it doesn’t further the story along, and that’s kind of how I felt about these songs. The majority of these songs are from more recent years, but certainly something like “Broken Yolk…” is a song that I wrote around the time of Plans, and I was really fond of it and making a case for it.
As a songwriter, I’m always too close to the material after I write it, and the band has always been good about curating all the songs and tying them together into an album. Unfortunately for me, that leaves me fighting for a song that doesn’t belong on the record sometimes. That was certainly the case with this song. I found myself with some time on my hands while I was working on Codes & Keys, when we were writing and recording it. And I just felt like what’s the worst that could come out of it, maybe some aborted recording sessions.
That would be the worst that could come out of it, to go into a studio with your friends and laugh and goof off for a couple of days and then maybe come out with a song as a B-side or a compilation track or it goes on a movie soundtrack, or something like that. As I continued to kind of record these tunes, they all started fitting together in my mind, and I started to think that maybe I could make a record out of them.
The album liner notes indicate that “Shepherd’s Bush Lullaby” was recorded into an iPhone. Was that out of necessity or as an experiment? I know, going back to All-Time Quarterback, that you recorded some of those songs into an old Walkman.
It was the start of the whole thing. We were on tour, and I was playing in Shepherd’s Bush. I found myself taking advantage of the technology in my pocket. It’s like a song-oid; it’s a ditty or a sketch; it’s a sketch of a song. I just thought it would be a hoot to start the record out with. I think it’s kind of playful and not very in-keeping with what people know or think about when they think about the kind of records I’m tied to. Necessity is probably a little extreme but certainly out of intent. That was the version I recorded in Shepherd’s Bush, so that’s the version on the record. There’s really no reason going back to it and trying to make it something more than what it is.
Was Joan Hiller’s artwork — used for the Former Lives album cover — commissioned for this album, or did it already exist independently of your project?
It wasn’t commissioned. I saw that piece, and I really loved it. It’s a really impressionistic piece. If you look at the actual painting, there’s a lot of layers on it and a lot of textures. There’s a lot of images that can be pulled out of it, but there’s nothing really overt or very distinct. It’s kind of how I felt about the record. [The painting] fit the tone of the record to me. I’ve known her for a very long time and reached out about using it on the album. It all worked out. I’m really glad she was able to let me use it.
You wrote the song “Duncan, Where Have You Gone?” years ago. In the press material for Former Lives, you say that you were listening to a lot of Teenage Fanclub and Bill Fay at the time. I’m just curious; have you heard the new Bill Fay album, Life Is People, that came out a few months ago?
Did he put out a new record?
Yeah, actually Dead Oceans put a new album of his out. It’s his first new material in 40 years.
Oh, wow! I’ve been a little out of the loop. I didn’t know that came out. That’s awesome. I’ll go check that out then. I have a lot of his older records and compilations from back in the day, but I don’t have any new stuff. That’s cool. I’ll go check that out. Thank you for hipping me to that.
For sure. It’s called Life Is People. As cliché as this may sound, it’s hauntingly beautiful.
Awesome. I’m sure it would be; he’s got such a great voice.
You said because the health of Death Cab is currently strong that you probably won’t do another solo album for another ten years. You managed to do Postal Service and an album with Jay Farrar while working on Death Cab material; why should Death Cab prevent any more solo work?
I don’t think it’s permitting me. The Postal Service was a collaboration that existed in its own time and place away from the band. It didn’t require me to write music. And the Jay Farrar record, I wrote a song for it and collaborated with him on some of the arrangements, but it didn’t require me to write a lot of music. With Death Cab for Cutie, I don’t do all the writing, but I certainly do the lion’s share of it. It’s kind of difficult for me to keep multiple things up in the air if I’m responsible for all the writing, because I feel like at this point in my career, I don’t want to spread myself too thin by trying to keep too many balls up in the air.
And as projects come along that make sense and the time commitment and the work commitment that I have to put into them is something that I feel I can do to the best of my ability, then I’ll do it. That’s the main reason that there hasn’t been a second Postal Service record and that there hasn’t been a second Jay Farrar record, that I’m not making soundtracks with Steve Fisk. I don’t do these outside projects to start new things. I do them because they make sense in their own time and place. That’s not to say that I’ll never do another one of those things, but people shouldn’t be holding their breath.
One last question. I am holding in my hand the LP copy of Gorilla by The Bonzo Dog Band. I’m assuming that Death Cab took its name from that album and the song [“Death Cab for Cutie”]. How did you discover The Bonzo Dog Band?
They were in the Magical Mystery Tour. They played “Death Cab for Cutie” in the Magical Mystery Tour. So, that’s how I got hip to the Bonzos. It was through the Beatles. Paul McCartney was friends with them. I thought then that if I start another band, I was going to call it Death Cab for Cutie.