Published Oct 29, 2012Anyone intimately familiar with the work of Death Cab for Cutie's Benjamin Gibbard knows he's fairly prolific. Besides a solo album under the moniker All-Time Quarterback in 1999, an LP as half of the electro-pop duo Postal Service, and a collaboration album with Son Volt frontman Jay Farrar, Gibbard's also recorded dozens of B-sides, covers, and rarities. But in mid-October, Gibbard released his first official album, Former Lives, under his given name.
The LP features songs from the last few years of Gibbard's career, which ring with folksy tones and conventional, classic instrumentation that "have more in common with my record collection than they do with the band I'm in." Former Lives finds the frontman in good health and positive spirits after kicking an alcohol habit, taking up running, and leaving Los Angeles to return to Seattle. In person, he's talkative and candid, discussing amnesiac co-workers, relationship hindsight, and why you just don't have sex in the tour van.
What are you up to?
I'm promoting a record 24 hours a day. I was in New York two days ago and now I'm here in Toronto. Then I'm back to New York. I'm busy, but I'm enjoying it, too.
What are your current fixations?
I'm waffling between listening to only one of two records right now. In the mornings and evenings, I'm listening to the new Neil Halstead record, Palindrome Hunches, which is just gorgeous. And then, throughout the day, I feel like I'm only listening to the Divine Fits record. I've been buddies with Britt for a long time, and I just think it's a phenomenal record. I really love it. I'm also running a lot. I ran a marathon this weekend, and I'm contemplating running a 50k in a couple of weeks.
Why do you live where you do?
I live in Seattle. Even though I lived in Los Angeles for a couple of years, I moved back because living in Seattle forces you to live close to the ground. I think, certainly given the line of work that I'm in, it's important to return to the place that keeps you grounded, in contact with real life, not just the life of one who works in the entertainment industry.
Name something you consider a mind-altering work of art:
There's a film called Koyaanisqatsi. It's a documentary without a narrative, and there are no words spoken in the film. It's just showing a continuous image of life on Earth. It's a really amazing film in how it's constructed ― it establishes a theme without narrative. It's astounding.
What has been your most memorable or inspirational gig and why?
Not to sound precious about it, but the first time Death Cab for Cutie headlined the Crocodile Cafe in Seattle. We did our own show there in 1998, when our first record came out, and the show was sold out at 300 people. We played the small room, and it was sold out. This was a room that, even when I was a kid living in the suburbs, seeing flyers about shows happening at the Crocodile Cafe, the cool place to go, I wished I could go to. Doing that first show and selling it out, and having people come to actually see us play on a weekend ― I came offstage and burst into tears. I couldn't believe we'd done it. This was a real band. We weren't just fucking around. We were playing in the big city. It was incredibly moving. That was the most important show that we ever played.
What have been your career highs and lows?
Not to double-back to my last answer, but it's moments like that show in Seattle that [are the highs]. In 1999, we played an in-store at Aquarius Records in San Francisco. The place was packed. Being in a record store, two states over, and having people showing up there to hear us play music. Those are the moments that make you realize, "This is working, this is not just a hobby. Maybe we're becoming the bands that we admired, the ones where kids talk about going their show." The low was this show we played on Halloween in 2001, in Baltimore. We had one of the worst fights as a band we'd ever had, to such an extent that I wasn't expecting to see Chris Walla the next day. I was expecting him to be on a plane, a train, or a bus back to the Northwest. It was awful. At the time, I'd been living with my girlfriend at home, and she had just moved to DC. We broke up, and it had been because of the amount of time I was spending in the band. I was going to see her the next day, and now, the band was on the brink of breaking up. I had lost something that was really important to me at the time for something that was in the process of falling apart. Chris and I talked the next day, and everything was fine, but that was the worst.
What's the meanest thing ever said to you before, during or after a gig?
I remember being on tour in 2001 for The Photo Album, and we were playing in Gainesville, FL. We played this small show, to virtually nobody. We were tired, hungry, far from home. We're loading the gear up after the show, and this kid comes up and starts telling us how much he thinks The Photo Album sucks ― a song-by-song critique. He's drunk, and his friends are nearby, egging him on, snickering. The thing that's so awful about being in that position is that there's no response to that. What, am I going to fight this kid? Am I going to go "Well, fuck you, your hair's stupid!" What am I going to say? You just have to take it. So, we just packed up the gear and got the fuck out of there.
What should everyone shut up about?
Everyone should stop complaining about Pitchfork. Just stop giving it power. There's no conversation I walk away faster from than other musicians complaining about Pitchfork. If it offends you, if you don't like the writing, if you don't like their aesthetic, then just don't pay attention to it. I haven't read it in years.
What traits do you most like and most dislike about yourself?
There are times I wish I could be less aware. When you're really self-aware, you sometimes get it wrong, too. You see things that aren't there. There's this adage: "When you're in your 20s, you think everyone's thinking and talking about you; in your 30s, you wonder why nobody's thinking and talking about you; in your 40s, you realized nobody was ever thinking or talking about you." I'm in my late 30s now, so I'm hoping that soon the kind of overly sensitive self-awareness that I carry with me and gets me in trouble sometimes will evaporate. I like that I'm loyal to a fault.
What's your idea of a perfect Sunday?
I would get up early and go for a run in the mountains ― Cougar Mountain, preferably. There would be a Mariners game in the afternoon, it would be sunny, and they would win. Throughout the day, I'd just be around the people I love. If I could combine trail-running, baseball, music, and... pizza into one Sunday, I think that would probably be the best day ever.
What advice should you have taken, but did not?
I think there's an obvious answer to that, but I won't go there. [Laughs]
What would make you kick someone out of your band and/or bed, and have you?
Years ago, we established a rule that anybody caught in the van doing things that bands do in vans with women get kicked out of the band. We were joking, but in a way, it was also true. It's inconsiderate. I'm not a prude; I applaud a healthy sex life, but that doesn't mean in a van. We have to live in that thing. We joked about it, but we joked because there was truth to it.
Death Cab had a lot of drummers in those early days...
(Laughs.) I can say none of those guys were kicked out for that.
What do you think of when you think of Canada?
There's real pride amongst the Canadian musicians that I've met about being Canadian. They gravitate towards each other and give each other a leg up. I really admire the sense of community they have.
What was the first LP/cassette/CD/eight track you ever bought with your own money?
Hall and Oates' Big Bam Boom.
What was your most memorable day job?
When I moved to Seattle, I had a temp job in a lab ― I used to study chemistry in college ― where there were four ten-hour shifts a week, in a room without windows. I had to pull apart these quartz plates used to run DNA fluorescence through. I worked next to this guy in his late 50s, a recovering alcoholic and junkie who'd had a stroke, so he had no short-term memory. A typical day: "Hey, you ever listen to 'Breakfast with the Beatles' on KZOK, on Sunday mornings?" "No, I've never heard that." "Oh, we should listen to it on Sunday." "Great." Five minutes go by: "Hey, you ever listen to 'Breakfast with the Beatles' on KZOK?" Things like this would go on all day, every day. I worked there for two or three months.
How do you spoil yourself?
I always upgrade on long flights. Always. I don't have many indulgences, but for transatlantic flights and such, I try to use miles and upgrade.
If I wasn't playing music I would be…
I would be doing some version of what I was doing when I got out of college, which was environmental testing at an oil refinery. It was a rough and boring job. It wouldn't have been exciting.
What do you fear most?
Living in LA instilled in me a sense of fear I never had before. I constantly would look out the window and expect to see someone jumping my fence, and breaking into my house. I started developing a particular brand of paranoia that only exists among people I know from Los Angeles. It's a wonderful city, but it's on the brink of financial and social collapse all the time, and the gap between rich and poor is, as it is everywhere, growing wider by the day. I lived in fear. When I got back to Seattle, I decided I was never going to live in fear again. I'm not going to cower if people approach me on the street, or in a record shop. I'm going to act like a normal fucking person.
What makes you want to take it off and get it on?
What has been your strangest celebrity encounter?
When I was living in LA, I was taking Spanish classes, two or three days a week. One day, I was going into class, and Michael Cera came out of a class with a teacher I had. We realized later, because we ended up meeting a few times, that [we recognized each other], but we had to speak in Spanish, because those were the rules of the class. We weren't very good yet, at that point, so we were trying to have this broken conversation in Spanish, like, "Oh yes, of course, Senor Michael!" It was an odd, awkward scenario.
Who would be your ideal dinner guest, living or dead, and what would you serve them?
Jack Kerouac, probably. I'd probably just serve him a bottle of port and some sort of hobo scramble.
What does your mom wish you were doing instead?
My mom loves the fact that I do this for a living. She's over the moon about it. My parents are very supportive of this.
What song would you like to have played at your funeral?
It's not something I've thought about. The first song that comes to mind is "You Could Never Hold Back Spring" by Tom Waits.