Death Cab for Cutie Are Summoning the Past to Move Toward the Future

With the band now over twenty years old, Ben Gibbard is rethinking what Death Cab means, for him and for you.
Death Cab for Cutie Are Summoning the Past to Move Toward the Future

With the band now over twenty years old, Ben Gibbard is rethinking what Death Cab means, for him and for you.

Words: Katrina Nattress

photo by Eliot Lee Hazel

August 15, 2018

Ben Gibbard started Death Cab for Cutie twenty years ago, and for the first fifteen years the lineup stayed relatively consistent. But after the release of 2015’s Kintsugi, everything changed. Guitarist/producer/founding member Chris Walla left the band, and touring members Dave Depper and Zac Rae officially joined the roster, both alternating between guitar and keys.

“Chris is a massive, massive part of the sound everyone knows this band to have, and so integral in the seminal moments of this band’s history,” Gibbard tells me over the phone. “But I think it’s also worth mentioning that I’ve been the songwriter for this band since day one. Nick [Harmer]’s been playing bass since day one, and [Jason] McGerr, for all intents and purposes, has been the drummer for the vast majority of the time. While obviously Walla’s contributions over the course of our catalog are massive, they don’t tell the whole story.”

That story is one the singer/songwriter has continued writing with the new iteration of Death Cab on their latest album, Thank You for Today. “I left this process really excited about what the future of the band holds, rather than being worried about it,” he says of being in the studio with Depper and Rae for the first time.

In advance of the release of Thank You for Today, the band’s ninth studio album, Gibbard talked with us about Transatlanticism turning fifteen, the band’s next chapter, and saving something near and dear to his heart: Seattle’s iconic venue, The Showbox.

You’ve already played a handful of festivals this summer. How does it feel introducing the new songs live?

So far, I think it’s gone well. We haven’t strayed too far into the album, or away from stuff that’s already somewhat available. We’ve been playing “I Dreamt We Spoke Again,” “Autumn Love,” and “Summer Years.” It’s hard to really gauge when people are hearing stuff for the first time, but the songs certainly feel like a part of the set already. Tonally, lyrically, musically, they feel like they fit into everything in a way that maybe on other albums, when we started playing new songs, it felt a little awkward. This time it feels more natural.

Yeah, I would say this album fits in a little more naturally with your back catalog than some of your other recent records.

I would say that as well. I’ve felt like over the past five years or so I’ve been doing…to call it “soul-searching” is maybe a little dramatic, but as a band that’s been together for twenty years, I think I’ve been trying to tap into what it is about this band that really works. “Works” can somewhat be translated into, “What do people like about the band?” and “What do I also love about this band?” I think this album is very much a culmination of that. It’s not so much an attempt to recreate the past for me, as much as it is to re-harness elements of our discography that I think are our signature sounds and moods.

That’s interesting, because this is the first album you’ve recorded without Chris Walla.

Band dynamics are very fickle. There are innumerable occasions of a seminal member leaving the band, and all of a sudden things go downhill really quickly. So I think, for me, going into this process, I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t half-stepping at all as far as the songs went. In the past there were times where I’d be like, “I don’t know what’s gonna happen here, but I’m sure Chris will come up with something.” I’d leave more gaps in songs, or more room for arrangement, because I figured I could trust someone else to take the reins on it.

“To call it ‘soul-searching’ is maybe a little dramatic, but I think I’ve been trying to tap into what it is about this band that really works.”

In this case, and no disrespect to Dave or Zac, none of us really knew what they were going to contribute in the studio. We had a sense that they were going to be big contributors to the sound of the record, but with the exception of one song, we’d never been in the studio together before. Playing old songs onstage is great, but getting into a studio and having to create music is a whole other thing. So I took an approach on these songs that was much more in keeping with how Chris and I made the first cassette. Every song I brought in was, for the most part, if not fully arranged then as close to it as I’ve ever brought. There were many instances where Dave and Zac brought in these really amazing, melodic elements or tonal shifts that made the songs really work, but more of these songs are similar in demo form to the album than they have been for a while.

Speaking of the band’s back catalog, Transatlanticism turns fifteen this October. In what ways would you say you’ve grown since the release of that album?

When I think about those songs, some are certainly amongst the best I’ve ever written—the title track and “Passenger Seat” are up there—but I think as any creative person looks back on their work, you can see the value. You can see where you got things right. You can see where you’d do things differently now. Your perspective as an artist changes over time. How you go about your work changes. The tools with which I have to make music now are very different than the tools I had fifteen years ago—the actual tools.

I was talking to somebody recently about some of our older albums, and I was making the point, which I really stand by, that it would be impossible for us to remake any of those early album. Even if we tried, like, “Let’s make Transatlanticism II. The way that we make music now, with the technology that we have at our fingertips, we wouldn’t have made a lot of those choices we made creatively. And that’s not a good or a bad thing, it’s just a function of the time that it’s made, in the same sense that I can’t be twenty-six again, writing Transatlanticism. The listener can’t be eighteen again, hearing Transatlanticism.

All of these albums that I’ve made are time capsules for their period in my life. I look back on all of my older work and am very proud of certain moments—like, “Oh man I’d love to write a song like that again”—and other moments I get so embarrassed I wrote that song [laughs].

You mentioned time capsules. Thank You for Today seems to focus on memories and the past. What was the inspiration for the album?

I don’t feel like I have a lot of songs in my catalog that are written in the present tense, or that are looking forward. I’ve always been kind of inspired by how time warps one’s memory of events. I remember listening to This American Life recently, where somebody was talking about this married couple that’d been together for twenty years, and the husband started co-opting one of the wife’s stories and telling it like it was his story. He didn’t even realize it hadn’t happened to him. It was kind of a meditation on how our memories of real events change over time, as we start to inject our alternative realities into how events went down.

“I can’t be twenty-six again, writing Transatlanticism. The listener can’t be eighteen again, hearing Transatlanticism.”

For me, I like to get distance from subjects in my life, so poetic license takes over a bit. Something that may have happened to me or someone I care about can kind of be fictionalized in a way where I don’t feel like I’m misrepresenting someone or something in an unfavorable light. A song like “Northern Lights” I refer to as kind of like a John Hughes movie from the town I grew up in. I wanted to write something that was based in my very gauzy high-school memories. My memories of being a young person, but filtered through the perspective of someone who’s now in his forties. I like writing from that perspective, because it allows you to twist things here and there to create something in song that may not have occurred exactly as described in real life.

You’ve explained that “Gold Rush” is about associating geography with memory, and, for you personally, the rapidly changing Seattle. I know you’ve teamed up with City Council member Kshama Sawant, who introduced an ordinance to temporarily expand the Pike Place Market Historical District to include The Showbox before it gets demolished to build luxury condos. Can you talk about that a little bit?

It’s as if I timed everything [laughs]. I wish this wasn’t the case. In some ways, I wish people would rather have been like, “Oh, you’re just complaining, you old man. It’s not that bad.” But it really is that bad.

I firmly believe this is not just a local story. This is a national-news music story, because this venue is to The Fillmore in San Francisco, is to First Avenue in Minneapolis—it’s one of those places that not only do people who live in the area and go to shows love, and that local musicians love, but this is a venue that performers around the world look forward to playing. These are institutions. The Showbox is a natural, cultural institution.

There are members of the city who are trying to make this into an affordable housing issue, and it’s an absolute smokescreen. Twenty-six percent of these high-end rentals in Belltown, which is the area in which The Showbox resides, are vacant because the rents are so high that people are not renting them. So the idea that we need forty-four stories of luxury condominiums in the city is simply not true.

The owning group has three to four weeks to vest this property. Once they vest it, we’re fucked—we can’t do anything. City council is going on break for two weeks at the end of August, so there will be a full council vote in which they will decide to, in lay terms, create a stay of execution for The Showbox where they can buy themselves some time to study the situation, allow people in the community to draw up support for The Showbox, and hopefully we can save the place. [Editor’s note: On August 13, the ordinance for a stay of execution passed, allowing ten more months for a plan to be put in place to save the venue.]

I had a meeting with the unofficial coalition last night and it seems like we have a lot of people on our side. We had almost ninety-thousand people who signed a petition to save The Showbox, which is the largest of its kind in years. We’ll see what happens. If anything, it’s been pretty inspiring to see how much people care about this place—not only in the city, but around the country and around the world. FL