Ben Gibbard Goes Long Distance

Published March 31, 2015

BEN GIBBARD. PHOTO COURTESY OF WE ARE THE RHOADS.

With eight studio albums, countless world tours, and a plethora of side musical projects—from other bands such as The Postal Service to scoring indie films like Laggies—it seems as though Death Cab for Cutie frontman Benjamin Gibbard has lived an entire lifetime while still under the age of 40. In recent years, media outlets turned Gibbard’s private life into a public affair, chronicling his personal battle with alcohol, divorce from actress Zooey Deschanel, and the departure of producer and founding Death Cab for Cutie member, Chris Walla. While the loss of Walla might suggest the band’s need to carve a new path, Gibbard and the remaining members retained Death Cab’s established sound on their latest album, Kintsugi (out today, March 31, via Atlantic Records). The thematic thread of raw storytelling employed in the band’s breakthrough classics, Transatlanticism and Something About Airplanes, weaves throughout Kintsugi.

Here, Gibbard is interviewed by his Postal Service bandmate and good friend Jenny Lewis.  —Ilana Kaplan

BENJAMIN GIBBARD: What’s happening?

JENNY LEWIS: I’m in New York City, making a music video for “She’s Not Me.” 

GIBBARD: I’m sad that we missed each other in New York, but I was running around like a fucking crazy person doing radio press. I’m back [in Seattle] for the next couple of weeks. It seems like I’ve been on the phone doing interviews eight hours a day, so it’s nice to be talking to you.

LEWIS: It’s a part of the process—we’ve known each other for so long, and we talk in those moments where we’re struggling to write songs, when we finish a record, when we master the record, and start the press cycle. We’ve gone through so many cycles. I know you so well.

GIBBARD: I find that I’m in a spot where I kind of know the answers people want from me. I’ve been refining how I’m able to talk about this record and a lot of things in general. When I finish a record, there’s this period where you’re not really aware of what it is. You’ve had your head and heart so deep into it that you haven’t had a chance to step back and figure out what it’s about. You’re in a phase where you’re stumbling over yourself. Then you fall into a groove where you can talk about it eloquently. I feel like I’m in that phase now. Where are you in that process? I feel like you’re still doing interviews about your record.

LEWIS: I never know what I’ve written about until that part of the process. Sometimes it takes years to go back and really understand what I was writing about. It’s funny when a journalist makes a point that hasn’t occurred to you about your own work. For me, I think my mantra for the last year of my thirties has been: try to be yourself, try to be relaxed, and don’t talk shit.

GIBBARD: Has the extraneous work you have to do around an album gotten easier for you? Do you feel like you’ve streamlined things that makes it easier for you now? The writing, for me, I feel like has gotten harder.

LEWIS: I think I started this album cycle with a sense of gratitude because I was taken out of the game for a few years. My health was suffering and I was having family problems, so a year before we started The Postal Service tour I really thought I would never be able to tour or play music again. It was necessary for me to shift my perspective, and once I did that I felt the world open up. As tedious as it can become, I had to remind myself that that it was a real privilege to be in this position as an artist and a woman in her late thirties. I learn lessons with every interview I give. With the personal stuff and the breakup of my band, I wasn’t really ready to talk about that. I would imagine with Chris leaving Death Cab, people must be asking you about that. How do you articulate that? There’s so much in those relationships.

GIBBARD: I feel the same gratitude in the sense that we’re now 39 and have been doing it for as long as we have. It’s fucking incredible. With Chris leaving, it’s been the lead question on everybody’s page as we’ve started talking about this record. When we found out Chris was leaving the band, I started to think about a lot of bands I grew up being a fan of and how they lost seminal members and moved on, but there are bands that never recovered, and the music suffered, and seeing them live became somewhat awkward. As I think about the future of our band, time will tell whether or not we can weather that loss. I think about a band like Wilco that has gone through lineup changes and it’s like, “If Jeff writes good songs, they make good records.” I hope that moving forward I can place the same responsibility on my shoulders.

We’re a songwriting-based band, and I just so happen to be the songwriter. Now it seems like there’s this focus on the new dynamic and new era of moving forward. That’s something that’s admittedly a little scary. It’s important to respect the member you lost, but also to recognize that you have to treat this with respect and brevity. It’s going to take a lot of work to have the band continue to exist and make good records.

LEWIS: Do you think that Jeff Tweedy is the defacto leader of Wilco now? Do you identify in that way?

GIBBARD: I suppose it’s the kind of thing where just based on visibility alone, I have been the defacto leader of the band. I think I’ve deferred a lot over the years to Chris, management, and other people who are not necessarily the creative center of the band. By center, I mean only in the sense that records succeed and fail based on the quality of the songs. When I write good songs, we have good records. When I don’t write good songs, we don’t have good records. I think because of that fact, I’m the defacto leader and always have been.

In this new era, I feel a much larger responsibility to ask myself the hard questions and be more critical of myself in the process. I have to make sure we’re carrying on the legacy of the band and not just making records because they’re fun, [that we] only make records that are important companion pieces to the body of work we’ve already made. That might mean we don’t make records with the frequency we once did in the early days.

LEWIS: The songwriting is [also] really sacred to me. If I didn’t have that outlet, I don’t think I’d be talking to you right now. I think I’ve become a better collaborator watching and working with you on The Postal Service. Has it already been two years since we did that tour? Were we at Barclays Center almost two years ago?

GIBBARD: Yeah. [laughs] It feels like time is slipping away at an increasing rate with every year. It’s really pretty wild.

LEWIS: It was such a pleasure to be your foil. I’m so used to being dead center and it was such a wonderful way to support you and find myself again in the process. It was crucial to my spiritual and musical well being.

GIBBARD: I don’t think I would have been able to do it either, if I couldn’t look over, see you, and say, “I can’t believe this is fucking happening right now.” I can’t speak for you, but I know the only way I got through that first tour in 2003 was being wasted all the time—not having a guitar and not having a regular show, I was drinking a lot to get the courage for it. I was thinking, “This is going to be a new experience—being untrained, in front of a lot of people, without a guitar, in this unorthodox set up.” The thing that gave me the confidence to do [another tour] was knowing that in the time since we last played hundreds of thousands of people—dare I say millions—bought the record. Every fucking interview I did between 2004 and then was about The Postal Service. Doing those shows, I realized people were in the palm of our hands. We prepared properly and nothing was going to derail that for me. All we had to do was go up and sing. 

I think that at certain points in our respective careers there has to be a realization of “as long as you go up, you’re personable, you’re yourself, and you’re not inebriated enough to not be able to do your job, people are going to leave shows saying they had a good time.”

LEWIS: The best shows I play, I almost don’t even remember off the stage. It’s so important to reconcile real life happenings when you’re an artist. Shit happens—you fall down, bones break, and that influences the work. The songs are set in stone, but you can always present the songs in different ways. Personal relationship breakups or breakups within a band are so uncomfortable at first and so fucking scary, but as artists, it allows us to explore different parts of what we do. That’s why the album title is so great, Kintsugithe idea that something so broken can be put together with metals. You can make something new with all of the pieces. It’s so beautiful and fitting for the band. It’s hard to imagine yourself not in that four-person rock band that you started when you were a fucking teenager.

GIBBARD: A lot of people have been assuming that the title is meant to refer to a lost band member, but as it certainly plays that way, that word connected with me because I’m a songwriter—that technique is metaphorically what I’ve been trying to do with songwriting all of these years.

LEWIS: I come from a very uncool profession, being a washed up child actor. Having two of those in Rilo Kiley, we so desperately wanted to be cool; I still want to be cool. On some level, I still want Pitchfork’s approval and they’re not gonna give it to me. It’s embarrassing to admit that I care about that shit. Having said that, the kind of music I make isn’t affected by that, [but] maybe at some point it was. Maybe I said no to some things I shouldn’t have. Maybe I didn’t take some opportunities. At the end of the day, to bring it back to songwriting, I’m writing for myself, not for any asshole. I write what I feel. If I’m not crying while writing a song, I’m not doing it right. I still want to be cool. My feelings have been hurt in indie rock by snarky bookers who have not let me off the hook because of being in the fucking Wizard, but it hasn’t hurt what I’ve been creating.

GIBBARD: I wanted those approvals when I was younger. I felt that was important and that slowly turned to rage. That slowly turned to a realization that if a war had been raged between the indie rock gatekeeper and Death Cab For Cutie, Death Cab won.

Our records and your records, there are people that truly love our albums and no amount of snarky comments or dismissive reviews will stop that. To continually desire respect and be liked and approved by people who have gone out of their way to be snarky and mean is insanity to me. For all of the damage the indie rock Illuminati have tried to do to our reputation, it’s failed. We continue to sell out shows, make records, and feed our families off of the money we made from this band. In those terms, the war is over; we’ve won. Coming into that realization was really empowering. It’s been crazy to see both older and younger people coming to shows every year. After being for us, that’s who it’s for.

LEWIS: We’ve had this pep talk many times over the years. [laughs]

GIBBARD: [laughs] We have! Fuck it, man. At this point, one publication—no matter how influential—trying to take you down isn’t going to accomplish that goal. I feel bad for young bands that live and die by an arbitrarily chosen number on a website. In a way, that’s less an indictment of the publication, and more of an indictment of the laziness of the readers. 

LEWIS: In the last 15 years, the institution has changed. You can really do what you want. Music has gotten poppier. Mainstream has merged with indie rock, and it’s a different set of rules. People do not listen to rock-‘n’-roll. In order to get people to keep making that music, they have to find other financial streams.

GIBBARD: I think there are a lot of people who claimed they wouldn’t license themselves for a commercial until a number was put in front of them. It became a no-brainer for a lot of people who didn’t have a lot of money.

LEWIS: I really don’t know how it happened, but it happened. I’m glad that it did because people should make money from their art. They shouldn’t always have to work a day job. 

GIBBARD: Their tours lose money, and they don’t sell records anymore, but they did a Honda commercial and they can pay rent for the next six to eight months. People have responsibilities other than trying to be cool. When you have a child, you have bills to pay and being cool isn’t the most important thing in the world anymore.

LEWIS: That leads me to this one last thing, how do you balance your personal life and professional life? How do you find happiness? You’ve taken up running and it’s really changed your life.

GIBBARD: Up until I was about 30, I didn’t have any other hobbies. All I did was play music. I ate, slept, and dreamt music. My soap opera was the indie rock music scene. When I started running, it became this activity that provided me nothing other than the self-satisfaction of creating time for myself and being proud of accomplishing a new distance. There was no reward for it, no money in it—it was solely for the goal of just doing it. When I broke my wrist a month ago, three days later I was in the surgeon’s office talking about my recovery. The first question I asked wasn’t about playing guitar; it was about when I could run again.

Running provides an escape that not even music can provide for me. The escape that music can provide has a lot to do with my own inspiration. Now I go for a run to accomplish that feeling and find that balance; I don’t think about anything else. Creatively, I’m doing my best work when I can truly step back from the work and not even identify as a musician. I go to these running events and maybe a couple of people recognize me, but otherwise I’m just another runner in the running group. 

Getting out of your identity as a musician is so important—it strips away ego, the place in the world you’ve built for yourself, and it comes down to this goal you want to accomplish. Honestly, Jenny, I’ve gotten to a point with these distances, where I’m feeling every emotion at the same time. Every spectrum of emotion is being shot out of my body as a bolt of light. It’s such a fucking hippie thing to say, but it’s true. No drug has offered me that. No person has offered me. If I push past the point of exhaustion, there’s a euphoria I find. I’m chasing that as well. What is your counterweight to music?

LEWIS: I’m still trying to figure that out, Ben. I’m a late bloomer. I’m learning how to be a real person.

 KINTSUGI IS OUT TODAY, MARCH 31, VIA ATLANTIC RECORDS. FOR MORE INFORMATION ON BENJAMIN GIBBARD, VISIT HIS WEBSITE.