The names Ben Gibbard and Death Cab for Cutie have gone hand-in-hand for over a decade. Even Gibbard’s You Can Play These Songs With Chords, a demo cassette tape written entirely on his own back in 1997, was released under the Death Cab moniker. In the years since, alongside bandmates Chris Walla, Nick Harmer, and Jason McGerr, Gibbard has delivered some seven full-length albums, including last year’s Codes and Keys. With several Grammy nominations, two gold-certified records (2003’s Transatlanticism and 2008’s Narrow Stairs, the latter of which topped the US charts in its opening week), one platinum-certified record (2005’s Plans), and the kind of consistent praise most bands would kill for, Death Cab has become one of the best-known indie rock mainstays to cross over and enjoy significant mainstream success.
This week, Gibbard finally steps away from his long-held role as Death Cab’s frontman to deliver his debut solo album, Former Lives. The product of years’ worth of songwriting, the album is a testament to the quality of Gibbard’s spare parts—the songs that never quite fit in combine to form a surprisingly whole piece of work.
MIKE HILLEARY: When a member of a well-established band puts out a solo album, the first question that springs to mind is, “Why?” Why did you decide now was an appropriate time to do this?
BEN GIBBARD: Well, the way we tend to work in Death Cab, when we’re off cycle, I kind of go in my writing hole and write as many songs as I can; and when we come together to start working on a record, there tend to be 20 to 30 ideas. Some are more fleshed out than others, and it becomes pretty apparent which songs work. We usually make three lists: an A list, that’s all the songs we all agree on (there tend to be five or six); a B list, which are like, “Well I like one, but you’re not too fond of it,” or it just doesn’t fit the tone of the record; and then there are songs that [are] just little sketches and aren’t going to go anywhere. With every record, there’s a couple songs that are like deleted scenes from the movie of the record. They don’t further the tone and story of the album we’re making.
And maybe for some obvious reasons, I didn’t want to date a lot of these songs. People are going to speculate what these songs mean and what these songs are about, just because that’s what people do, but I’m very cautious not to give people an overt road map. But for example, one song I’ve been playing as far back as 2005, which is the oldest song by years on this record, is “Broken Yolk and Western Sky.” I had written that song around the songs I was writing for Plans. And I was rather fond of it and always have been, but when we were making Plans I was like, “No, no, we should try and do a version of this.” And everyone was like, “Yeah, but it just doesn’t fit in with these songs.” If you think about it like that, if you know that record and you’ve just heard “Broken Yolk and Western Sky,” well, of course that song doesn’t belong on that record. It’s not tonally related to anything on that record. The subject matter is not relatable to anything on that record. And in that sense that’s how I ended up with all these tunes. I found myself [at a point] where I finally had enough of those kind of songs that I felt comfortable to at least start to record some of them and see where it went. There certainly wasn’t any kind of Behind the Music reasons of, like, [mock narration] “He was unhappy with the direction of the band.” There’s nothing like that. It was just I finally felt like I had a body of work that will tell a particular story, and story is just in the title. These are all kind of orphan songs from different points in my life, and when you see them as a mosaic, they kind of work.
HILLEARY: Was there any reservation in putting such a mix of material together?
GIBBARD: Not really. I was very aware that the record was going to be a very eclectic batch of tunes. What kind of gave me confidence to string these songs together was that in Death Cab, we tend to try to construct albums. Songs flow into other songs, the songs that make those records tend to be of a particular mode stylistically or lyrically. There tends to be a story in the record. It’s not a concept record, but it’s all the things I’ve been mediating on and writing about that have come together in that record. It’s like its own little yearbook of my life and the lives of those around me. But with this, I just felt it was the exact opposite. There’s no point in trying to recreate that aesthetic with this solo record. I think sometimes records work because you say they work. You give a record a title and you sequence the songs in a way you feel makes them make sense, and in presenting a record like that people are accepting of it, because that’s the format you’re giving it to them.
HILLEARY: One of my favorite pieces on the record is “Bigger Than Love,” which features guest vocals by Aimee Mann. How did that song come together?
GIBBARD: You know, I’ve been friends with Aimee for some time and I had kind of written that tune and kind of envisioned it as a he-said/she-said duet from the perspective of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. I had bought this book of their letters called Dearest Scott, Dearest Zelda, and as you can imagine, the language is really flowery, like, “Oh, my love, I can’t bear to not see you for another day,” that kind of stuff. It starts off with this very flowery courtship, and as the book progresses through their lives with all the craziness and mental illness and alcoholism, it evolves into this very beautiful but tragic correspondence that is made even more beautiful because clearly it was never meant for anyone else to read. It’s really moving. So I just felt, I mean, who doesn’t love Aimee’s voice? Who would ever dispute that Aimee Mann doesn’t have one of the greatest voices? And the fact that I was able to just call her up and ask, “Will you be willing to come down and sing on this thing?” is truly one of the greatest honors of my career as a professional musician, that I can know somebody like this and that they’re gracious enough to come down and sing on something that I’ve written. It was just a great day. I actually saw Aimee a few days ago. She was in LA and she’s just really great. She’s super fucking funny. I suppose you wouldn’t suspect it, but after seeing that video [a shot-for-shot remake of ‘Til Tuesday’s “Voices Carry”] the cat’s out of the bag. It’s so great.
HILLEARY: Once Former Lives is finally out there, what do have planned in the pipeline?
GIBBARD: Well, I’m going to be promoting this record and do some shows intermittently through the end of the year. I have a US tour and short little European run. But I’m starting to move to a place where I can start processing and writing for the next Death Cab record. I think one of the things that’s a little bit—I wouldn’t want to say scary—but certainly a new reality for me is while I always have songs in the coffers, it feels very much like I’ve cleaned my slate. I think 15 years into a recorded body of work is probably a good time to do that. Musicians that have had careers as long and longer than I have, I feel like their own back catalog becomes their harshest critic. Thankfully, people have bonded with our records and the things that I’ve done in ways that are very special to them and are special to me, but it also means as one continues to move forward as a musician it can be difficult to—not so much as to best anything that you’ve done—but to have the same impact on somebody who’s been listening to your records for years. So I think to me cleaning the slate is starter fresher than I have in some years is definitely to benefit the next Death Cab record.