“Nah, we’re not going anywhere,” says Ben Gibbard over the phone in his most reassuring voice, responding to concern from his loyal flock that with the release of his first proper solo album, Former Lives, a few weeks ago, he’s walking away from Death Cab for Cutie. Well, whew! After 15 years together — and following more than a year of touring behind 2011’s Codes and Keys — the band is merely taking an extended breather. Gibbard, meanwhile, found a home for a batch of songs he’s been sitting on for a while, some that go back as far as eight years.
“Death Cab for Cutie isn’t making concept records, per se, but we’ve always taken pride in the fact that each album definitely sets a tone, and we’ve got themes that kind of find their way in and out of the songs,” he says. “When we’re in the studio and we’re going through the pile of songs for the ‘A-group’ — basically the ones we all agree that work together — there’s always ones where we’re like, ‘That’s good, but it doesn’t fit with these other songs we’ve chosen.’ So these are just ones that didn’t fit into the statement of the [Death Cab] album they were written around.”
But Gibbard considers Former Lives more than just a collection of outtakes. “I certainly see it as an album in its own right, with all the ebb and flow,” he says. Stylistically, it’s all over the map — there’s stately power-pop, an a cappella number, a country song or two, some ELO-inspired symphonic-pop, some Wilco-ish roots-rock — though it’s all held together by Gibbard’s inimitably sweet, yearning voice and bittersweet lyrics that tackle heartbreak more than any other subject (there’s a song called “Oh, Woe,” fer chrissakes) but transmit at least some sense of guarded optimism.
Gibbard’s coy about discussing any impact his divorce from Zooey Deschanel had on the album — and several of the songs do pre-date their brief union — but when talk turns to “Bigger Than Love,” it’s hard not to spy some kind of connection between the inspiration for the song–and its inclusion on Former Lives — and his recent romantic travails. A duet with Aimee Mann, the song’s probably the most Death Cabby, in terms of texture, melody and mood, of any of the dozen on the album. Gibbard says it came out of his affection for the 2002 book Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda: The Love Letters of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.
“[The letters] aren’t juicy, it’s not like they’re sexting — which is probably for the best — but the language is very eloquent and very romantic, and there was a letter in particular that I found incredibly moving, which was a long letter Zelda writes to F. Scott that’s basically cataloging everything in their marriage as it’s starting to break down. It’s just these bulleted points of, like, ‘There was New York…’ and ‘This happened and that happened’ and ‘You were angry at me for this.’ And it just struck me, that’s how we think about relationships as we look back on them — they just become this series of flashes in the mothballs of our memory, to quote Steinbeck. I was really impressed about how she decided to write an entire correspondence that was just those moments, it really got to me.” The song’s liable to be a highlight of Gibbard’s solo set at Town Hall on Monday night. Anything from his deep songbook is fair game during the performance, he says — the new album, Death Cab songs, Postal Service tunes, maybe even stuff dating back to his late ’90s side project All-Time Quarterback or from One Fast Move or I’m Gone, his 2009 Kerouac-inspired collaboration with Son Volt’s Jay Farrar.
“Playing solo, my entire body of work is at my fingertips,” says Gibbard. “I’m trying to play something in every city that I’m not playing anywhere else. Maybe covers, maybe songs that have disappeared into the ether for a long time. And I’ll be able to change the set list as quickly as I can remember a song.”
And since the show’s happening the night before Election Day, there might be a plug for Barack Obama in there as well. Ever since their participation in the 2004 Vote for Change tour in support of John Kerry’s failed presidential bid, Death Cab hasn’t been shy about showing its political stripes. Gibbard hasn’t been directly working with the Obama campaign like Death Cab bandmate Chris Walla — who’s been going door-to-door in battleground states this fall — but his was the first essay featured in “90 Days, 90 Reasons”: the campaign conceived by Dave Eggers and Jordan Kurland in which 90 celebs explained why they’re supporting Obama in this election. Gibbard’s piece focused on Obama’s support of gay marriage.
“It’s no secret that my sister is gay, and I feel it’s incredibly important in moving this country forward that we embrace the social progress that stands directly before us,” he says. “The opposition claims that gays and lesbians want special rights and that isn’t true. They also say, ‘It’s okay — you can be pro-gay and be anti-gay marriage,’ and I’m saying, ‘No, you can’t.’ It’s not possible, and it’s shocking to me that some people are taking this position as a justification for their own bigotry.”
Though worried about Obama’s re-election prospects on Tuesday, Gibbard says he’s holding onto hope no matter what happens. “I woke up the next morning after Bush was re-elected and I really was convinced the world was gonna end. I mean, really, I was terrified. I’m talking like Cold War-style. I was convinced this person was gonna take us off a cliff, and he did, in a way. But I think the lesson learned was that the sun came up every day for four years, and then Obama got in. So I think I have become a lot less doomsday.” He laughs, slightly. “About everything, really.”
Ben Gibbard plays Town Hall on Monday, Nov. 5 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $39.50.