I am on the phone with Ben Gibbard and, by some miracle, I’m not the one in this conversation talking about my awkward teen years. He’s detailing his old driver’s license photo, the one he took when he was nineteen, after Death Cab bassist Nick Harmer had played barber to Gibbard’s “blond crazy hair.” “It was the worst,” he says. “It was like, ‘God, no wonder I didn’t get laid in college, look at this haircut.’ It’s just so bad, you know?”
As Death Cab for Cutie creeps up on its own nineteenth birthday as a band, Gibbard is talking about what it’s like to play songs he wrote a decade ago — songs that are still gut-wrenching enough to listeners old and new that he and the band will be playing their biggest New York show yet, at Madison Square Garden on September 12.
“They mean something to me the same way that a photograph of yourself [might],” Gibbard had said of the old songs, which brought us in some roundabout way to the bad hair and the cringe-worthy #tbt. “I look at it and it’s an awkward photo of an awkward young man, but I remember the day when they cut my hair and how much we were laughing about it and how much fun we were having. I’m able to kind of live in that moment again. The old songs are like that.”
For all that nostalgia may play its part in the continued success of Death Cab for Cutie, Gibbard and the band are far from stagnant. After punctuating their long career with side projects and solo endeavors, the band released Kintsugi in March, marking their eighth studio album, their fourth release with Atlantic Records, and their first record without producer Chris Walla. The split seemed to be regarded by all parties as an amicable one, and while Walla contributed instrumentals to the release, producing duties were handed over to alt-pop guy Rich Costey, who has worked with Foster the People, Muse, and Chvrches. With a producer at the helm who hadn’t spent the last two decades as a member of the band, the new album presented a fresh opportunity, allowing the band to try new approaches as well as revisit sounds from earlier in their catalog.
“You almost become more creative the older you get, because you have this whole body of work that precedes you into a room,” says Gibbard. “I think [that] is the real challenge: to continue to make music that people can relate to, and that builds upon the work that you’ve already done….Every writer is kind of writing themselves into a corner, a little bit. It becomes very difficult, as you amass more work, to create things that give your fans the same feeling they had when they first heard their favorite record by you. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying.”
Gibbard had plenty to unpack over the four years between Kintsugi and Death Cab’s 2011 release, Codes and Keys, from navigating a divorce from actress/singer Zooey Deschanel to moving from Los Angeles back to Seattle. As a songwriter whose output has always danced between confession and empathic observation, Gibbard says that he’s learned to be less precious about the way he composes.
“There’s a period almost every young artist or creative person goes through where they live in the fear of it going away: They’re going to wake up one day and they’re going to have forgotten how to write a song, or they’re never going to write another note or never going to write another sentence,” says Gibbard. “I’ve become a firm believer in the fact that one’s creativity is deep within them — sometimes you have to work harder to kind of coax it out.”
Keeping at it in the recording studio has led Death Cab to venues that dwarf those they conceived of playing as a couple of college kids in the late Nineties, and Gibbard is pleasantly frank about the headaches they sidestepped as one of the last bands to come up before the internet age. As early works like Something About Airplanes garnered small, emphatic pockets of critical acclaim across the U.S. — based almost entirely upon whether an alt-weekly was writing about the record or the shows, or a college radio station spinning the music — Gibbard says that the chance to figure things out largely away from the public eye was an invaluable opportunity rarely afforded to buzz bands in today’s 24-hour internet news cycle. It was the early club shows that built the band into what it will be at Madison Square Garden, and Gibbard says his first time in the city was as relevant and memorable as playing any big-box venue could be.
“At that point in my life I was 23, I had been to New York once, and it was still this unfathomably large, vast, intimidating place,” Gibbard says. “Playing a show to 30 people at the Mercury Lounge felt like playing Madison Square Garden. I never in my wildest dreams thought I’d be showing up in New York City to play a show — playing Madison Square Garden was something you would say almost as a joke. That would be a joke, to say, ‘Our goal is to play Madison Square Garden.’ We’d get laughed out of the bar, you know? That wasn’t available to indie rock bands.”
As rising indie acts have transitioned from the fringes of popular culture to being major-label signees and arena tour hopefuls, the underlying goals — at least for Gibbard and Death Cab — have remained relatively modest and unchanged. Gibbard jokingly says that the things he wants to be able to buy are the same he wanted when he was 21: records, books, cool stuff.
“When we started this band, and started playing shows and making records, the people we looked up to — our heroes — were the bands that you could see would go on tour, and they would play shows at clubs and they’d make enough money that they could kind of make a living at it,” says Gibbard. “So the idea of making a living — even a meager one — playing music, I’ve always considered as the goal. That was the seemingly unattainable sweet spot to be in….Everything since then has just been gravy.”
Death Cab for Cutie headline Madison Square Garden on September 12. For ticket information, click here.