Music

Death Cab for Cutie’s Prodigal Songwriter Comes Home

‘We’re in the right area of the country for where I should be living,’ says Ben Gibbard. ‘I think that comes out in the music.’

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Ben Gibbard wrote Death Cab for Cutie’s 2011 Codes and Keys in L.A., surrounded by too much sunshine and too many entertainment-industry insiders using one another to get ahead. His friends and support system were back in Seattle, which felt farther than just the thousand or so miles away. Over a decade into his career as an indie-rock hero, the Death Cab frontman had been trying to convince himself that living in this environment was the right choice, something conducive to his creativity. “It’s not that I left Seattle and was like, ‘Fuck you, Seattle!’ I lost contact with a lot of people who really inspired me,” says Gibbard, who’s presently on the opposite coast, lounging on a Victorian couch in the basement of New York’s legendary Electric Lady Studios. “All of a sudden I’m around these new people and nobody seems to have been friends with people for more than a month.”

From Death Cab for Cutie’s appearance on The O.C. (and its soundtrack) to Gibbard’s relationship with Zooey Deschanel, the singer had long flirted with mainstream success and acceptance. Within a year of being introduced by their mutual music manager in 2008, Gibbard and Deschanel had married and settled in Los Angeles, where Death Cab would record a portion of Codes and Keys, ostensibly a testament to Gibbard’s contentment after finding love. But Southern California wasn’t where he was supposed to be — after all, in 2001 he’d written an entire song dedicated to L.A.’s shortcomings (“Why You’d Want to Live Here”). By 2012, after the end of the marriage, Gibbard returned home to the Pacific Northwest, where it all began. 

Seattle, though, isn’t exactly the same city it was two decades ago, when Death Cab were just getting started. The video for “Gold Rush,” the first single off the band’s new album, Thank You for Today, shows Gibbard strolling through his hometown, as the chorus pleads: “Please don’t change/Stay the same.” If the prodigal singer was expecting to step back into the world in which he and his band had gotten their start, he was mistaken. Once Gibbard was resettled back home, Chris Walla — who had been a member of Death Cab since 1997, and produced the band’s albums — announced he was leaving the group. Over the years, Gibbard and Walla had often suffered creative differences, but both were instrumental in crafting the band’s sound and legacy. Ultimately, Walla’s departure ushered in a musical rebirth for Gibbard, just as his return to Seattle had signaled a personal one. “I feel like in Codes and Keys I was trying to convince myself of something,” explains Gibbard, who married photographer Rachel Demy in 2016. “With Thank You for Today, it’s a much more honest reflection of where I am and who I am.” 

For 20 years, dedicated Death Cab fans have watched the band endure a host of personnel changes and sonic shifts, with Gibbard often appearing to be the only constant. Early rough-cut lo-fi records like Something About Airplanes and We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes steadily evolved into more polished indie-pop releases like Transatlanticism and Narrow Stairs. If 2015’s post-California full-length Kintsugi was transitional — with producer Rich Costey (Fiona Apple, Interpol) taking over for Walla — their latest sees Gibbard as an artist at home, and at peace. “In my life now with Rachel, I feel more myself than I ever felt before, [and] I’m surrounded by the people I should be surrounded by,” he says. “We’re in the right area of the country for where I should be living, and I think that comes out in the music.”

His assessment is in part due to the band restructuring, with Gibbard, drummer Jason McGerr, and bassist Nick Harmer joined by new members Dave Depper on guitar and Zac Rae on keyboard. “Nobody’s ego needed to be coddled in this process, which I think is where it had gotten with Chris and I,” Gibbard admits of his partnership with Walla. “It was like any relationship you’ve had for a long time: ‘Well, you didn’t like this guitar part because you didn’t make the coffee right today.’ We had a very productive but really intense relationship.”

Looking back on some of the band’s later work, Gibbard recognizes places where, had either man been more flexible, certain elements could have been better. “I think that’s one of the main reasons why he recused himself from producing Kintsugi,” he notes. Besides, Walla had become one of indie rock’s go-to producers, and Death Cab had in many ways become secondary for him; Gibbard believes producing for other bands is what he always wanted to be doing. Adds Gibbard: “There might be a time in our lives where we’d rekindle a deeper kind of connection, but if we’re not going on vacation together in twenty years, that won’t surprise me.” 

The new album finds Gibbard bringing the band’s focus back to the guitar; during the recording of Codes and Keys, he had strayed from the instrument in favor of recording at a computer. “It’s not like I wanted to re-create those old [Death Cab] records, but there’s something about the tones in the guitar-playing and the arrangements that I still really enjoy, and I want to harness that style again,” he says. “I wanted to start from the place I wrote those early records.”

Thank You for Today is, accordingly, a perfect union: equal parts indie-rock nostalgia and blessedly self-aware experimentation. “Gold Rush,” for instance, leans on the experimental side, sampling a snippet of Yoko Ono’s 17-minute “Mind Train,” while songs like “Your Hurricane,” “You Moved Away,” and “Northern Lights” recall the melancholic heartache that surfaced on Transatlanticism. But where albums like Codes and Keys or Kintsugi may have lacked connectivity, here there’s an emotional through line longtime Death Cab fans will find plenty familiar.

The return to form isn’t lost on the new members. “Zac and I were huge fans of the band,” says Depper, “and it was such a treat to get these demos from Ben and hear all of these embryonic songs that sounded more like old Death Cab songs than anything I’ve heard in a really long time, and then have the added challenge of bringing them into 2018. It was so fun to do that and deliberately try to marry those styles into something new.”

Discussing Thank You for Today, Gibbard can’t help but recall his band’s magnum opus. “This was the most enjoyable record for me personally since Transatlanticism,” he says. “There were flashes of that spirit in Plans, Codes and Keys, and Narrow Stairs, but it declined towards the end. This record felt like [it had that spirit]. I think a lot of that has to do with new blood, but I also feel like it has to do with everybody wanting to be there. This is what I always wanted the band to be.”

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