Death Cab for Cutie's frontman nurtures his 'orphan songs'
By Litsa Dremousis
Special to MSN Music
Ben Gibbard of indie phenomenons Death Cab for Cutie is returning from Japan and briefly staying in Honolulu while conducting phone interviews for his first solo record, "Former Lives." It's three weeks before its release, and if he's nervous, he blithely ignores any tremors from his central nervous system. His hotel has created a "Who's on first?" situation, so that getting through to Gibbard's room is akin to obtaining nuclear launch codes. He sincerely apologizes and with enthusiasm and relief announces, "Later today, we're going to an awesome beach." Based on past conversation, when Death Cab were in the studio recording 2005's "Plans," he's customarily intelligent, affable and one of our only lead singers who can discuss architecture with the fervency that vocalists of yore reserved for groupies or cocaine. But, of course, half of them are dead now. Based on the vibrancy of "Former Lives," it's clear that, 16 years into his career, Gibbard still has many lives ahead.
MSN Music: "Former Lives" could be a debut record in and of itself. The songs are fully formed and gorgeous. You're merely not trading on your fame from Death Cab or from Postal Service.
Ben Gibbard: Thank you. I think the best way to refer to the songs -- and forgive me if I've described them this way before, but it really is the best way to describe them -- is they're orphans. They're orphan songs. And I've gone out of my way not to date them [i.e. to lock them to a certain time], because given the tumultuousness of my personal life, I don't want to give people any more information about that stuff [laughs], so I don't want it to be, "This is from this year! This is from that year!" "Broken Yolk in Western Sky": I was playing that at the Showbox [in Seattle] how long ago.
I end up with a lot of songs I can't use for Death Cab. And to try to make them fit, to try to present them in such a radical fashion, would strip what's presentable about them away. On a song like "Broken Yolk," that's a pretty straightforward, kind of Jackson Browne-y kind of song. To make that fit onto a Death Cab record would involve putting clothes on it that didn't feel natural. So that's how I ended up with a bunch of these songs. I worked on these songs for quite some time. How people want to hear it depends on their perspective. If people like the record, they're going to hear that these are fully formed songs that didn't make other records and think, "Oh, I really enjoy them" and if they don't like this record, they're going to think, "Oh, these are throwaways. No way these would make it on a Death Cab record." [Laughs.] So, it kind of depends on that.
I was in the studio on a day you guys worked on "Talking Like Turnstiles." When it was released on iTunes as an extra track, I was surprised it didn't make the cut. But then when I listened to "Plans," it made sense that it's not on there.
Yeah. Like, "Broken Yolk" was a song I wrote around and in between "Transatlanticism" and "Plans." At the time, I made a real case for it. Like, "No, this thing should be on the record!" and of course that song doesn't belong on those records. I think one thing I've gotten better at as I've gotten older is, well, it's been getting older and, also, working with people like Jay Farrar [of Son Volt and formerly of Uncle Tupelo, with whom Gibbard has recorded and toured]. It was amazing to see someone who's not precious about anything. And I mean that as a compliment.
I mean, you're a songwriter, or a writer, and you write and you write and here's the body of work. You start working on something and if it's not working, you start on something else. My time with Jay was kind of eye-opening and it was amazing because he's such a veteran. He's not precious about his work. He just did it. And that's what it is. It's work. You do it. You ride out the periods of kind of not feeling inspired and then you're able to capture or harness the time where you are. And sometimes you have to fight through it and sometimes you don't, but that's just what it means to be a musician, you know?
I think that's what it means to be an artist, period. As a lifelong Seattleite, I wanted to ask about "Teardrop Windows," your new song about Seattle's Smith Tower. When the Smith Tower was built, it was the tallest building west of the Mississippi. The song is eloquent and the structure of the building itself is beautiful, but today it sits in a decaying neighborhood. Did you want to talk about the symbolism of that a little bit?
Absolutely. For me, it's like, that song is more about how we can sometimes place more value on things that are new, and especially in how quickly things move today. We're always on to the next thing and we very rarely take the time to appreciate the things we already have. And that's not just related to music or to art, it's related to everything.
To a degree, it's human nature.
Exactly and, yeah, and for me, that's always been one of my favorite buildings. And when I was living in Los Angeles, I was feeling kind of homesick and I started collecting old postcards from the '20s and '30s and '40s. I was on eBay finding these Seattle skyline photos. And I like having a little section of my studio for these pictures. And I started realizing that all these postcards, the Smith Tower is the jewel. Everything is justified around this building. But in anything after 1962, you start to see how the Space Needle has now become the symbol of Seattle. If there's ever a movie that takes place in Seattle, unquote, the establishing shot is always the Space Needle. And it's the larger building and it's space age, for 1962. And I have no beef with the Space Needle [laughs]. The only time I do is when I'd be down in Pioneer Square and see the Smith Tower and think, "That building is so beautiful."
My dad worked in it when I was a little kid. It felt like you were in a castle.
There are still elevator operators. It's so completely cool! I love it. And it's still very old-fashioned. There are still pebble-glass doors and it feels like you're in a Raymond Chandler novel, there's still that kind of feeling. [On Oct. 9, three weeks after this interview, Gibbard played a benefit show at the Smith Tower on behalf of Washington state's Referendum 74, in support of marriage equality.] It's gorgeous. I wrote that song when I was living in Los Angeles, out of a kind of homesickness, but also, because very rarely has anyone spent the time talking about this building and how great it is. I mean, you can go up to the observation deck for, like, seven bucks and it's the most amazing view of Seattle, but nobody ever goes up there. Back to the song itself, I like using the building as a metaphor for how we tend to not appreciate what we already have when something brand new is standing in front of us.
The new, shiny object.
Right. When it's new and shiny, we forget different things we already possess.
Litsa Dremousis' work also appears in The Believer, Esquire, Jezebel, The Huffington Post, McSweeney's, New York Magazine, The Onion's A.V. Club, Slate on KUOW, NPR, and in sundry other venues. She is completing her first novel. On Twitter: @LitsaDremousis.