[MUSIC: Interview] Benjamin Gibbard
“I only become aware of what a divided country we are around election time,” Ben Gibbard tells me from his Washington, Seattle home. When we speak it’s the week of the Democratic National Convention, and the Death Cab For Cutie frontman has politics on his mind. “I’m watching Bill Clinton’s speech last night and he’s, well, the guy’s amazing, killing it, and they’re cutting to the crowd and you see women, black people, Latinos, gay and lesbian people – I look out into this crowd and I see what our country truly looks like to me. When I was watching the Republican Convention, not only do I despise virtually everything that these people stand for, but you cut to the crowd and all you see are white people. Old white people.”
I called Gibbard to talk about Former Lives, his debut solo offering; an anthology spanning almost ten years of songwriting, comprising tracks that never quite fit with the Death Cab catalogue but were too good to leave behind. I really want to talk about these songs, actually, and what they mean to the frontman of a band that featured in the celebrated Seth Cohen Starter Pack – a band that’s affected so many people so deeply over the last 20 years. But Gibbard just wants to talk about policy. “What I cannot get past is just the flat-out bigoted position on issues of gays and lesbians,” he says. “To me, that’s just the most egregious, hateful, bigoted position to have: that somehow my sister and her wife’s marriage is not as valuable to this country. That is just complete and utter bigoted bullshit.”
Gibbard has made his views on gay marriage public more than once; his was the first essay published in Dave Eggers’ ‘90 Days, 90 Reasons’, a new web project that has names like Paul Simon, David Lynch, Judd Apatow and Jonathan Franzen following up a catchy Tweet with a lengthy exposition on a reason to re-elect Obama. Gibbard’s piece focused on gay marriage – indeed, his thoughts on the issue have seen the Westboro Baptist Church hate group publically target him, hilariously (and shockingly), as a “major fag-enabler”. “The question for the Republicans is, which side of history do you want to be on?” he says to me. “I mean it’s going to happen, whether or not you agree with us, because it’s the right thing to do… This is a very cut and dry issue: do you support equal rights for everybody? If the answer is yes, come on over.”
His political opinions are just one of many sides to a fascinating Benjamin Gibbard, and it’s been a huge few years for the artist. After releasing 2008’s Narrow Stairs, a bigger, darker and more depressing Death Cab album than anyone had expected, he kicked a serious drinking problem that had become difficult to ignore. He replaced the booze with marathons (when we speak he’s training for a 26.2 mile run), and his relationship with Zooey Deschanel became public; the pair were married the following year. Out of this much brighter outlook came 2011’s Codes & Keys which, while just as epic as Narrow Stairs, is perhaps the most hopeful album in the Death Cab oeuvre.
And now there’s Former Lives, Gibbard’s first solo release under his own name. The songs, some of which are almost ten years old, play out like windows into his mindset at each specific time of writing, with moods that shift as restlessly as the output of his band. There’s a lot of nostalgia wrapped up in it of course, and for anyone who misses the old Death Cab – the raw, lucid yearning of ‘A Movie Script Ending’, ‘Summer Skin’ and most of Transatlanticism – look no further than ‘Lily’, ‘Dream Song’ and ‘A Hard One To Know’. “I’ve always tucked these songs away and enjoyed them for myself, so [releasing them] feels a little bit like empty-nest syndrome. Which is fine. I’d rather have this record be out than have sat on these songs for another eight years.” Putting the songs behind him also ties a neat bow around a particular period, he says, and you can read into that what you will – he’s talking to me from his home in Seattle, where he moved to from L.A after Deschanel filed for divorce. “At this point, with these songs out, it’s all about looking forward,” he says.
As always with Gibbard’s writing, Former Lives is deeply lyrical, drenched in markers – names, places, times – which let listeners pull meanings out of the most unlikely places. “A perfect example is ‘A Movie Script Ending’ [from 2001’s The Photo Album],” he says. “That song started out as a love song to Bellingham, Washington and it’s like, nobody knows that! Nobody listens to that song and thinks about the prices of beer inflating at the Beaver Tavern, or being on the cross street of Railroad and Holly… But somehow they find something in it that connects with them, and that’s pretty amazing.”
The highlight of Former Lives is ‘Bigger Than Love’, a duet with Aimee Mann that could be about any young and artsy couple, drunk and fighting in New York (“We’re on 59th Street, we quarrelled and broke the bathroom door”). But in a typical Gibbard twist, it turns out the song was actually written about Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald. “The first verse is [set in] the roaring ‘20s of New York; and then they move to Paris in the period of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, and all that kind of craziness; and then there’s this tragic end, when she’s in an institution in Nashville and he’s out in California writing screenplays,” Gibbard says, incredulous. “One of the greatest writers of the 20th Century writing a fucking screenplay! There’s just nothing that could more devalue a great literary talent than to flush him down the Hollywood sewers like that.”
What: Former Lives is out this Friday October 12, through Spunk Records