Benjamin Gibbard is the 36-year-old frontman of Grammy-nominated indie-rock heavy-hitters Death Cab for Cutie. After eight albums with Death Cab for Cutie —including the decade-defining Transatlanticism, 2008's ornery Narrow Stairs and 2011's disappointing Codes and Keys— plus one in The Postal Service and one as All-Time Quarterback, Gibbard released his debut solo LP, Former Lives, in 2012. After Gibbard's 2009 marriage to Zooey Deschanel of She and Him ended up in a very public divorce, many listeners assumed that Gibbard's solo debut would be a breakup album.
Interview: September 7, 2012
Why make a solo record?
"A number of reasons. Primarily, I finally found myself in a place where I had enough songs that I felt would work together to make a proper record. Also, I found myself when I was writing on Codes and Keys having a lot more time than I normally would have, and I just decided maybe it was time to finally book a studio, and get working on this tunes that I've been sitting on. Some as long as since 2004-ish, some that were relatively recent. I finally had enough material, and I felt like it was time to do this."
Did you debate releasing it under your own name, as opposed to a project name?
"Back in the day, I put out a record under the fake band name All-Time Quarterback, I guess back in about 1999 or something. That whole methodology seems, now, a bit too trendy to me; hardly anybody releases an album under their own name anymore. So, I figured, let's just call a spade a spade, and name this what it actually is: it's my solo record, it's not a band."
It felt like the world decided, before anyone had even heard it, that this was a breakup record. How do you feel about that perception?
"It couldn't be further from the truth. To me, there's nothing break-up-y about this record. At all. People can interpret it however they want, but I have no idea where people get that idea."
From the title, perhaps?
"Mmmm, okay. I can see that. But, to me, I don't think the title speaks to that at all. These songs represent different times in my life, and different things that I've been, both physically and metaphorically. I felt the title was a nice bow to tie all the songs together. I think that the record plays as a mixed bag of material. The songs aren't really cohesive, sonically. But my voice holds it together; because it's an album about me. The songs are all these little snapshots of people and places, the stories of my life as I tell them, and I wanted to put that out there. The title sort of spoke to itself."
Was it difficult stitching together songs from different eras, and songs that can sound quite different?
"I think so. I don't know if I actually did it. I guess we'll see what people think. I thought of it like making a mixtape, though I guess people don't really make mixtapes anymore. Like making a playlist, where you have all these different songs from different artists from different times, and they find a way to make it work in an organised manner. I don't even have to do that; I have the benefit of these being all my songs, they're all my words. I wasn't sure if I was going to be making these into a record; I thought perhaps I was going to be just making a few singles. But when they started coming together, and I saw them all sitting in front of me, I felt like they could be an album. But that's just how I feel, maybe the rest of the world won't agree."
When I listened to the album, there was something —that I couldn't quite put my finger on— that reminded me of The Photo Album. Now, hearing you talk, it seems all too clear: the album as a collection of snapshots, documenting different places and times.
"I can see that. Some of the songs on this album are almost old enough that they feel like they're from a similar place, and if I'd had them at the time, I totally would've put them The Photo Album, they would've fit perfectly on there. In a way I feel like it would've made that record better if I'd had a couple more songs on there. But I can certainly see that. Every record that I'm a part of writing is, typically, a chronicle of a year in my life. We always joke in the band about that. We talk about our lives in terms of the records we've made. If we ever have to reference something that happened, it's always like 'well, there was that song about that on Photo Album, so that probably happened back in 2001'. I very rarely think in terms of actual calendar years, but records. This record is obviously different, because it's picking from lots of different eras, and weaving it into one. I've come to think of it like a collection of many short stories, rather than a novel."
How will this album sit in your memory as you move forward?
"I think this record, moving forward, will mark not the period in which they were written, but the period in which they're out in the world. When the album's out, and I'm on tour playing with these songs, and living with these songs. I write a lot of tunes, and some of them sit around for a while before they maybe end up on a Death Cab for Cutie record, and certainly before they ended up on this one. These songs, even though they weren't meant for one single album initially, they now live in this collection of songs, and they belong in this collection of songs. As I play these songs live, as if with any song the band plays, it takes on its own identity, and it changes. Without wishing to draw any comparisons between him and myself, one of my favourite Bob Dylan quotes is 'the best versions of my songs are the ones that were never recorded'. The longer he sat with his songs, the more he played them live, the more they changed completely; and the version of 'Lay Lady Lay' he recorded sounded nothing like the version he was playing ten years later, and then fifteen years after that. I like to think of these songs —and any songs for that matter— as living, breathing organisms that are constantly growing and changing and morphing across time."
Have you done much playing of these songs live; performing solo, under your own name?
"I've done a couple of solo shows along the way, not too many, not that often. Going out to promote the record, there will be a couple of tours where I'm going out all by myself, just solo. If only because it's easier to draw from a wider batch of material when you're by yourself; you don't have to work within what you've rehearsed as a band. It would've been interesting to me to hear these songs as played by different musicians, because any time someone new plays on a song it changes it. But, playing by yourself is a change, too: any time you strip away a song to just an instrument and a voice, the songs change and become very clear, very simple; you really hone in on what's the most important part of the song to really project and present to an audience. That is also something that's changing over time. I've also had to do a lot of practicing for this tour, because I haven't had to play these songs in a solo format much at all."
How do you feel being the only person on stage?
"It's so much more pressure. There's no one to share things with: if you hit a flub note there's no way to look at, or if the show's not going well there's no one to whisper to 'boy, this one really stinks'. Or even if it's a great show, being like 'this show's fucking awesome!' That's what I'll miss the most. But I never would've seen it if I hadn't done it. About five-and-a-half years ago, I did a solo show, just playing acoustic, I was taken at how exhausted I was after a show. More exhausted than I'd ever been playing rockshows. I kinda came to believe that, when you're the only one projecting out unto the crowd, all the —and this sounds kind of hippy— energy that is coming from stage, through this music that you're making, and being taken by the audience, it's all coming from one person. As opposed to be taken from four, five, six, however many people. I really feel like there's a transference of energy when you're performing, and when it's just you on stage, it just takes more energy. That's the biggest difference: I have to be in better shape, literally, to do these solo shows. But, that said, last time I did a solo tour I was drunk all the time, so maybe that had something to do with being tired all the time."
Releasing an album under your own name, and currently being active on Twitter, and even uploading your own songs to your own Soundcloud account yourself, there's probably a sense amongst listeners that you're quite accessible at the moment. That some meet feel as if, through all this, they almost know you. Do you feel that this is a fantasy of the digital era, or can people really come to know you, in some way, through listening to your songs and reading your tweets?
"To me, this question opens up a larger discussion as to whether you can actually ever know anybody. The music that I make is certainly a large part of who I am; I spend a long time trying to come up with these songs that, to an extent, I make as a reflection of who I am. All the songs are all permutations of that. No song is an accurate marker of who a person really is. Because there's a faulty narrator. I, as a narrator, am faulted. I am not an objective voice. Even if I believe that a song is a completely clear communication, that I'm taking this verbatim from my life, it's still not an accurate portrait because, just by being human, I'm a faulty narrator; I'm telling it from the viewpoint of how I perceive it, and using details to create sympathy or romance or whatever. I'm changing things to suit me, even if I tell you that I'm not. As far as an online persona, or dealing with Twitter, as much as my frustrations with the Seattle Mariners or musing on things I find funny are a part of my life, they're still only a tiny part of me as a person. I think what is dangerous about the world we live in today —and this goes for everyone, and not just people in the public eye, to the small extent that I am— we have to be very careful that we don't buy into our perceptions of who a person is based on what they choose to show us. Because what I choose to show is only a fraction of who I am as a person, and I imagine it's the same with you. We don't air everything for the world. So many times I've found myself in a conversation with people talking about a person who we all think we know, and then information comes to light that reveals that we all have no idea. I think it's important to put an emphasis on face-to-face relations, and spending actual physical time with people to get to know them, to not fall pray to whatever persona somebody chooses to show us online or in their art."
I remember reading a quote from Momus, years ago, in the '90s, where he said the Andy Warhol adage was outdated, and that "in the future everyone would be famous for 15 people." I've found that quote resounding throughout the third millennium, not just in a musical sense, with tiny acts making music for a little corner of the blogosphere, but also in how people have been reduced to Twitter feeds, functioning as content farms for their circle of friends.
"That's totally an apropos quote. It makes me think of this editorial they ran on Grantland, about Animal Collective. It was essentially about the record, but the real crux of the piece was that people talked about the last Animal Collective record as if it was this hugely popular thing, that there was a perception amongst some fans that Animal Collective had gotten too popular, and that if a band like that —who I love but, y'know, they're fucking weird— was going to cross over, what was safe. And what this article was saying, that I totally agree with, is we all live in a microcosm of the culture that we see ourselves as a part of, where we fail to recognise what a distorted view of the rest of the world it gives us. In this case, existing in this indie-rock world, we don't realise that 99% of the people in this country have no fucking idea who the Animal Collective are. This isn't 1983 and they didn't make Thriller. This is not the world we live in anymore. So, as we talk about how records impact our culture, the microcosm of indie-rock is concerned —and has always been concerned— with the encroachment of what they see as mainstream culture, but the bands that people in that world think of as having become this huge mainstream forces —by band being one of them— are by no means household names. I'm lucky to be in a very successful band, but we are nowhere near being, like, Coldplay. But, within the indie-rock microcosm, there's definitely a vocal group that sees us as being a mainstream band; as being the equivalent of Coldplay. I find that interesting, and it certainly ties into that Momus quote. We're all constantly slicing off smaller and smaller slices of pie, and convincing ourselves that they are the whole pie. I don't see that as a point to diminish the value of art in anyone's life. I'm not saying that this is all small potatoes. All I'm saying is that, as a community, we have a very distorted idea of the larger cultural impact that the work we're making has. The sooner we realise that, the sooner we'll be able to let go of so much bullshit that we hold onto that, in the bigger picture, doesn't really matter."