Ben Gibbard on the new Death Cab for Cutie album and the legacy of Transatlanticism
Thank You For Today, Death Cab for Cutie’s ninth studio album, marks a poignant return to form for the band. At just 10 tracks, its brevity is both refreshing and consistently piercing, with frontman Ben Gibbard’s storytelling abilities remaining just as steadfast as they were when the group formed 20 years ago in Bellingham, Washington.
Ahead of the record’s 8/17 release, Gibbard spoke to EW about Death Cab’s creative journey, the lasting legacies of Transatlanticism and the Postal Service, and how Thank You For Today serves as an escape from politics.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Right before the 2016 election, Death Cab for Cutie released the single “Million Dollar Loan,” which took aim at Trump. Did your feelings and emotions under a then-potential Trump presidency carry over into the new album?
BEN GIBBARD: I’ve noticed that just amongst our contemporaries — artists of all different stripes and disciplines — it seems to be a subject that no one is able to stay away from because this administration is an all-encompassing attention-suck. And a lot of those songs tend to be written by people who were never political songwriters or artists but felt the need to throw their hat into the ring of songs that are dealing with the current political climate. Some of this subject matter started to bleed a bit into the songs I was writing for [Thank You For Today], and I don’t think any of those songs were particularly good. I came to this conclusion early last year that I wanted to write a record that gave people a break.
How do you know a song that you have written is a Ben Gibbard song as opposed to a Death Cab song? Is there a process behind differentiating solo moments from band moments?
Death Cab always gets right of first refusal on everything I write, but I tend to know early on. There’s a song that has yet to be released — it might come to light at some point in the near future — that when I was writing it, I was really proud of it lyrically. But it was a very jangly, very strummy kind of song similar to “Teardrop Windows” on [solo LP] Former Lives — and I knew it was not going to fit into the aesthetic that we’ve created with Death Cab for Cutie. I always try to write the best song I can in the moment and those songs are often going to end up on Death Cab for Cutie records. I don’t set out to write a solo song or write a band song. I just write, and where that songs ends up is kind of TBD.
You’re celebrating two 15-year album anniversaries this year. The first is the Postal Service’s Give Up, which turned out to be the band’s only album. Did you initially think that record would be that big and well-received as it was?
Sub Pop were projecting that we could sell 20,000 copies because at the time Death Cab’s biggest record had sold 50,000 copies. We released Give Up and then Jimmy Tamborello, Jenny Lewis, and I did four weeks of shows around the states — and that was it. When we stopped touring, we had no way of quantifying the number of people that were into the album by seeing their faces at shows. We just kept getting these numbers from Sub Pop: it sold 100,000 copies, it sold 200,000 copies, it sold 300,000 copies. It was a really strange time and thing to be a part of; to have this record that was a fun side project overtake — in terms of record sales — the biggest thing I’d been a part of. We attempted to start a second record in 2004 [or] 2005. But at that point, Death Cab was touring so much and the songs that we were working on felt like facsimiles of Give Up. Jimmy and I both realized that if we pushed it past that point it wasn’t going to be fun anymore. When I look back at 2003, it was the best year I’ve ever had creatively: having Transatlanctism and Give Up come out in the course of six months. I’ll never have another year like that.
Speaking of which, Transatlanticism is also turning 15. How do you think that record changed the trajectory of Death Cab?
We were all very fortunate that the album was what it was and had the impact that it did. It also coalesced with this unique cultural moment in indie rock, which transformed from underground to collegiate music. When I was in college from 1994 to 1998, the records I listened to never sold more than 20,000 copies. The bands I liked played small clubs: they loaded their own gear, there were no tour buses. It was a much more underground scene at the time. And in 2003, there was this hive mind moment around indie rock and it started having a much larger audience. From my perspective, it became a version of what alternative music had come to represent in the early ‘90s culturally. People who were programming or making TV shows had grown up listening to a lot of this music and were now in a position to place it in front of people in a way that it wasn’t before. Also, the rise of online music publications like Pitchfork and Stereogum catered to this new generation. We were fortunate enough to be caught up in this cultural sea change that brought us and bands like Modest Mouse, Arcade Fire, the Shins, and countless others into the mainstream.
Your Instagram account recently featured a story about a KCMU session you guys did from 1998. How does it feel looking back on that performance from the very start of your career or revisiting songs from Something About Airplanes?
People always talk about how time flies; it’s become sort of a colloquialism now. You don’t really understand it until you reach your late 30s and early 40s — and I’m sure time will move even faster as I get older. It seems like yesterday we were loading our gear into KCMU to do a session and we were so excited that we were going to be on the radio. We were all 21 or 22. I see those photos and we looked so f—ing young and so earnest and so bright-eyed. It’s always beneficial to be reminded where you came from, especially in my position now — to be reminded that you got into this without any expectations and because it was fun. We didn’t start this band thinking 20 years later I’d be sitting here talking to you on the phone from New York City having sold millions of records. That’s not why I started doing this. It wasn’t my ambition. It wasn’t even something I felt was attainable.
You’ve always been so open with whatever you’re going through, whether it’s about your health, your politics, your relationships, your sobriety. Are there moments where you regret being so transparent?
No, I don’t. A thing that I find interesting about songwriters — which is not necessarily a criteria that others artists are subjected to — is that the listener feels cheated if they find out a song that sounds autobiographical isn’t autobiographical at all. No one complains if the screenplay isn’t taken from your life, no one complains that the novel is partly fiction. Singing in first-person infers intimacy and I firmly believe my best songs are the ones that contain real-life moments. The person on record and in my personal life, those two people are more related than a lot of my contemporaries are. And quite frankly, that’s what I pride myself on.