Ben Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie
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It's hard to believe that Death Cab For Cutie, darling of the indie/mainstream crossover, started rocking a decade ago: It seems like just a couple of years ago, the Bellingham, Washington-born band was headlining small clubs. But now, five full-length albums in (and millions sold), it's the biggest little band in the world. In 2008, it released the excellent Narrow Stairs, played lots of big shows, and even opened for Neil Young. But the purpose of this A.V. Club conversation with singer-guitarist Ben Gibbard was to reminisce about the band's early days, and specifically its first album, Something About Airplanes, which just got the deluxe reissue treatment, complete with great liner notes by Sean Nelson (of Harvey Danger) and a bonus disc featuring Death Cab's third-ever live show.
The A.V. Club: Are you on the road, rocking the country?
Ben Gibbard: We're rocking a little bit of the country. We're playing at Cal Poly University right now in San Luis Obispo. We've been on tour with Neil Young for about a week and a half—it's been fun.
AVC: Have you gotten to meet him?
BG: Yeah, we met him a couple of years ago. We played Bridge School in 2006. A couple of years ago, he got onstage and did a Graham Nash song with us, which was really fun.
AVC: Well, that's a good segue to talking about 10 years ago. Could you have imagined in your wildest dreams that you'd be playing a song with Neil Young, or did you fantasize about that every night?
BG: Ten years ago, our ambitions were incredibly modest. My wildest fantasy was to be the kind of band that could sell 40,000 records and maybe make enough money to not have to work a day job if we were touring a lot. The bands that we admired sold way under 20,000 records. I remember being at a show in Seattle, and a friend of ours who ran Pedro The Lion's old record label was like, "We just sold 10,000 records!" and it was like this insane amount. To have sold 10,000 records—I mean, what an achievement, but that was where our ambitions were, and also what we thought was realistic at the time. But everything that has happened for us in the last 10 years has been at a really gradual pace, so it feels like nothing has gotten out of our control. It happened at a speed that felt comfortable to us—or as comfortable as this kind of thing can feel. In no way did we think we would be in the situation we're in now. How could you?
AVC: There must have been a small part of you that imagined playing arenas.
BG: There really wasn't. The late '90s were a really bad time for people trying to be rock stars, you know what I mean? It seemed like everyone was a one-hit wonder on the radio. We had friends who had a hit single on the radio and sold 500,000 records, and then they couldn't get arrested a year later. I had this feeling at the time that that was not possible anymore, so the idea of becoming the biggest band in the country—it seemed laughable. That any band could become U2, or go from putting out their own record to playing an arena in a couple of years just seemed ludicrous. I felt that having those sort of ambitions was foolish, because there was no way that was going to be possible. If you saw it that way, you were just deluding yourself. I think we just always had this meager ambition. The first time I met you, I was floored when we played at the Cactus Club [in Milwaukee] and there was a band we were playing with, Camden, who actually knew who we were, and was actually excited that we were playing together. To me, that was like the craziest thing ever. Those kinds of things 10 years ago—the fact that we could leave the Northwest and have anybody know who we were was just really overwhelming and kind of crazy for me.
AVC: So when the idea came to do the 10-year-anniversary edition of Airplanes, was your reaction "Wow, that seems like yesterday," or "Wow, that seems like forever ago"?
GB: A little bit of both. A little bit of, "Wow, that feels like yesterday," because time flies by pretty quickly, but also when I listen to that record, it takes me back. I remember a lot of my thought processes when I was 20 or 21, writing those songs and recording that record. When I look at that record, I wonder what I was thinking when I was trying to say a particular thing—or if I thought I was saying one thing, and it wasn't coming too clearly at all. I hear some of the weird little nuances in the recording; I can hear what the room sounded like. I remember what it smelled like. I can remember sitting up in [guitarist] Chris Walla's bedroom hearing those songs through the speakers and being really proud of ourselves, and for the first time in my life having this realization like, "Maybe I can do this. Maybe I can make music that in some capacity people will enjoy and come see me play."
Making that record was so much fun, and there was no context or pretense for what we were going to be able to accomplish, or how long we'd even be doing this. It was as innocent a time as a band could have, and I think we all look back to our more innocent moments and we long for some semblance of that feeling. I put it on and I'm instantaneously taken back, but also I'll take things a little bit more critically now, like, "What did I think I was saying in that song? What is this song about?" I thought the lyrics were incredibly descriptive, and now they sound really cryptic and weird. I'd like to also think that when I listen to those songs that I'm proud of my development as a writer. I don't think I was doing anything poorly at that time, but I can certainly see how my writing has changed.
AVC: What do you think has changed about your writing since then? I assume you think it's gotten stronger.
BG: I wouldn't put that to a vote. I'm sure some people think it has gotten a lot better. I'm sure some people think it's gotten a lot worse, depending on what era of the band is your favorite. If there is one thing I think I have accomplished, it's that I always thought of myself as a very literal songwriter, and as I look at some of those older records, I don't hear it now the way I did when I was 20. I think it is undeniable that the songs have become more instantaneously descriptive and literal. I'd like the songs to be more storytelling, but also have the turns of phrase within them that would hopefully distance my writing from the pack. I feel like on those older records, certainly on Airplanes, there are a lot of attempts at clever turns of phrase.
AVC: What else do you remember about the actual recording?
BG: Chris was working at Starbucks; he owned stock in Starbucks. I don't know if it is still the same, but at the time, you had stock options if you were a barista. He had like $1,000. We knew we were going to record an album, and we needed to have a good microphone, so we cashed out his stocks. We went down to the bank and got like $1,000 in cash, and we went to Pacific Pro Audio in Seattle and bought an AKG 414 microphone, which at the time was seemingly an exorbitant amount of money to spend on a microphone. $1,000 on a microphone is a lot of money even now—at the time, it was insane. That microphone went on everything—on top of the drums, on the guitar, on the vocals. When we went to get the money, Chris and I were at the bank, and we're pretty scrappy-looking. We're 20 or 21. The lady behind the counter is making conversation, like, "Oh, are you buying a car?" Chris matter-of-factly says, "No, we're buying a microphone," as if she was crazy for asking. She looked at us like we were fucking with her. No one spends $1,000 on a microphone.
I was still in school at the time; Chris and I lived together, and we had a roommate who was also finishing his last year of college. Every day after class or work, we would meet at the house and start recording. Our roommate would come home and open the front door and maybe ruin a take, or see that we were in the midst of recording and get pissed and storm up to his room since we were taking over the entire house trying to make the record. It's funny to look back on that period knowing what I know now, and realizing how silly it was, and also how innocent and fun it was. It was a really fun time.
AVC: It would probably be a really different record if you'd had some money and went to a studio—and probably not for the better.
BG: I don't think so either. There were two recording studios in Bellingham. One was really expensive, a "nice studio." We were at the point where we were young and irreverent. We would scoff at the idea of a nice studio. "Why would you want to go to a nice studio? Oh wow, they have really expensive gear. Ooh, that's really fancy. Well we've got an eight-track. We've got it going on here." Now that we have the resources, we're like, "Oh wow, a nice studio is pretty nice! They do have nice outboards here. It's actually a pretty good place." I know [bassist] Nick [Harmer] has some video footage from us recording that record. I don't think it has ever surfaced, or would be usable in any capacity, but it's funny how much changes so quickly.
AVC: Where did the title come from? I always assumed that it was "Let's just call it something about airplanes," and that actually became the title.
BG: I had a girlfriend at the time who was an elementary-school teacher. She had this little questionnaire she was giving to her kids, like, "What would you like to learn more about?" Some kid wrote in, "Something about airplanes." That was his answer. He wanted to learn something about airplanes. For the first couple albums, Death Cab For Cutie was wrought with non sequiturs. I think the only band in recent years to beat us with the frequency of non sequiturs is Minus The Bear. The first couple records were pretty wrought with song titles that had nothing to do with the songs, and album titles that had nothing to do with the albums. Looking back and kind of psychoanalyzing that, I think that had to do with our insecurities. We could just give it a weird name and move on and not have to think about it anymore. We Have The Facts And We're Voting Yes came from a thrift-store T-shirt that our friend found. It's funny how that has changed. It went from anything being the title of the record to now, where we had to have a committee to name Narrow Stairs. The attention to those kinds of details has changed over the years.
AVC: Sean Nelson wrote in the liner notes that you were "blissfully, beautifully un-ambitious," which doesn't seem entirely accurate. It doesn't seem like you were careerist, but you were at least putting yourselves out there. You would go out in the van to places where you were unknown.
BG: I hate revisionist history when it comes to the punk-rock story, certainly. That is my least favorite type of revisionist history. I guess we didn't really have any read on what our ambitions even were until we had been in the van for three or four years. All those early tours were like, "Well, we've got to go on tour. We have to do a national tour. We have to go down the West Coast four times and play to five people every time we're in L.A." I don't like to think of it as a level of ambition that we had. I look back at those early tours and those first couple years, and it was more that we didn't want to go work. I didn't want to work at the refinery. I didn't want to go to my temp job. I wanted to climb in a van and have a 10-day vacation with my three best friends that involved playing music at teen centers to fucking 20 people. Anything was better than going to work. All those early tours before we made any money were more like vacations. I don't think it was until 2001 that we pulled our heads out of the sand and were like, "What are we doing?" I don't think Chris realized he was in a band until 2001. He all of a sudden woke up one day and realized he was in a band. He thought he was just recording my solo project. Three albums later, we're in Baltimore trying to figure out what to do with ourselves.
AVC: Was that when things tipped? Later in 2001, on The Photo Album tour, seemed like a big turning point.
BG: I think so. We Have The Facts and The Forbidden Love EP were when the indie-rockers first got clued into it, and The Photo Album sort of tipped it away from a hipster crowd and more toward regular people, so to speak. 2001 was a weird year for us. We had gotten our first royalty checks from Barsuk in fall of 2000 for what amounted to like $4,000 or $5,000 per person. It was not a lot of money, but it was enough that we eventually looked at each other and were like, "All right, here we go. My temp job just ran out, and I've got $4,000. As long as we're on tour by March, we can make this happen."
While I'm proud of every record we've done, it's my opinion that The Photo Album is the weakest record, because we were making an album so we could be on tour in the fall. For the first time in our careers, we found ourselves with an economic incentive to be on the road and to be making albums. We had cut ourselves free from the security of day-job life. The goals became primarily financial, at least for a while. That was the roughest time we had ever had as a band, because that was the first moment we realized that this was for real. We were not goofing around anymore. We all threw everything we had into this in a way where we all found ourselves really far from home, and we were stuck with each other. It took some time to figure out how we were going to move forward from that point.
The story of our band is that we were this relentless touring band in those early years. We were leaving day jobs and going off on the road and having fun and seeing the country for the first time. We were going to cities we'd never played before. We were playing Chinese restaurants and basements and record stores and houses. We were crashing on floors and it was all new and exciting. It was like a vacation. It didn't feel like work. It didn't feel like touring the way touring feels now. We tour in far more luxury and with far more resources than we could have dreamed of having 10 years ago, but at the same time, it's all a known quantity at this point. It wasn't back then. Every time we got on the highway, we were seeing new stuff and meeting new people and making new friends. I couldn't wait to go on tour back then. I would be sitting at my day job or my apartment, just itching to go. There were so many adventures that were about to happen.
AVC: It sounds like you miss it.
BG: I don't necessarily miss it. I'm glad I had it. I guess I would say I miss it the way anyone misses their more innocent periods. You look back at a time you idealize now and you only remember the good stuff. You tell the stories about the hard stuff and just laugh about it now. You don't remember how difficult it was to be stranded in Austin after driving 52 hours from Seattle in a rainstorm and having nowhere to stay for five hours. You remember that stuff and laugh about it now. You don't feel it the way you did back then when you were so scared and nervous and tired and hungry. We always idealize the past because we don't feel the painful stuff the way we used to.
AVC: Did listening to the live bonus disc bring back any of those weird memories?
BG: I can hear the way Nathan [Good, original DCFC drummer] played. I can remember how I sang—a little more nasal-y back then. Listening to those old recordings is like seeing a photograph of yourself from 10 years ago. You're wearing what you thought looked cool at the time. You had your hair styled the particular way you thought looked cool. It's an accurate depiction of who you were and what you looked and sounded like at that point in your life. It doesn't necessarily mean that it aged in a way that it feels as cool or sounds as good to you, or says what you thought it said, 10 years later. That's just the nature of growing older.
AVC: That seems like almost the last point in history when a band could develop off the radar, pre-Internet insanity. Do you feel like that was a lucky thing for you?
BG: I think so. I feel very blessed to have had that relatively gradual build. That type of growth just isn't possible anymore. But I think bands who are in their early 20s today, who are putting out their first records, they are living in their own time and they have a series of parameters they have to work around. Ten years ago, our reality was spending a lot more time in obscurity before anyone really knew who we were. I don't feel like I have any real advice to give anybody who is starting a band today, because the playing field has changed so drastically. I don't think the way we were able to build was necessarily any better or worse than how people try to form careers now. One of my favorite quotes is a Mike Watt quote when he says, "You know, not everyone has the ability to be born at the same time." We wanted to be like R.E.M., but the reality is that 15 years after R.E.M. was putting out those records, the playing field had changed drastically as well.
AVC: What's next? Are you writing new songs already?
BG: Not really. We've been on the road so much and out promoting this record. One of the things I enjoyed about the last record was that I was able to do all this touring and promoting and then go flip off into my own little corner of the world and write in a vacuum, then bring all the songs to the band. That's what I want to do this time. I don't have any large concepts about what the new album should be or sound like. I just want to get home at some point and be able to spend some time with the guitar and try to write the songs.