Interview: Death Cab for Cutie
Ben Gibbard trades verbose voyages for minimalist melodies.
Mon May 23 2011
Seven years ago, indie rock underwent a sea change, propelled in part by a fictional early-aughts hipster: Seth Cohen, the adorably befuddled nerd on the hit Fox show The O.C. Midway through the show's first season, Seth began obsessively referencing Death Cab for Cutie and its fourth record, Transatlanticism. "We got a call one day that the show wanted to license one of our songs; we never had a license at that point," says Ben Gibbard, DCFC's primary songwriter and frontman, by phone from Los Angeles, three weeks prior to a tour that will bring the band to New York twice this summer. "So we tuned in to watch it, and then all of a sudden, the characters were, like, talking about our band," Gibbard continues. "It was so surreal. That whole cultural phenomenon was on us before we had a way of processing it."
The O.C. played a crucial role in introducing DCFC's melodic pop to a larger audience—the four-piece soon left Barsuk Records for a deal with Atlantic and released Plans, a commercial breakthrough. Narrow Stairs followed—a dark, weird record that more fully embraced the simmering gloom of youth that had become the band's trademark. Politically active guitarist-keyboardist Chris Walla spearheaded DCFC's efforts stumping for Obama during the 2008 election, and the group even wrote a song for the Twilight Saga: New Moon soundtrack. Not unlike Seth Cohen, who had become something of a neurotic poster boy for disenfranchised misanthropes, the floppy-haired Gibbard attained heartthrob status. (He also got hitched to Zooey Deschanel.) "I don't think about it that often," Gibbard says of the admiration. "Being concerned with the epic flow of normal life, I certainly don't see myself that way, so I think it's kind of funny."
DCFC's songwriting process is largely unchanged from when the band formed in Seattle in 1997: Gibbard writes the music and lyrics, then shares them with Walla, bassist Nick Harmer and drummer Jason McGerr. But their latest disc, Codes and Keys, features a moody sound palette that emphasizes impish synthesizers and glistening string sections over the customary folky guitar strums. And whereas the bulk of DCFC's back catalog reflected Gibbard's fixation with the romance of Jack Kerouac's on-the-road aesthetic, Codes and Keys is rooted primarily in L.A.
"This record lives at home a bit more," Gibbard says. "As I get older, a large portion of my wanderlust has went the way of the buffalo." He also decided to drop in a few veiled references to previous albums: "Like, in 'Why You'd Want to Live Here,' [on The Photo Album,] writing about hating Los Angeles, and now with me living in Los Angeles..." The new album's closer, "Stay Young, Go Dancing," is a diary-like ode to a domestic life in a city he once claimed to loathe: "Life is sweet in the belly of the beast," Gibbard sings thoughtfully over the track's opening keys.
While this song, as with the other ten on the record, features the melancholy chords and longing melodies of a classic Death Cab dirge, the lyrics on Codes suggest a well-satisfied heart with unadorned imagery. "As a writer, I was obsessed with strange turns of phrase, and I felt I was saying these very profound things," Gibbard says of his older work. "I'm appreciating simpler language and directness in a way that I would have scoffed at earlier in my career as a songwriter. Especially with Codes and Keys, I wanted the songs to use less words. I wanted the melodies to be more hooks."
Gibbard's side project the Postal Service remains dormant at the moment—"It's in a cave, sleeping soundly," he says of his electropop collaboration with Jimmy Tamborello—and he currently has no plans to step into the recording studio with Deschanel, who is one half of the duo She & Him. "Our collaborations tend to be, you know, sitting on the couch with an acoustic guitar, like, singing a Louvin Brothers song together or something like that," Gibbard says. Playing songs with his wife, he offers, is the essence of what music should be, but his creative connection with his bandmates is equally undeniable. "I like to say we went from playing shows to playing concerts," he says. "There's something lost and something gained in the transition. We're no longer four guys who load up their own van and sell their own T-shirts. We're a rock band now."