Death Cab for Cutie
Ben Gibbard’s Period Piece
Apr 30, 2009 Web Exclusive Photography by Steven Dewall
Death Cab for Cutie is currently on the road alongside Ra Ra Riot and Matt Costa (with Cold War Kids as the opener during the first half of the tour). While on tour Death Cab's vocalist Ben Gibbard doesn't do much with his available free time. The things he does do, however, he commits to with consuming sincerity. Aside from raiding the inventory of numerous cities' record shops, with the new season of Major League Baseball starting up, Gibbard has been living in a state of nine-inning increments: watching games, checking the latest stats, and listening to all kinds of sports commentary. He's even managed to get out to an actual ballpark, recently catching the Twins face off against the Blue Jays in Minneapolis.
"Now that's it's baseball season, I find myself watching a lot of baseball and listening to a little too much Internet baseball analysis," says Gibbard. "Baseball is something I've enjoyed since I was a kid, and in my adult life, I've kind of come back around to an enjoyment of it. It's like it waited for me. It's the one thing in my life that waited for me that allowed me to go off and do other things and waited patiently for me to come back and holds no grudges whatsoever. It's still there. It still loves me."
Focusing on things other than music was a pervading topic when Gibbard recently sat down to chat with Under the Radar. Touching on topics ranging from the band's latest EP release, The Open Door, to his recent engagement to Zooey Deschanel, Gibbard checked in on how he ultimately checks out.
So you guys recently put out an EP. Where do these songs fall in relation to Narrow Stairs?
They were all written with the songs from Narrow Stairs during I guess what would be the end of 2006 into 2007, as we were moving towards recording the album. All these songs, with the exception of "Little Bribes," were recorded during the sessions for Narrow Stairs. "Little Bribes" we attempted to record for Narrow Stairs, and it just didn't come together. We just kind of overthought it, and I was a little too close to the demo version of it, and it was a song that I played a little bit on my solo tour in 2007 and had a strange affinity for and for whatever reason was really kind of adamant about it existing in recorded form. My demo was a little more psychedelic than straightforward, but I think the version that turned up on the EP is far superior to anything I originally contributed, which is always a goal.
Would you consider these songs a departure thematically or melodically from the songs that actually made it on the album? Is that why they weren't included?
They're only a departure from Narrow Stairs in the sense that they're not on the album. I don't see them as being drastically different. I think—with the exception of "Little Bribes" which is lyrically very different and doesn't fit with a lot of the themes on Narrow Stairs—I think that most of the songs, in a different world, could have been on the album. I don't necessarily see it as a collection of songs so drastic that they had no place on the record. I think sometimes whenever you have songs that don't make an album, there's always this false insinuation that the songs aren't "good" [enough] to make the record, and while I certainly wouldn't want to put that to a vote as far as what people think about it, I personally feel that when you're making an album, one of my biggest pet peeves in the modern record-making world is that records are too fucking long. Now that we're post-CD and an album can be as long as you want it to be. It can be three hours long. But just because you have three hours of songs doesn't mean you need to put out a three-hour record. I really subscribe to the belief that an album should be between 45 and 50 minutes. An album is what can fit on two sides of a slab of vinyl. I don't think I've ever picked up an album by a band—ever a band that I've loved—and wanted to hear 75 minutes of music from them. I don't even think I've ever listened to the [Beatles'] White Album all the way through. So I think with we as band taking that position on our albums, naturally there are going to be songs that are not going to fit. If the record was a movie these scenes have to be cut for duration and moving the plot along and not necessarily because they're not good scenes.
What is significant about this idea of the "open door?"
One can find that phrase within the lyrics of at least a couple songs on the EP, and if I'm recalling correctly that phrase is in "Long Division" on the album as well. I think it's fairly kind of obvious in relation to the songs, particularly "A Diamond and a Tether," with one's lack of being able to make a real commitment to somebody else, and you're always watching the open door, or in "My Mirror Speaks"—just falling in love with the open door and always keeping one's eye out for whatever the next possibility is.
Where do these songs fall within the general progression of the band?
I certainly think these songs are of a darker tone. I think in the relationship to Narrow Stairs, I feel that this is kind of like the period of the sentence of the record. To me, I think these songs represent the end of this particular era of the band and this album cycle and this kind of tone, this dark tone. I am not quite interested in continuing to write songs that dark. I mean, songs kind of come out themselves. but I kind of feel like I've reached a zenith with this batch of songs. I guess we'll kind of see where my mind takes me for the next record but I can't imagine it continuing to wallow in that particular place. ,
Is there a particular reason for that?
You can kind of guess that I'm sure.
Would being engaged have anything to do with it?
I'm sure it might.
How do think having such a positive force in your personal life will affect your future songwriting?
I guess we'll all kind of see with the next record, won't we?
Throughout Open Door, there's an evident anxiety within many of the songs. Have you ever felt that kind of anxiety in your life and does it happen to you still?
I certainly have. I think that it comes as a direct function of the choices I've made in my life and where my life has taken me as a musician. I've been living a state of perpetual motion for so long, but as I've kind of gotten into my 30s, that insatiable wanderlust has started to fade a little bit. It'll always be there to some extent, and it goes back as far as being a kid and my dad being in the Navy and we always moved around a lot. So I've always kind of had this need to be in some state of motion in my life. But certainly I've started to reach a point in my life where I'm finding a lot more comfort in being in one place and starting to kind of settle into a side of my life I didn't necessarily ever see myself doing, which feels wonderful. It's certainly something that's new, and as things that are new to you they come with a little bit of uncomfortability, and you kind of have to learn to adjust accordingly.
Does touring interfere with this notion of slowing things down?
I very much enjoy touring. I love playing and I love doing shows. I think the only thing that's really changed for me over the years is that there are 22 hours of the day that are not musical, and while I attempt to make those more musical with trying to play more guitar and try to work on songs, I seem to be built to not be able to write songs on the road. I just can't really do it. I can kind of clunk around here or there but I almost feel like being on tour I really only have so many hours in the day that I can devote to music. Even when I'm at home and going to my studio and working on songs, it's like that's my musical time for the day. I'm past the point in my life where I can eat, sleep and breathe music 24 hours a day. I used to be able to do that, but now I just have other interests. Music is still very much the most important thing in my life, but it's peppered with other things that I like to do by myself. I have a period of the day that I can kind of work on music and that tends to be four to five hours a day, when I'm writing, and when we're touring, I'm doing interviews and we're doing soundchecks and we're going to radio stations and doing that kind of stuff. So that kind of eats into what is the general time of quote/unquote music that I have in my day, and so I don't get a lot of writing done.
What kind of non-musical activities do you enjoy doing?
For the last year and a half or so, I've been running a lot. Nathan [Willett of Cold War Kids] and I are actually doing a charity kind of race since we're both runners and we're kind of racing each other for this Water Wells for Africa charity that we're supporting. We're trying to get people to go to our website and donate a dollar a mile or something like that. It gives us a way to do something, to raise money doing something we'd be doing anyway, and it gives us that competitive edge going between us. We've actually been running together a couple times on this trip. Gone are my days of being in bars until four in the morning after shows. Now are the days of waking up at 9 a.m. and putting on some running shoes and going for a run. Yet another thing I never thought I'd find myself doing. The exciting parts of life are all the surprises you get. It's just a lot of downtime. Especially when you're on day five of a seven-day run, a lot of it just has to do with eating time. Some people do it by sleeping all day. I mean every band has a sleeper—I won't divulge who ours is, but it's definitely not me—and it's just a whole lot of waiting. You wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. But I feel between spending too much money on Rufus Thomas and Tim Buckley records and running and watching six hours of baseball all day, I'm doing a pretty good job of eating hours right now.