Digital Cover Story: Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard on the 20th Anniversary of “Transatlanticism” | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Death Cab for Cutie Photographed in New York City for Under the Radar in 2003 by Michael Lum

Digital Cover Story: Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard on the 20th Anniversary of “Transatlanticism”

Gibbard Also Discusses The Postal Service’s Give Up and Death for Cutie’s 2005 Album Plans

Oct 06, 2023 Photography by Michael Lum and Wendy Lynch Redfern for Under the Radar (Death Cab for Cutie) and Brian Tamborello (The Postal Service) Web Exclusive
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Ben Gibbard couldn’t have asked for a more mythical year than 2003. Death Cab for Cutie, which originally started as his solo project in 1997, released one of their most critically acclaimed works to date with the saccharine masterpiece Transatlanticism (at the time, the band also featured Chris Walla, Nick Harmer, and Jason McGerr, with the latter two still members today). Gibbard also teamed up with producer/musician Jimmy Tamborello (aka Dntel) after a mutual friend brought them together to collaborate on “(This Is) The Dream of Evan and Chan,” a track on the 2001 Dntel record Life Is Full of Possibilities.

The pair soon recruited then-Rilo Kiley singer Jenny Lewis to form The Postal Service. The trio released an album in 2003 as well entitled Give Up which—despite its immense popularity—turned out to be their only record to date. After it was announced earlier this year that Death Cab for Cutie and The Postal Service would embark on a 20 year anniversary tour where the two bands would perform both albums front to back, Gibbard says he was bombarded with requests for a sequel to Give Up.

“Do you really want a Postal Service record 20 years after the last one?” he caustically asks. “I guess there are some comeback records from artists or bands that have been away even longer than we have, but I’m not quite sure that after 20 years we can kind of meet the enthusiasm…the anticipation is too much. I would definitely wanna rope Jenny into more of the songwriting, you know? I mean, obviously she’s a fucking beast. I get it but to be very clear: we’re not doing that.”

He does remain excited, though, about the fact he was able to reunite with his old friends on this long-awaited tour that wraps up this month. “It’s a little bit kind of cheesy to say it this way, but it’s like we’re not only getting a band back together. We’re a group of friends and we enjoy each other’s company, and it’s an excuse to go out and spend a lot of time together since we do it so infrequently. It’s like we have this record that’s…not so much frozen in time but certainly serves as a marker of a particular time in our lives that clearly has meaning for other people in their lives.”

Death Cab for Cutie backstage at the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles in May, 2004 (Photo by Wendy Lynch Redfern)
Death Cab for Cutie backstage at the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles in May, 2004. (Photo by Wendy Lynch Redfern)
Death Cab for Cutie backstage at the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles in May, 2004 (Photo by Wendy Lynch Redfern)
Death Cab for Cutie backstage at the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles in May, 2004. (Photo by Wendy Lynch Redfern)

Comparatively speaking, Transatlanticism and Give Up are on opposite ends of the sonic spectrum for Gibbard. The former (which he refers to as “atmospheric and downtempo”) relishes in slower, syrupy instrumentation tightly wrapped in lovelorn lyrics about the perils of a long-distance relationship. The latter, however, gives Gibbard’s words a more light-hearted and synth-driven backdrop. When asked if he felt freer to create with The Postal Service because there weren’t necessarily any expectations set in place, he admits that a blank slate can sometimes be an enticing option to an artist.

“It was just a completely new format, you know?” Gibbard reveals. “At that point in Death Cab, I was—for all intents and purposes—writing all the songs. I think there might have been a little bit of co-write here and there, but everything started with me. Jimmy [was] doing quite literally half of the work by writing the music. Then it was just my job to edit and add melodies and lyrics and additional arrangements…it was just a very liberating kind of creative experience because I could just react. I’m not writing the music then reacting to the thing that I wrote myself, which is less of a reaction as much as a continuation of the aesthetic that I’ve already created myself.”

The Postal Service (2003 Publicity Photo by Brian Tamborello)
The Postal Service. (2003 Publicity Photo by Brian Tamborello)

Transatlanticism and Give Up experienced unprecedented success, with Gibbard’s creations permeating pop culture so poignantly (with notable syncs on The O.C., Veronica Mars, and Grey’s Anatomy) that Death Cab for Cutie’s trek from indie label Barsuk to iconic major label Atlantic was a wholly expected one. However, he recalls that it was the followup to Transatlanticism that caused the spotlight to intensely wear on him. “I feel like the visibility really ratcheted up when we signed to Atlantic and made Plans. I think for me there was this realization that everybody was paying attention. Some of which because they were fans, some of which because they were haters who were saying, ‘Oh shit, this record is on a major label? Oh, it’s definitely going to suck’ or ‘They’re definitely going to sell out,’” Gibbard remembers.

“I think the pressure really started to…I wouldn’t say break me but, you know, there’s a reason I quit drinking after that album,” he lets out with a slight chuckle. “When we signed to Atlantic, one of the many things that we said was, ‘We’re gonna do all the press, we’re gonna do all the touring…we’re not gonna sign to a major label and then just try to do all the shit we did on indie and then complain when it doesn’t work out.’ So it was like ‘Let’s lean into it, let’s really try to make it work, let’s try to play the game. And it was like, just a lot, you know?

“Touring [Plans] was the point at which I started to hit…not a breaking point because that’s too dramatic of a word. But it’s like, if we were making an episode of [VH1 series] Behind the Music, this is when the narrator would say, ‘And Gibbard started to drink heavily at this time.’” His sobriety has been well documented, and in 2008 Gibbard publicly shared that he would replace his use of alcohol with runner’s high by participating in marathons shortly after. Fifteen years later, he explains that the lows that came with drinking were offset by the optimism of a young band eager to make it.

“It was a ‘wake up at two in the afternoon and soundcheck was at three’ kind of thing but in 2003, it was just like ‘Yay we made a record. Let’s put it out.’ We were just this little band, you know? And then it was O.C. plus cultural shift plus Give Up…everything started to really ramp up over the course of a year or so but it didn’t happen overnight with Transatlanticism. It wasn’t like on September 1st nobody knows who we are and then on October 1st we’re on the cover of Rolling Stone.”

Death Cab for Cutie at their Hall of Justice studio in Seattle in 2005 (Photo by Wendy Lynch Redfern for Under the Radar)
Death Cab for Cutie at their Hall of Justice studio in Seattle in 2005. (Photo by Wendy Lynch Redfern for Under the Radar)
Death Cab for Cutie in Seattle in 2005. (Photo by Wendy Lynch Redfern for Under the Radar)
Death Cab for Cutie in Seattle in 2005. (Photo by Wendy Lynch Redfern for Under the Radar)
Death Cab for Cutie in Seattle in 2005. (Photo by Wendy Lynch Redfern for Under the Radar)
Death Cab for Cutie in Seattle in 2005. (Photo by Wendy Lynch Redfern for Under the Radar)

For vocal critics of bands who capitalize on nostalgia, their complaints are warranted if said musicians have no intent of ever moving forward from their most popular works. Gibbard has heard these critiques over the years but knows that The Postal Service is an exception to that sort of commentary. “I guess in The Postal Service, there’s no moving forward because there’s only one record. But at the same time, it’s like all of us—Jimmy and Jenny and myself—and obviously Death Cab, we’ve been creatively active and making new things for 20 years. “I think that there is a place for nostalgia in this world and I love seeing bands that are brand new that have records that just came out as much as I loved seeing Tears For Fears a couple of weeks ago. Music is this living organism in our lives and just because a record came out in 1975 and you heard it today doesn’t make it any less resonant in your life than something that just came out yesterday. That’s one of the things I think is so interesting about how young people consume music now: they don’t give a fuck when something came out. They’re not looking at the record being like—well they’re not looking at the record at all because they’re listening to it on Spotify—but they’re not like, ‘When did this come out? Oh, I can’t like this, this is old.’ It’s really just about the connection you make with music.”

When asked about the biggest lesson he took away from the pandemonium that was 2003, Gibbard says it was his appreciation of letting life influence art. “I believe that my best work is when, during the writing process, I had a lot of time to meander creatively. When it came time to go into the studio, we had more material than we thought we needed and it was more quality material. With the times that I’ve been writing on whatever constituted a deadline, it never felt like I was writing for the wrong reasons but there was a particular kind of pressure that I didn’t do my best work under.

“Forgive me for some recency bias, but I think the best records in our catalog are Transatlanticism, Narrow Stairs, and Asphalt Meadows,” he says, including the band’s 2022 album. “I think those are three of my favorite records because we had so much time going into them where I was just able to really fuck around. I just had so much material that I was able to move lyrics and music around until I found the right combination.” Gibbard’s artistic foresight, though, has led him to be revered for an extensive discography saturated with stirring instrumentation and lyricism that made residual sentimentality fashionable.

“You know, you always want to think you’re getting better at something. But I think one of the things that’s so unique about music and being a songwriter and making records is it’s really one of the only art forms by my estimation that people think the first thing you did or the early things you did are better than the later things you did,” he declares. “No one’s like, ‘The only good movie Scorsese has ever made was Mean Streets and everything else after that was shit.’ Nobody talks about film that way. Nobody talks about literature that way, but music is this very unique thing. There are elements of my lyricism that have gotten a lot better over the years, or have gotten clearer, maybe a little more interesting.

“Certainly I would hope that my lyrics are appropriate and reflective of the age and experience that I’m at now, in how I write about love and loss and life and everything else. I was talking to Jenny about this a couple days ago and she said, ‘Yeah, my [new] records are more geared towards people like me: women in their 40s. I’m writing from that perspective and not writing a song about how a cop stole my skateboard.’ I’m writing about where I am now and honestly it’s a privilege to be in a situation where I’ve been making records for 25 years.”

Death Cab for Cutie in Seattle in 2005. (Photo by Wendy Lynch Redfern for Under the Radar)
Death Cab for Cutie in Seattle in 2005. (Photo by Wendy Lynch Redfern for Under the Radar)
Death Cab for Cutie in Seattle in 2005. (Photo by Wendy Lynch Redfern for Under the Radar)
Death Cab for Cutie in Seattle in 2005. (Photo by Wendy Lynch Redfern for Under the Radar)
Death Cab for Cutie in Seattle in 2005. This photo was used as the cover of Issue 10 of Under the Radar's print magazine. (Photo by Wendy Lynch Redfern for Under the Radar)
Death Cab for Cutie in Seattle in 2005. This photo was used as the cover of Issue 10 of Under the Radar’s print magazine. (Photo by Wendy Lynch Redfern for Under the Radar)

Once the anniversary tour ends, Gibbard says he’s contemplating taking a break before jumping back into work. Time, he says, has been surprisingly fleeting and it’s as if the last three decades have gone by in a flash, a feeling that many musicians can relate to. “I think when an artist ages, they remind you that you’ve aged as well. I’ll run into somebody I haven’t seen in like 20 years and in the back of my mind I’m like, ‘Damn, they got old’ because I’ve been hanging out with the same people for 30 years…I’ve been hanging out with Nick Harmer for 30 years. But I saw some footage of us in 1998 recently and we look fucking old now. But in our minds, we’re just two kids…we’re just two 23 year olds playing in the band. Like, no dude—you’re 47. He’s 49. But when you play music as long as we have, for people who are fans of yours, it’s a privilege to become this constant in their life.” Gibbard will always pride himself as a lover of music first and understands that trends he sees in other bands are applicable to his art—regardless of whatever iteration he chooses or reincarnates as.

“Fans may not like a new record from an artist they love as much as the older ones. Maybe a new record surprises them and they’re like ‘I love that new record…I’m gonna go listen to the old ones now too.’ What this tour reiterates is that first and foremost: all of us are fans of music. And it would stand to reason that some of these phenomenons that happen in our own listening experiences and fandom would also be happening with us—Death Cab and The Postal Service—at the center of them.”

www.deathcabforcutie.com

www.postalservicemusic.net

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