With two (sort of) new members and a brand new album, Death Cab For Cutie are a band refreshed.
Words: Steven Loftin.
Photos: Sarah Louise Bennett.
Death Cab For Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard has been pondering the changing landscape of his beloved Seattle. It’s a story that’s relatable the world over; as time goes on the places we know and love change, favourite spots are taken over by modernity and gentrification.
It’s a physical evolution that has become something of a metaphor for Ben’s life. At the age of forty-one, twenty years deep into his band’s career, the irony isn’t lost on him. The first glimpse he offered into Death Cab’ newest chapter, ninth studio album ‘Thank You For Today’, specifically focused upon the idea of a changing world, once again neatly falling into the wheelhouse that’s previously served them so well – an emotive resonance few can match.
The reaction to ‘Gold Rush’ was positive, but vulnerable to backlash following the departure of co-founder, producer and guitarist Chris Walla with their last record ‘Kintsugi’ back in 2014.
“We’ve all done this right?” Ben begins, chuckling. “Fans tend to be very reactive with very little perspective when they hear the first note of a new album, so you want to make sure that you can reassure them that the band hasn’t become something too different to what they’re used to.
“Over the years, our singles have tended to be a little bit divisive or atypical of the time. ‘I Will Possess Your Heart’ was the first single from [2008’s] ‘Narrow Stairs’, and that’s an eight-and-a-half minute can-jam, you know?!” he says, laughing. “We’ve always wanted the singles to be a little bit of a left turn than what the tone of the album is. I’ve always preferred to have songs be hotly debated than to have them be universally loved or hated.”
Mission accomplished, then.
“When Chris left the band that was a really emotional time,” he continues. “Chris’s contributions to the band and his playing and production are a huge part of this band’s story and sound. One would not be able to go through that transition without having to ask themselves some really tough questions.”
The future of the band was one of those questions, but Death Cab are still here. With touring musicians Dave Depper and Zac Rae moving up to full-fledged bandmembers, they’re raring to go.
“We never intended to replace Chris with a capital ‘R’,” Ben explains. “It wasn’t like we were going to find somebody like him. I think why it’s been so inspiring for us is that while we may have lost a particular skill set – and a brilliant musical mind – Dave and Zach are unbelievable musicians with skill sets that I wasn’t even aware they had until we got in the studio.
“I believe that this record, it sounds a little cliche, but it’s the beginning of a new chapter. It’s one that I’m excited about because we haven’t even begun to tap the potential of the music that we can make with Dave and Zach. Will people like it as much, or will it be as revered as these albums we made in the early-mid oughts that have become our calling cards? We’ll see, who knows?” Ben openly admits.
“I mean, obviously the realist would say that it’s unlikely. When we’ve had a run of albums as we did in the early-mid 00s that have really defined the sound of this band, it’s impossible to recreate those zeitgeist moments.
“That said, I feel like we have a lot of really great albums still in us, and whether or not people speak of them in the same tone that they do ‘Transatlanticism’ , or ‘Facts’ , or ‘Plans’  or whatever else, will be to be determined. But I certainly think that I am more excited about the future of this band, and the songs that have yet to be written than I have been in quite a while. Twenty years in, I think that’s saying something.”
The loss of Chris from the Death Cab ranks, while unfortunate, offered the opportunity for a much-needed shakeup.
“Oh, it was incredibly freeing,” Ben divulges. “Certainly, without speaking out of turn, when you have a creative relationship with someone like Chris – who is a very brilliant and yet very opinionated and strong-minded person, and that is your working relationship for sixteen years – as with any long relationship, you end up in situations. Ones where you’re like ‘Oh I see, you don’t like my guitar part because I didn’t buy dinner three weeks ago at that place’.”
“It’s like the emotional water has become muddied,” he quickly clarifies. “When you start the band at twenty, and you’ve grown up together, in some ways, there are elements of the relationship that do grow, and some are frozen in the embryonic stages when you’re still learning how to communicate with other human beings.
“When I look back on those early years of the band, I’m just shocked at how poor we were at communicating with each other. I haven’t had this much fun making an album since we made ‘Transatlanticism’.
“When we were leaving the studio at night, sometimes one or two of us would end up walking along back to the apartment together. Nick [Harmer, bass] and I would end up talking, like: ‘Hey, you know, this is really fun, right?’
“We were very reticent, very quick to make sure that we weren’t equating a fun environment with making a good album. Just because you’re having a good time doesn’t mean what you’re making is good – I think that goes without saying. But in the history of this band, the records that we’ve had that have been the most enjoyable for us to make, have tended to be the better albums because ideas are flowing, creativity is flowing, people are communicating well, we’re enjoying each others company. We’re not bringing whatever bullshit that just kind of piles up after you’ve been a band for as long as we have, that just doesn’t exist anymore.
“As we make more records with Dave and Zach we’ll start to build our own little pile of bullshit, but I think Chris would probably say the same thing – that after sixteen years of playing music together he just realised that he had accomplished what he wanted to accomplish with it. At the time he left we weren’t on poor terms by any stretch of the imagination, but we made all the music we had to make together.
“I completely understand why there would be fans out there that would have been concerned about this new chapter, or maybe those who are just big fans of Chris and don’t like the idea that we chose to continue. I guess all I can say is no one’s holding a gun to your head and making you listen to our new album or to come to a show.
“You can have those memories if you like, but for me, I’d much rather live in the moment, where we are now, grateful for all the years that we had with Chris and the records that we made with him, but also realising that that’s in the past and not to dwell on it.
“There’s a phrase that I heard relatively recently that I’m sure is one of those platitudes that’s been repeated a number of times, but I found it while a little bit trite, still a fairly beautiful sentiment; ‘Don’t be sad that it’s over, be glad that it happened’. And I think that certainly applies to how I feel about the past twenty years of the band, and Chris’s contribution for that matter.”
Ben’s attitude offers wisdom that only getting older can bring.
“I’m forty-one years old now, so if I’m lucky, I’m at the middle point of my life. Where I stand now, I feel like I’m both looking forward and backwards in equal amounts,” he offers.
“When one is looking both forwards and backwards at the same time, one can’t help but be very present in the moment and grateful for the people around them, the life that one gets to live, family, these kinds of things; I feel more present. I really do feel more present in my daily life at this point than I have to date. I think that is very related to my age, and where I am in my life and my career and everything else.”
Which brings us nicely to ‘Thank You For Today’. It’s a record that evokes feelings of embracing the moment, not to mention the open blue sky that features on the artwork. It all feels refreshing; the result of a band that have consistently pushed their boundaries tested the mark, and more often than not hit it.
“It’s boring when bands stay the same the whole time,” Ben enthuses. “As I look at my favourite bands that are still active, one of the reasons that I enjoy them [is that] every album they put out there are elements of the group that remind you why you love them and connect you to their catalogue of music, while also providing you with some new sonic information or new lyrical information.
“To me, two bands that come to mind immediately are Low and Wilco. When Low began it seemed like there was nowhere for that band to go, they were a very slow, three-piece guitar band. Over the years they’ve continued to innovate and make interesting records while always reminding me, a fan, of why I love them.
“Wilco is the same way. They went through a fairly large lineup change at the beginning of the century that left a lot of people wondering what their future would be. [2001’s] ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’ might go down as their most well-known album, the record that they’re remembered for, but they’ve had a shit tonne of awesome records since then.”
An obvious thing that often feels forgotten is that bands are fans of music too. They go over the same thoughts and feelings as the rest of us, even when it comes to their favourites’ developments – which is why Ben finds it so easy to relate to those that throw him under the same magnifying glass.
“A lyric that’s like, ‘Change, don’t change, stay the same’,” he says, referring to the ghostly refrain in the outro moments of ‘Gold Rush’. “Could easily be applied to a fan of the band hearing the song – or this record, and being like ‘Oh I just want them to be like they were on Transatlanticism’.
“It’s like, well, if you’re looking for your favourite band to stay the same forever you are destined for a lifetime of listening disappointment. If that’s what you want out of your favourite artists you are doomed to be disappointed forever.”
Though light-heartedly reneging on this idea, he states, laughing: “I think the only band that I’d want that from is AC/DC. I want every AC/DC record to be songs about girls or guitars and rocking or not rocking. You don’t want anything more from AC/DC, but I don’t think we’re the kind of band that people would still be paying attention to if we had made ‘Transatlanticism’ for the last seven albums. There are people out there who would claim otherwise, but if they actually had to listen to those albums, they wouldn’t be paying attention anymore.
“It’s one of the reasons that AC/DC, I believe, is the greatest rock band of all time. They were just like, ‘We are a rock band with a capital ‘R”, and they just did that. Even the Ramones had songs with strings. Even the Ramones had a cover of [The Ronettes’] ‘Baby, I Love You’ on [1980 album] ‘End Of The Century’ – that may be a side conversation! But I like to think we’re one of those bands that wouldn’t have the audience, and people wouldn’t care as much if we had just recycled the first couple of albums over and over again.”
‘Thank You For Today’ keeps things moving forward, yet still lends itself to everything that makes up the Death Cab DNA. Taking a little piece from all of Ben’s influencers’ ideas leading to nuances such as the repetitive refrain of ‘gold rush’ in its titular track to the driving rock sounds of opener ‘I Dreamt We Spoke Again’.
‘You Moved Away’ meanwhile is a classic Death Cab brooding emotional wreck that deals with a broken relationship still filled with unrequited love. It could as easily be about a romantic one as dealing with the loss of Chris.
There’s a little bit of something for everyone on ‘Thank You For Today’, but one of the most interesting tracks is the album’s finale. ‘60 & Punk’ is an acoustic number that revolves around a single protagonist that Ben doesn’t quite feel comfortable disclosing.
“It’s a person who is a huge hero of mine, and who was going through some incredibly difficult times and made some really poor decisions,” he says. “It was a very difficult thing for me to watch because he’s a person that’s one of the main reasons I started doing this in the first place. Thankfully – the happy ending – is that this person has been sober for two years now and has shifted at a really important time of their life where if they hadn’t they’d be dead now.
“In one verse, I’m the age I am now watching this person I admire so much just kind of fall apart, and the second verse I’m a kid looking up to this person. The song lives in the negative space between those two spaces in time. How do you rectify the admiration you have with somebody, with the fact that they’re a human being? Human beings make mistakes, they stumble, but that they’re also capable of self-correction.
“The person in question doesn’t know – obviously the record’s not out yet, but maybe they’ll pick up on if that’s about them. I like to think they’ll be kind of flattered,” he says with a hearty laugh. “Especially given that the person is in a much better place now. But yeah, and not to mention the fact that I am in the middle point between the beginning of my career and the age this person was when the subject matter of the song was taking place.”
As the career that’s served him so well ticks nicely along, the approaching sunrise for the new dawn of Death Cab begins its ascent, and the only thing he wants to do is progress.
“There are elements to the work that we do that are not the things you get into it for; like photo shoots and interviews and press trips and stuff like that, but, especially with this album cycle, I’ve been enjoying it so far. Even as it takes me across two continents, and four time zones in eleven days; this is an amazing opportunity that I’ve been living with for the last twenty years, and I want to make sure that I move forward as an artist and a songwriter.
“Nothing lasts forever, and everything is finite,” Ben declares, spreading more of his authentic wisdom. “One only has a choice either to live in the moment or not. We would rather choose to live in the moment; in the world in which we currently exist, where we have this new blood in the band, and we have this new palette to play with. We’re moving forward into a new chapter.”
Death Cab For Cutie’s album ‘Thank You For Today’ is out 17th August.