Death Cab for Cutie: ‘We’re an indie band from Seattle, where Republicans basically don’t exist’
Death Cab for Cutie have survived a lot. So a Trump backlash was the least of their worries
Death Cab for Cutie: one of the smartest and subtlest bands in alternative pop
Ben Gibbard looks back on his days as a hardened drinker with a degree of wry bafflement. “I was never at the bar fighting to get hammered,” says Death Cab for Cutie’s quietly-spoken frontman. “It wasn’t as if that was the only way I could write lyrics. I wrote everything stone sober. I just happened to go out and drink a lot afterwards.”
Gibbard is an unlikely cautionary tale. Death Cab for Cutie, which he started as a student in Seattle, are one of the smartest and subtlest bands in alternative pop. They have been variously hailed as the American Coldplay (NB this is a compliment) and as flag-bearers for literate and contemplative indie rock.
Through it all, they’ve maintained a reputation for good manners and wise decision-making. Punch-ups and stage-dives are certainly unlikely to feature as the group begin their European tour with a relatively rare Irish show on January 24th, in promotion of their fantastic ninth album, Thank You for Today.
If there is anything that Trump has taught us – and he’s taught us a lot – it’s that we need to lead with civility, we need to be better
Yet Death Cab have nonetheless been buffeted by a degree of drama across their 22-year history. There was the departure of long-serving guitarist and producer Chris Walla in 2014. Plus Gibbard had his spell as a barfly and had to endure a great deal of prurient interest during his marriage, from 2009 to 2012, to actress and songwriter Zooey Deschanel.
More recently, Death Cab earned the wrath of Donald Trump voters when Gibbard, who is rarely outspoken, took a potshot at the then-candidate for the White House.
“He’s a clown and doesn’t know what he’s doing,” the frontman told Billboard in late 2016. “Everybody needs to do what small part they can to try to help us avoid this potential catastrophe of a Trump presidency. It is the most pivotal and dangerous moment in our nation’s history.”
The backlash was clamorous, which, two-and-a-bit years on, strikes Gibbard as absurd. Who’d have imagined an indie-rock quintet from the Pacific Northwest would be anti-Trump?
“I find it hilarious,” he says. “There are people who are incredulous – who can’t believe that we would risk alienating our ‘right wing’ fans. Guys, we’re a college-educated indie rock band from Seattle, where Republicans basically don’t exist.”
If he regrets anything it is the tenor of the comments rather than their substance. He came across as angry, he feels. And, to quote that noted philosopher and Jedi master, Yoda, to surrender to anger is to give in to the dark side.
“I said some things I regretted. There may have been a bit of name-calling based in my anger and frustration,” he says. “If there is anything that Trump has taught us – and he’s taught us a lot – it’s that we need to lead with civility, we need to be better. We are living through what I hope is the bottom of American politics in terms of its lack of decorum.”
It’s lunchtime in Seattle. Gibbard is just back from a four-hour jog, part of his weekly regimen as an ultra-runner. He’s completed numerous marathons and regularly competes in 100-mile events. He got into running around the time he quit drinking and temporarily relocated to Los Angeles with his new wife, Deschanel.
But there was no happy ever after to this chapter of his life. Codes and Keys, the 2011 record he wrote immediately after giving up booze, is one of the least-beloved among Death Cab fans.
Absent is the gut-punch melancholy that elsewhere runs through the group’s catalogue and which first put them on the mainstream map when they guested on teen drama The OC in 2004. The songs were fine, but something – that old intensity, perhaps – was missing.
Gibbard is ambivalent about Codes and Keys too. But he rejects the idea that self-destruction is an essential component of compelling art. He’s a real person – not a rock’n’roll cliche.
“Codes and Keys did not suffer from being written during a happy period in my life,” he says. “It was a function of my process being different and the fact I was trying to accomplish somewhat other than what we were historically known for. What I’m going through certainly bleeds into the lyrics. I don’t think it makes for a better or worse record.”
If one struggles with depression or is manic or bipolar in any capacity, as a touring musician you go through the highs and lows of feeling alone and missing the people you love
Does he ever feel the siren call of the bottle when on the road? Clean living is well and good amid the stunning mountains and babbling rapids of Washington State. But what about when on a tour bus or passing time backstage? Is there anything else to do other than crack open a beer?
“Not drinking makes this job so much easier. You spend a lot less time being hungover,” he says. “People scoff if you tell them being in a rock band is a hard job. There are certainly jobs that are more difficult. I’m sure it’s more difficult being a bricklayer. However, even bricklayers get to be with their family every night. Bricklayers don’t live on top of their co-workers in a tube driving 70 miles down the highway for five weeks at a time.
“The difficulties of the job are threefold. It’s the distance from home for long periods of time. It’s the fact you never really get a break from the people you work with. And it’s the fact your work begins at the end of everybody else’s day. In a regular job, if you’re sick and you choose to go to work – well maybe you tell yourself I can get through the day and then go home.
“You’ve got that meeting in the afternoon to get through and then perhaps you can leave early. In our line of business, you’re working at 9pm every night. If you’re feeling terrible you have to work the whole day – and then you’re basically providing somebody’s Friday night.”
Gibbard is now 42 and happily remarried, and his angst has transitioned to the more autumnal introspection of middle age. That’s one of the prevailing moods on Thank You For Today, where he contemplates the pros and cons of gentrification (Gold Rush), his vanished youth (Summer Years) and the importance of continuing to fight the good fight as the decades clip by (60 & Punk).
“Reaching what I certainly hope is the middle of my life . . . it’s really the point of no return,” he says. “You’ve gone halfway through. That comes with it some natural reflection.”
Life and death have been on his mind for other reasons too. He was a friend of Scott Hutchison, the Frightened Rabbit singer who died by suspected suicide last year. Death Cab for Cutie recently joined Julien Baker, The National’s Aaron Dessner and The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn for a tribute evening to the young Scotsman at Rough Trade Brooklyn.
Hutchison’s passing was of course a shock. It also reinforced Gibbard’s belief that life as a touring musician can be grinding and that you need to give yourself the best chance to make it through.
“If one struggles with depression or is manic or bipolar in any capacity – and I’m speaking as someone fairly mentally stable – you go through the highs and lows of feeling alone and missing the people you love. You find yourself in some small, weird town in Germany thinking, ‘Why am I here?’
“Then you get on stage in that small weird town in Germany and you have people who are really excited to see you and they feed your ego and you have this sense of purpose as to why you’re on the planet, and in this small town in Germany. So you ride the cycle. You’re alone and you’re missing people and then you’re getting all of this validation. If one struggles with [mental health] issues . . . I think it can exacerbate the situation.”
Thank You for Today is out now. Death Cab for Cutie play the Olympia, Dublin, on Thursday, January 24th