Mike Lawrie, Getty Images The Postal Service announced a series of upcoming…
Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard on Making (Gasp!) Happy Music and Being Married to Zooey Deschanel
- Posted on May 31st 2011 2:00PM by Joshua Ostroff
Death Cab's early-aughts association with 'The O.C.''s Seth Cohen was but a fictional representation of the reality of their young, yearning audience. Their original following has gotten older, sure, but the median age hasn't risen much thanks to a continual influx of fresh-faced fans.
But even musicians grow up and the members of Death Cab have started marrying off -- the formerly lovelorn Ben Gibbard is now betrothed to some gal named Zooey Deschanal -- and even having kids. This maturity has dramatically impacted the new album 'Codes and Keys,' which is, dare we say it, their least sad ever.
The day after kicking off their tour in Toronto, following a year-and-a-half hiatus, bandleader Gibbard and bassist Nick Harmer sat down with Spinner in a downtown bowling alley to discuss revving Death Cab back up, songwriting in the California sunshine, being married to every hipster's Hollywood crush and why it's OK that Obama's "not your friend."
And yes, we totally asked about the Postal Service.
What do you guys do when you're not writing or recording?
Harmer: I recently got married in November, so a lot of my last year was getting ready for that event as well as just being a homebody. You just want to keep your head down and do the normal things. I have a fun day when I get to cook dinner.
Gibbard: I feel it's important to have as much of a balance with real life and this extraordinary thing we get to do for a living. I remember seeing an interview with Michael Stipe years ago and he made some mention of his coming off a world tour and going home to Thanksgiving at his family's house. People were discussing the mundane details of daily life and him just being, "Oh my God, these people are so boring." And then realizing it's not that these people are so boring, it's that I've been doing this crazy thing and this is what's important in life.
I've felt that in my life, going from being onstage every night and having people try to get at us and then going back to quiet home life. For me, especially in the last couple of years, I recognize that the greater importance in the long run is the smaller things in life. Family and relationships.
Were you wary of returning to Death Cab?
Gibbard: The band is a machine at this point. It's great -- there's a lot of people working with and for us -- but when you crank the machine, it's going to go for awhile. As we all lead into this period, I don't leave my house.
Harmer: Peeking out of the blinds.
Gibbard: There was a time in my life where I would go on tour for two months and come home and go right out to a show, and now I get enough music playing and seeing the occasional friend's band that comes to town. The idea of going to the Echo or something like that is daunting. We're getting old, and don't like going out as much!
How has it been moving from rainy Seattle to sunny Los Angeles? After all, you did write 'Why You'd Want to Live Here' mocking L.A.
Gibbard: It's funny because as I went down the list of places I thought I would end up later in life, when I was in my teen years or whatever, I never thought I would end up in Los Angeles. Therein lies one of the beauties in life because one just never knows. It's always the thing that you expect the least that ends up being your reality. And I love it. Certainly there are things about it that are infuriating. But for the most part, because I don't work a regular job, I don't have to commute, I don't have to be up on the 101 at 8:30 in the morning going downtown. I'm able to avoid the majority of things about Los Angeles that people, that I, dislike.
What I learned about that city is that it's not a city. It's nine small cities. It's a place that's great because you can carve out your own corner and the level of anonymity I've been able to achieve is -- in relation to being in Seattle where we are much more well-known -- really comforting to me as a person. Obviously, my wife is very recognizable, but even if we go out, it's not bad.
Harmer: I've gone out with you guys, it's part of the landscape here.
Gibbard: And I'm sure that more people have heard our music than know what we look like. It's been really great for me. And honestly, I wouldn't go so far as to say the weather has affected the album, but certainly it affected my psyche. Being a Northwesterner you spend eight, nine months out of the year just not being able to go outside. I realized how much I enjoy being outside. It's not something that I realized for the first 32 years of my life.
So you don't notice Zooey's celebrity impacting your life at all?
Gibbard: If you're looking for attention, there are places in town where you can go and get attention. We've just kind of learned that we don't go to the Grove when we need to go to the Apple store. We don't go to Beverly Hills to get coffee.
Harmer: Don't go to the Viper Room.
Gibbard: Exactly. It's not just applicable to Los Angeles; it's applicable to Seattle, Toronto and everywhere else. She's much more recognizable, because she's in movies and stuff like that, but it's not something that we deal with on a daily basis or by any extent is uncomfortable. We kind of just know where to go and where not to go. And also, in Los Angeles, people are kind of just accustomed to seeing faces they recognize; it's more of an attitude: "Oh, it's that dude from that show." Very rarely is it an issue. It happens, but it's not bad.
How is being married? You once said, "I'd rather make great records than make great relationships."
Gibbard: Anything that I say has to be taken into the context of where I was in my life -- and I was in a very miserable place in my life at that point. All I really had was the music that I was making and the band that I was in. I was looking at my future and taking a lot of stock in my identity as a songwriter and as a member of this band, and realizing that at that point in my life this band is the longest relationship any of us have ever had. It's true. Maybe jaded. Romantic relationships had come and gone, friendships have grown and withered, but this band was constant.
So naturally at that point in my life, with the band being all that I had to really grab onto, of course I would say something like that. Obviously, that's a very bold statement and a little bit kind of dramatic. I can be a little dramatic and bold. [Laughs]
Harmer: As anyone gets older, you figure out how to juggle more things in your life. There's a time when you leave home, and you're going to school, and you think, "How am I going to juggle just being in college," or that next step of young adulthood and making that make sense. As you get older, you figure out how to balance. How do you figure out how to make a great relationship and a great record at the same time when you're young? How do you figure out how to stay on good terms with your family when you're gone for 200 days out of the year?
Gibbard: It's something we're all learning how to do. When we were younger and going on tour we were so excited. We were a gang. Every band has to be a gang when it starts if it's going to go anywhere. They have to be focused on the same idea, to be living on top of each other and be OK with things that that entails. I feel so bad for some people I used to date because I would go weeks without calling her, because in my mind this was the most important thing in the world. I was a selfish kid. And hopefully I've been getting better at that.
Death Cab is known as a pretty melancholy band and one that's hit home with young people because they feel those melodramatic emotions really honestly. How will they react now that you're growing up and getting married and releasing happier albums?
Gibbard: Anything is happier than the last one. There may have been people that have been drawn to the band almost solely for the melancholy of the lyrics and the yearning in some of the music, and if that is the thing that attracts people to this band, then this record may not be for some people. But I do feel that one thing that I've always been as a songwriter is very honest about where I am in my life and the things that I chose to write about and how I chose to write about women. That doesn't have to be everybody's thing, but at least I would hope that as people listen to this record, they see it as an earnest, honest album.
Obviously there are some songs that are all-out pop songs on this record, very light moments on it, but what I'm proud most about this record is it's very well-balanced record. There are some dark, nervous moments in it but also there are some moments of bright light. As in my own life, I was trying to find a balance between those two spectrums of emotion. It's an ongoing process. But I guess we'll just kind of see what happens when it goes out into the world, see if people like it or not.
The last song 'Stay Young, Go Dancing' was like, "Come on, kids, cheer up!"
Gibbard: That's why we put it at the end of the record. We realized that virtually every record we've ever made, with the exception of one or two, they've had very sombre, very dark, slow, bad endings. As much as I felt really self-conscious about the sentiment of that song because it's so light, I thought, "Why not just put it at the end?"
Since Zooey is also a singer, has she impacted your songwriting at all?
Gibbard: I think in some way esoterically. Zooey is really great at many things musically. One thing that I've certainly learned from her is that she has an amazing sense of harmony. She's really great at layering vocals and it's something that I've watched her do and have been very inspired by. And also she has a really amazing mind for chord structure and arrangements. It's not so much that I will write a song and play it for her and have her give me notes, it's more that I watch watch her process and glean little things from it that I like.
Would you want to collaborate or do you want to keep your work and home life separate?
Gibbard: We collaborate around the house when we play Louvin Brothers songs on acoustic guitars sitting around the dinner table and stuff like that. We both respect the relationship that each of us has with our own bandmates. I don't want to be in She and Him and she doesn't want to be in Death Cab.
The next election is ramping up. You were a big Obama supporter. How do you feel he's done so far?
Gibbard: I feel that he's had to become a politician. There's always a lot of talk during any election of people saying what they're going to do. Once they get into office, they realize they're going to actually have to play ball with the other side. Obama has had his back against the wall the entire time. You have to concede one thing in order to get another thing. Some of the concessions are not things that I would have necessarily conceded, but at the same time, I'm still very proud of the work that he has done. I will, of course, support him again.
For some Americans, and people around the world for that matter, there has been an outcry at times of, "I thought he was going to do all this!" That he was going to be this magician. Well, he's a politician. Even when we buy into the cult of personality around Barack Obama, we have to realize that didn't get to where he is without being a politician, without being slick. He's not your friend. He's a professional personality. He's a celebrity.
Harmer: I think his politician process is just showing. How slow change happens at that level. And it really is slow evolution. And I think a lot of America has a tough time believing in evolution, literally and figuratively. I think that they expect things to happen kind of instantaneously and we are watching evolution play out on a political scale and it's a hard thing to accept as reality. That's where he's at. I agree with Ben completely. It's been very slow and painful at times. There's also has been some really great moments. I still feel so confident every time I see him speak. I'm not embarrassed by him. There have been other leaders in our past that whenever they opened their mouths, I was just like, "Gah, he's not speaking for me." So we'll see. We'll see how it goes. It's going to be a weird 2012. I already know that.
So. Postal Service. Is there going to be anything else? And are you surprised people are still asking about it?
Gibbard: Well, people are still asking because we haven't done anything. As long as we don't do anything, people are going to ask till the end of time.
Look. It was done as a side project. It was meant to be something fun on the side. I don't want to say that there's never going to be another record, but I don't think people should be holding their breath. Then again, there might be one. I don't know. It's not a band. When a band breaks up you can say there's no more music. But we're not a band. When we find the time, the impetus and the inspiration to work on it again, maybe we will. But it's also possible that we'll never make another record.
It's interesting because most side projects are throwaways, but this one has really had a cult following and a really long life.
Gibbard: Yeah, it just kind of took on a life of its own. It became something far more than it was ever meant to be. I'm glad it was what it was, but when people ask about it constantly, there's just a lack of understanding of what it is. I'm not putting that on you. People ask me all the time. But we're not a band. Jimmy [Tamborello] is my friend, but I don't have the same loyalty and relationship creatively with him that I do with these guys.