Death Cab for Cutie Still Wants to Shock You

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You’d think that after 25 years and 10 studio albums, you’d be able to have a band pretty well pegged. But in the case of indie-rock heroes Death Cab for Cutie, that’s not quite so simple. After their 1998 debut album, Something About Airplanes, they managed to consistently level up with a catalog of era-defining, millennial-adored anthems—along the way securing a major label record contract, a mainstream breakthrough thanks in no small part to The O.C., and a slew of Grammy nominations (not to mention, frontman Ben Gibbard’s short-lived but much-loved side project The Postal Service).

The last decade was a little rockier for Gibbard and Co., with some lineup shakeups and divisive releases, but they’re back on firm footing with their impending 10th studio album, Asphalt Meadows, out Sept. 16. The follow-up to 2018’s Thank You For Today, the record finds Gibbard preoccupied with how quickly time moves and how we all have a finite amount of it (see: lead singles “Roman Candles” and “Here to Forever”). Elsewhere, he reflects on wasted, unreliable love on “Pepper” and “Asphalt Meadows,” unleashes his ripping nostalgia for “the punk wars” on “I Miss Strangers,” and continues his apparent affinity for writing songs about driving on “Wheat Like Waves” and the gorgeously golden “Rand McNally,” named after the now nugatory road atlas books.

In other words, this is Death Cab singing about classic Death Cab things, albeit with some hard-won perspective and pronounced maturity. Where things really start to get interesting, though, is with the way these songs sound, as the band—comprised of Gibbard, Nick Harmer, Jason McGerr, Dave Depper, and Zac Rae—continues expanding way, way beyond their guitar-driven indie-rock roots.

“Certainly 25 years in, who wants to make the same record over and over again? It’s pretty fucking boring to just continue to use the same palette for every album because you’re afraid of trying something new,” Gibbard recently told The Daily Beast via Zoom from Chamonix, France, where he’s been spending time hiking and trail running with friends before Death Cab’s North American tour this fall.

Below, Gibbard discusses how working with producer John Congleton pushed him into “uncomfortable” new territory, writing an entirely spoken-word song, and his surprisingly deep love for Tim Robinson’s Netflix sketch comedy series I Think You Should Leave.

First of all, happy belated birthday. Since anxiety about the passage of time seems to be a big theme of this new record, I was curious how you approach birthdays and getting older in general.

I’m kind of fine with it. I guess being in my mid-forties doesn’t feel the way I thought being in my mid-forties would feel. It’s been refreshing to get to this point in life and realize that there’s still a lot to learn. There’s still a lot to experience. I think it also helps that I’m 46 and I’m still doing the thing that I started doing when I was 21 and people, for whatever reason, still care. And I’m still talking to people like yourself about new records and people are buying tickets for concerts. I reached this age with an incredible amount of gratitude for the fact that I’ve been able to live the life that I have. It’s really hard to complain about getting older when you’re able to do exactly what you want to do.

And now Death Cab for Cutie is in its 25th year. What do you think the you from 25 years ago would think of the band and where you are now?

I think my world—the things that I listened to, the music that I wanted to create—was much more narrow 25 years ago. My expectations for what were even possible were incredibly meager. When we were first starting, our heroes were the kind of bands that could sell maybe 10 to 20,000 records, take time off of whatever jobs they had, and go on tour for a month during the summer. And maybe if they were on a heater, they might be able to eke out a meager living for a short period of time before the brutality of independent music economics came crashing down on them.

So I’m sure that myself from when I was 21 would be shocked that we were still going. I’m not sure how much of the music we’ve made in the last 25 years that person would love, because the sphere of the music that’s influencing me was not things that I was necessarily listening to back then. But I would hope that person would be at least amused at the trajectory of their career.

You don’t think he would love the music Death Cab is making now?

I think, for example, I didn’t like any music over 100 BPM [beats per minute] when I was 21 years old. So the idea of having a fast song was anathema to how I wrote music. It’s not so much that he would be embarrassed by the music, but he’d be like, “Why are there so many fast songs on this record? Fast music isn’t cool, only slow music!”

That’s so funny. And it’s definitely true of this particular album, considering you worked with John Congleton on it. I once read an interview with St. Vincent where she described his production style as making songs “with fangs.” Was there something about working with him that brought out a louder or more aggressive side of the band?

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I think a lot of the material coming in was kind of heading in that direction. But one of the many amazing things about John is that he’s really adept at seeing the direction you’re going and then pushing it further into an area that might make you uncomfortable. When we were first sending him demos and stuff, he was, in as gentle a way as possible, saying, “I’m going to want to push you sonically past the point of where this demo is to really drive it home.” And I think, to our credit, we were like, “Absofuckinglutely.” We were emphasizing with him from a very early point, we don’t want you to suggest things and we get uncomfortable with them and then we end up making it just like we would’ve done before.

And if I can be so bold, I was very confident in the quality of the songs that we had. We all were. So unlike some other records we had made where we were coming in with a batch of songs and being like, “OK, we know we’ve got five or six bangers, and hopefully we can fix the rest in the production or we can make this song special with some kind of trickery.” We knew we had a really good batch of material, and it was just a matter of letting John off a leash and letting him do what he wanted with them.

You mentioned him pushing you sonically. Can you think of a specific song where he did that for you?

Well, “Roman Candles” is kind of the ultimate example of that. When I was finishing up the last batch of songs for the record at the end of last year, I started to realize that, as with a lot of our songs, they were cinematic and meandering in places and kind of taking their time to get where they were going—long outros, intros, things that we tend to do. I realized that I wanted a song that just punched you in the face for two minutes. We didn’t have anything that was short, to the point, fast and loud. So I wrote “Roman Candles,” and I had written it around a loop by this German band Faust, who I love.

And what John would do in the studio would be like, “We’re not going to use that sample. We’re going to build something else.” And he would develop this kick drum sound that was very aggressive and abrasive. And making choices like, “All of these guitars are going to go directly into the board. We’re not using an amp. We’re going to distort everything to the board so that it sounds very immediate and very present.” When I’m in my little studio at home, I’m not a great engineer by any stretch of the imagination; what constitutes loud and abrasive for me is child’s play for John Congleton. So he was able to take all the raw elements and heighten them in a way that made them borderline uncomfortable to listen to.

Hearing that song in the context of the record is especially cool, coming right after the opener, “I Don’t Know How I Survive.” You wanna talk about songs that wake you the fuck up… that was one where I thought I knew where it was going and all of a sudden, it crashes into something else entirely. I hope people listen to that on headphones, like I did, and have that same sitting-up-in-your-seat moment.

Yeah, I sent the record to a friend after we were done with it and his first response about that song was, “You’re going to get people telling you that you owe them money for their speakers!” Because in that song also, the idea was like, “OK, I get this. This is Death Cab, right? Noodly guitar parts, a little drum machine…” and then it slaps you across the face.

And all of us were just so in sync. When Chris [Walla, original guitarist for Death Cab for Cutie, who left the band in 2014] was in the band and producing the records, of course we could kind of speak a similar language. But there were also times where we had very different ideas of how things should go. And of course, the records that Chris made for us will be the records on our tombstone. They are the records that everybody loves, and that’s for good reason. He did a fucking amazing job with them. But working with John, it just felt like, “Oh my God, I can reference that Slint song from 25 years ago and he’ll know what I’m talking about.” And I think you don’t have to like the same music to make good music together, but after nine records of sometimes struggling to explain what I had in mind, to have somebody just get it immediately was really rewarding and a new experience for me.

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The consensus I’ve seen about “Foxglove Through the Clearcut” is that it may already be one of Death Cab’s best songs. I imagine that kind of reaction must feel great after you’ve made something that’s somewhat risky, with the spoken-word verses. Can you tell me how that song came together?

Well, first off, it’s nice to hear that. I’ve been in the mountains for the last three days when the song came out. So the band’s text thread would be like, “People seem to like the song.” I was like, “Awesome.” But I like hearing that from you, a journalist. That is a good feeling.

That song had an interesting journey. So in the late ’90s up until the early aughts, I would do all my demos on a four-track. Before the pandemic hit, I was digitizing all these master tapes, dumping all of the four-track masters into Pro Tools so that I could have them for posterity. And I came across this instrumental piece that I had written in 1997 or early ’98 that was basically the vamp that became “Foxglove.” It had the drum part and the bass part and my guitar part. And I was like, “Wow, I like that. It reminds me of what I was listening to at that time, like Slint or Aerial M or Shipping News.” So I decided to just loop that four-bar section, and my original demo was built out of that vamp.

And for whatever reason—I don’t know if it was maybe just that it reminded me of Slint or if I just had R.E.M.’s “Belong” on the brain—I started thinking, “I’ve never done a song where I’m just speaking.” It was incredibly liberating to think about telling a story like you’re telling a story, you’re not singing a story. I just found myself in this headspace writing the verses that was somewhere that I’d never really found myself before.

It was only after this record was completely done that I was like, “Oh my God, that’s me. I’m writing about myself.” As the saying goes, we contain multitudes, right? I felt as if I was observing myself from afar, but the person that I was writing about was also a large part of who I was. And that might come off a little hippy-dippy or pretentious, but when I finally made that realization, it was incredibly overwhelming to me because I’d never… Usually when you’re writing something, you’re aware of who the subject is or you have a vision in mind of who you’re writing about or the amalgamation of a number of people that you’re creating a character out of. But yeah, I just cannot wait to play that song. It feels like such a cathartic part in the record and certainly as part of the live show.

What about the rest of the setlist for this tour—will you stick to the new record, or will you bring some old Death Cab songs out of the vault, like you did for your acoustic quarantine livestreams?

We’re definitely going back in the catalog and pulling some things out that we haven’t played in a while. I think what becomes difficult is that a lot of those songs from the first two or three records, there’s certainly segments of the fanbase that loves them. And I love them too. But the thing we struggle with now—and this is a really good problem to have—is that we have a lot of songs that I feel we kind of have to play. And I don’t say that like it’s a burden. It’s an honor, it’s a privilege, that these songs have been so embraced by people who love the band.

I feel like as a fan of music, I always want the shows to be the greatest hits for the people who love the band and not necessarily an opportunity for the band to… I don’t know. If you have songs that people love, fucking play them. I’ve never understood it when people just kind of dick around or are ashamed or adversarial about playing the music that people are coming to hear. Having said that, we also have a new record out and we want to make sure we can represent that. So we hold maybe two or three songs in a set of 24, 25 songs that can go super deep into the catalog. It’s difficult to go much further than that without getting a lot of blank faces.

That makes sense. You don’t want people rioting over not hearing “Soul Meets Body.” Also, during those quarantine livestreams you did, I loved your cover of “Bones Are the Money” from I Think You Should Leave. And then you got Tim Robinson on that awesome Zoom audition video for The Postal Service. What are the chances you make a cameo in Season 3 of I Think You Should Leave?

Oh my God. If you can put this out in the world, that would make me the happiest man on the planet. I’m completely obsessed with that show. I loved Detroiters. I loved him when he was on SNL. When the second season came out, my wife and I watched it straight through and we felt like we were out of our fucking minds by the end of it. Because it’s so much coming at you. It’s so much absurdity and cringe and uncomfortability.

And I find myself coming back to that show… I’ve probably seen both of those seasons at least 20 times, and they never get old for me. It’s a little much to say that a 15-minute comedy show has a lot of depth, but it has a very specific brand of depth that reveals itself to you the more you watch it. It’s like looking at a Magic Eye or something, right? At first, it just looks like a bunch of lines and then the harder you look at it, the more it reveals itself to you.

What’s your all-time favorite sketch from that show?

Oh God, that’s hard. Man, it seems to always be changing. But I think it might be the haunted house one, where he’s just like, “Jizz?” Just like, what the fuck?! The thing that’s so incredible in that specific skit is you have this guy who thinks that saying whatever they want means you can just unfurl a fucking avalanche of obscenities on an expecting tour group. But then it’s like watching somebody fly. At the end of the skit he’s getting in his car and his mom’s like, “Did you make any friends today?” And it’s like, “Oh my God!” It’s funny, but it’s also so heartbreaking. Because the way it’s written, you’re laughing at this person who is just completely out of sync with polite society. But then in a strange way, at the end of the skit, you see this character’s humanity.

And I think that’s so wonderful about what that show and what Tim Robinson does, is he’s able to do that. And, final point on it, because I can talk about this all day, is I love the casting of the show. There are other sketch shows and comedy shows that will remain nameless, where it seems like they’re casting people to kind of wink at you and go, “Get a load of this fucking freak.” And the thing I love about I Think You Should Leave is it’s such diverse casting in age and race and gender. And none of it is ever kind of focused upon. It’s just a very wonderful mosaic of people and faces and body types. I can’t think of another show that is like that.

That’s so true, I’d never thought of it that way before. Well, I’m manifesting a Season 3 appearance for you. I think that would be great.

I saw a really fucked-up April Fool’s joke on Instagram where somebody had put up a thing that was like, “Season 3 of I Think You Should Leave coming in June.” And once people realized it was April Fool’s, it was like, wow, fuck you, man. That’s really uncool to do because you know how much people love the show.

So cruel! Well, it’s definitely been announced that Season 3 is happening, at some point, so that’s a good thing.

Yeah, that’s what I hear. When it comes out I need to clear some time and just kind of exist in his world for a couple days.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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