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Q&a Ben Gibbard - on 'going solo' new album Former Lives, working with heroes, Seinfeld & more

Q&a Ben Gibbard - on 'going solo' new album Former Lives, working with heroes, Seinfeld & more
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Death Cab For Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard has been involved in many outside projects over the years – from collaborations with Jay Farrr and Andrew Kenny through to his much missed Postal Service project – yet has only just got around to making his own, very personal, solo record, Former Lives. We spoke to Ben as he hurtled around London in a taxi with little breath or time to spare but a ton of enthusiasm both for his own work and that of his many musical heroes…

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How the devil are you?

“I’m good, how are you?”

How does it feel having your first full solo album – aside from the split LP you did with Andrew Kenny in 2003 – completed?

“I’m very proud of it. My solo excursions have always been very limited into the EP or the occasional movie soundtrack song here or there or a collaboration with somebody else. It feels really rewarding to have finished an entire album with material that’s just all my own.”

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Do you think Former Lives represents a parallel history of your time in Death Cab?

“That’s a really interesting way to put it. I think I would agree with you. I think that while Death Cab has been a reflection of the influences and perspectives of four people, even with me being the primary songwriter, the band has always tried to remain contemporary and relevant. As you said Former Lives is certainly a parallel history but one that kind of represents my record collection more than the music that Death Cab For Cutie makes.”

If we were to flick through that record collection what would be the ones you’d point out?

“If we went down that road you would never leave my apartment. I get excited and want to play things to people. I think the one record that I always buy on vinyl even though I have many copies is the first Emmett Rhodes. He was the singer/songwriter of a band in the ’60s called The Merry Go Round. His first record is kind of a record of record collector geeks like myself! You should hunt it down…”

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Did your move from Seattle to California informed the record? What does the difference between those two places feel like for you?

“First I should make it clear that Seattle is my home and always will be and I’ve since found myself back in Seattle. But something I found really inspiring about living in Los Angeles was that it attracts creative people from all over the world who are very focused on their work. I found that inspiring. Also the fact that you can find somebody to play any instrument you want you know if you need a bassoon player at four in the morning you can get one. That’s something I don’t think I can say about Seattle.”

That’s a pretty useful service: 4am bassoon players…

“Yeah, I actually haven’t tried to find a bassoon player at four in the morning but…”

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You feel like you could?

“I feel like I could if I needed to. I’m going to be there next week, I’ll see if I can find one. We’ll do a follow-up piece.”

On the new record you used the legendary drummer Jon Wurster?

“Oh my God that’s so great that you know Jon’s work. We’ve been friends for some time. He also played in the touring version of the band that Jay Farrar and I had. Superchunk were one of my favourite bands as a teenager and I would go see them when I was like 15 and 16. When we were recording Broken Yolk In Western Sky my initial feeling on the track we were doing was that maybe he was doing a little too much. But then as we started putting things on the track – the guitar, the vocals, everything else I realise he was accenting all of this stuff in the lyric and in the guitar part. He plays so instinctively he was pouring out all this great stuff on the track that I didn’t even hear there and it was only on hearing it back that it made sense.”

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Sometimes when you hear someone like you is working with a musician like Jon you initially think that’s awesome, but then wonder if they actually care?

“I’ve been lucky enough to have some of those moments in my life where I’ve been sharing a stage or a studio with people I really admire… people like Jon and then someone like John Cale who is one of my favourites of all time. I love John Cale. I had to stay cool and act like it was no big deal. I was singing Gideon’s Bible with John Cale on stage and I had to be cool like, It’s all ok – I’m on stage with John Cale!”

You still see yourself as a fan?

“I don’t want to become the sort of musician who is no longer in awe of people I grew up admiring. At this point in my career I’m 36, I’ve been making records for 15 years and when I find myself on stage with someone I admire currently I have to remind myself that I am an established artist at this point. There’s a reason I’m here but at the same time it’s pretty crazy that I’m playing music with this person right now. Jerry Seinfeld said of Bill Cosby in the film Comedian, I never thought that life would be long enough to know this person. I love that line. I think of it often when I find myself in the presence of somebody like that.”

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Seinfeld is a master of course…

“Oh absolutely, he’s an all-time great. He has more money than God, he has a beautiful family but he’s continually driven to get on stage and be funny. No artist thinks about art as something you do for a period of time until you get success at it and then you do something else, like you become a real estate baron or something, that’s not the way artists think. Artists are tortured by their ability to create or not create work regardless of how much money they have or don’t have.”

Can I ask a little bit about when you’re working on projects like the one with Jay Farrar or All-Time Quarterbacks, Postal Service and now with the solo record – what do you feel is different in those contexts? Is there something you can’t do in Death Cab or is it something extra?

“It’s not as if I do these other projects because I think my creativity is being stifled in the band. I’m the singer/songwriter in Death Cab For Cutie and I have a pretty strong say in what happens with the band. I like making records and there are times when I find myself with a creative arrangement like with Jay or with Jimmy [Tamborello of Gibbard’s Postal Service project] or with a wealth of material that I hitherto didn’t realise I had and I want to document that. I listen to a lot of music and I enjoy making it and I like seeing how other musicians work because it informs how I work with our band. When you see somebody use a new tool you learn by proxy how to also use that tool that also serves the band. We all come back to the band having done other projects and having worked with other people with new skill sets that we can bring into the band.”

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You had about seven years of work behind you before you signed to major label Atlantic. Do you see that as a big divider? Are things that different for a band once you go to a major particularly for someone with an indie background like yours?

“That marker is a natural marker for people to pay attention to because it’s the easiest one to point at, They were on an independent label, now they’re on a major label. I think that the perception that something has changed is more times than not more in the eyes and ears of the listener than in the band or artist themselves. We may have been signed to Atlantic Records but there wasn’t a fleet of assistants and runners and stylists and make-up people. I mean clearly there’s no stylist with our band. That’s one of the first things people recognize about us but…”

That’s the style though…

“Yeah, our anti-style.”

Michael James Hall@michaeljamesh

For more head to Benjamingibbard.net.


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