The 405 meets Ben Gibbard
I'm hunkered down into my duffel, on a bench in deserted Compton Terrace gardens, shivering in the gloaming and waiting for the call. Because it seems appropriate, I bite my fingernails, and get an errant shred of baccy between my lower front teeth, where it sits and seeps a cloying, soft burn out and under my tongue. Bored and ill at ease, I decide to take a constitutional, and pick my way up the Terrace, away from Union Chapel. My pocket buzzes. I answer.
I find my way to the stage door at the back of the chapel, where Ben Gibbard's tour manager, Andy, ushers me inside. I follow him to a giant wooden portal, studded with black iron rivets. From behind it, I can hear Gibbard playing piano, Andy knocks and we enter.
Gibbard stops playing, and looks up from the piano, grinning. He comes over to shake hands, then motions for me to sit at a low table, asks if I'd like a drink.
Former Lives, Ben Gibbard's first record under his own name, came out on October 6th 2012. Its obvious debts to Big Star's sunkissed pop and soft Beatles-esque harmonies might jar with fans hoping for a fresh dose of Death Cab, whose sad, chiming indie rock inspires the kind of abusive devotion readily available to the resolutely miserable. When you spend a lot of time alone in your room with a person's songs, and those songs help you out in one way or another, you're going to find it difficult to let those songs change along with everything else that's spiralling beyond your control. It's selfish, it's retrogressive, but it's the truth, to whatever extent.
"Everything I write is meant, in a way, to be Death Cab for Cutie stuff," says Gibbard, when I ask about his writing process, and the difference in sound between his solo record and Death Cab's back catalogue. "I didn't write Former Lives with the purpose of making something that was really different from the band, it just happened that certain songs, especially some of the older songs, were just not going to fit with the records that Death Cab were making. I was always really proud of the songs and figured that I wanted to give them a home eventually. I've been joking with people that Former Lives sounds more like my record collection than it does the band that I'm in."
This is nice, really. It's a dose of healthy reason that the overprecious mope holed up at the back of my brain can't really argue with. So I try to map the change literally. How has that record collection changed over time, how has it affected Ben Gibbard's musical output?
"I found that when I was in my late teens and early twenties, I mostly listened to contemporary music," Gibbard goes on, "and it's not that I thought that music from other eras wasn't good, I just couldn't contextualise it in my life for some reason. I was very much influenced by bands that were active at the same time, whether it was Built To Spill, or Bedhead, stuff like that. But as I've gotten older, what I listen for in music has changed, and I find myself going backwards a lot more than I would have before." I'm over a decade younger than Gibbard, but I think about it, and yeah, that's happening. "For me," he goes on, "there's no longer a rush to discovery. I feel for young people, especially young people today, there is that rush to discovery in the same way there was for me when I was that age, now I realise that I've got plenty of time to discover something that's coming out this year. I don't place being an early adopter as necessarily important." It's a sentiment that gets pitched by one team of critics and beaten back by another – the glow of being first on the scene usually turns out to be insubstantial, especially considering that for all the bloggers, the die-hards, the A&R executives, only the artist actually has any kind of initial stake in a song, right at the start when no one else knows about it. There are no medals to be won for hearing something first. The song's still not yours.
"As far as how the sound has changed over time," Gibbard considers, rerouting my rambling to its original path, "I think the most difficult thing for any band to do is to continue to make records that stay true to what they're good at," he volunteers. "whether that's what they think they're good at or the public thinks they're good at, while also trying to try new things, push the boundaries, move away from the go-to stylings of earlier records."
I ask Gibbard if he thinks that he's done this in his musical career. I think I expect some kind of half-embarrassed laugh, the defense of the self-deprecating, but he considers the question. "As I've continued to write songs I think I've started to write more directly. I've gotten away from veiled metaphors and things like that," he muses. I can agree with that. If you start at 'Bend To Squares' and finish up with 'Stay Young, Go Dancing', the statement rings true. "Over the last half of the band my goal as a writer has been to make sure that somebody could hear a song that I've written once and kind of immediately know what's happening in the song, to have less obscurity and more directness in my writing. Therein lies the constant quandary for me as a writer, how to write songs that are direct but that still have veils over them."
How those veils manifest themselves on Former Lives is in the record's presentation, rather than its delivery. Former Lives contains some of the most straightforward lyricism of Gibbard's career, 'Oh Woe' being a prime example, a description of sadness rather than an expression of it. "I've been intentionally not going into detail about a lot of the songs," he admits, "but I wrote 'Teardrop Windows' when I was living in Los Angeles, and 'Something's Rattling' is about living in Los Angeles." Why the distinct focus on setting? "It feels like for the last year and a half I've been on tour, travelling all the time, and I haven't had a lot of time to focus on writing, which is frustrating. But I look back rather fondly at the period of writing of both Codes… and the material that wound up on this record because it was a time of a lot of writing, and I wouldn't be here playing in London if it wasn't something that I enjoyed. But I feel like the yin and yang of being a songwriter is in the feeling of satisfaction you get finishing a song on a random day and being really proud of it, being equal to the best show that you could possibly play." Well, one of them's very personal and the other's public, showing everyone just how well you're doing. But I agree that one's best public performance doesn't always outclass that moment when the guitar comes off at the end of writing a song. The moment in which we can say 'yeah, I did alright there'.
"Yeah," Gibbard says, "and you're the only one who's heard it. For that period of time, dependent on how long you wait to share it with people, it's only yours. I would certainly never talk about my own songs in this way, but you have to wonder… like, when Bob Dylan first wrote 'Mr Tambourine Man', and he was just sitting there with it, and I wonder if like for a couple of minutes he was like 'Oh my God. I just wrote 'Mr Tambourine Man'.'" He laughs. "And like I said, I'm making no parallels, but I like to think about the most famous, well-respected songwriters in the world, still sitting in a room somewhere, behind an instrument, trying to make something out of nothing. For all the glory that any of these people get, it still comes down to that expression, and it's the most pure expression, and the most frustrating at times as well."
It's something for the nervy bedroom recluse to take heart in, that even his heroes are just men and women, all sitting behind the same carved lump of wood and wire. I think that this is what keeps me listening to music, as well, the thought that somewhere out there, there is a song that has been written that I've never heard, but that is going to reach inside me and pull my stomach out.
"I think the more music you hear," says Gibbard, "you kind of get to a point of diminishing returns. The older I get I'm blown away less often, just because I've heard more music." This is something I only started to realise recently, since having to search harder for the kind of tingling shocks that used to come so effortlessly at the sound of a few chords. I often wonder if, with aging, we form a bond with music that's more academic than emotional.
Gibbard doesn't necessarily agree.
"I've almost had the exact opposite," he says. "I don't know if it's growth or devolution, but my musical taste used to lead with intellectualism. Now, I can listen to a (Texan country singer) Buck Owens song over and over again, and I find myself appreciating singers and players more, especially on older recordings when it's just a bunch of guys in a room playing." Anything in particular? "Over the last four or five years I've fallen in love with the Louvin Brothers, that they went in and cut a record right onto acetate, and all their anunciations, all the harmonies are just all together. Their songs are really simple, and they're not singing about stuff that's blowing your mind. But I find myself being really attracted to simpler things, I'll always lean towards a really good '60s pop song that I haven't heard, rather than something modern and technical."
Doesn't this give rise to the criticism that he's not taking his own advice, not always trying to stay true to what you're good at and improve on it?
"There's no value judgement in that at all," says Gibbard of his recent, simplified tastes, "but I think the arrangements on Former Lives are indicative of this. I just wanted to make everything as straightforward as possible. I find it kind of frustrating how much shit people put on recordings now. You can take a song that's a really straightforward tune, but there're so many adornments and effects put on it that affect the core of the song. I recognise that's a stylistic choice that people have been making, certainly a lot more in the last four or five years. Aaron (Espinoza, of Earlimart) who's playing first tonight recorded the record, and I was like, if there's a guitar, there's one guitar, if there's a vocal, there's one vocal, we're just gonna keep it really simple, and I feel like the record is out of step, it's not a cool record, but I don't mind, I didn't want to make a cool record…"
And he hasn't, I guess. Former Lives plies its trade in relentlessly unassuming west-coast pop that is, as its creator notes, entirely out of step with anything currently getting tastemakers frothing at the gusset. About a minute previously, Andy (who has been stood across the room behind Gibbard for the majority of our meeting) has motioned to me to start winding things up. I've covered precisely 2.5 of the questions I came in with. Gibbard tails off from a monologue on how educational it was working with Jay Farrar on 2009's One Fast Move Or I'm Gone ("I was really impressed by how that guy just didn't give a fuck. Not that he didn't care, he was just like 'song's done, let's get lunch.'"). I grab a chance to push the quota up to 3.5. If the record is so 'out of step' with current trends, where does Gibbard see Former Lives in the context of music at large?
"One of the things I love about digging into an artist's back catalogue," he says, "is that you stumble across records like this by people who you listen to. I don't know if anyone's gonna care, but let's say in 25 years someone's like 'oh yeah, remember that band Death Cab? The singer made a solo record in 2012, there's some cool stuff on there'. I talk about records by bands that I like in that way, and I would hope that the music that we have made continues to exist in the world as it leaves its contemporary context, that people find something to enjoy about it."
You can visit Ben Gibbard by heading to benjamingibbard.net