“I Feel Like I’m Living In A Re-Run”: Death Cab For Cutie On Constantly Reliving Their Youth
"I'm forced to interface with my own history every night...I'm playing songs every night that I wrote when I was 21 -- and I'm 42."
From a one-man band in a college dorm room to a Grammy-nominated indie giant, Death Cab for Cutie has gone through some serious transformations in its 22 years.
They’ve released nine studio albums, toured the world a dozen times over and made songs that mean the absolute world to everybody from O.C.-obsessed teens to greying music nerds.
Put it this way: If you haven’t had some sort of moment to an album like Transatlanticism or Plans, you more than likely know someone who has.
The band’s most recent effort, Thank You for Today, came out in August of last year. It marked the band’s first release as a quintet, after adding multi-instrumentalists Dave Depper and Zac Rae to the mix as full-time members following a successful tour in support of 2015’s Kintsugi.
This month sees that line-up of the band tour Australia for the second time, including a return to the Sydney Opera House for two nights.
Prior to that, we spoke to both frontman Ben Gibbard and “new guy” Depper about dream collaborations and making the pieces fit within the new-look Death Cab.
Dave, do you remember the first time you came across Death Cab’s music?
Dave: I was in university, and my girlfriend at the time had a very hip roommate. She had a copy of [second album, 1999’s] We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes that she played for me.
That was a very educational day — she also showed me Built To Spill and Raina Maria, as well. It blew me away. A few years later, I saw them open for the Pixies in Bend, Oregon — which is where I grew up. I actually had a brief run-in with Jason [McGerr, drums], who had just started playing drums for them at the time. I believe a friend of his wife’s was staying at my parents’ place, because we all road-tripped there together.
It was something like that, anyway. [laughs] It was very confusing! I don’t recall all the details, but I was hooked ever since I heard them. I never expected our paths to cross again, but here we are.
On that note, do you remember the first show you played with them?
Dave: It was four years ago last month. It was in Seattle, so basically a hometown show for the band. It was pretty much the most terrified I’ve been in my life, but it ended up being extremely fun. We’d been rehearsing for months and months, and we got through it without a hitch. I’d like to think it’s been pretty smooth sailing from there.
After a year on tour with Death Cab, both Dave and Zac were added as full-time members. Thank You for Today marks the first album to feature the two of them. Ben, were you at all worried about disrupting the dynamic that had been established between yourself, Jason and Nick?
Ben: Maybe at first, but as soon as we started writing and working together, I knew we were in good hands. Honestly, I would have been concerned with that if it hadn’t always been amicable between the three of us. We always work well together.
The thing about Dave and Zac is that they’ve been around the block a couple of times. Zac has probably played on half the records in most people’s collection. Dave has played on plenty of records before Thank You for Today — including his own.
“Dave said to me once that he never wants to be seen as “the guy who fucked up Death Cab,” basically meaning he wasn’t planning on rushing in and making it all about him.”
They both came into this band as fans with a deference to the body of work, but also they knew the significance of being a part of it. Dave said to me once that he never wants to be seen as “the guy who fucked up Death Cab,” basically meaning he wasn’t planning on rushing in and making it all about him. This is only the beginning. We have a lot of music to make together, and that’s really exciting.
Dave: It was funny, because Zac and I had been playing with the band for over a year when we joined full-time. It was almost old hat until we got into the studio. At that point, it felt like everything had reset to zero. We’d done so much together, but we’d never done this, y’know? We don’t know what this part of our relationship is like. What if I don’t like a bridge Ben has written or a drum part Jason has played? What if they don’t like something I’ve come up with? I’m just the new guy.
Thankfully, things came together pretty quickly and pretty easily. All we had to do was figure out how we work together. The album just kind of flowed from there.
How did you navigate working with someone new in such a context?
Dave: A lot of very open, frank discussions. It was good that we had spent so much time playing together prior, as it meant our lines of communication were really strong.
For Zac and I, we were fans of the band long before we were in it. With that, we brought this objective, outside perspective on the catalogue to the table. We could share our thoughts on what did and didn’t play to the strengths of the band, which I feel ended up being very helpful.
The album generated a lot of interesting discourse, including people pointing out that this was the first Death Cab album made since Ben turned 40. Some saw that as a testament to Death Cab’s longevity, while one publication called ‘Gold Rush’ a “get off my lawn” song.
Ben: [laughs] Y’know, when we were talking to directors to make the video for that song, we had a meeting with this kid. I’m gonna call him a kid because he was 25. [laughs] He listened to the song, and when I told him what it was about he basically just said: “Well, I can’t relate to that.” I’m like, yeah! You probably shouldn’t! You’re 25! But you will, trust me.
I can see why someone could have such a humorously dismissive take on that song, but it’s certainly not what I set out to do with it.
If you really want to get an idea of what the song is about, you should listen to the third verse: “I ascribed these monuments/A false sense of permanence.” This is something that I have done. This is not something where, to quote Rivers Cuomo, “the world has turned and left me here.”
This is something I’ve done to myself — the way that I view my city, and the triggers of my memory that are disappearing from the landscape. It’s all a part of getting older.
Do you feel as though fans have built up the band’s back catalogue as monuments of sorts? Do you have any issue connecting to the songs you wrote in your 20s or even in your 30s as you look through the lens of your current life?
Ben: In some ways, I find I have the opposite problem. When I’m performing the songs every night, in order to perform them effectively, I have to conjure up the moments that inspired these songs in the first place.
I feel like I’m living in a re-run — especially when we’re on tour. I’m forced to interface with my own history every night. I’m not saying it’s a difficult thing to do, or that it’s painful, but it is a reality of what I do.
“I’m playing songs every night that I wrote when I was 21 — and I’m 42. You’re constantly interacting with your former self.”
We might play a song from Transatlanticism which will remind someone of when they were in high school or college, or reminds them of a former relationship. It conjures up the passage of time in their lives. It’s doing the same thing for me.
It’s something very unique to musicians — Dave Eggers isn’t reading all of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius when he goes out on a book tour, but I’m playing songs every night that I wrote when I was 21 — and I’m 42. You’re constantly interacting with your former self — which can be both painful and humorous.
Dave, what tracks or moments on the album do you feel you contributed the most to from a songwriting or creative perspective?
Dave: I would say ‘I Dreamt We Spoke Again’ and ‘You Moved Away.’ I feel as though those two songs would have ended up sounding quite different if I had not been involved.
It’s not as if I took the steering wheel and commandeered either track. It’s just how they ended up being written. The great thing about how this band works is that everyone is capable on more than one instrument, and our roles in the studio are quite different to our roles when we’re playing live.
I mostly tend to play guitar live, while Zac mostly tends to play keyboards. When we’re recording, however, we can all pretty much do whatever we want. Both of those songs sprang out of certain sounds that I’d come across just playing guitar or noodling on a keyboard. Once we’d locked into that sound, the rest of the band just started playing off what I’d come up with. Making those contributions really made me feel as though I do belong in this band.
The music of Death Cab has always delved into the personal as far as the lyric writing goes, and Thank You for Today is no exception. Has there ever been a degree of reticence or vulnerability when you’re singing a new song to the rest of your bandmates for the first time?
Ben: It’s never really felt that way for me. I can’t say who came up this, and I’m sure people have been writing about this forever, but I remember Errol Morris — who is one of my favourite documentarians of all time — talking about storytelling.
His idea is essentially that when you put a camera in front of somebody, and you get them to start telling their story, it automatically becomes a form of fiction. When you edit that film, it’s becoming less accurate as a depiction of reality — and yet, we take this information as fact, purely because it’s presented as such in this medium.
“If what we assume was a personal song turns out to be fictionalised or fabricated, we feel betrayed.”
I feel the same way about songwriting. By the time I’m writing about something that occurred to me, I’m changing it. I’m altering it. It’s becoming a story. It’s not an accurate depiction of reality. There’s something very unique about our relationship with songwriters — we want everything for them to be saying to be real, especially if they sing in first person. If what we assume was a personal song turns out to be fictionalised or fabricated, we feel betrayed. We don’t feel that way about almost any other art form.
I’ll give you an example: We were just in the studio last week, working on a new song. It takes place in a situation with some friends of mine, and I’m almost hesitant to tell them I wrote it about them. I didn’t even really write it about them — I took the setting, and then completely fabricated anything else. I’d feel upset if they heard this song and thought it was about them. It was inspired by them.
Dave: I’m really careful not to ask what a song is necessarily about from the outset, because I kind of don’t want to know. I don’t want it to affect my relationship to the song while I’m working on it. Later on, sometimes I’ll be like “So, what was that song about anyway?” For the most part, though, I tend not to.
I hear these songs probably the same way fans hear them, with the caveat I know Ben well enough to know they’re not always meant to be taken completely figuratively.
David James Young is a writer and podcaster. Ben Gibbard has been his white whale of interviewees for some time. You’re next, Michael Stipe. He tweets at @DJYwrites.
Death Cab for Cutie begin their Australian tour tonight at Melbourne’s Hamer Hall, before finishing up with two nights at the Sydney Opera House next Monday and Tuesday. For all dates and ticket details, head here.