Ben Gibbard Ranks Death Cab for Cutie's Eight Albums
Ahead of the release of the band's new album, 'Thank You for Today,' the indie rock icon looks back on a 20-year career of appearances on 'The O.C.,' Grammy nominations, and dodging that whole emo thing.
In Rank Your Records, we talk to artists who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.
On a 2013 episode of Parks & Recreation, Aubrey Plaza’s character, April, is trying to sell a cabin in the woods to a young couple who look like they stepped right out of Urban Outfitters. “I heard that Ben Gibbard and Neko Case made out here once,” she tells them, piquing their interest. In real life, Gibbard finds this hilarious, and also a bit of a compliment.
“It’s a little flattering to have a writer think that somehow this reference is gonna land with people,” says the Death Cab for Cutie frontman. “That either I or Neko are such a part of indie rock pop culture that we could be used as a way to sell some doofy hipsters on something, that’s really funny.”
Gibbard’s path to indie rock ubiquity started in 2005, when the band performed on the second season of the teen drama The O.C. His shaggy bangs and thick-framed glasses, coupled with his emotionally vulnerable voice, brought a new rock look and sound to the mainstream. After that, the band was everywhere. They’ve been nominated for Grammys, performed on SNL, and their hit song, “I Will Follow You into the Dark,” has been covered by everyone from Amanda Palmer to Natalie Imbruglia, and has even had a Grey’s Anatomy episode named after it.
For 20 years, Death Cab for Cutie has been indie rock’s reliable constant, never going more than a few years without a new album. They’re about to release their ninth studio record, Thank You for Today, and, like most of the albums in their catalog, it is rooted in the elements fans have come to love about the band while still exploring new territories. Gibbard is most proud of the fact that it’s got something for everyone, from the fans who discovered the band on The O.C. to the more recent admirers of their work.
“For the first time ever, we’ve really bridged the aesthetic people have attached to the band in the early aughts with some of the stuff we’ve done over the last couple of records which have worked well,” he says.
To look at the ups and downs that brought Death Cab for Cutie to Thank You for Today, we had Gibbard play favorites with the eight albums that got them there.
Ben Gibbard: This record is my least favorite that we’ve made for a number of reasons. Number one, I was living in Los Angeles and was far away from my spiritual home and my musical community—the people that were not only my bandmates but my friends who I would see all the time and talk about music, and share music, and keep each other honest, so to speak. Another element was—I’ve only realized this after the fact—when we were making Codes and Keys, I had started playing a different brand of guitar. I’d gone from the guitars I had played on the earlier albums, like Fender Bullets, a cheap Fender guitar, and I started playing these Fender G&Ls, which are wonderful guitars, but the necks are very wide. And I realized once I went back to playing Fender Mustangs around the Kintsugi era, so much of how I play guitar is a reflection of how my hands move on the neck of these particular guitars.
Noisey: It physically altered your playing.
Yeah, I was physically altered. I wasn’t writing almost any songs on guitar because I wasn’t enjoying playing guitar. I was writing a lot on piano, I was writing a lot on the computer. And also, I had these two cataclysmic shifts in my life of quitting drinking and falling in love, moving to Los Angeles, and marrying an actress. It was an interesting chapter in my life that I’m glad I experienced. But for me, I realized that because of the company I was keeping in Los Angeles, I was becoming very closed off, personally. I found myself not wanting to share as much of myself that I had historically shared on records, or at least the perception of which I’d shared on records, because of who I was with and the fear of people connecting dots in a way that would expose myself and my then wife to a level of scrutiny that I felt uncomfortable with.
And also, this idea of living in an open and sunny place, I felt this was the time to write my “Friday I’m in Love”s or whatever. We came off maybe the darkest record we’ve ever had in Narrow Stairs, and I think for me, personally, even before those shifts in my life, I realized, “Man, I don’t want to make a record like that again.” I realized how much self-loathing and self-pity is on Narrow Stairs. I think I overcompensated for that. But having said that, there are some songs that are my favorite I’ve ever done.
You once said that it turned people off. Does your fans’ perception of an album affect how you perceive it?
Not really. But at the same time, as I’ve been saying in this album cycle, I’m our band’s biggest fan. We play all these songs live, and the songs that the fans love are usually the songs I love. A lot of that's reflected in the new album. Like, “I want to get back to reminding people why they love the band.” Over the course of our albums, we’ve strayed too far from an M.O. that I’ve tried to maintain and sometimes lost: Always know what you’re good at, but also try to step outside what you’re good at and try something new with every record.
This is a difficult question to ask, but you toured in support of this album with Frightened Rabbit. Like yourself, Scott seemed like someone who fans connected with for the emotional vulnerability in his songs. Did his passing make you do any personal reflection?
My reflection after Scott’s passing really had to do physically with Scott and how much I loved him and what a wonderful human he was. I feel like I’ve done a fairly good job of keeping my demons at bay, but not everybody is so lucky. While I’ve struggled with addiction, I’ve never really struggled with mental illness, and when you add addiction to mental illness, that’s a lethal combo in a lot of instances.
You had some breakout success with this album after you played a few of these songs on The O.C., which must’ve been huge for you. Do you remember that experience of taking that opportunity?
Well, at the time it didn’t seem like it was… Like, we just got a call on a Tuesday or whatever saying, “Hey, there’s this TV show on Fox, it’s kind of new. They want to use ‘Movie Script Ending’ on their show and it’s gonna pay X amount of dollars.” And we were like, “Great, yeah, because we don’t have any money, so totally.” So when I tuned in to watch the show, it wasn’t just playing in the background, they were referencing the band. This had never been done before as far as I was aware of. So it was sort of like, “Whoa, what’s going on? That’s crazy.” As I look back on that time, there was just a cultural zeitgeist existing around rock in general—just with the Shins and Garden State. Indie rock as I’d known it, and I’m sure you as well, had been a much more underground genre where if the bands were really lucky they sold 15- or 20,000 records, played mid-level clubs, and maybe could eek out a small living while touring, but it wasn’t a career option. So, I really think if it wasn’t us, it would’ve been somebody else.
Right, but you were a pioneer or guinea pig, however you want to look at it, in this new model. What do you think it did for your career? Did you have new fans you otherwise wouldn’t have had?
Oh, absolutely. There’s definitely a line in the sand in that period. I remember we did a New York Times Arts & Leisure Weekend thing and somebody got up and asked a question—a teenager of course—he was like, “Yeah, I’ve been going to your shows for five years and I’m noticing a lot of new people there and I’m just wondering what your feelings on it are.” Basically wanting me to say, “Yeah, they suck, bro! You’re the best fans.” I think at the time, what irked me was that I’d see people writing about us and linking us to The O.C. as if we had not existed before it aired.
Like you were a character.
Yeah. Photo Album had sold, like, 50,000 records at that point, which was indie rock gold at the time. We thought we were doing fairly well. As I look back on it now, it’s something I’m asked about less and less—I don’t say that to besmirch you for asking. It’s been 15 years, we’re still here. The show’s been off the air for 12 or whatever. We certainly appreciate the audience that was brought to us by that show, because at the time MTV wasn’t really playing videos, YouTube wasn’t a thing. The O.C. brought a lot of bands that wouldn't have had exposure into people’s living rooms, and I’m very grateful for it.
A lot of your work, especially this album, deals with feeling isolated. Is that what people identify with most in your music?
I don’t know. The Photo Album was a transition for me. There’s an old cliché, but people say it because it’s true: You have your whole life to write your first record, you write the second record which was songs from the first record and new stuff you wrote, and then the difficult third. It’s difficult because you have no songs and less time to write them. There were, like, three songs on We Have the Facts that could have been on Something About Airplanes. So between those two records I really only had to write, like, six songs. But The Photo Album, there are some songs on this record that are still to this day our fan-favorites and our best songs. “A Movie Script Ending” will always be one of my favorite songs we’ve ever done.
There are a number of songs on that record that are really underbaked. We were going into the studio in, I believe, May of 2001, not because we had enough songs to make an album, but because we were living on the bubble of doing this for a living. There’s this assumption people make about artists all the time that, “Oh, it’s when an artist gets rich, that’s when they make shitty work, because they don’t care anymore or they don’t have to work at it.” And it’s like, no, the worst time for an artist is when they are making artistic decisions based on financial needs, and this record was absolutely that record for us in the sense that we had to get this record done because we had to be on tour in the fall, and if we weren’t on tour in the fall, we were living hand-to-mouth. We had just quit our jobs, we were just barely making enough to pay our rent. To not get an album out and be on tour would’ve been the death of the band. We would’ve had to get temp jobs or go back to school.
The environment of making that record was by far the worst environment to be making a record, just because of the context of which it was made. But also, personally, we just weren’t getting along at all. Our relationship with Chris at that point was incredibly strained. It all culminated in this massive blowout we had in Baltimore on tour for that album where we almost broke up. In hindsight, it was like, yeah, he was really burned out. It was just a really difficult time for us. So while I am glad people like that record, and I’m sure they might read this and be like, “What? The Photo Album’s awesome!” I would always answer: I’m really glad you like it. However, as I look at the songs on this album, there’s a couple of songs I’m really proud of but there’s also a couple songs I think are really undercooked.
Conversely, at this time, you were 21 or so when you wrote this, and had zero expectations. Do you remember your life at this time?
Yeah, I’d been in a band called Pinwheel in Bellingham that never really amounted to much, played as a two-singer-songwriter band. And listening back to that stuff, it’s not that great. My songwriting was pretty subpar. Justin Kennedy, the other songwriter, was doing great work at that time. I just wasn’t coming into my own. Then all of a sudden I had this burst of writing where I wrote the majority of Something About Airplanes in two or three months as just a side project. I’d never been that prolific before. The making of that record was really, really fun. We recorded it in our house in Bellingham on a reel-to-reel eight-track. Chris’ bedroom was in the attic and we lowered this mic snake through a hole in the ceiling into the living room. Really home recording. Really, I have nothing but fond memories of making that record. The only reason I put it so low is that the record still feels like a preamble to what we were going to end up doing later.
It sounds very minimal. Were you timid as an artist or still finding what you were good at?
I think, number one, we were limited by the fact that we had eight tracks. And two, when I listen to that record I hear all the influences. People called us a Built to Spill cover band. There’s some flagrant Built to Spill ripoffs on that record. I was really influenced by Rex and Bedhead and a lot of these slower kinds of bands. To me, it feels like if you were gonna create what’s basically a demo for the next 20 years, it would be Something About Airplanes. When I listen to it, I hear the sound of a songwriter trying to find his voice, trying to find an original sound, trying to get away from sounding like Perfect From Now On, which is, like, the only thing I was listening to at that point. But I do put it on and am flooded with memories of a really wonderful, innocent time where we had no idea we’d amount to anything.
A lot of people I talk to for this column will often say that their first album is very difficult to listen to because they wrote it when they were younger and a lot of things make them cringe. Is there anything like that on this record?
There’s a couple on there. Not so much a cringe but we only had nine songs, and added a cover by our friends Revolutionary Hydra called “The Face That Launched 1000 Shits” and while I’m really glad we did that to cover a friend’s song, it really doesn’t fit on the album. [Laughs] But looking through the songs, there’s nothing where the songs are cringeworthy, but there’s some very sad-boy songs on this album—“Sleep Spent,” “Line of Best Fit.” Some people thought of us as an emo band—it’s those songs that got us that category.
Was this the first one without Chris Walla?
No, well, he played on it, but he let us know he was leaving the band about midway through this record. We were touring this record without him. It was the first without him on the road.
How did that affect the dynamic of the band?
Honestly, it created a much more harmonious environment on stage and in the touring world. And I don’t say that as a slight to Chris, it’s just bringing in new energy. We’d had a 17-year creative relationship at that point that had kind of run its course. Touring towards the end of those years had become difficult, like a black cloud hanging over the day-to-day dealings with someone who’s not happy and wants to be doing something else. I say that, but I’m also so fortunate that Chris stuck it out as long as he did. It seems very clear to me now that he was unhappy for a long time and doing it out of obligation to us. And I appreciate that.
Isn’t it funny how you can try to do your best job in the studio to record something great, but then you stick an incredibly simple song like “I Will Follow You into the Dark” on there and it becomes one of your most beloved songs?
Absolutely. We were coming off Transatlanticism, Chris had committed himself to the band. When we signed to Atlantic, we were telling ourselves and anybody who would listen that nothing had changed—we were just four guys going into the studio, Chris was producing again, we’re just doing it the same way we’d always done it, no pressure. But the reality was, there was a ton of pressure. And the pressure wasn’t so much that we had to have a hit, because that’s never been our motivation. That being said, I think the songs that are good on Plans rank among my favorite songs and some of the best songs I’ve ever written. I think “What Sarah Said” and “I Will Follow You into the Dark” alone launched this record into my top half. But I think the record suffered from a little bit of what Photo Album suffered from, which was: we had a pretty quick turnaround. Transatlanticism came out in fall of 2003 and we were in the studio making this record in early 2005, and we had toured our asses off on Transatlanticism. So I was in the ninth inning trying to finish the last couple songs. There are a few songs I see now and think, “Yeah, that one’s pretty undercooked.”
Like which ones?
“Someday You Will Be Loved” is maybe my least favorite song I’ve ever written.
Really? It’s a very mean song.
It’s a mean song. I don’t like writing songs from a dishonest place—when I’m trying to put on an air to express a certain emotion that I’m not wrapped in currently. It feels like I’m lying a bit. I just feel that song, musically, we really had to try in the studio to make that an interesting song when it’s not a very interesting song. And, lyrically, I think it’s kind of weak.
And to your point earlier, yeah, it is pretty ironic that we spent all this time trying to get “Soul Meets Body” and “Crooked Teeth” just right to make sure we were putting our best foot forward. And then this song that’s just an acoustic and a vocal that I recorded live, that’s still the biggest song we’ve ever written. That’s the way it goes, right?
Was that a first-take song? Do you remember how long it took to record?
Not long. I think that might’ve been the second or third take. I’m not a great guitar player, I don’t really know how to finger-pick. I think it expressed the sentiment well, it sounded great, and then I hit the last note and I was like, “That’s it. We’re not doing that again. It’s as good as it’s gonna get.”
This record was nominated for a Grammy and went gold and you played on SNL and all these accolades. It just seemed like such great heights—no pun intended. Is it hard to hit that level, knowing it can’t last forever?
I think we all realized the only place to go up from Plans would be if we decided to try to become Coldplay. And no disrespect to Coldplay—I think they’re fine, I like a lot of their songs. But what it would take to attempt to become a band like Coldplay would not only be laughable to our fans and admirers, but like, I don’t want to write songs with super-producers. I don’t want to have to… I don’t want to do any of this stuff! I just don’t wanna do it.
You don’t want to have a feature with Akon on a song?
Yeah, I just don’t. And that’s cool for them. I’m not trying to knock it. But we realized we were on this bubble and the only place to go was down. [Laughs]
That must’ve been scary.
Yeah, but also, this may be a crude analogy but if you see a stock that’s rising and rising, you’re a moron if you think it’s gonna rise forever. It’s gonna normalize at some point. Where we normalized was a place we were more than happy being at. We never envisioned what would come after Plans would be that we’re gonna be in arenas. We never envisioned that. We just assumed we’d go into the studio and make another record and we’d just go from there.
Similar to what we were just talking about, this was following the huge success of Plans. Did you think you had to top that?
We just wanted to do something different. Chris floated the idea of, “Let’s just make a record on tape and make it sound the way we used to.” And it was like, yeah, absolutely, let’s go for it. I’m proud of many of the things about this record, but I’m most proud that none of the decisions that were made—song selection, mixing, videos—none of it was done to compete with Plans. I think, looking back, we maybe subconsciously wanted to tone things down a bit, and make a record that was dark, sonically and lyrically, that normalized our fanbase a bit. Because when you go from being an indie band and all of a sudden your songs are on the radio everywhere, you get a lot of new fans who know the new record. They don’t know the other records. And that’s great. But when we were playing the biggest places we’d ever played for that record, none of us thought, “Oh, these are gonna be our fans now. Whenever we go to the Bay Area we’re going to sell 20,000 tickets, because these are all our fans now.” No, we realized—these people heard “Soul Meets Body” on the radio or watched The O.C. But as soon as that big campaign goes away, a lot of those people who are casual music fans are not particularly interested. They have enough music by you. They have that one record by you. They got it. So I put Narrow Stairs that high because I find it to be a really fearless record. We just went in and were like, “We’re doing this thing.” It’s a dark period in my life, and I think that’s reflected on the record, but I did a lot of writing. The three records I had the biggest and most high-quality batch of songs for were Narrow Stairs, Transatlanticism, and Thank You for Today.
One thing I feel fortunate about with this band is that we have many points of entry. Transatlanticism, obvious point of entry. Photo Album, obvious point of entry. But We Have the Facts is by far the biggest point of entry for the OG fans. Airplanes didn’t exist. If you didn’t live in a town with a record store that would stock it, it didn’t exist. But Facts felt like we were a proper band in the world. “Company Calls Epilogue” is still one of my top three songs I’ve ever written. Chris and I really did a lot of cool, spindly guitar-work. I played drums on the whole thing. I just feel like that record represents the best of that era, hands down.
In hindsight, this album is considered an emo classic. But some bands in that world never got away from that emo tag. Death Cab seemed like it was able break free from that. Was that deliberate?
I’ll speak for myself, but from the very get-go, I was very disinterested in being attached to that music. Because a lot of it was just really bad. A lot of it was some pop-punkers who heard Pinkerton and decided they wanted to start talking about feelings. Seriously, listen to some of that stuff. It’s like they were into NOFX and then heard Pinkerton and were like, “Oh man, I got feelings! I’m a suburban white kid but I don’t really have the intellectual capacity to express these feelings in an interesting way so I’m going to speak about them in the most straightforward manner possible.” And a lot of it is just really cringey to me. So we started getting a lot of emo labels or emo bands trying to get us to join their label or tour with them, and we were really leery of it. I was, at least, because I didn’t want to be overly associated with those bands. Interestingly enough, we’re playing tonight with Pedro the Lion in Utah, friends of ours for years, and I feel they were really similar. We benefited from having those kids come to our shows, but we were always able to skirt away. It was like The Matrix. We were able to Matrix away from the emo tag taking us down. I feel like we were very fortunate to not get too tied up in that. But I know a lot of people think of it that way, and that’s cool with me.
In writing this album, we had this big blowout with Chris in October of 2001 and we got home from that tour and realized we needed a break. We needed to take time and do some other stuff, and we did. I had a lot of time to write. I know for a fact I will never have a year again like 2003. The Postal Service record came out, Transatlanticism came out. These two records will be on my tombstone, and I’m totally fine with that. I’ve never had a more creatively inspired year, and the proof is in the pudding.
What was going on in your life that you were able to churn out two albums that are some of the most beloved indie rock records? Two in one year, that’s insane.
I was 25, 26 at that point. I was finally able to just do music. Jimmy [Tamborello] would send me a song for the Postal Service on a Monday, I would knock it out like it was no big deal and send it back to him on Tuesday, and then write “We Looked Like Giants” the next day. Everything was just flowing so quickly. Looking back on that time, I would kill to have another year where things are flowing that effortlessly, but it just takes more work now. But I’m willing to do the work, and I think our new record is one of our top five we’ve made. I think the songs are great, I feel like I’m finally in a place lyrically that I’ve been trying to get back to.
How was the band dynamic then?
Transatlanticism was, of all of those first eight records, the best working environment we’d ever had. I’ve never been a believer in “Oh, the greatest art comes from strife, when you’re fighting and the conflict.” No it doesn’t. It makes for a better story, but when everybody’s getting along and communicating and respecting their boundaries and their musical desires, that’s when you do your best work. Not when you’re fighting and yelling at each other.
The year this came out, there was just this ridiculous boom in indie rock. Albums by the Shins, Cursive, the White Stripes, the Strokes. Where did you see yourself fitting in in that landscape?
I don’t know how everybody else felt, but I always felt like we were slightly on the outside looking in. We were never a cool band. When people think of cool bands, they very rarely think of us. I haven’t read it but there’s been a lot of talk about that book Meet Me in the Bathroom. It’s funny that I’ve been doing this long enough that people are waxing poetic about this time in music that doesn’t seem like it was that long ago. It was 15 years ago, but it doesn’t feel that long ago. There were the White Stripes and the Strokes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs, these bands that were very hip. They looked cool, they dressed cool, they hung out with cool people. We always fell outside of that. I think it might just be a Northwest thing. Northwesterners tend to feel like they have an inferiority complex. We were these collegiate shit-kickers from Bellingham/Seattle.
Did people's impression of you affect you at all?
At that point in my life I was probably focusing more on the people who didn’t like me than the people who did like me, which is all part of being in your 20s, right? There’s that saying: You spend your 20s thinking everybody’s talking about you, you spend your 30s wondering why nobody’s talking about you, and you realize in your 40s that no one was ever talking about you. So for me now, I realize how super-sensitive I was that people didn’t like me. Like, “Oh, Pitchfork doesn’t like me, a weekly said something mean about me.” Looking back on it now, who fucking cares? Don’t focus on the quote-unquote haters, which is such a stupid word. Don’t focus on the people who are negative. Focus on the people who give you positive energy. I really believe that creating great work comes from those places.
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