Love, divorce and rock 'n' roll
Frontman Ben Gibbard's personal life is front and centre on Death Cab for Cutie's new album
Ben Gibbard never thought he'd find himself where he did at the end of 2012.
The boyish frontman of Seattle's Death Cab for Cutie had spent the previous decade and a half establishing a reputation as one of the most sensitive - and hardest-working - figures in American indie rock. The band's music, moody but pretty, won devoted fans for its proud sense of vulnerability, and when Death Cab hit it big with 2005's million-selling Plans, the group's long-building success made them heroes to misfits everywhere.
By 2009, Gibbard's world had expanded to the point that he'd married actress-singer Zooey Deschanel and moved to Los Angeles, a city he'd blasted in an early Death Cab tune, Why You'd Want to Live Here. (Sample lyric: "You can't swim in a town this shallow.") Three years later, they were divorced, with Gibbard packing his things into his Prius for a return trip up Interstate 5. "I was like, 'Jesus Christ, man - did I just become the most stereotypical rock'n'roller ever?'" he recalls.
True to form, Gibbard, now 38, explores the nuances of that easily caricatured experience on Death Cab for Cutie's new album, Kintsugi. The band's first record since 2011's somewhat glazed-over Codes and Keys, it opens with No Room in Frame, in which the singer asks an unnamed ex: "Was I in your way when the cameras turned to face you?" Other songs mention an ingenue battling the passage of time and "a dumpster in the driveway of all the plans that came undone".
Yet Gibbard's divorce isn't the only break-up reflected on in Kintsugi, whose title refers to an ancient Japanese technique for repairing broken pottery. The album also follows the departure late last year of guitarist Chris Walla, who formed Death Cab with Gibbard in 1997 and produced the group's seven previous albums. He plays on Kintsugi, but for the first time the band utilised an outside producer in Rich Costey, who expanded Death Cab's sound with spacey synth textures and crisply propulsive beats. The result is a paradox: an account of emotional devastation that feels livelier than anything the band have done in ages.
"With the last couple of records, I think I learned the hard way that minimalism and detachment are not things that people want from me," Gibbard says. Scruffy-casual in jeans and a flannel shirt, he is in Los Angeles for a round of promotional duties. "What people are attracted to about the music I make is the engagement and the detail."
Not that he wasn't aware of the risks in writing about such a public episode. Gibbard recalls visiting singer-songwriter Jenny Lewis, a friend, and playing her early versions of some of the tunes on Kintsugi. Concerned that listeners might infer things about Deschanel, he asked Lewis whether he should make some lines more obscure.
"She told me, 'Don't change how you go about your business for fear of somebody correctly or incorrectly placing a face on these songs. Go right into it.' And I think I did," Gibbard says.
Still, the singer quickly adds, he tried to approach the topic "empathetically"; he wasn't interested in creating "a tell-all or a kiss-off or anything like that".
He's right about that: in keeping with indie-rock tradition, the aggression on Kintsugi is mostly of the passive variety. But if Gibbard limits the identifying details when it comes to people, he's more specific about places. Culver City, Beverly Drive, "the cliffs of the Palisades" - each serves as a clearly defined setting on an album that looks beyond Gibbard's divorce to ponder the larger systems of power and privilege at work in LA.
"You'll never have to hear the word 'no' if you keep all your friends on the payroll," he sings in Good Help (Is So Hard to Find), a song he insists is based on a number of people he met while living there. "And in a way it's not even their fault that they have this worldview. If you were raised in the public eye or among people in this industry, your grip on reality outside the echo chamber is virtually non-existent."
None of this is the kind of stuff Gibbard expected he'd one day write songs about. Indeed, it was partly Kintsugi's rarefied subject matter that led Walla to leave the band, according to the singer, who recalls an early studio session at which Walla complained he couldn't relate to the lyrics. Eventually the guitarist announced he didn't think he should produce the album.
"He kept referring to how dark the songs were," Gibbard says. "But in my opinion, it doesn't matter if the guitar player can relate to the lyrics in a song. What's important is that the song works." (Walla didn't respond to a request for comment for this article.)
Hiring Costey freed the band to think with "no concern for what we'd done in the past", says bassist Nick Harmer, who recalls the recording experience as one of Death Cab's most energised. Costey says the band, which also includes drummer Jason McGerr, were after "the right kind of adventure", with a willingness to try out fresh ideas.
"There was never any weirdness between Chris and the rest of the guys," he says, which is why he was shocked when Walla quit after the album was completed.
"Chris lived a lot of his years in this band with one foot kind of out the door," Gibbard says. Ultimately, he says, Walla wants to be known as a producer, an aspiration hindered by being on the road for nine or 10 months out of the year. His departure is a big deal, "but 17 years in, we could kind of figure out how to move on".
To flesh out the sound of Kintsugi live, the group recruited two new players in guitarist Dave Depper and keyboardist Zac Rae; both will be onstage for Death Cab's upcoming world tour.
For Gibbard, of course, that show will bring him back once again to the city in which his life took an unexpected turn. But he's at peace with his brief brush with fame.
He was in the City of Angels for a TV appearance not long ago and decided he needed a new shirt. So he went to the Beverly Centre and was standing outside Nordstrom when he noticed a man with a camera - "clearly paparazzi".
"The guy looks over at me, looks down, looks at me again," Gibbard says. "I know in his mind he's saying, 'I think that's that guy from that band who was married to that famous person. Is this photograph worth anything to anyone?'
"Then he was, like, 'Eh, it's digital - I might as well snap one'." Gibbard laughs. "To me, that's my level of visibility right there. Just enough to keep things interesting."
Los Angeles Times