Ben Gibbard has it pretty good. He not only fronts seminal indie-rock band Death Cab for Cutie, a group that actually sells a ton of records (being the favorite band of The O.C.’s Seth Cohen didn’t hurt), but he is also half of electro-pop duo Postal Service, who stumbled into widespread acclaim and licensing glory with their 2003 Sub Pop release Give Up. (It’s Sub Pop’s best-selling record after Nirvana’s Bleach.)
Gibbard is also a master of heavy-handed emotionalism. Popular with disaffected teens and disillusioned 30-year-olds alike, his songs capture the weary beauty and brutal pain of human interaction, all in a concise, clever package. He takes those wretched feelings we all assumed we would outgrow (but never did) and presents them in a manner just controlled and mature enough to escape accusations of self-indulgence and senseless angst.
As Death Cab prepare to enter the studio to record their fifth full-length, Gibbard is embarking on a short solo tour. The Scene caught up with him by phone from his home city of Seattle.
Scene: Why did you decide to do a solo tour?
Ben Gibbard: The band is pretty much inactive until the fall when we start working on the next record. I’m writing all these songs—and I have this wanderlust that never really seems to go away—so it just seemed like a perfect time to go out and do a short little jaunt with some friends.
Scene: You gonna be working out some new songs?
BG: A couple here and there. I’ll be playing a lot of stuff from the Death Cab catalog, and Postal Service stuff and some songs off the solo releases that I’ve thrown out there over the years. I’d like to drop in one or two new songs a night, just to see how people like ’em. I’m sure they’ll probably float around blogs and people will talk about them—for better or for worse.
Scene: The success of Postal Service seems to have foreshadowed a rise in a certain kind of more emotional, accessible electronic music.
BG: It seems to me that electronic music has gotten really serious over the last 30 years or so. I certainly don’t think Postal Service was necessarily a terribly original project, but I think it clearly hearkens back to the ’80s, when a lot of synth music was on the radio. It was classic songwriting methodology, but just kind of filtered through bad sequencers and drum machines. To me, that’s the basis of what the record turned out to be. I don’t think that if, for whatever reason, there’s more bands that basically have traditional songs being presented electronically, it’s any kind of reaction to the Postal Service. I think it’s something that just kind of happened.
Scene: I read that you are starting to work on new Postal Service material, but that you’re sending stuff to your collaborator Jimmy Tamborello over the Internet, instead of through the mail.
BG: We don’t have dial-up anymore so it’s a lot easier to send big files now.
Scene: Even if it’s not quite as romantic?
BG: I think we’ll let the myth die a little bit on that one.
Scene: Recently it seems like there are so many bands from the Pacific Northwest—every new band I hear is from Portland or wherever. Do you feel like there is some sort of cohesive aesthetic or identity associated with the region, even if bands don’t necessarily sound alike?
BG: Yeah. Even though the world is a much smaller place than it once was, we’re still really isolated up here. We have Seattle and Portland and Vancouver and Olympia, but once you get south of Portland you don’t hit a city for 12 hours. You go west and there’s what? Bozeman, Montana? You don’t hit a real city until Minneapolis.
I think it’s only since KEXP [Seattle’s 90.3 FM] became a behemoth radio station in its own right that bands even started coming here. I feel like there is still a free-spirited element in the Northwest—people still have a need to make their own fun and play for their friends. I think that, even after Seattle being what it was in the ’90s, there is still this idea that no one is going to be a rock star if they’re from the Northwest. I feel like we’re massive underachievers.
Scene: Even when you achieve?
BG: Oh yeah (laughs). Whatever has happened with me and my band and projects and whatever else, at the end of the day the goal is to be able to walk into the bar that you always went to and be treated like anybody else. I think Seattle has this really amazing quality: you can’t come to Seattle and act like a rock star—people are just not interested.
Scene: Something I’ve always really liked about your songs is that they seem to come from a singular conceit, an idea or a memory. A good example would be a song like “Title and Registration,” where you work from the simple idea of finding pictures of an old love in the glove compartment.BG: My favorite writers have always been writers who kind of extrapolate out from a really small point and make the mundane and the seemingly normal elements of life into far more than they actually are—for better or for worse. I like the idea of writing an entire song around sitting on a porch, or finding photographs in a glove compartment. As I continue to write I find myself trying to expand out from there and trying to write differently, but my best work always seems to be based around that aesthetic.
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