Death Cab for Cutie’s Benjamin Gibbard on Striking Out on His Own

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Musician Ben Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie performs with Magik*Magik Orchestra at the Beacon Theatre on April 27, 2012 in New York City.

Benjamin Gibbard will release his highly anticipated solo debut, Former Lives, on Oct. 16th.  As the frontman for Death Cab for Cutie and the Postal Service, Gibbard has earned himself a reputation for a certain melancholic indie-pop sound. While this album, the first music he’s released since a very public split with Zooey Deschanel, could easily and understandably be infused with heartbreak, Gibbard instead reveals himself to be capable of a vibrant genre-hopping sound rarely seen on his group albums. Written over the course of eight years, the 12 tracks on Former Lives are filled with infectious melodies that nimbly jump from the folk-tinged “Lily” to the jangly ’60s rock number “Teardrop Windows” to a mariachi-fueled country song, “Something’s Rattling (Cowpoke).” The only track that is remotely reminiscent of Death Cab is “Bigger Than Love,” a harmony-soaked duet with Aimee Mann with a remarkably catch chorus. Other standouts include the sunny country blues-inspired tune “Broken Yolk in Western Sky,” and the John Lennon-ish singer-songwriter number, “Duncan, Where Have You Gone.”

Gibbard, who is just wrapping up a two-month tour in support of Death Cab’s latest album, Codes and Keys, and will soon will head out on his solo tour (dates below), spoke to TIME about his new album, writing personal songs and his 9-to-5 job.

Why a solo album now?

I found I finally had enough material for an album. Whenever we make a Death Cab album I write a lot of songs, and there’s always a few songs that don’t’ fit in—tonally or lyrically. I squirrel them away, but they rarely get resurrected for another record. I just realized that were enough songs that I was fond of to weave together into a record.

I was doing songs for Codes and Keys and I found myself with time and a place to do this record. I was thinking about “Broken Yolk in Western Skies” and I thought, ‘Why don’t I record a version of it?’ There’s nothing stopping me from going into a studio and recording that song. For me recording with Death Cab is very rewarding, but you can’t just walk into a studio and record. With this project, I could fly by the seat of my own pants, recording what I felt like recording.

Many musicians tend to view albums as a cohesive whole with a narrative arc. Is there a story for this record?

The story is that there is no story. The songs on the album are threads connected to my life. I guess listeners could just say “Oh these are leftovers,” but they’re really not. I started filming this movie in my mind and in some ways these songs are all deleted scenes from other films. It’s really only my voice and songwriting that ties them all together. The songs come from all different years, some are recent, but others date back to 2004.

I enjoyed making the album. I think the fact that there was no pressure for it to really be anything allowed me to enjoy it. It’s not that I haven’t enjoyed making Death Cab records — I certainly have — bu nobody expected anything with this album. Nobody even knew that I was doing it really. It was like making a first record.

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Since this is your first foray as a solo artist, is this album more personal?

When singers do solo records this idea comes from somewhere that it is more personal. But it’s not true. In order to write a song that people can relate to, you have to put yourself into each song. You have to open yourself up. It has to be enough of a reflection that people can put themselves in it and tell the story.

I guess it’s a little more personal because I curated this batch of songs. If I had been solely responsible for curating the Death Cab albums a lot of these songs would have made their way onto other records, but then the albums would have been less cohesive. “Broken Yolk” would have no place on Plans. Some of these songs are very close to me. Some of them are very personal.

What makes these songs solo material and not Death Cab material?

Some of the songs won’t fit stylistically into Death Cab’s catalog. But I think sometimes their hesitation in putting these on Death Cab albums may have been that they [bandmates Chris Walla, Nick Harmer, Jason McGerr] know me so well that, while I don’t think of the songs as personal, they do, and they didn’t want anything to do with it.

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Did you write any songs specifically for this album?

I write a lot of different types of songs—I’m a songwriter by trade—but I’m always writing for the band. They have the right of first refusal. I think when I was writing some of these were songs I knew wouldn’t fit in with the band because they have a Teenage Fanclub harmony or they sound like Big Star. But I didn’t want to quell a creative thought just because it wouldn’t fit in on the album. A song like “Duncan, Where Have You Gone” just wouldn’t fit on a Death Cab record.

In a widely distributed press release you said, “I think people would be surprised when these songs were written or who they were written for.” Do you prefer to keep your songs’ subjects private?

I think the last shred of privacy that I still have is about these songs. But songs are very rarely what people think they’re about. I’ve never really talked about who my songs are about when they were written. I’m not going to start now. People will reflect what they want on to the songs. I believe that when you tell someone exactly what a song is about it takes the power away and they can’t put themselves into it. It changes the perspective of the song.

It sounds like you have a big surplus of songs to draw from. How often do you write?

When I’m on tour, when I’m traveling I rarely pick up the guitar. But when I get home, it’s output time. Writing is like a muscle. You need to start flexing it and that’s hard to do when your schedule is erratic, but when I get home I do it in larger bursts. I keep office hours from 9 to 5, literally, Monday through Friday.

It’s a cue I took from Nick Cave years ago—that being a songwriter is at times the easiest thing in the world and at times the hardest thing ever. When things are tough, I think, how did I ever write anything in the world? Then other times it’s so easy and it flows. They don’t come that often, but you wait for those moments. Now I’m back in Seattle for an extended period of time and I have a real work space. I go there everyday to work. It is wonderful.

Listen to Benjamin Gibbard’s Former Lives here:

Benjamin Gibbard 2012 tour dates

Sept. 26—Henry Miller Library—Big Sur, California
Oct. 14—Danforth Music Hall—Toronto, Ontario
Nov. 1—Assembly Hall—Minneapolis, Minnesota
Nov. 2—Athenaeum Theater—Chicago, Illinois
Nov. 4—Somerville Theater—Somerville, Massachusetts
Nov. 5—Town Hall—New York, New York
Nov. 7—Keswick Theatre—Glenside, Pennsylvania
Nov. 8—Sixth & I Historic Synagogue—Washington, DC
Nov. 10—The Haw River Ballroom—Saxapahaw, North Carolina
Nov. 11—Variety Playhouse—Atlanta, Georgia
Nov. 13—Palace Of Fine Arts Theatre—San Francisco, California
Nov. 14—Wilshire Ebell—Los Angeles, California
Nov. 16—The Showbox—Seattle, Washington
Nov. 17—Washington Hall—Seattle, Washington
Nov.18—Crystal Ballroom—Portland, Oregon

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