Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard Gives a Quarantine Q&A

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

For everyone in the U.S. and for many more abroad, the past weeks dealing with the deadly Coronavirus have felt like a fever dream. Most of the Western world has shut down, with only hospitals, pharmacies and grocery stores open to the public. For musicians, tours have been cancelled and plans for festivals and new releases have been put on hold. 

Many songwriters, as a result, have turned to digital shows for both a creative release and as a means to interact with fans. One such prominent name to throw his hat into the digital arena is Death Cab For Cutie frontman, Ben Gibbard, who has pledged to play live every day for two weeks. And Gibbard’s shows are popular, with each garnering hundreds of thousands of views from fans. 

We wanted to catch up with the Seattle-based Gibbard to talk about his relationship to the recent public health crisis and how he’s tried to cope through music. 

You’re a musician living in a musical city. The amount that’s cancelled and changed all around you must feel like a bad dream. What has been the range of emotions you’ve experienced from when news of the virus first struck to where you are now?

Well, I think we as Americans have become so immune to a lot of the horrors of the outside world, outside our borders. Very rarely in my lifetime have any true crises landed on American soil. I think maybe the last one that we all collectively remember would be 9-11. But we’ve never experienced a war. We’ve never experienced a draft. We’ve never experienced a time in our lives when we’ve had to ration or cut back on our usage of anything, you know? Certainly our grandparents’ generation did. So, I think that what’s been interesting to me has been – I think everybody that I know, including myself, has gone through this wave of – similar to, you know, the 12 steps. At first you’re angry, you go through 12-steps of grief. Is it 12? Regardless…

I think it’s seven stages, but yeah!

Okay, let’s go seven. But for me, it’s 12 [Laughs]. For most people it’s seven. But it’s been interesting where people have crested into acceptance. I think, for me, it’s really been in the last four days that I have realized that this is – not that I didn’t think it was serious, but I think all of us were able to live in denial to quite an extent until the shit really hit home. I think Monday was really the day where it all had gotten very real and we realized bars were closing, hair salons were closing, gyms were closing, you had to stay six feet away from everybody, yes you can get this if you’re a healthy person, yes you can die from it if you’re a healthy person. Really in the last four days is when both me and my wife have realized it. We had a trip booked to Palm Springs in two weeks and we were, like, “Maybe we can take a trip – maybe, maybe? It might be okay?” But now we’re like, “No, it’s definitely not okay. We’re not going anywhere.” 

Did you have gigs and other plans cancelled?

We’re fortunate in a sense that [Death Cab] is kind of in an off year right now. We’re not promoting an album. We were supposed to be flying to Florida – today, actually – to play a festival in Panama City, which, of course, is cancelled. We had some dates in Mexico and in Austin, Texas in the middle of May, which I have to assume will be cancelled or postponed. I have a solo tour booked for about a week-and-a-half in the south in late April, which we are in the process of postponing. But we, as a band, are in a very different situation than a lot of people. We are not living paycheck-to-paycheck like a lot of bands are. While having to postpone or cancel some shows is upsetting, in the grand scheme of our lives it’s a mild inconvenience and certainly nothing that I’m going to complain about because I have so many friends who have just put out records a month ago and had a whole tour cancelled. Because, as you know, revenue from live shows is one of the really last reliable sources of income for musicians. It’s difficult for us to sit here with two loaves of bread under our arms and complain about having shows cancelled.

Are you sitting at home watching the news or are you able to tear yourself away from it? Or are you like me, refreshing Twitter every 10 minutes?

I have a routine that I’ve maintained even before all of this, which is that I will read a book – the first thing I do in the morning is read a book, whatever book I’m chipping away at. Then I’ll do a cursory scan across the news sites that I read and then put that away and maybe interface with it later. But yeah, this is a long haul here. This is not going to be over next week. Similar to the opening salvos of the Trump administration, there’s nothing you can do about it if you’re opposed to this administration, which I very much am. You can either choose to be angry – the first emotion you feel in the morning being anger and despair. Or you can choose to create a different reality for your waking breaths every morning. Because we can’t do anything about this right now, other than what we are doing, which is isolating ourselves, staying out of big groups, washing our hands – we all know the rules now. Really, refreshing Twitter every five minutes is not going to make this virus go away. If it was, it would be gone by now!

What made you want to do a digital concert?

I was having a conversation with our manager and the idea was proposed about doing something like that. Initially, the idea was to maybe hop on and do a couple songs. For reasons I’m only really now starting to understand within myself, I immediately jumped to the idea, “No, let’s do it every day for two weeks.” I’ve been finding – we’ve only done a couple so far – but I’ve been finding that it’s really cathartic for me. For people who like our music, it gives them 45-60 minutes to just think about something else. We all deserve that. We all need to give ourselves that gift of putting our phones down and experiencing something joyful, you know? Whether it’s a walk or a movie that we love or watching a TV show or going on a run or a hike, just getting outside of the confines of our digital world, which has basically been a fear factory for so many people. 

The impetus and the drive [for the shows] is definitely evolving. I’m realizing that most people do not have a lot of money right now or they’re struggling either because they’ve been laid off or they’re battening down the hatches for however long. But while people might not have monetary resources, they might have items that other people would find incredibly valuable. So, what I’m trying to do now is find organizations that need non-monetary donations. A perfect example is the Aurora Commons in Seattle, which is in desperate need of tents and sleeping bags because a lot of people that come into the Aurora Commons are being turned away from shelters and hotels. In a perfect world, we would give these people actual housing. But until that political will is there and this crisis has been seen through, we need to get people something over their heads. 

So, being able to go out into the community and say, “Hey, if you have an extra tent, if you have a sleeping bag that you’re not using, you can drop it off at this address. This is something you can do.” I think a lot of people right now – I think that the barrier to altruism for a lot of people is just knowing where to start. People just want to be told what to do: What can I do? Give me something to do! If you lay out 5,000 charities in front of them and they all say they need something, then that’s difficult to start. But if somebody says, “Hey, if you have a can of beans, drop it off at this address.” Then people will say, “I can do that. I can make that happen.”

Speaking of trading skills, I wonder what doing the digital concerts does for your fans and for your own self internally?

I can speak of it in grandiose terms about what I feel I’m giving back to the community, but at the same time, the main motivations for this is that it’s giving me something to do everyday, as well. This is giving me a focus. Because as a songwriter, I require a healthy balance between social interaction and alone time, you know? I need to be out in the world, seeing the world and being around people and observing because that’s where so much of my material comes from. When that is removed from the equation, it’s very difficult for me to just sit at home and write songs all day. Because there’s nothing coming in, there’s little experience happening that is anything other than this particular brand of isolation. So, for me, selfishly, this is giving me a focus everyday to where I can say, “Okay, what are my plans every day? I’m going on Instagram. Okay, this person wants to hear that song? Okay, I can figure that out.” Of if someone wants to hear a cover by another person, it’s like, “Yeah, fuck it, I’ll do that!” It gives me a place to be and a thing to do every day and that’s been incredibly valuable for my own sanity. 

Have you had any discussions with musicians or label people or band mates about other innovative ways to pass the time or connect with fans? 

There is some technology out there that allows people to collaborate together but I’m leery of its ability to work through the interface that I’m using because I’m using an interface that is broadcasting to both Facebook and YouTube at the same time. I’m a little bit leery to bring in another component that might glitch out the experience for people at this point. 

But I’m noticing a lot of people doing a lot more AMA’s and putting up weird covers, just giving people something. I think, for me – I’m 43. I’m kind of the tail end of the social media generation. I kind of missed it. But I’m active on some of these platforms. But it really wasn’t a part of my life until I was in my late 30’s. Young people use social media in a much more transparent and open way than I would ever dream of using it. There’s the joke about people over share or how celebrities or musicians or artists are constantly on social media posting about what they’re eating or what shirt they just got. That stuff always makes me roll my eyes – like, why are people so obsessed with using this format to this extent!

But this is one of those opportunities now where I’m really glad that we have this. Most of the time, I’m cursing people’s obsession with social media. But I’d like to hope that in what I’m doing and what a lot of other artists are doing, we’re using this platform for the one of the possible uses of it. That when people were selling these platforms to the world, these were the kinds of things that they were maybe hoping they would get used for. Rather than for, say, election fraud or misinformation or Nazi propaganda. This is, thankfully, an opportunity to use these platforms for good. In this case, I’m glad that they exist. 

Do you think bands might not play in front of audiences for a long time?

You know, I don’t think that it’s worth extrapolating too far into the future right now. We have no idea where we are in this curve right now. It is equally possible that within a couple months we might be back to some semblance of normality. As it is six months from now, we will still be reeling from this. We just have no way of knowing. To predict what the future is going to look like is not something I can give much brain space to right now. I will say that I think at this point right now, it’s doing my heart well to see how much people are opening themselves up to being vulnerable in a way that maybe they haven’t felt comfortable doing beforehand. 

Do you have any music recommendations for people stuck at home?

I’ve been listening to a lot of ambient, neo-classical stuff. There’s an act from Portland called Eluvium. My favorite record is the one called Talk Amongst the Trees and it’s a very pastoral, ambient, looping, droning kind of stuff. And he has a new record out called Virga 1 that just came out a couple weeks ago that I’m really enjoying. I listen to a lot of music but right now I’m finding the way that something like Eluvium or a band like Stars of the Lid, which doesn’t exist anymore but is one of my favorite bands, or Winged Victory for the Sullen, which is a band that includes a guy from the Stars of the Lid – the way that these pastoral, beautiful, droning, tonal, ambient music is just filling space in our house in a way that feels almost spiritual. It’s like the kind of music that I think some people put on to ignore or that they want something on but they don’t want to listen to anything. But, for me, I’m just really finding solace in the patterns and the drone and the feeling of being surrounded by relatively a-tonal music. It’s filling space in a way that I really need right now. 

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