For Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, Music is a Time Machine

Talent is one thing, luck is another. Making it in any field requires both. Ben Gibbard, frontman and principal songwriter for the Northwest-born indie rock band Death Cab for Cutie, knows this well. And it’s more apparent to the Grammy-nominated artist with each passing day, he says. Gibbard’s popular band has earned significant recognition since its formation in the mid-to-late-1990s and now, as time has passed, the group is experiencing several significant anniversaries. But with each milestone, Gibbard knows that he was often in the right place at the right time as an artist. Combine that with excellent songwriting, skillful musicianship, lovely singing and one has a lasting recipe. The band has once again showcased that winning amalgam on its latest album, Asphalt Meadows, which is set to drop on Friday (September 16). It’s a record born of reflection and buoyed by some new songwriting methods. And now that it’s out in the world, it hits at the right moment. 

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“I just feel very fortunate that we’ve been able to have the career and longevity that we’ve had,” Gibbard tells American Songwriter. “Any accolades or particular sales numbers hit, those are nice to reflect back on. But at the end of the day, I feel very fortunate that we always seem to be in the right place at the right time.”

Gibbard acknowledges that talent can only take a band so far. Truly, in the Pacific Northwest, you can’t throw a tuna without hitting a skilled musician. But it’s not all about talent. Work ethic, timing, and vision—these are all keys to rising above the proverbial surface level. As Gibbard says, he’s known “many people far more talented” than he (though we’re sure he’s also being modest) whose bands didn’t take off as his has. After all, timing is out of people’s control. The way the wind blows is up to the wind, not the individual feeling the breeze. And though Gibbard says Death Cab “got lucky in that sense,” the band has nevertheless taken advantage of it—from platinum records to some eight Grammy nominations. And they continue to, evidenced by the group’s latest album. But the new record, though born from the 2020 lockdown, isn’t tethered to that era. It’s more so reflective of time’s inevitable passing. 

“I was very conscious of not trying to write a pandemic record,” Gibbard says. “I felt that after this episode we all went through, no one was going to want to wallow in Uber Eats and Netflix. They weren’t going to want to sit around and sit with that. They were going to want something different, a little more timeless and a little less frozen in that period.”

One of the themes explored on Asphalt Meadows is the tenuousness of society. Gibbard was especially struck by that over the past two or three years. Things broke down. Pillars people thought were steadfast were really set on some metaphorical sand, not embedded into the concrete. Seeing this transpire caused anxiety for Gibbard, he says. The artist, when he’s at home in Seattle, also lives nearby the now-infamous CHOP and, as such, he’s seen waves of different social behaviors just outside his window. Not to mention the massive amount of sickness and death the world experienced as a result of COVID-19. These things can rattle a person and cause new forms of creative output. 

“As a 46-year-old man,” Gibbard says, “I’m also at the point in my life where, if I’m very lucky, I’m halfway through this thing. There’s that, too. Reflection on being middle-aged.” 

Songs on the new album like “Roman Candles,” “Foxglove Through the Clearcut” and “Fragments from the Decade” touch on these, at times, hard-to-swallow themes. Gibbard sings about how no one wants to fix what they’ve broken and how “time disappears from the palms of your hands.” But to understand what the passing of time really means, one must have memories and perspectives rooted in youth, too. Gibbard remembers early scenes from life, his father playing records in the living room, an old acoustic leaning up against some cabinet or dresser. His father was also in the military and the family would move around some, eventually settling for long stints in Bremerton, Washington, where Gibbard was born. Later, Gibbard went to college in Bellingham, near the Canadian border. It was there he found a creative village of sorts. 

“In Bellingham,” he says, “it was small enough that you just got to know everybody, and everybody was honing their craft in various ways. [There was] a real community feel.” 

During the pandemic, Gibbard became one of the most looked-to artists. He would often host digital performances, which in turn created a new type of community. These sessions gave him purpose and an outlet, but they also provided a hub for others to gather, a sonic campfire. It’s the type of stuff that gives an artist, a fanbase, and a band fuel to keep pushing forward.

Today, Gibbard says he’s “flattered” the songs and albums still mean something to so many. In the same ways that he looks to songs that he grew up with, he knows what lasting relationships with music can offer someone. Music is a time machine, something that can bring a person to an era otherwise long gone. There isn’t much more important. And that’s why the band worked so hard and so concertedly on the new record, which included some different writing methods. Normally, Gibbard might bring songs to the band to finish. This time, it was more of a collective effort, which aided in creating new styles of songs. 

“I think around half to two-thirds of the record is written in that round-robin songwriting style,” he says. “It took me out of my harmonic and melodic tropes. My hands [often] fall to similar places on the guitar, on the piano.”

With new prompts, so to speak, new sounds emerged. It was a similar process in some ways to how Gibbard’s popular Postal Service music came out. It manifested new approaches and, thus, allowed Gibbard and the band to traverse new territory. For Gibbard, who says he’s always in search of answers, these ways led to different questions and different responses. Fresh approaches at a time when maybe he needed them most. Life is long but it’s also uncertain. Thankfully, for Gibbard and the band, music offers a guide. 

“I love that music has a way of transporting you to places in your life,” Gibbard says, “be it your immediate past or distant past in a way that very few other things in life are able to do. Books don’t do that; TV shows don’t do that. Only music does it. That’s my favorite thing about it.”  

Photo by: Jimmy Fontaine/Atlantic Records

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