By Courtney E. Smith
When Ben Gibbard and Nick Harmer sit down, The Dress immediately comes up. The Dress’s brief, viral tour of the internet had begun the night before and caused the world to debate: black and blue or white and gold? Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber had weighed in. Various elected officials, foreign and domestic, had their say. Vox and Wired asked scientists to explain the phenomenon. The Dress garnered 16 million views on Buzzfeed in six hours.
“The fact that this is the largest debate that we are having as an internet nation is exactly the reason that people hate us,” Gibbard says, scooting forward on the grey couch he shares with Harmer in a conference room decorated in homage to Atlantic Records label big wig, Julie Greenwald. He’s amazed that this is the conversation everyone is sharing their opinion on when ISIS are beheading people and police are shooting American citizens at an alarming rate. Neither of them are buying the argument that people can’t stop talking about The Dress because it’s a simple black/blue versus gold/white issue.
“The argument about why we shouldn’t be talking about the dress is not an assault on having fun,” Harmer says. “The argument is that there are people who suddenly feel like this is a call to action for them to get involved in something when there are so many causes that need people’s responses. And there are issues that I feel like can be boiled down to ‘what color do you see,’ like equal rights.”
“Or climate change,” Gibbard jumps in. “97% of scientists agree this is happening.”
Meanwhile, everyone wants to know if the new Death Cab for Cutie album is about Gibbard’s divorce from actress Zooey Deschanel and the circumstances around the departure of founding member Chris Walla. They might have better luck asking them if they saw black and blue or white and gold.
In August of last year, the band announced they’d be releasing a new album in 2015 and that Chris Walla would be officially leaving the band following a few final tour dates into September. It was a difficult decision, but not one that came as a shock to many people in the band’s inner circle. Gibbard calls the departure bittersweet and pauses to search for the proper phrase before continuing, saying a “strange sense of relief came with it,” because now there wouldn’t be a blow-up over “dumb bulls–t, followed by an unexpected departure on tour.” Like adults, they arranged a stopping point after work on their eighth album, Kintsugi, was finished.
“I just felt like, look I’m not going to sit around and mourn the loss of this guy,” Gibbard says. “We have a job to do. We have to start thinking about what the next phase is going to look like.”
I watched them play with Walla when he was still in the band at the Capitol Theater in Westchester County, New York back in May of 2014. Backstage that night we spoke very briefly, but Walla offered no indication that this massive change was on the horizon. Neither did Gibbard and Harmer, but not for nothing Walla only popped out for a few moments and stayed decidedly on his own side of the basement room while those two chatted up a storm with the small crowd together and on their side of the room. A distance existed.
Then, before Walla left, he suggested Death Cab record Kintsugi with an outside producer, Rich Costey. It was the first time in their career that Walla had not produced an album, an eye-opening experience for the band. Harmer makes it clear that their fundamentals, from demoing songs to arranging to the kinds of ideas they brought, were unchanged in the new process, but that it was altogether a very different experience from the way they’d recorded in the past.
“There’s always this moment of wondering what’s going to happen when we step through this door.” Harmer says. “There’s a pensiveness about this transition. We’ve continued to make good decisions, I think, and leaned on each other when we make these decisions while we see what the next phase is and what they next step should be. I’m grateful that we’ve never been the kind of a band who needs some giant manifesto for how we work or has some giant checklist of goals to accomplish.”
Instead, they see themselves as part of an indie-rock tradition that is smaller in scale and ambition. Gibbard recounts the moment he realized all the markers of success meant less to the band than the creative act of putting out new material.
“After Plans, I remember finishing the final show of that tour at the Key Arena in Seattle and feeling like it was the end of a movie. The credits were rolling and we won rock and roll,” he says, as Harmer laughs in agreement. “Then a year later, we have to go out there and do it again? It set us adrift for a bit. Only in time have I realized the goal is to make something you’re proud of and take it out and share with people.”
Sharing it with people became increasingly difficult for Gibbard after his marriage to Zooey Deschanel. Following the release of Codes and Keys, the internet became a place for Gibbard where a certain sect of fans and music critics took to complaining that they preferred Gibbard’s songwriting when he was heartbroken. It reached a fervor around the time of his solo album Former Lives in 2012 to the point where he felt compelled to clarify in interviews that simply writing in first person did not always mean he was always writing about himself. It may or may not still be true on Kintsugi, he says he’s not willing to give away a roadmap to his song’s subjects, but he does say it took guidance from a friend to open his own life back up as a subject.
“I remember having a conversation with Jenny Lewis where we were talking about songwriting and life and everything in between,” Gibbard says. “I told her that now that people are going to correctly or incorrectly assume that if I’m speaking to somebody in a song that I’m speaking to the person they assume, and what does that mean? I was conflicted about it and Jenny was just like, ‘F–k that. You write how you write. Don’t stop doing you because you’re fearful.’ That had a real impact on me.”
As a result, his relationship with Deschanel casts a shadow over several songs on Kintsugi, as does the city of Los Angeles. The two seem to be intertwined for Gibbard, who is careful not to mention his ex by name during our interview, but does share a long list of reasons he was unhappy in L.A. His disdain for the city seems as influenced by the lifestyle his marriage demanded as it is by being annoyed with traffic on the 405.
“I realized after I left Los Angeles, I was always so conflicted about that city and I didn’t know why,” Gibbard says. “I finally put my finger on it: for me, Los Angeles is a net-zero experience. You’re never in the black and you’re never in the red; you’re always right on the line. A lot of friends from other places who move there have a similar experience. If you’re not an Angelino, if being a vapid entertainment industry person is not who you are—I found that same feeling was echoed.”
The city comes up again and again, if not as his direct nemesis then as the backdrop for his life when it’s going down in flames. “Ghosts of Beverly Drive,” “No Room in Frame” and “El Dorado” all paint a picture of a frustrated man in a place he doesn’t belong. When Gibbard returned to Seattle after over three years in L.A., he describes himself as being in an “emotionally broken state” but tells the story of going to a party at his sister’s house and talking to a stranger with whom he didn’t feel an immediate connection. He’d grown accustomed to that L.A. networking party thing where after 30 seconds, if you can’t find common ground the other person’s eyes start wandering around the room searching for someone better to talk to. But it didn’t happen.
“It was a weird shock to me to remember, ‘Oh yeah, this is what normal people do,’” Gibbard says. “They have conversations and if they don’t immediately hit it off, they try to find some common ground, say ‘it was nice to meet you’ and break back off. That might have had something to do with the type of people I found myself surrounded by, but it was incredibly refreshing. It made me realize that Los Angeles is a wonderful city but I don’t belong there.”
He’s settled back into a lifestyle he prefers, without the film premieres, where he can go running and not be recognized. It’s where every now and then when he tells someone what band he’s in they will have heard of it. It’s where he can quit Twitter, as he did following the divorce, and no one cares. And where he doesn’t have to think about his music 90% of the time.
“I think that in some ways being an indie rock band, coming from that world, to take the pull quote from the City of Reno, it’s like being the biggest little band in the world,” Gibbard says. “I feel like we’re one of the biggest little bands in the world. Joe Blow off the street doesn’t go, ‘That’s the dude from Death Cab!’ We’re not Jack White walking down the street with a fedora, dressed to the nines and looking amazing.”
But that 10% of the time when they are all about the music is on both guys’ minds right now. They’re anxious to go back out on the road and play these new songs for their fans.
The big unknown for the band is the tour that will follow the release of Kintsugi. Harmer says they were on the phone with Portland guitarist Dave Depper almost immediately after Walla told them he was leaving the band, while keyboardist Zac Rae (a hired gun on almost every album you’ve heard in the last 15 years, including Lana Del Rey, Fiona Apple and Miley Cyrus) was added to the line-up later.
A few months before our sit down, I watch the guys play an intimate show at the Music Hall of Williamsburg in Brooklyn. They sound huge. Singles like “The New Year” and “Soul Meets Body” are transformed into bona fide rock songs. Gibbard and Harmer attribute it to the influence of their new touring members, but it feels like it’s part of a freedom the remaining members are exploring.
“I think we made a really good record,” Gibbard says. “I’m really proud of it. Let’s just go out and play our songs and enjoy each other’s company and enjoy this amazing world of music that we’ve made for ourselves that people care about. In my mind I’m not thinking about this music all the time. I’m not thinking about whether or not people still care. You have to go out and find out for yourself. It’s really nice to find out they do.”