Deleted Scenes

9 October 2012 | 7:00 am | Ben Preece

"I was fully expecting to spend the money to bring this band in and have it not work, but it was all fantastic. That was one of those trigger-happy decisions that happened really well on that record."

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It's near bedtime in Seattle and Benjamin Gibbard is wide-awake. The dust has barely settled on promotional duties for his band Death Cab For Cutie's seventh record Codes & Keys, yet here he is, sitting poised on the release of a debut solo album, Former Lives. A prolific writer, Gibbard's musical mind simply never stops creating. In fact, he writes at a much greater rate than any band could and probably should commit to in any release schedule. But he claims he's not searching for any kind of new beginning with Former Lives. Instead, it closes a chapter and wipes the slate clean, a move that's simultaneously freeing and terrifying as he now has no backlog of material to pilfer ideas from in the future.

“I'm really happy that I got to this place, you know, some of these songs are relatively new, some of them are much older, but a song like Broken Yolk [In Western Sky], if I think about it, I was playing it at solo shows in 2004,” he says, outlining exactly where all these songs came from. “I didn't purposely try to, you know, 'date' the songs or change any of the names to protect the innocent, so to speak. When I started recording these tunes, I wasn't really sure I was going to get a record out of it or if it was just going to be a recording project to kill some time while we working on Codes & Keys, but I feel really good about how it all turned out and I guess we'll see if people like it or not.”

Gibbard's distinctive voice drives Former Lives, much like some would say it drives the songs of his day job. The album isn't Death Cab-lite, though; it's a mixed bag that stylistically moves from one place to the next all without a sense of stringent cohesion. “Everything I write finds its way and comes across the desk of Death Cab For Cutie. For the most part, the way we make records, I have a cache of songs and we end up weaving the songs together that make stylistic sense or a narrative sense or they just flow in and out of each other to make a record in some sense; a more of cohesive statement.

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“I guess what I am saying is that the particular songs that don't fit into that narrative, they don't sit on the record. In a way, I see some of these songs as orphans or they're the deleted scenes from a movie – if a scene doesn't serve the story in a film, it's not allowed a place in the film, not because it's an inferior scene but because it doesn't work with the overall story. I see these as my deleted scenes, some of them from a long time ago, but also some from the not so distant past.”

Despite whispers of the members of Death Cab not being able to stand each other, Gibbard insists that the health and creative output of the band has never been better and that Former Lives, just like his work with The Postal Service almost a decade ago, is simply an extension of what he does. “It wasn't weird at all. It would be weird if I was viewing this record as some sort of moment to step out and try to launch myself as a solo artist or as if this record was meant to be a step in a new direction for me that was just me, if I was trying to do that on the sly. I started Death Cab For Cutie, why would I want to stop doing it? The impetus to do a record like this or to do anything outside of the band is not because I wasn't satisfied with how my creativity is expressed within the band. It's because I find myself with more material or material that doesn't fit with the band or I'm listless and want to do a soundtrack with my friend Steve Fisk or I make a record with Jay Farrar or I do a record with The Postal Service on Sub Pop. These are all extra-curricular activities, just because I like making music.

“I didn't go in with the idea of making a record,” Gibbard admits. “I was able to go through my cache of songs that I've always enjoyed but never taken the time to record properly. It started by going into the studio with Aaron Espinoza from Earlimart, playing all the instruments myself and recording two songs one month, two months later recording another couple – just doing it very leisurely over the course over a year. It wasn't like, 'Oh fuck, I need one more song for this record, I'd better write one.' The songs were all there, it was just a matter of curating which ones I was going to record and how to sequence the record, because it's very much a mixed bag. It's all over the map, but that's something I personally like.”

The album kicks off with whimsical a cappella Shepherd's Bush Lullaby – recorded on an iPhone – and bounces around from there; Teardrop Windows was Gibbard's attempt at writing “a Big Star song” while the beautifully pessimistic Duncan, Where Have You Gone? sounds like the product of a Teenage Fanclub binge. But when Gibbard began to think outside of the box, that's when the gold really shines. “I play virtually everything on the record but there's a couple of songs – Broken Yolk In Western Sky and Lady Adelaide – that I had my friend Jon [Wurster] from Superchunk come in and play on and, you know, another guy on bass. We recorded in New York.

“We did a version of Something's Rattling and it wasn't really working the way we presented it. While I was trying to clean up the track, I kind of had this idea to bring a Mariachi band in – why not? The song was about getting lost in Los Angeles and disappearing into the city, so why not disappear into another band, take it to another conceptual level and completely disappear in this band? I was fully expecting to spend the money to bring this band in and have it not work, but it was all fantastic. That was one of those trigger-happy decisions that happened really well on that record.”

It's easy to predict what's next for Gibbard. It's uncertain whether we'll see a solo tour come as far as Australia, though he does admit that he could be tempted. For now, there are promo duties for Former Lives and then it's back to his one true love. “We've always had the ethos that whatever we're doing away from the band always benefits the band,” he says, explaining that Death Cab For Cutie will always be “a thing”. “I've always got songs, there's always something in the well, always something on the front burner. I'm always working on music but I think this was a good opportunity for me to present some of these songs I've always enjoyed myself. I'm just in a time where I'm able to work on and find songs for the next Death Cab record and start to think about what that may be like – it's too early to even speculate but hopefully sometime next year we can get together and punch out some ideas.

“We've been in this band for 15 years, we've established it's important to us.”