Death Cab For Cutie: 'It’s Way More Punk Rock To Be Vulnerable'

6 March 2019 | 4:09 pm | Hannah Story

Death Cab For Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard talks to Hannah Story about trailrunning, the late Scott Hutchison of Frightened Rabbit, and how he’s a fan boy just like you.

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It’s the first sunny day in Seattle in about two weeks – two weeks of “insane snow”, then heavy rain and flooding – when we get on the line with Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, a week out from their Australian tour.

He’s looking forward to coming back to Australia, four years on from performing at Splendour In The Grass in 2015, partly because this time around it’s summer: “I'm excited about running in a singlet instead of running in winter clothes here. I'm excited to have the sun on my back.”

Gibbard, a keen trailrunner since going sober over ten years ago, says, while he’s excited about performing at Sydney Opera House again and loves Melbourne – a city which reminds him of Seattle – he’s particularly looking forward to running in Canberra.

“You can run into the hills from downtown, and for me, as a trailrunner, an ultrarunner, the opportunity to hit some real dirt and get some vertical and be able to run into some foothills, that's really exciting to me.

“The things I enjoy about where we go now really has more to do with whether or not we're near mountains or not. I've been to enough big cities to last me for the rest of my life.”

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“The things I enjoy about where we go now really has more to do with whether or not we're near mountains or not."

The Australian tour is the band’s first since releasing 2018’s Thank You For Today, an album dedicated to the late Scott Hutchison, frontman for Scottish indie band Frightened Rabbit, who passed away last May.

Gibbard says Hutchison, who he became good friends with after touring together for the first time in 2008, “might be the first person I’ve known in my life that I’ve been close to to kill themselves". 

“We weren't super, super close – we didn't vacation together or anything like that – but I felt really connected to him.

“One of the beautiful things about being a musician and specifically about being a songwriter is the work you created – I wouldn't say so dramatically as to say it's forever – it certainly provides people with comfort and it provides people with a memory of you at your best self. I think while obviously I'm crushed that Scott is gone, I can still put those records on and feel like he's in the room with me.” 

There’s a palpable sense of gratefulness both in the title and in the songs on the record, which Gibbard, at 42, links to an increased awareness of ageing, and the late realisation that being a musician had become his career.

He was no longer “in the midst of new experiences, and you're unsure of yourself, trying to figure out who you are and what you want, whether or not this music thing is gonna be a career or if someday you're gonna have to go back to school to become a physical therapist, whatever it is”. 

Instead, he remembers “waking up and all of a sudden realising I was 40 and feeling like the last two decades of my life doing this band was like a blur”: "I realised, 'Holy shit, this is my career. This is my job.'

"I will fully admit there's times in my career where I've maybe taken my opportunities for granted for myriad reasons, but I think at this point, I'm very aware what a unique situation we have in this band. And not only that but I've been able to do this for two decades and people still care… Not only do people still care about the records we've made, but people are still coming to see us play and see us play new songs and reacting positively to new material.

“When one hits middle age it's a unique perspective to be both looking back and looking forward at the same time. You're looking back at your life as to how you got to where you are, and you're contemplating the second half of your life.” 

Gibbard can pinpoint the aspects of Death Cab’s music that he thinks resonate with fans. He describes his lyrical inclination as “detail-oriented”, covering “life and death and everything in between”. For Gibbard, it’s a “style of music that I think is easily transferrable across generations to a certain extent”, and which has “ingratiated people” to his band. 

While he stresses he would not put Death Cab For Cutie “in the same category” as The Cure, one of his favourite bands, he thinks “the mechanism for why our music resonates with people is very similar”. 

“I was listening to The Cure when I was 13 years old and crying my eyes out because we had to move and I was listening to Pictures Of You on repeat. That band and the material of that band has grown to mean different things in my life as I've gotten older because of the subject matter and the emotive quality of the music.”

Gibbard jibes that writing from a place of honesty, of almost hypervulnerability, where there’s no sense of ironic detachment, has won them as many naysayers as it has fans.

“I do feel like it's way more punk rock to be vulnerable. You're putting way more of yourself out there when you're being vulnerable. If you're being vulnerable – lyrically vulnerable, musically vulnerable, personally vulnerable – with strangers, you are placing yourself at the risk of ridicule, and believe me, we've got plenty of it over the years.

"It's so much more harder to be vulnerable and earnest than it is to be ironic and aloof."

“I believe that it's the exact same things that people love about our band that people hate about our band, and that is the earnestness and the vulnerability. I do think it's much more difficult, it's so much more harder to be vulnerable and earnest than it is to be ironic and aloof. It's so much harder, because if you're writing ironic, aloof music you can dismiss it at any point, being like, 'Oh whatever, that song is about whatever, it doesn't matter.' 

“But if I write a song about some of the things that I've written songs about, you have to face it, you have to face both the positive and negative reactions to it, because they tend to be very extreme. People are either very moved by it, very attached to it, or it repulses them for the exact same elements.” 

Gibbard can’t quantify how many times people have approached him to say they’ve been moved by his music, but he recognises that he too has felt that exact same way about the artists he admires: “I put my favourite songs on repeat and listen to them over and over again, and I find new things in them.” 

He says it’s a “humbling feeling to have somebody tell you that something you created affected them”. 

“When it does happen, I always try to be really gracious because I've felt the same way about my favourite artists. Music is such a unique art form in the sense that people experience it both in very intimate, personal moments alone, and they experience it with thousands of other people. We've all been there, where we're obsessed with a song or a band - we listen to it in our headphones on the train or while we're driving or walking around.” 

Still, Gibbard is quick to say he never has audience reactions on his mind when he’s writing songs. “I don't think, 'This song is really gonna help some people.' I just document my own experience, my own life, and if people find some connection in that, that's wonderful and it's very rewarding, but I don't carry myself as if I'm some kind of 'Good Samaritan' for writing music.”