Benjamin Gibbard: ‘I’m The Only One In Charge Of Making Dumb Decisions’Interview
Benjamin Gibbard talks keeping secrets, pleasing fans, and former lives. Words: Sarah Jamieson.
Photo Credit: Emma Swann
Undoubtedly, any artist’s work will stand as a reflection of their own life, but for some, it’s much more evident. Having spent the last fifteen years in one of the most notable indie rock bands of modern times, Benjamin Gibbard is no stranger to laying his life on the inside of album pages, but with the release of his debut solo long-player, he’s painting a much more vivid picture.
“All of these songs are snapshots of different periods of my life,” he reveals, as we sit in a London hotel, a few weeks prior to the album’s unveiling. “Some songs are very recent, some more distant. It’s not so much that there’s a mood that ties the whole record together, as much as these are moods and feelings and thoughts that exist over a period of time.”
The title of his latest effort seems apt: ‘Former Lives’ stands as a twelve-song collection of separate tracks that the Death Cab For Cutie frontman had put to one side when they didn’t feel quite right for the band, with their collective lifetime spanning the past almost-decade.
“The oldest song is eight years old, but there are some very recent songs.” He is quick to detail, though, that he had a reason for addressing its age in advance. “The only reason I even felt it worth mentioning the length of time between the first and most recent song, was because I had played ‘Broken Yolk In Western Sky’ at a solo show in 2005. It’s one of the songs, amongst the fans of my work, that has been bootlegged so if I tried to lie and say, ‘Yeah I wrote this whole record in three weeks last September’, they’d be like, ‘Bullshit!’ I felt it was best to be upfront.”
Needless to say, the gift of time has allowed for Gibbard to explore the potential of the songs within ‘Former Lives’. “When one is writing, there’s a tendency to be very precious about the work when you’re sitting right in front of it. I punched up a lot of the songs as we were recording them: parts needed to be added and I needed to rewrite some stuff, so I had to revisit what the song was really about.
“With some of the earlier versions, I could only see the truth and the focus of the song after being away from it for some time. Also, getting to a place with some of the songs where I was less precious allowed me to realise, for example, with ‘Broken Yolk’, I needed more. I needed something to close the song. In the moments after writing it, I was just too in it to see what the ending was going to be.”
With time and growth too, came the realisation that he was able to be less of a perfectionist, easing him to embrace new directions without concern of their permanence; an element that Jay Farrar reassured him of. Having collaborated on an album of music for the Jack Kerouac documentary ‘One Fast Move Or I’m Gone’, the songwriting legend opened doors on Gibbard’s hesitations.
“Working with him in the studio and seeing just how, without any hesitation, he would change the key of the song, or if someone had an idea, he would try it. If he recorded a guitar part and thought it sounded pretty good, he’d say, ‘Let’s keep it’. He was completely without pretence and preciousness about how we went about making the record. It wasn’t that he didn’t care, because he clearly cared a lot, but I got the impression from him that he had the perspective of, ‘Look, I’ve made a lot of records. I’m going to make a lot of records. I’m not going to hang all my expectations, hopes and dreams on this period of my life and the way I’m presenting them. Let’s just capture them the way they are telling us to capture them, and then we’ll move onto the next thing.’
“For so much of my career as a musician, I feel I have gotten too precious about things. At times, when I was younger, I would get really upset about something not turning out the way I wanted it, not realising - especially being a songwriter - that the songs live on with you. One of my favourite quotes about Bob Dylan is that he says the best versions of his songs were never recorded. So, in the approach to this record, I felt like I was gonna record the songs and if I maybe didn’t hit the drum perfectly, that’s fine, because nobody’s gonna hear the stuff that I hear.”
With perspective, time and his peer’s advice all under his belt, Gibbard had one last weapon in his arsenal: the fact that no one knew about ‘Former Lives’ until he wished. “The thing I like about this record is that I didn’t have to do it. Not that anybody is holding a gun to my head, making me make Death Cab records - I really enjoy it obviously - but there was no expectation for this. Nobody knew about it until a couple months ago. I could have finished it and decided to not put it out. I could’ve just decided to sit on it, or turn it into a bunch of songs for movie soundtracks or EPs. Some of the songs could’ve turned into demos for Death Cab records. I just like the fact it was completely my prerogative as to whether it saw the light of day or not, because there’s very few things these days that I get to have control over.”
That sense of freedom also seeped into the recording sessions themselves, which took place in Los Angeles whenever Gibbard felt like booking the studio. “I would just go in, book a couple days here and there when I had free time. Now, looking back on those sessions, I was just laughing all the time. Just laughing and goofing off, and it was so rewarding. It was so much fun.
“While I was working on ‘Something’s Rattling (Cowpoke)’ and it just wasn’t working, on a Tuesday, I was like ‘Let’s get a mariachi band in here!’ Then, on a Wednesday, a mariachi band showed up! That’s the kind of idea that would not be in keeping or fit with the band that I’m in. While I’m the only one in charge of making dumb decisions... Bring it in!”
Yet, don’t be fooled, Gibbard isn’t naïve in believing that people won’t hold some expectation of what lies within ‘Former Lives’. Regardless though, he hopes people will take his first real journey into solo-dom with a pinch of salt. “I think that, with Death Cab, we’ve been around long enough now that there are records that we have made - and I say this not to be self-aggrandising, but you can’t be around as long as we have and have this not be a reality - that people bonded with at very pivotal moments in their lives. The same way that we all do with records we love, but I think that people become passionate about a band and want to feel the same way they did when they first got into that band and that’s just not possible. It’s not possible.
“I appreciate the passion that a lot of our fan base have about our music, and with every record we make, there are people who want it to be something that it just can’t be. I understand that frustration because I have it as well, but the reality it is it can’t be the summer of 1997 and I’m driving around listening to Elliott Smith’s ‘Either / Or’ every day. These are moments in our lives; they’re snowflakes in time. They exist and then, they’re gone.
“I think this record has its merits, but because people aren’t expecting it and I’m not talking it up, I really do think it allows for it to just stand on its own and have people either take it or leave it.”
Benjamin Gibbard’s new album ‘Former Lives’ will be released on 12th November via City Slang Records.
Taken from the November 2012 issue of DIY, available now. For more details click here.