Ben Gibbard and his band Death Cab For Cutie rose through the ranks on Seattle's indie rock scene to rock stardom. Gibbard eventually left for a glamorous life in Los Angeles, marrying actress Zooey Deschanel. Recently divorced, Gibbard's back home now, and loving Seattle more than ever, a sentiment reflected in his new solo album,...
On an early November day, Ben Gibbard is in Boston, on the other side of the country from Seattle. Still, for the lead singer of Death Cab for Cutie, in the middle of a tour to promote his solo album “Former Lives,” his hometown is never that far out of his mind. On his next day off, he’s even hanging with Seattle rap phenomenon Macklemore, who is on tour nearby.
Gibbard cites Macklemore as an example of the kind of performer that only Seattle could spawn: “He’s maintained a real sense of his roots, his humility, and his commitment to social justice. He’s doing his own thing, and the world is a better place for it.”
In a way, those very words could be a description of Gibbard as well. Over the course of a 15-year career, Death Cab has sold millions of albums, successfully navigated from a tiny Seattle label to a major and maintained a creative edge to their indie rock. Gibbard has also been socially and politically active. His Saturday Washington Hall concert is a benefit for 826, the literary arts nonprofit. (That show, and Gibbard’s Friday Showbox concert, are both sold out.)
Gibbard was the first performer to sign on to support Music for Marriage Equality, which helped spearhead the passage of the same-sex marriage initiative, Referendum 74. Even that, he downplays. “There are so many people who supported it,” he says, “and whether my phone rang first or not doesn’t matter. But I’d like to think that Washington State is a little ahead of the curve.”
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Gibbard grew up in Bremerton and formed Death Cab while at Western Washington University with Chris Walla and Nick Harmer. Their first release on Barsuk was 1998’s “Something About Airplanes” and it established Gibbard as a songwriter whose melancholy was never far from the center of melodic pop. Gibbard jokes that after seeing the Cure play its entire first three albums last fall, he’s considered playing all of Death Cab’s early work.
“We could take up a residency at the Showbox,” he says, only half in jest.
It was Death Cab’s fifth album, 2005’s “Plans,” that saw the group jump commercially to platinum status. That album contained “I Will Follow You Into the Dark,” a gorgeous lullaby of a pop song that proved Gibbard could also write hits. Gibbard also found success with his one-off electronic project, the Postal Service, and that 2003 album recently became Sub Pop’s second platinum album ever (after Nirvana’s “Bleach”).
A few of the songs on “Former Lives” date from as early as 2004, but most are more recent.
“The way I write now is very different from how I wrote early on,” he notes. “In the early days, my lyrics were more obtuse, partially out of intention, but partially from being 20 years old and wanting to be profound.”
He’s half joking and half serious, comfortable with his own mythology but also ready to laugh at it.
The new album’s “Teardrop Windows” is a newer song, but it recalls one of Gibbard’s childhood memories — taking the ferry from Bremerton and seeing the Smith Tower looming.
“The Smith Tower was built as a statement to metropolitan growth,” he says. “When I moved to Los Angeles [in 2009], I found I was homesick for a number of things, including that building.” He began to buy postcards of the Smith Tower on eBay.
Gibbard moved after he married actress Zooey Deschanel. But he always kept a house in Seattle, and moved back after his 2011 divorce. Though some critics have tried to ascribe personal history to songs about loss on the new album, Gibbard is quick to say he always thinks in more general terms, and “everything I write does not have a face.”
Celebrity culture detracts from his goals as a songwriter, he says.
“It puts the listener at a disadvantage,” he adds. “If a listener is trying to connect the series of dots in my life, they may not even have the right dots, and they aren’t going to get it even remotely accurate.”
In Seattle, Gibbard moves anonymously, in a city where musicians are respected, but not hounded. He walks most everywhere, finds inspiration in bookstores and cafes and exercises every day by going on long runs.
“Seattle has always been a place where you can’t go off the deep end,” Gibbard says. “You always come back to a place that keeps your humility, a place that gives you perspective on what is important, and a town that values the arts, while never putting artists on a pedestal. That’s what I’ve always loved about Seattle.”
And that’s why it’s home.