Ben Gibbard and the Seattle indie-rock titans find new life after the departure of longtime member Chris Walla.
Songwriters of Ben Gibbard’s caliber don’t typically have much to prove. But the Death Cab for Cutie frontman knows this record is a big one.
On Friday, the Seattle heavyweights who ascended to indie rock’s upper echelon with several era-shaping records in the 2000s unleash “Thank You for Today” — their ninth album and first without longtime guitarist and producer Chris Walla, who announced his departure during the making of 2015’s “Kintsugi.”
“You want every record to be somewhere in the good-to-great window, but I think this was a pivotal album for us,” Gibbard says. “I felt that from the very beginning. We lost a seminal member of the band, somebody who produced virtually all the records we ever made and made huge contributions to the sound of this band. If this band was going to continue, we had to make a really good — if not great — album.”
Without his longtime musical accomplice, who played on “Kintsugi” but relinquished producer duties, Gibbard — who’s always been the band’s principal songwriter — tightened his grip on the wheel. Seldom did Death Cab’s helmsman finish songs when writing past records, intentionally leaving holes for Walla to fill, sometimes out of laziness, he admits. But with Walla gone and “Kintsugi” touring members turned full-timers Dave Depper and Zac Rae now in the mix, Gibbard was unsure what the new studio dynamic would be like. He wanted to come into the studio with fully formed songs, so that if “things didn’t go well we had a place to get back to,” he says.
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While many of the songs wound up on the lush “Thank You for Today” the way Gibbard first heard them in his head, his concerns about studio chemistry were largely alleviated as they got going. He says the contributions new guys Depper and Rae made melodically and to the arrangements were “beyond my wildest imaginations.” Nearing the record’s completion, Gibbard recalls talking with longtime members Nick Harmer and Jason McGerr about how they hadn’t had this much fun making an album since “Transatlanticism.”
“It was a really enjoyable experience,” says Gibbard of Death Cab’s first post-Walla sessions. “I don’t say that as a slight to Chris. More so, after 14 years of making albums together … it was becoming a little more difficult to work effectively together and I think that his decision to leave was certainly the right one for him, but I think for us, we really benefited from having new blood.”
Coming off “Kintsugi” — a bit of a bounce-back record following 2011’s “Codes and Keys,” which Gibbard ranks as his least favorite Death Cab album — the band feels reinvigorated. A sense of urgency permeates “Thank You for Today,” thanks in no small measure to drummer McGerr’s sweep-you-off-your-feet propulsions that drive standout tracks like “Northern Lights” and the contemplative “Summer Years.” An increasingly economical lyricist, Gibbard mines familiar introspective terrain, deploying concise literary passages that plant themselves in listeners’ minds.
Now in his early 40s, Gibbard’s found himself amid a particularly self-reflective period, examining how choices he’s made led him to where he is today, which became an overarching theme. The album’s title was Gibbard’s way of grounding it in the present, while looking both backward and forward.
“I think that everybody has a voice that speaks to them right as they’re going to sleep that questions some of the decisions or choices that one made,” Gibbard says. “And I don’t think there’s anything unhealthy about that. I don’t live with any great regrets in my life, but as I look at every decision I’ve made, that seemed like small decisions along the way, they’ve led me down a particular path in my life.”
When it was released in June, lead single “Gold Rush” made a splash at home, with Gibbard exploring the connection between geography and memory through the lens of his rapidly changing Capitol Hill neighborhood. “Cities are in a constant state of flux and change, but I fear that the money being made in the redevelopment of the city is not taking into account our culture and what is worth preserving about this city,” says Gibbard, the most visibly active of the prominent Seattle musicians who joined the recent “Save the Showbox” crusade.
Gibbard has never been shy about his politics or using the band’s platform to champion causes they believe in, including inviting U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal to introduce them with a rousing speech at a recent Paramount Theatre gig. But rarely has it seeped into Death Cab’s pensive music.
That started to change around the 2016 election. The veteran songsmith found catharsis in writing overtly political music, taking several days a week after the election to “wallow in my sorrow and write from a minor-league Bruce Springsteen perspective,” he says. Though Death Cab contributed the Trump-bashing “Million Dollar Loan” to the 30 Songs in 30 Days project, which raised money for various progressive causes, none of Gibbard’s politicized material made the cut on “Thank You for Today.”
That’s partly because, by Gibbard’s admission, that’s not his wheelhouse. Plus, the famously introspective singer came to the realization that it was OK to step away from the what’d-he-tweet-now outrage cycle from time to time. So as more inward-looking themes emerged, Gibbard wanted to make an album that “felt very classically Death Cab” to give fans a similar respite.
“Look, take a break, man!” he says. “Spend 40 minutes listening to this album. Drive around, go for a run, go for a walk. Integrate it into how you view your life and hopefully it has resonance with you. That was my hope — just to give people a break from all this insanity.”