Ben Gibbard just might be the busiest musician in quarantine.
Shortly after the Seattle songsmith’s primary band Death Cab for Cutie completed a three-night Showbox run in February, the pandemic shut down much of the music industry. But Gibbard’s hardly put down his guitar since. During spring’s TP-hoarding pandemonium, the hometown indie-rock hero’s Live From Home virtual concert series raised more than $250,000 and other nonmonetary donations for roughly 20 local charities and nonprofits.
The streaming for a cause hasn’t stopped, with Gibbard virtually performing for multiple fundraisers, including the SMooCH benefit for Seattle Children’s hospital (7:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 5, on KEXP’s YouTube channel). After unveiling a comedic PSA video for voter registration group HeadCount’s efforts this fall, Gibbard’s cult favorite band The Postal Service will add a live album from its 2013 reunion tour to streaming services for the first time on Friday, Dec. 4 — the same day Death Cab releases “The Georgia E.P.,” covering songs by Georgia artists with proceeds from Bandcamp downloads benefiting Stacey Abrams’ voters rights initiatives with Fair Fight Action during the state’s runoff election.
We caught up with the king of the livestream to talk quarantine concerts, TLC and faking out Postal Service fans. (This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)
How have you personally been dealing with this crazy year?
I’m dealing with it much better than most. My wife and I are not concerned as to where our next meal is going to come from. And we don’t have children, so we’re not doubling as teachers or day-care centers. So we’ve just been laying low, I’ve been working on a lot of music.
Thinking back to the Live From Home shows you did back in March, what was that experience like for you?
Nobody knew what was going on. I guess we still don’t, really. I wanted to provide a service to people who like our music and just create some kind of schedule, abnormal normality of schedule for people — “Oh, that guy from Death Cab’s playing every day at 4.”
But I have to admit, it wasn’t entirely an altruistic endeavor. [It] gave me a sense of schedule and purpose every day where you’re reading the news and it’s terrifying, but I gotta pull it together and play for an hour for people who are on the internet.
The Postal Service live album hits streaming services for the first time, which due to the lack of live shows feels pretty timely. Was this in the works before the pandemic?
No. We worked with Sub Pop. That tour was so much fun. We just wanted to put something out for fans of the band that reminded everyone of the power of live music, and also some different interpretations of the songs that people have been listening to for, God, 17 years now.
That last show in Berkeley, were there any memories that stand out from that night?
The last show was in Chicago, actually. We played Lollapalooza and then we played a midnight show at the Metro, an aftershow. We actually did the hip-hop thing and played the hit [“Such Great Heights”] twice. That was really, really fun and just a moment to reflect on this album we had made that, when we were sitting in meetings at Sub Pop in 2002, the discussion was whether we should press 20,000 or 25,000 copies. And 25,000 seemed a little crazy. [The album, “Give Up,” sold more than a million copies, becoming Sub Pop’s second-highest seller after Nirvana’s “Bleach.”]
You guys posted that ambiguous teaser on social media, [ultimately] for the HeadCount video. People [were] freaking out, speculating there’d be new Postal Service music. What was that like for you to watch?
We apologize for giving anyone the impression that there was going to be new music. In hindsight, we realized, yeah, we should have been a little less ambiguous about what was coming. I don’t tend to lose sleep over what people on the internet say. But at the same time, there were people, my friends being like “Oh man, people are pissed.” Then you hit ’em with the video, I think for the most part people enjoyed it and it served its purpose. It was just an object lesson in not [expletive] with people’s emotions around things that they love.
What was the inspiration behind “The Georgia E.P.”?
After the general election and it looked like it was gonna be a runoff, I floated the idea to the band and we could donate the money to Fair Fight. My wife and I were on a little trip — we drove, for the record — we got back from our remote location and we were like “OK, let’s do it. Monday through Thursday.” It’s a fun little thing, you know. We’re all proud of it and hope it serves the purpose for which it was conceived.
I understand you have a TLC song on there. What was your pick?
We did “Waterfalls.” We did not do the rap, which might be a shocker. [Laughs.] A couple songs we did, “Fall on Me” is one of our favorite R.E.M. songs, so we wanted to stay true to that arrangement. “Waterfalls,” we just took an approach, if that was our song, how would we arrange [it]? Very curious to hear what people will think of that one, because I have a feeling people are gonna have some strong opinions either way.
You’ve done a ton of these virtual fundraising performances. Why has it been important for you to take part in all these this year?
There’s the famous photo of Woody Guthrie with the guitar that says, “This machine kills fascists.” That photo has always made a huge impression on me. Not that I think I’m killing fascists with songs about feelings. But that this machine, this guitar, I can use this to generate funds or awareness for a myriad of causes.
At this point in my career, where I am not concerned as to where my next meal is coming from, I felt that I had an obligation to use this unmarketable skill that I have, that for some reason people have decided is valuable. And honestly, it’s not hard. I have a computer and a guitar and a microphone. If you’re on the shore in a position to throw an inner tube to somebody in the water, you should do it right? It’s easy, you just pick it up and you throw it. That’s the position I feel like I’m in.