Even though he spent most of 2010 and 2011 putting the finishing touches on the most recent Death Cab For Cutie album, Codes And Keys, frontman Ben Gibbard still found time to assemble his first solo album, Former Lives, which will finally be released next month, on 10/16. Recorded in fits and starts in between Death Cab sessions, Former Lives brings together an assortment of Gibbard’s songs that span his entire career, many of which have been popping up in his solo live shows for years. Even though the record is essentially a compendium of Gibbard’s greatest outtakes, the album is a remarkably polished and genuinely heartfelt affair — and a potent reminder of why Gibbard is such a gifted songwriter. This dude shelves songs that are better than those many of his peers will ever actually write. I called him up in the middle of Death Cab’s last tour to talk about it.
Stereogum: I was happy to be able to write about this record, in particular because you recorded with my good friend Aaron Espinoza from Earlimart. His studio in LA, the Ship, is amazing. Plus, he’s one of the nicest humans on Earth.
Gibbard: Yeah, I had done a track with him for the Jay Farrar record. We had known each other since 1999 or something like that — not particularly well — but he was friends with some bands that we toured with way way back in the day. And when I was living in LA, I found myself for the first time with a cache of songs that were not really conducive to Death Cab records, and they’d been piling up for a while, and I decided that instead of just sitting on them, I was like, “I think I have enough to maybe make something.” So I did a couple things in New York with my friend Mark Spencer, who was also playing with Sun Volt and who was also playing with Jay and I on that tour, with Jon Wurster playing on drums for a couple of tunes. But for the most part, with the exception of a couple of tunes, I played everything on the record. And I would book time with Aaron when I had some time off the road, and we would go in and do a song or two, and over the course of the year, we had a record.
Stereogum: Did you always imagine that at some point down the road you would make a solo album?
Gibbard: It wasn’t a goal and it certainly wasn’t a reaction to any sort of dissatisfaction to recording with Death Cab or anything like that. It certainly doesn’t come out of like, “I have all these songs to record and I’m not getting my fix with the band.” It was never anything like that, and I never really had this idea that someday I’ll make a solo record, and that I’ll go solo, which is definitely not what this is. In the past, whenever I’ve put out any solo recordings, it’s just been of a function of the time I was in. I’m a songwriter and that’s my job, and with every record that we’ve made there would always be a couple of tunes that didn’t seem to fit in with the band. If people wanted to be dismissive of the record, they could just say “Oh these are leftovers,” but they’re really not. They’re not songs that weren’t good enough to make Death Cab records as much as they were things that … well, there’s not really place on a Death Cab record for a song that sounds like Big Star or Teenage Fanclub. It’s not what we do.
Stereogum: It’s interesting — I know when you’re making an album with the band, there’s always this eye toward the big picture of the album and how these songs fit together and the vibe of the complete thing as a whole. I was wondering if it was sort of liberating to approach these songs as individual songs, without having to necessarily place them in the context of a cohesive album?
Gibbard: Yeah, I definitely approached it on a song-by-song basis. It really comes down to a matter of personal preference, but I kind of like that the record is something of a mixed bag. The songs themselves are not all of a particular mode — they’re not all about one subject — and they’re not from one definitive era of my life. They don’t exist in the time between record five and record six. So I think in that sense, I think as we were recording all these tunes, number one, we didn’t necessarily know we were making a record, and two, I think that to put the record together and sequence it and everything else, I had recognized that all of these tunes are very different from each other and it’s only my voice and songwriting that ties them all together. And some people will find that to be a flaw of the record, but other people will really like it. I don’t think there is a right or wrong way to go about constructing an album. As much as I like to hope that people think the songs are good and like the tunes, I think that people will see past the fact that one song has a mariachi band, the next song is acoustic — it’s all over the map — but I’m really proud of the tunes and how they came together in the studio, and I’d like to hope that that’s enough to carry and justify the record.
Stereogum: It’s funny, I got a bio of the record before I was able to actually listen to it, so I think I was expecting it to be more of a mixed bag than it is. I think it plays really seamlessly. It didn’t strike me as a disparate collection of songs just thrown together. It is very cohesive. Plus, you have such a unique sense of melody — that comes through in all the songs.
Gibbard: Well that’s good to hear. If that’s the impression you got, that makes me feel good.
Stereogum: I would assume that there’s a certain level of stress when you’re making a Death Cab For Cutie record. Did you feel less pressure making this record? And did that make it easier somehow?
Gibbard: I mean the short answer is yes, but also Aaron and I were friendly, and I did a couple of tunes with Mark Spencer with Jon Wurster, and I’d been friends with Jon for a long time and never really had a chance to record with him. Specifically the sessions with Aaron, since most of the work was done with him … we really became friends over the course of making the record. Between myself and Aaron and his engineer, this kid named Zach, we were just laughing all the time … And I wasn’t necessarily sure how it was going to go with Aaron. When it started I wasn’t sure if I was going to like what he did with the tunes or not, so we started small. But all the sessions were lighthearted and fun, and the fact that I was playing everything meant that I was always working. When you’re recording with a band — I’m sure it’s the same with most bands that aren’t recording in the same room — you spend as much time on the Internet, doing whatever you’re doing on the Internet, as you spend actually recording music. So that was the most fun for me: spending the vast majority of the time actually in front of a microphone, like starting out with drums and adding a guitar or bass or piano or overdubbing, and Aaron throwing in ideas here and there. It was really a fun experience. The fact that there was no pressure for it to really be anything allowed me to enjoy it. It’s not that I haven’t enjoyed making Death Cab records — I certainly have — but it felt like making the first record all over again. Like nobody expects anything, nobody knows that I’m doing this. It felt like starting a new band, but I was the only member of the band.
Stereogum: I know a lot of these songs have crept up in your live set for years, and some of them go way back. Does it make you reconsider them in a very close and intimate way when you’re finally putting them down on record?
Gibbard: Not really. You know, a lot of these songs I’d gone past the point of being really precious about. I’ve made it a point, as I start to talk about this record, that I don’t date all the songs — like, “This song is from that era, this song is from that year,” because I think I’d rather keep whatever little veil of mystery over my life in place. But I think that certainly a song like “Broken Yolk” is specifically dated to playing back in 2004. I wrote that and it was always one of my favorite tunes, but it didn’t really find a place on Plans, and I understood why and it wasn’t really worth fighting about. But when I went to record with Jon Wurster and Mark Spencer, I hated like the third pre-chorus verse and I didn’t really know what to do with the middle because the original version was much smaller. But having had so much time go by I was able to look at it rather objectively and say, “Oh well this song just needs an added bit,” and write a few lines and it’s done. One of the things that influenced the making of the record was seeing how Jay Farrar recorded. He recorded without any sort of preciousness. We would go in and he would play the guitar track, and as long as he didn’t play the wrong chord, he was like “OK, that will work, now let me do the vocals.” And then he’d get the vocals. There’s been all sorts of emphasis of me personally trying to get everything just perfect and overanalyzing it, over-thinking all the little bits. So I took that approach as more than anything else with this record. If something’s working then we just go with it, and we keep the microscope off of it and realize that that’s the guitar part and the drum part, and nobody’s going to hear the shit that we’re hearing. And it’s a really liberating way to record because you save so much time and energy not sweating the guitar solo.
Stereogum: Will you play any acoustic shows or shows by yourself in support of Former Lives?
Gibbard: Yeah, I’m gonna do a solo tour in the fall, just me, and at least for the time being I don’t think I want to do full-band versions of this stuff, if only because it puts me in a somewhat precarious position of having limited material to draw on. And also I’ve started writing on the next Death Cab record, so I have a lot of work to do on that, and it’s in my best interest, and the best interest of my sanity, to not spend a year on the road promoting my solo record. So I’ll do some solo shows and from there we’ll see what happens, but really I just wanted to make this [album] because I felt that I was finally in a position where I could do it and make something for people who like my songwriting, in the hopes that they find something to enjoy in it. I feel pretty confident that I accomplished that, so we’ll see what happens.
Stereogum: Well I think it’s great, and so nice to finally have proper recordings of these songs.
Gibbard: Well, thank you!
Stereogum: You’re welcome. Also, I wanted to mention that I’d heard you were taking some heat from the Westboro Baptist Church folks because you have been such an outspoken advocate for marriage equality. As a gay person, I really appreciate that you have been so vocal in supporting Music For Marriage Equality.
Gibbard:: Well, you know my sister is gay and she happens to be married to one of the best people I have ever met in my whole life. I’m always very careful when I speak about this stuff because I realize that it’s actually a very safe position for me to take as a straight person since, well, the world basically exists for the benefit of straight people and I don’t want to be seen as the obnoxious straight person who is trying to own this as their own personal fight. It should be everybody’s fight, you know?
Benjamin Gibbard’s Former Lives is out 10/16 via Barsuk.