Q&A: Ben Gibbard On His Teenage Fanclub Tribute, The Next Death Cab LP, & His Heaviest Song Ever
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Ben Gibbard’s favorite band is Teenage Fanclub, another ostensibly alt-rock-identified bunch of formalist squares whose records are as crafty and delicately layered as Death Cab For Cutie’s. But his new solo take on the entirety of their 1991 power-pop landmark Bandwagonesque (out this week via Turntable Kitchen) is still quite an undertaking, and not just because he recreated it brick by brick. Some songs radically differ from the originals (“The Concept” is now an eight-minute space-rock epic that swirls somewhere between Pink Floyd and Slowdive), while others are faithfully reconstructed with love — you can practically hear “What You Do To Me” in Gibbard’s voice before you finish reading this sentence.
Now 40, the Death Cab singer’s latest passion project follows a song he wrote for the Monkees last year (“Me & Magdalena“) into what’s looking like a promising series of challenges he’s creating for himself. We talked to the soft-spoken, almost embarrassingly polite jangle-rock hero about remaking a cult classic from scratch, as well as his proper band’s upcoming album.
STEREOGUM: Between Bandwagonesque and writing a Monkees song, I get the sense that you’re crossing a bunch of things off your bucket list.
GIBBARD: [Laughs.] Yeah, beginning with that Monkees thing it’s been like a “pinch me” fiscal year.
STEREOGUM: I couldn’t help but notice that the Bandwagonesque press release’s phrasing “favorite album by your favorite band” leaves you an out where maybe your favorite album by your favorite band isn’t your favorite album of all-time.
GIBBARD: You know, when somebody asks me what my favorite records are, it’s a little bit like when you go into a record store and you’re like, “I’m looking for these albums…” and you walk in there and you’re just overwhelmed and it’s like you forgot what you were looking for in the first place. That happens a little bit when people talk about… there is a constantly shifting order in my top five of all-time. I don’t even think Bandwagonesque is Teenage Fanclub’s best record. But it is my favorite album of theirs because it was the first thing I heard by them and it made such a huge impression on me, that emotion and inspiration the record gave me. While I do think they went on to make some better albums, it was always gonna hold a special place in my heart. It’s been my favorite album of all-time at various points in my life, and it’s never gonna leave my top five.
STEREOGUM: So what song was the hardest to reproduce from the original, either with your voice or on the arrangement?
GIBBARD: The one that I decided to not even attempt was “Pet Rock.” It exists in a weird space on the album; to break it down in the most blunt terms possible, it’s like jam, jam, jam, four lines of lyrics, and then jam, jam, jam. That’s the song. And as I was going through all the tunes, by my count, maybe half the record is reinterpretations, half is me saying, I love this song, I want to make it sound just like the record. With “Pet Rock” I was like, I don’t really jam, and it’s just me doing this — there’s nobody else playing on this thing — so it’s not like we can just hang out and really riff this thing for five minutes, leave some space for singing and then go back into the jam. Also, I’m just terrible on guitar like that. So to create a breath on the record I decided to make it into a little vignette, a mini-Beach Boys-y thing rather than try to recreate what was on the original album.
STEREOGUM: Speaking of vignettes, I have to know if “Satan” is the hardest-rocking thing that you, Ben Gibbard, have ever put on record.
GIBBARD: [Laughs.] Probably not if you go all the way back to punk bands I was in in high school and college, but outside of some long-lost cassettes, yeah, that would probably be the heaviest thing I’ve ever recorded with my name on it. Kind of sad that’s it’s as heavy as I ever got.
STEREOGUM: Did playing it and recording it for this make you want to rock out more on your records, now that you’ve had that realization?
GIBBARD: I think for me, I’ve always enjoyed playing the songs in the Death Cab catalogue that are really uptempo. They might not rock as hard on the albums for whatever series of reasons, but the more we play them live, the more we kind of become a different band. On Kintsugi, there were like two or three songs that in the last two years have become live staples that we expect to keep in the set for years to come because of that exact reason. Now as I’m writing and finishing the songs for the next [Death Cab] record, I’m coming to the conclusion that we need to have songs like that because I don’t want us to become one of those bands where we’re all in our 40s just plodding along with midtempo tunes and ballads for the rest of our existence. I don’t want to be that band.
STEREOGUM: Do you think studying Bandwagonesque helped you crack the code of your favorite band? Like, has it affected your own songwriting?
GIBBARD: I thought it was gonna be a lot easier, and that’s a compliment to Teenage Fanclub. When you put the record on, the songs come across so simply. You’re like, OK, I’ve got this, no problem. And then you start delving into the harmonies. I was literally, no joke, like, I’d have a window open on my computer — you know, I’ve bought the album like four times, but I would have a YouTube open so I could just slide the thing back to hear the harmonies again. [I was] looping it and just being like, “What the fuck is Norman singing right there? I can’t… that interval…” I’d be there for hours just trying to figure it out. It was in those moments that I garnered a deeper appreciation that I wouldn’t have gotten if I hadn’t done this project.
STEREOGUM: What song were you sitting there for hours just figuring out an interval?
GIBBARD: Oh man, there were some harmonies in “Alcoholiday” that I just couldn’t figure out. Like, “Oh, there’s another vocal underneath that lead vocal that’s singing some of the high notes, but it’s in a harmony, what is that interval?” I would get stumped and just spend half an hour doing a vocal deconstruction just to figure it out.
STEREOGUM: Were you inspired to do this by any other albums where an artist just remade an entire record by someone?
GIBBARD: I’m not sure how much of the origin story of this record that the people are getting at this point, but I was approached by this label in Seattle called Turntable Kitchen, who do a website that’s a little bit of a lifestyle blog, food, music, coffee… very much a northwestern, West Coast kind of thing. And they were reaching out to artists to cover whole albums to release X amount of copies on vinyl. They approached me via my management and I thought, that’s such a cool idea, and there were people already doing it that I admired. My bandmate Dave Depper did Paul McCartney’s Ram from start to finish, which seemed very much like, “I love this album, I want to break it apart and put it back together so I can learn something about songwriting and arrangement.”
For me, Bandwagonesque became the natural choice because I first heard it when I was 14 years old. I lived in the suburbs in the early ’90s, I didn’t know anything about Big Star, there were no Big Star records at the Sam Goody. I just fell in love with a record that sounded a lot like music that was always on in my house as a kid, but sonically was recognizable as being from the modern era, even though the songs were timeless.
STEREOGUM: How is the next Death Cab album shaping up?
GIBBARD: I’ve got 80% of it written I feel like. We’ve got a lot of really good material, though I guess that’ll be put to a vote when the record comes out. We’ve been demoing some songs here and there with Dave [Depper] and Zack [Rae], who are gonna be a part of this next record, people who are members of the band now. I feel like they know our band better than we do, because they were outside of it for so long. Their aesthetic take on the material is so valuable because they were fans of the band before they were in the band, so they could say like, “I want what you think you’re doing with this song, but you’re not pulling it off.”
STEREOGUM: Do you have a bold proclamation about this record’s sound yet, like when you likened Codes And Keys to Eno’s Another Green World or “I Will Possess Your Heart” to a “Can jam?”
GIBBARD: You know what, if we talk in like six months, I might be able to give you a tagline. [Laughs.] I’m not quite sure the material has progressed far enough that I can sum it up in something concise and quote-worthy quite yet.
Ben Gibbard’s Bandwagonesque is out 7/28 via Canvasback Music/Turntable Kitchen. Stream it below.