Ben Gibbard On Death Cab’s Georgia Covers EP And Whether The Postal Service Will Ever Make Another Album
For the latest installment of Bandcamp Friday today, Death Cab For Cutie are releasing The Georgia E.P., a collection of five covers of some of Georgia’s most esteemed artists. Ben Gibbard and Co. chose songs to tackle through the Death Cab filter that are both expected (Neutral Milk Hotel’s “King Of Carrot Flowers,” Vic Chesnutt’s “Flirted With You All My Life”), and extremely unexpected (TLC’s “Waterfalls”), but the long-running indie rock outfit never misses a beat making these songs sound just as pristine through their lens.
Plus, just like Phoebe Bridgers and Maggie Rogers’ recent cover of Goo Goo Dolls’ “Iris,” it’s for a good cause. All net proceeds stemming from Bandcamp downloads of the EP (which will only be available to purchase for 24 hours) will go to Fair Fight Action, Stacey Abrams’ voter’s rights organization that fights voter suppression through voter education and election reform. Considering the upcoming runoffs in Georgia (as well as, y’know, the entirety of American history), it’s undeniable that Death Cab are doing a good thing at the right time.
We talked to Gibbard about how Death Cab pulled this together in such short notice, Georgia, and that Postal Service reunion video (as well as whether there’ll ever be another Postal Service album again).
How’s Seattle doing right now?
BEN GIBBARD: Seattle itself has been doing a really good job, I think. People are wearing masks and avoiding large gatherings, for the most part. But the numbers in South King County are starting to spike. Everybody that I know has been maintaining a similar vigilance since March. We’ll be out of this when we’re out of it. We’ve all learned to sacrifice, and it’s easier for some of us than others. But we have nothing to complain about right now in relation to what’s happening in the country, and the world.
Tell me about pulling this EP together. How do you throw together a Death Cab EP during a pandemic?
GIBBARD: After the election and the determination that there’s gonna be runoffs in Georgia, I’d been talking to our manager about trying to do something — the idea of maybe curating a compilation of people covering bands in Georgia for Bandcamp Friday. This was maybe three weeks out. I’m currently working on another project that involves herding cats to send me tracks for this other thing I’m working on, and I was like, “It’s taken me months to get people to send me tracks for this other thing. We have such little time, but if the band starts working today, we can get a little EP together.”
I put it to all the guys on the text thread, and everybody was into the idea. We picked songs, and we started working. The five of us all have pretty good home studio set-ups, if not actual set-ups. [Drummer Jason McGerr] built a set-up to record drums in his basement, [keyboardist/guitarist Zac Rae] has a studio in LA. The drums are the hardest thing to get sounding good, but everyone’s become pretty proficient engineering themselves. Jason made the template for “Fall On Me,” and sent it to [bassist Nick Harmer] to play bass on it, who sent it to Zac, who sent it to me. For “King Of Carrot Flowers,” I just did the guitar and vocals and sent that to Zac. We were working on pieces of it in our home studios for four days.
It was super fun to reinterpret these songs we love so much — or in the case of “Fall On Me,” to play it the way R.E.M. would play it. It was fun to focus on it amidst all the Republican-induced chaos after the election. What’s been so difficult for most working musicians at this point is having something to focus on and some semblance of a deadline. Making music in COVID is virtually all remote, and from our perspective we’re trying to think about putting out another record when we can actually tour again, which I think a lot of bands are trying to do. With so many things in a holding pattern, it was nice to embark on a project that had a hard deadline where we had to make quick and decisive decisions on arrangements and everything else. Also, it’s fun! And we did it for what we consider a good cause.
Were there any songs you guys were considering covering that you backed off of?
GIBBARD: I’m a huge B-52s fan. Strangely enough, our A&R guy at Atlantic was the B-52s’ tour manager when he was 18, so he has amazing stories about being with them that I love to hear. As we started, we were thinking about doing a B-52s song because we love them, but also for him, and as we started digging into the catalog, we realized that because of Fred Schneider’s presence in the band, it would be very difficult to pull one of their songs off without making it seem like it was being done in jest, because his presence is so over-the-top. And I love it, but trying to pull that off would be a fool’s errand and would come off the wrong way.
Even doing [TLC’s “Waterfalls”], we were like, “We have to take the rap out.” [Laughs] No one in this band is rapping, and we’re not gonna call up [Chance The Rapper] and ask him to rap this thing in five days. [So we] just cut it down and made it more… with a couple of these songs, it was like, “What if this was our song, how would we do it?” I was kind of nervous about that one, but given the cause… if people don’t like it, they don’t like it. There are much more important things to be mad at in the world today.
Did you find any inspiration in seeing Phoebe Bridgers and Maggie Rogers cover Goo Goo Dolls’ “Iris” for Fair Fight?
GIBBARD: I have not seen that yet, but I don’t doubt that it’s great. They are both amazing.
Did you see Jason Isbell’s tweet about doing a similar Georgia covers release? It’s kind of funny that you guys beat him to that.
GIBBARD: Before we began [putting this together], our manager sent me that tweet and was like, “Hey, I think people are thinking about this! We can probably get a compilation together.” And I was like, “Maybe, but given the short timeline…” I don’t doubt that, if we reached out to Jason, he would’ve turned something around. But with so little time — two and a half weeks — we just couldn’t allow a margin of error that would be related to procrastination.
Do any of these songs contain deep personal significance to you?
GIBBARD: “Metal Heart” and “Fall On Me” mean so much to me. I remember buying Moon Pix when it came out and listening to it in the van on one of our first tours. To this day, it’s one of my favorite songs of hers ever. I just love that point in the song when she sings, “I once was lost but now I’m found,” and there’s a harmony atop the main vocal on [does high-pitched voice] “I’m found.” I always found that to be so beautiful. One of the reasons I wanted to do that song was to sing that line as the main melody rather than the harmony.
I grew up, as most people of my generation, a huge R.E.M. fan. When R.E.M. did their ’91 MTV Unplugged performance, I taped that on VHS at 15, dubbed it to a cassette, and listened to it over and over again. One of the augmentations that I assume Michael Stipe made to that melody after singing it for six or seven years was in the second and third choruses on that ’91 performance, where he goes up when he sings [sings lyrics to “Fall On Me”]. That’s always been one of my favorite moments in R.E.M.’s catalog.
Obviously, as a songwriter and a performer, we always freeze songs at a moment that’s much closer to their point of inception than what the song evolves into. Bob Dylan once said, “The best versions of my songs were never recorded.” He’s been playing “Like A Rolling Stone” for 50 years, and there’s been augmentations to the melody and the performance — but the version we know is on the record. So falling in love with that [R.E.M.] performance, for me, was about the subtle changes in melody he made in that performance.
There are so many special musicians that have come out of Georgia, especially Athens. Why do you think that is?
GIBBARD: For me, what was occurring in Athens was similar to what would later occur in Louisville, or Chapel Hill, or Omaha. Athens, being a college town, attracts a lot of musicians and artists. It’s a weird little oasis in this very conservative state — obviously, you have Atlanta, and some other cities. When we’d go to [Georgia] 20 years ago, it’d be Confederate flags for hundreds of miles, Athens, and then Confederate flags for hundreds of miles. It’s unique. Athens had that moment that a lot of other towns had — this zeitgeist moment where you’d have three bands that take over the musical consciousness. And then there’s the bands that, if they weren’t being pulled on the coattails, people might not have paid as much attention to them. I find that to be a pretty consistent rule. The rule of three.
For me, R.E.M., the B-52s, and Pylon is the first wave of what was happening in Athens. That first wave of the scene draws other people to that scene, and then you have the second wave, which included Neutral Milk Hotel and Elephant 6. It’s rare for a scene to have multiple waves of artists that affect the music world as much as a town like Athens has. I don’t want to throw any other town under the bus, but there were cities where they had three big bands that came out, and then it was crickets after that. Nothing ever got close to the majesty of that first wave. But Athens is one of those unique cities that had multiple waves of artists that capture the public’s imagination.
Talk to me about getting involved with Fair Fight.
GIBBARD: Early in the year, before COVID struck, us and a lot of other artists were trying to plan how to participate in removing Donald Trump from office. Not only with the advent of COVID, but the George Floyd moment where the world had so few distractions that they really had to look at policing in this country and the state of oppression of people of color that’s continued long past when people started to look away from. We had made this conscious decision, in the wake of these two things happening, that we were gonna align ourselves with organizations that were going to uplift the political power of people of color, especially in the South. We were all fans of the work Stacey Abrams had been doing with Fair Fight, and who she is as a person, for quite some time. So it seemed like the most logical organization to work in tandem with, because of the work they’ve been doing to dismantle the decades of gerrymandering and voter suppression throughout Georgia.
Did you attend any protests this summer?
GIBBARD: For me and my family, we’d created a bubble with my nephews, and at that period we were skittish about large crowds, even for very noble causes. We didn’t participate in any of the larger marches, but I believe we found other ways to be involved, not only through financial contributions. Early on in this thing, I made a statement on my Instagram where I was like, “Look, everybody’s gotta find a lane here. We all need to work towards racial justice.” And our lane is working with organizations like Fair Fight to make sure that people of color are not marginalized in relation to their political power in this country. Seeing the outpouring of support and outrage around these horrific events, not to mention the other ones that have been occurring for decades, is incredibly heartening. All of us have a role to play in this, and we’ve found our role in it.
When the election was called, how did you feel?
GIBBARD: You and I and everyone else we know went to sleep on Tuesday nervous, right? “Fuck, man, is this really happening again?” I wasn’t really able to celebrate until the margin of victory in the swing states that Biden took were large enough, and it was clear that no amount of funny business, recounts, or fuzzy math would alter the results. Now, of course, for the last two or three weeks, these motherfuckers have been finding every way possible to undermine the integrity and peoples’ belief in this incredibly fair and uncorrupted electoral process. The brazenness is unprecedented.
But it’s at a point now where, over the last week or so, I’ve been able to breath a sigh of relief. Nothing is overturning this, and as a leftie, I want to make sure we recognize Republicans in leadership positions that have upheld the will of the people. I’m not a fan of Republicans, let me make that clear. But what we saw here was an incident where people put country above party. While that should be a given, it’s not a given in 2020. So we’re grading on a curve here, but I was heartened to see that virtually all of these Republican operatives in positions to nefariously influence the outcome of this election did the right thing. I was expecting the worst.
Tell me about the Postal Service reunion auditions video that you guys recently made.
GIBBARD: When the news was coming out about the systematic dismantling of the postal service right at the moment in which hundreds of millions of Americans would be voting by mail, it seemed like an obvious and calculated attempt by this administration to cook the books. People started reaching out to me, Jimmy, and Jenny over social media asking us to say something and making jokes, which were all funny. So I had this idea where we should get the band back together, quite literally and figuratively. We got Tom Scharpling and Jon Wurster, who were part of the first video, to create this thing again where, this time, we’re being summoned by our moron A&R person played by Jon Daly to go on tour and get this P-Funk thing together.
We were working with HeadCount, which is an apolitical organization, so we really couldn’t lean into the postal service angle of it, so that got danced around a little bit. But I think people put two and two together. Virtually everybody we reached out to said “Yes.” I’ve never struggled to keep a straight face as much as when Tim Robinson was improv’ing his own bit. We have 20 minutes where he’s just going off. I was like, “I love this guy so much, he’s so fucking funny, I can’t believe he’s in our video.” He is actively challenging me to not laugh. He was pointing me out, being like, “Ben, why’s your hand in front of your face, what’s wrong?” And I was like, “Fuck you, dude! I can’t hold it together!”
When you guys teased that video, my entire timeline melted down for 24 hours about the possibility of the Postal Service coming back. Give Up has a really strong legacy with listeners, it seems like.
GIBBARD: We owe the world an apology for giving anyone the impression that we were coming back. That’s on us. We should’ve controlled the messaging a little more. Won’t happen again. I don’t think that the phenomenon of Give Up is unique. There are a number of bands that made one record and it was such of a time and place that people were clamoring for any 10 bars of a new song. For me, that band was the La’s. They made that one record and they never did anything again. In 2005, they were randomly headlining a stage we were playing in Summer Sonic in Japan, so 15 years after they broke up they were playing four shows. It was so random. The fact that I got to see one of them is a life highlight.
But it’s just a phenomenon that happens when you’re a part of something that people care very deeply about and then is gone. Obviously, the other band I’m in has been together for 23 years, and when a band’s been around as long as we have, there’s this sense of, “Well, I don’t need to check ‘em out this time, because I’ll see them next time. The new record’s fine, but I’ll check it out when I get to it.” And, look, I’m beyond thrilled to be in that position where we’ve been around as long as we have and people care as much as we do — even if we find diminished excitement around a new record in relation to a Transatlanticism tour. [Laughs]
But that’s just part of the deal. When you’re around, people assume you’re gonna be there. When there’s scarcity of an artist or catalog, any new demo that comes to light or something lights up the internet of that artist’s fans. The Postal Service is just another band in a long lineage of bands that made one thing people love and went away for whatever reason, and fans are really clamoring for any piece of information about it.
You sound pretty certain that you guys aren’t ever going to make another Postal Service album.
GIBBARD: I don’t see a world in which that happens. I’m not teasing it by saying “never say never” — I’m not winking at you and saying this — but it’s unlikely. As I said before, we attempted to make a second record, and everybody’s schedules and projects got in the way.
The Georgia E.P. is available today only via deathcabforcutie.bandcamp.com.