Emerging from Washington via Seattle, Ben Gibbard and his band Death Cab For Cutie were a secret that the indie scene found too hard to keep. Now the group are officially a chart-topping act, with their latest album, Narrow Stairs, taking them straight to #1 on the US charts. Nick Milligan spoke exclusively to Gibbard about the early days of Death Cab.
Narrow Stairs feels heavier and more dark in places, than your previous albums – is this something the band feels as well?
Not particularly – these songs are the outcropping of the last couple of years of my life, and we tried to capture them as best that we could. We don’t think about the sound, we just put our heads down and do the work.
What ideas did you have about the production of the album?
We knew we wanted to record it live and we wanted to make an album in a different manner to Plans. Plans was very much a construction project. Narrow Stairs was more collaborative and more enjoyable, in the sense that we were all playing at the same time. It’s more fun to finish playing and have a whole song to play back, rather than just the drum track.
Was the songwriting process more collaborative this time round, or do you still write the majority of the songs on your own?
It’s a case by case basis. If you did the math, Narrow Stairs would be the same as the songwriting breakdown we’ve always had. It depends what the song necessitated.
Do you have a place where you feel the most comfortable to write on your own?
I tend to like writing at home. I like to get off the road and away from everything in my life. I have to give myself the time to focus, so I tend to do the vast majority of my writing at home.
Do you feel that lyrically, you’ve been more direct on this new album?
I guess so, yeah. With every album I have a series of things I’m trying to say, and that involves a certain level of directness. Perhaps I wanted to be more specific this time.
Do you ever change lyrics that you feel are too personal?
I wouldn’t release a song if I didn’t feel comfortable having it out there in the world. If I did have [really personal] songs, you certainly wouldn’t have heard them.
You’ve collaborated with a lot of musicians outside of Death Cab, and you have other musical projects that you perform in (like The Postal Service, All-Time Quarterback etc). As a musical outlet, what does Death Cab provide that these other projects don’t?
Well, Death Cab is my band. I don’t have any other [full] bands. Its been my baby for the past 11 years, so it’s my be all and end all.
One of the stand-out tracks on the album is ‘Long Division’ – can you tell us how that song was written?
Well, if there is an interesting story around that song, it’s that I [originally] brought it to the band with a very different set of lyrics – a very different set of lyrics. We all really liked the music, but the lyrics weren’t working. I’d written a whole bunch of different versions – I was trying to get the lyrics to fit and it just wasn’t working. It came down to the second last day in the studio and I told the band that I just wouldn’t be able to record the song, because I couldn’t finish the lyrics. Everyone was upset because we were really into the song. Then Nick [Harmer, bassist] made a suggestion that amalgamated two sets of lyrics that already existed. So I went home and wrote the final set of lyrics from two versions of the song that I had never thought to put together.
Why did you guys feel that the title Narrow Stairs, best encapsulated the album?
It’s a title that Nick [Harmer] came up with and I like the fact that it’s an esoteric title. It gives the album a physical place, yet doesn’t denote either ascension or descension. There’s limited space in the title – it has a sense of claustrophobia to it. I think that ties into the album thematically.
What was the first ever Death Cab For Cutie show like?
We played an acoustic set at a friend’s house in Bellingham, Washington. We had a friend that was doing acoustic shows in their living room and people would sign up to play. It was really fun, and idyllic and innocent. It was a really good time for us. It was an open and exciting time too. That must have been November of 1997 and we had about five songs. I think there is a recording of it somewhere – I’ll have to track it down and see if it holds up.
Was it long before you started playing to public audiences?
We started playing around Bellingham, and then were able to get ourselves a show in Seattle or two. It was a good year and a half between our first gig and a [headline] show. It was a fun time – I look back on those days rather fondly.
Would you say that you’re a perfectionist when it comes to songwriting?
Well, nothing can ever be perfect. I work hard at what I do and try to make songs as good as I can. The reality is, we all only have so much talent. We try to make the best of it.
Your guitarist, Chris Walla, has produced a lot of Death Cab’s albums, including Narrow Stairs. What do you like about self-producing?
It’s good to have someone [produce] who is going to have to live with that record after it comes out and play the songs live. It’s better to have a producer who is far more invested, rather than pay someone a boat load of money to come in and make a bunch of decisions, then be done with it. Chris is a member of the band, so he has to live with the decisions he makes as a producer, both good and bad.
How do you feel you’ve progressed and improved as a vocalist since you first started singing?
I feel like I’ve become more playful with my voice. I’ve started opening it up and realising that I can do more things than I’ve been allowing it to do. I’ve heard some old recordings recently, and I’d forgotten how differently I used to sing ten years ago. But that goes for anything in life – everybody’s different to how they were ten years ago. I just happen to have a physical record of the way I used to sing. I’m happy with how my voice has evolved and changed over the years, but I wouldn’t put that to a vote. Some people might prefer the way I used to sing.
Narrow Stairs is out now.