If you grew up in the early '00s and had a love for the emo/indie rock/Warped Tour music era, there's a big chance you became a Death Cab for Cutie fan. The band, which has been playing for nearly 20 years now, is releasing their eighth studio album, Kintsugi, the last made with former bandmate Chris Walla. With the release of their newest project, frontman Ben Gibbard and bassist Nick Harmer stopped by our New York office to answer fan questions asked by the BuzzFeed Community.
1. What are you most excited for about us listening to your new record and how does it differ from the rest of your discography?
Ben Gibbard: I mean, I'm just excited for it to be finally out in the world. We finished it in September of last year, so having to wait for this to come out, it feels like it's been forever. But yeah, we're really proud of the record. It's different because it's 12 songs, and they're all new! You've never heard them before on any other records (laughs). At this point, it's different because it's a new record. Outside of working with a new producer, it's not like we reinvented our own wheel with this, we just made a record.
2. What is your response to people who criticize bands for "changing"?
BG: Well, that's what artists do, right? I mean, artists are constantly changing and evolving, and I would rather be criticized for changing than for staying the same.
Nick Harmer: Absolutely. I wonder if they have the same criticism with aging (laughs).
BG: "You look older than you did than when I was in college."
NH: "Yeah, we're not friends any longer." I can't handle that.
BG: "I liked your record that came out when I was 17." Can I be 17 again?
3. How do you pick and choose which songs make it to an album versus making them a solo record, a side project, or scrapping them altogether?
BG: Well, everything I write kind of goes through the band's editing machine first, which is not a real machine. We just want the best songs to be Death Cab songs and sometimes there's a couple songs which slip through the cracks, which I think are really good but don't fit on a record, and I'll use them somewhere else. We just want the best songs that I've written in the period that we're making the record to be on the album.
Do you guys have your friends and family listen and give feedback?
BG: Yeah, of course! I played demos for my friends and my girlfriend. You can always tell when someone is being encouraging of your work and they're like, "Oh, that sounds good, that's a cool guitar thing." They want to be encouraging, but you can really tell when someone really likes something, and you don't get that reaction all the time, but hopefully you get it more than you don't get it (laughs).
4. What books would you guys recommend? Or what are your favorites?
NH: Just on the flight from Seattle I finished Kim Gordon's biography, Girl in a Band. It was great, and I've always had a lot of respect for her. You know, we were kind of reminiscing how many times we've seen Sonic Youth over the years growing up, and it was nice to get her perspective on life in New York in the '80s and being an artist here as well as a musician; it was really good. That's the first book that pops in my mind because I just finished it!
BG: I'm in the process of reading Karl Ove Knausgård's six-volume autobiography, called My Struggle. I just finished volume 1 and I just started volume 2 and it's just incredible, he's such an amazing writer. I started reading the first one because I was just like, why would I want to read a six-volume autobiography about a guy I have never met before? Oh, I know why! Because this author is a fucking amazing writer. It's really inspiring, I'm really enjoying it.
5. You write songs beautifully. Have you ever thought about writing a book?
BG: Uh, no. It's funny, I was talking to a writer friend of mine last weekend who had heard our record and he was really enjoying it, which was nice to hear, but he also said, "Yeah, I think writing songs is the hardest thing to do; it's like writing concise stories." And I was like, "Dude, you've written, like, 10 novels!" The idea of thinking about storytelling on that kind of scope is mind-boggling to me. It's also not my discipline, but I don't know, maybe one day I'll write my boring tell-all (laughs).
NH: Ben in a Band?
BG: Yeah, Ben in a Band!
NH: I find that really interesting in a lot of writers that the writing discipline as a whole, you find your version of writing that best expresses your means. Like, poets wouldn't write novels and novelists have a hard time writing screenplays. You know, there are some people who are able to cross over and do all versions of that effectively, but I'm always surprised when you think about writing as a whole.
6. Which album of yours is your favorite and why?
NH: That's a hard question, and I hate my answer, but it's going to be the new one [Kintsugi]. That feels like a really stock answer, but it's true! In this particular case, for sure. I had a great time making this album, especially because we were working with Rich Costey. I really like the songs on this album, I really like how the process came together, and certainly having Rich at the helm and working with him made me think about the dynamics of our band and how we work and how we make music in the studio together in some fresh ways, and in some ways that I haven't really examined in years. I don't know, I feel like it was the right amount of inspiring and challenging, and there was just such an energy to this experience, which is just right now making this my favorite of all the albums.
BG: I'm going to go in a different direction. I don't think it's the best record of ours, but the first one [Something About Airplanes] is still my favorite just because I remember we were in our twenties making this record on an 8-track reel machine in our house in Bellingham, not thinking that anyone would ever fucking care. Creating music, making art of any sort, it's always exciting and always inspiring when you feel like you're really hitting on something. There's something kind of magical doing it in a vacuum where you don't think anybody is ever going to hear it. I just look back on this very carefree time in our band's group but also in my life, so that will always be my favorite album. Not because I think it's the best record, but it's always my favorite.
7. How did you guys feel about Seth Cohen's obsession with your band on The O.C.? Did you feel like it skyrocketed your popularity?
BG: It was just a weird time. One day, somebody calls you on the phone, "Hey, there's this new show on Fox and they're going to use one of your songs," and it's like, Oh, it pays a little money, that's great, it will also pay the rent. And then all of a sudden, completely without —
NH: Permission or —
BG: Well, no, it wasn't like we were upset about it, it was just a strange phenomenon, like, OMG they just said our band name, and now it's happening again the next week. It's really strange to be part of this cultural phenomenon where there is a scripted show with fake people who are talking about your band, which is a very real band, like active in the world at that time. I think it certainly helped us at that time, but things were kind of changing at that point. Indie rock was reaching a much larger audience at that point due to a lot of things, and there was this cultural shift that was happening all around. I definitely think it helped, but I always think about when people are like, "Well, you're popular because you're on The O.C.," but it's like, "Well, yeah, but The O.C. isn't on the air anymore and I'm sitting here talking to BuzzFeed in 2015." So, you know, it clearly helped us, but it didn't define our career; it's a strange chapter in the book that I'm someday not going to write.
I mean, plenty of us liked you before The O.C.!
BG: At that time, it became this weird point of derision where, like, there were people who were upset because there were new people at the shows who had heard us because of The O.C. I understand that perspective, which usually happens amongst young people (because I was that age at one point), but it also kind of begs the question to, well, what is the right way to get into a band? What's the right time? Who is a bigger fan because they knew the band in 2001? "Well, I was a fan in 1998, so, oh, you must be a bigger fan than me." It's ridiculous!
8. What song is the most exciting for you to perform live?
BG: I still love playing "Transatlanticism." It's one of the reasons we still play it almost every night. I just feel like when we first broke that long outro for the song, I just remember when we were rehearsing it, I never wanted it to end. Sometimes you come across these core progressions and you're like, this is why that song is 20 minutes long, because it feels so good to play. And it still feels that good to play.
NH: What he said. That's actually one of my favorite songs as well.
9. Are there any songs that you're tired of playing?
BG: Not really. I mean, I've had friends who have been in bands who've had a big hit single and then they decide after a while that they get sick of it and they don't want to play it anymore, even though that's one of the main reasons people are coming to see them play, even now. I just feel that there's a social contract that you sign when you have a popular song, and you just have to play it when you play shows. For me, I feel like making the records is about art and doing the shows is about being an entertainer. So when you're playing a show, you can't please everyone and play everything that everyone wants to hear, but at the same time, we're not going to not play "Soul Meets Body," we're not going to not play "I Will Follow You Into the Dark." These are songs that were really big for us and they're part of the reason people are coming to shows, so why would I be a dick about it and just not play them because I'm tired of them? Thousands of people came to the show, they paid good money, they want to hear the songs they want to hear. It seems pretty cut and dry to me. There's nothing I'm tired of playing.
NH: Yeah, after, what, 80-plus songs in our back catalog at this point, anytime that there would be a song that would even approach that, we'd just cycle in something new for a show and it's like a reset. There are definitely songs we'll play every night and then thankfully you rotate through almost every night.
BG: But it's a good problem to have! I mean, to have songs that people want to hear? Like, "OMG I can't believe I have to play that song from years ago that everyone wants to hear, it's been 10 years!" That's a fucking amazing problem to have. I don't mind.
10. How do you find inspirations for new songs to avoid repeating yourselves?
BG: Like any creative person, just keep your eyes open and keep observing. I feel like a lot of the questions I've posed over the years are the ones I still don't have answers to. So, you know, in some ways, I'm still trying to answer a lot of the same questions that I was looking for answers to when the band started. I find life very inspiring, which is pretty fun.
NH: But it necessitates a change (laughs).
BG: Yeah, definitely.
11. Who have you listened to within the past five years that you want to collaborate with?
NH: Who do we want to collaborate with?
BG: Hmmm. On a Friday night I did a DJ set on KEXP, which is a station in Seattle, and I played a song by this guy Emitt Rhodes, who was in a garage band called The Merry-Go-Round in the '60s in California and he made a series of solo records starting in the early '70s. He made this record, when he signed a solo deal, in his garage, where he bought all the equipment and played everything himself. And now he's in his sixties, but I would really be interested to meet this guy and hear how he went about this process and kind of hear stuff he's been working on. He's just a great songwriter. I don't tend to hear a new hot artist and be like, "Oh man, I want to get that sound that that new guy has!" I want the music that we're making to be fairly timeless. You want something that'll kind of span generations, you know? So I hear a record from 1970 that feels still fresh and really vinyl to me and I wanna know that person. I wanna know how that person's creative process works, because they made something that I'm listening to now, 40 years later, and I'm still enjoying it.
NH: Same, I mean, I feel like recently I've been really inspired by just people that work completely different than the typical band arrangement with, you know, bass drums, guitars. The remix artists or producers that aren't working in the box, just on their computer in a small bedroom somewhere and just throwing all of the traditional band arrangements out the window. That's exciting just from a workflow perspective. I don't know if there's anybody specifically that pops into mind, but when we did that Codes & Keys remix EP, just giving back some of those reimaginings of our music was really inspiring in some ways, to think about cutting things up and changing things. There's just a ton of really exciting experimental things that are happening in that world. I really like that Thundercat record. He'd be an amazing guy to see how he thinks about music, how he writes music, what that process for him is like. Those kinds of artists that are sort of redefining their approach to music in a way that feels nontraditional seems exciting to me right now. So I don't know who we'd collaborate with — there's not a specific list — I think it's the longer that we play music together, tagging on to what Ben said, the process of people arriving to what they make, as you become familiar with your work process, starts to become infinitely faster when you help people arrive at the same place.
12. Becoming a musician must require a huge leap of faith in the beginning. What was it that made you decide to pursue music professionally? Were you scared, or did you know on some level it would work out and was right for you?
BG: I mean, we never set out to be professional musicians. All of the people that we kind of looked up to in our scene were people who had jobs at a record store and so on. I think our ambitions early on were fairly pedestrian. We were just like, "Yeah, let's make a record, maybe go on tour, maybe we'll make enough money to where we can come back and not have to work for a couple of months..." I think when we first started I was just resigned to working temp jobs as long as the band was a thing. I don't know, I don't think that being a professional musician is something that chooses you, you know. There's not a series of, you know, "If I do this then I'll get this." I find sometimes when I'll talk to people who are, like, college-aged kids, there's this kind of, they've been programmed to be like, "I want to be a doctor, so how do I do that?" Well, you go to this school and that school, do this, this, and this, and then you're a doctor. But that kind of application doesn't work for being a musician. Like, "Well, first you make a record, then you go on tour, then people pay you, then you're a professional musician!" There are no guarantees. You just have to do it because you love it. For some people there comes a time where it's like, "Maybe it's time to go to law school!" And then for other people they are able to squeak by for a while, and sometimes people are really able to hold a job for a long time. I just feel really thankful that I've fallen into the latter category. It's not because we're any more worthy or talented than anybody else, we were just in the right place at the right time and things just kind of worked out.
13. Are you flattered when someone tattoos your lyrics on their body?
BG: Totally! Absolutely, that's a huge commitment. I don't have any tattoos, because I can't make that kind of commitment myself. I do have this funny thought, though, of someone who's young and really emotional and then 20, 30 years into the future thinking, "Why did I tattoo 'Transatlanticism' on my arm? God damnit."
Have you seen any really weird ones?
NH: No, but I've seen some commitments.
BG: I've seen some really cool ones, actually, I've seen more than I would expect of the bird from Transatlanticism. It's a really beautiful piece of art that Adde Russell made, and it just translates really nicely into a tattoo. Our friend Ryan has the running people from We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes.
NH: I've seen the rowboat.
BG: Oh yeah! I've seen the rowboat too. I think it's cool.
14. How do you feel when hearing fans singing along to songs that are of an intimate nature regarding your own life?
BG: I think they're singing along because they can relate. They have contexutalized the lyrics in the context of their own lives, so at that point it doesn't become about what the song is about for me, or who it's about, or at what time in my life I wrote it. It's about that person and about their connection to the song. Most likely as they're singing they're seeing themselves in it. They're seeing where they were in their life when this song resonated with them. They're doing that because I do that. Like, as a music fan I do that. One of my favorite records ever was The Cure's Disintegration, and I listened to it last week like it was a brand-new record. I first fell in love with that record when I was 14, and it just immediately transported me to, like, being 14 and all the things I was going through when I was listening to this record: where I was in my life, what my room looked like when we lived in Virginia, all this stuff. So I don't know what these songs are about in Robert Smith's life and frankly I don't really care, because I have my own visual images that'll always be connected to that record. So I think that's what it is with people that sing along with our songs too. Not because we're so special that people would do that, that's just how it works with music.
15. What song is the most hard/emotional to play live?
BG: There's not a song that is difficult to play for me.
NH: I get super emotional when we play "A Movie Script Ending," mainly because there are so many references to our hometown where we started and where we recorded our first album. That song forever just transports me back to that era, like what [Ben was] talking about. That's a total time machine song for me, where 17 years just disappear instantly and I can absolutely very clearly see a lot of the references that [Ben] make[s] in that song lyrically. That's a real kind of emotional journey, that song. I kind of go to my own place. A kind of a personal place.
BG: Let's talk about it, Nick!
16. How did you get your band name? Did you have alternate names?
BG: How did we get it? We just named the band that. That's really all you have to do. Don't have to like —
BG: It's not like a college application. I just kind of really liked The Beatles and found out about the Bonzo Dog Band and thought that was cool. We were in Bellingham and it was like 1997 and I said to somebody, like, "I'm gonna do a solo project and I'm gonna call it 'Death Cab for Cutie,'" and that was it. There were no alternate names, no nothing.
17. With the big boom of social and fans being able to look at things all the time, does that affect the music at all? The fact that you can put something out and it immediately reaches a mass audience?
BG: It does in a way. Back in the day we would always play new songs live and be kind of road-testing them, and then we got to the point where now we live in this world that if we started playing songs from this record a couple years ago, then those versions would be on YouTube, people would have SoundCloud-ed them and cleaned them up, and then the album version would come out two years later and there would inevitably be someone who's like, "It's not as good as the version from that thing two years ago." And it's like, well, we want to go to a recording studio and carefully craft this song for you. I'll play a new song at a solo set and people are like, "I don't know, I like the solo version better." And it's like, "Well, you heard the solo version first!" That's one way we've had to kind of change our business: We don't really play new songs until a record is, like, coming out. I just don't want to get into that mess. That's an unfortunate element of it, but that's OK!
18. And finally, will there ever be another Postal Service album?