Ben Gibbard: Living With Ghosts

Oct 20, 2012

Death Cab for Cutie is known for bittersweet love songs, stirring melodies and frontman Ben Gibbard's unmistakable voice, soft and sincere. After 15 years in the band, Gibbard is releasing his first solo album, Former Lives.

"Over the years, I've accrued a number of songs that I've always been very fond of but didn't fit tonally, lyrically, musically in with the palette of songs that were in front of us for a Death Cab for Cutie record," Gibbard tells NPR's Guy Raz.

Here, Gibbard talks with Raz about what it's like to confront older versions of one's creative self, his private life after a very public divorce, and the future of Death Cab for Cutie.

Interview Highlights

On resurrecting older songs

"I'd like to think that as I move through my life as a songwriter, part of my impetus for writing songs is to gain strength in those places that either are or once were broken. ... Drawing upon previous experiences is so much a part of the fabric of what I do as a performing musician. It didn't feel strange to me to be looking back on some of these songs that I had written and [that] had remained orphaned. I live in a state of ghosts always being around me, and night by night, at least in small part, kind of reliving different corners of my life."

On F. Scott Fitzgerald, Zelda Sayre and the song "Bigger Than Love"

"I really fell in love with a book of letters called Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda that is correspondences between the two of them, beginning in their courtship and ending at the end of their lives when he was out in Los Angeles working as a screenwriter and she was in Asheville in a mental facility. ... There are moments that I took from some of those letters, like [one in which] they had fought and broke the bathroom door — these very jarring images where, even if you don't have any other context for why they were fighting, why the bathroom door is broken, you can still see the two of them. You can see this event happening. I found it really moving."

On being single again

"I'm living somewhat nomadically now. Going through divorce is not fun, as anybody who's gone through it knows. And I've been doing so much traveling for work. I've been living a relatively solitary life, but I don't necessarily feel lonely. I feel like I'm enjoying this period of rediscovery of who I am as a person because I think that, either in relationships or in a band, sometimes one can kind of lose sight of one's true self. Looking yourself directly in the mirror is kind of a terrifying thing to do, but it's something I've been trying to do more of."

On the future of Death Cab for Cutie

"I think that the first question somebody gets when they're putting out a solo record, especially when it's their first solo record away from a band that's been around as long as we have, is whether or not the band is going to exist after this record. There's no doubt in any of our minds that we have a lot of things to say and a lot more music to create together. I started this band with Chris Walla 15 years ago, and I'm the singer and songwriter of the band. There's really nothing that I feel like I'm not being fulfilled by in the band, and I'd like to think the other guys feel the same way."

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And if you're just tuning in, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. And it's time now for music.


RAZ: Blowing off Death Cab? That's a scene from the TV show "The O.C." It went off the air a few years ago. And the Death Cab reference, that would be Death Cab for Cutie, the Seattle area band that became huge after appearing on "The O.C."


RAZ: Death Cab for Cutie became one of the biggest acts in indie rock, all behind the voice of its front man Ben Gibbard, who is one of the most influential figures in indie music. He's just released a solo album of songs that he says aren't quite the right fit for Death Cab. It's called "Former Lives."


RAZ: Ben Gibbard wrote some of the material while going through a very public breakup, his divorce from actress Zooey Deschanel. He describes the record this way: he says songs that span eight years, three relationships, living in two different places, drinking and then not drinking.

: You know, I think it was Hemingway that said that we are strongest in our broken places, and I'm paraphrasing that. But, you know, and I'd like to think that as I move through my life as a songwriter, you know, part of my impetus for writing songs is to gain strength in those places that either are or once were broken.


RAZ: And just to clarify, Ben, Death Cab for Cutie is not over. You still- you are still making music together.

: Oh, absolutely. No, I think that there's no doubt in any of our minds that we have a lot of things to say and a lot more music to create.

RAZ: You were born and raised in Washington state. Your fans most - sort of associate you with Seattle. You are sort of around the age where you were just sort of coming of age at the end of that kind of like grunge explosion - sort of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden era in Seattle, and then you guys formed a band several years after that was over. Was there a feeling in Seattle at that time that, you know, if you were a band, you kind of missed the boat?

: It was an interesting time to come of age because I think that everybody that I knew had a sense of pride in the fact that the music that was being made in the northwest was getting some national recognition but also a very high level of trepidation that these outside influences were not necessarily good for the music.

You know, it struck me as a kid who grew up watching MTV and seeing, you know, big hair, you know, metal bands, kind of all over the place. And, you know, there was a moment when I was 12, 13 years old that I really believed that you couldn't be in a band unless you could grow your hair like that, you could play guitar like that. I mean, I really believed that because that's all I saw on TV.

RAZ: And yet you were the complete opposite of that. I mean...

: Well, yeah, exactly. I mean, I...

RAZ: were probably a little bit of a nerd.

: Absolutely. But, you know, as I kind of became aware of college radio, became aware of underground music, it made a real impression on me to see these bands loading their own gear up on to the stage, you know, and setting everything up and then playing for 45 minutes and then tearing everything down and then selling T-shirts and CDs and seven inches at the merch table. I mean, this was like, these were our heroes.

So, you know, I think that when we started this band, our heroes sold 10,000 records. You know, our bar was fairly low. And as our band has kind of reached the heights that we have kind of gotten to, you know, commercially and otherwise, it's all been gravy, you know, because none of us ever really expected it.


RAZ: I'm speaking with Death Cab for Cutie's front man, Ben Gibbard, about his new solo record. It's called "Former Lives." Probably, I think, one of the most memorable songs in this record is one that you did with Aimee Mann. The song is called "Bigger than Love."


RAZ: I was reading about how you based this on real quotes, love letters, between F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda.





RAZ: His relationship - F. Scott Fitzgerald's relationship with his wife was - it sort of endured a great deal of public scrutiny. And, of course, you were in a relationship that was under a great deal of public scrutiny with the actress Zooey Deschanel. You were married. You call this record "Former Lives." How would you describe the life you're living now?

: Well, you know, I - I've - I'm living somewhat nomadically now. You know, I've gone - going through, you know, divorces is not fun and - as anybody who's gone through it knows. And I've been doing so much traveling for work. I feel like, you know, I'm enjoying this period of kind of rediscovery of who I am as a person. You know, I think before I can move forward in my life in any kind of meaningful way, I think it's something I need to kind of finally address.

RAZ: How are you holding up?

: I'm doing good. I'm doing good. I realize that answer sounded incredibly dire, maybe kind of very serious. But, you know, I'm - you know, life is wonderful, and it's been really rewarding.

RAZ: That's Ben Gibbard, front man for Death Cab for Cutie. His first solo album is called "Former Lives." And, Ben, thank you so much.

: Of course. Thank you for having me.

RAZ: And you can hear a few tracks from that record by visiting our website,


RAZ: And for Saturday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Check out our weekly podcast. Search for WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on iTunes or on the NPR smart phone app. Go to programs and scroll down. We're back on the radio tomorrow. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.