In 2011, when Death Cab for Cutie released its seventh studio album Codes and Keys, frontman Ben Gibbard was (literally) in a very different place. The Seth Cohen of the Pacific Northwest had relocated to sunny Los Angeles, married actress Zooey Deschanel, and acquired a taste for minimalist songwriting. Death Cab lyrics, usually all melancholy introspection, had given way to an unexpected sense of hopefulness.
A year later, Gibbard was back in Seattle and divorced, making it tempting to interpret the band’s latest effort, Kintsugi (released this month via Atlantic Records) as a breakup record. The most recognizable markers of pre-“adorkable” era Death Cab are here, with heartfelt meditations on disillusionment and the pains of drifting apart. Gibbard himself disagrees with the notion of Kintsugi as a monument to a breakup, but on certain songs, it’s clear whom Gibbard was inspired by.
“Was I in your way / When the cameras turned to face you? / No room in frame / For two,” Gibbard sings on the album’s opening track, “No Room in Frame.” The song’s narrator speeds down a California freeway away from “a ghost,” but breaks down and resigns in the end: “I guess it’s not a failure we could help / And we’ll both go on to get lonely with someone else.”
“This record spans two years of my life [from early 2012 to 2014] and a lot has gone on in those two years,” Gibbard, now 38, concedes over the phone from Seattle. “A public breakup is obviously a large part of that narrative and people are going to connect those dots. That’s fair, I suppose.”
The record is also the band’s last as a quartet: longtime guitarist and producer Chris Walla left the band in September 2014, citing a “longing for the unknown.” (Rich Costey, best known for working with Muse and TV on the Radio, stepped in as producer to help make what Gibbard deems “one of our best records.”)
So indeed, a lot has happened in the last two years, both for the band and for Gibbard. In late 2012, the songwriter, moved by his sister’s relationship with her wife, raised money to help legalize same-sex marriage in Washington state (he wrote an op-ed for The Daily Beast about it here). He calls the fight for LGBT rights in the U.S. “our generation’s struggle.”
At the time of our talk, Indiana governor Mike Pence was busy backpedaling on a newly signed, conservative-sponsored “religious freedom” law, which bars the government from hampering a person’s ability to exercise their “religion” (read: gives businesses the right to discriminate against gays on “religious” grounds). After protests broke out over the law’s anti-gay undertones, the state’s Republican leaders rushed to introduce a new measure to counteract it—a move Gibbard says is “very telling.”
“As our nation gets younger and the voting population becomes skewed toward people who grew up with gay, lesbian, trans people being much more visible, these laws that are meant to ‘protect’ what I view as a religious minority in this country will continue to fall,” he says. “What the state had to lose by sticking to its guns on this piece of legislation was vastly larger than what it stood to gain from it.”
“I don’t see any difference between the struggle that the LGBT community is experiencing with laws such as Indiana’s and the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s—though a black man was gunned down by a police officer two days ago in South Carolina, so that is an ongoing struggle in itself,” he continues. “But I think for people of my generation, this issue is a huge one.”
In the music world, another issue has emerged regarding artists’ compensation from streaming platforms. Jay Z recently unveiled plans for his own subscription streaming service, Tidal, which aims to “forever change the course of music history” by offering high-fidelity audio to customers for up to $20 a month, higher royalty rates for musicians—and a share of the company for an endless parade of high-profile artists like Rihanna, Kanye West, Madonna, Jack White, Daft Punk, Arcade Fire and Beyoncé (none of whom seem strapped for cash). Gibbard says the service is dead on arrival.
“If I had been Jay Z, I would have brought out ten artists that were underground or independent and said, ‘These are the people who are struggling to make a living in today’s music industry. Whereas this competitor streaming site pays this person 15 cents for X amount of streams, that same amount of streams on my site, on Tidal, will pay that artist this much,’” Gibbard says. “I think they totally blew it by bringing out a bunch of millionaires and billionaires and propping them up onstage and then having them all complain about not being paid.”
“There was a wonderful opportunity squandered to highlight what this service would mean for artists who are struggling and to make a plea to people’s hearts and pocketbooks to pay a little more for this service that was going to pay these artists a more reasonable streaming rate,” he continues. “And they didn’t do it. That’s why this thing is going to fail miserably.”
As for Kitsungi, Gibbard could not be less concerned about what the critics are saying. He doesn’t read reviews (“I’m not particularly interested in them”) and he knows his band’s strengths and, more importantly, his audience.
“At this point, I’ve been doing this band for 17 years [and], you know, we’re a polarizing band. People either love us or they really dislike us,” he says. “I don’t think we’re at a point in our career where people who’ve always disliked us are all of a sudden going to start liking us or vice versa.”
Still, what a trip it’s been for the band, through indie Seattle beginnings, to the Billboard Hot 100 charts, and to Hollywood and back. “It seems like just yesterday we were in a van eating mustard sandwiches driving to SXSW, but it wasn’t. It was 15 years ago,” Gibbard says.
Here’s to many more.