Interview

Death Cab For Cutie’s Narrow Stairs At 10: An Interview With Ben Gibbard

Ben Gibbard is hesitant to talk about Death Cab For Cutie’s new album, knowing that whatever he says will probably be misconstrued. He learned this lesson in 2008, when bandmate and producer Chris Walla described their then-forthcoming Narrow Stairs as “bloody” with notes of “synth punk,” thus giving critics plenty of fodder to twist once the album came out. There are few traces of blood on the album’s surface. It aches in a different way than We Have The Facts And We’re Voting Yes or Transatlanticism; it’s more assured in its brooding. The blood on Narrow Stairs isn’t splattered in bouts of abstract lyricism or spread amongst metaphors, rather it was used as the album’s ink. Written during one of the darkest periods in Gibbard’s life, Narrow Stairs would be a turning point in Death Cab For Cutie’s discography. After six deeply personal albums, Gibbard would spend the next few caring for his scars with sunnier melodies and broader topics.

“I decided a handful of years ago that I just want to write songs that you can understand as soon as you put the record on. There’s no need to veil what’s happening in the song the way I used to,” Gibbard wrote in a 2008 essay. “My goal as a songwriter now is to simply write some memorable turns of phrase.” The essay, as well as a portion of the album, was written at Jack Kerouac’s cabin in Big Sur. In both pieces, the angst weighing heavy on his mental state is as clear as his determination to sort through it. He continues in that essay, “You can’t have it both ways. You can’t be successful and critically acclaimed by everybody who likes the cool things you like,” referring to Plans’ polarizing effect.

By the time Narrow Stairs came out May 13th, 2008 (10 years ago yesterday) Death Cab For Cutie were synonymous with “indie rock.” The force of the Seattle-based band continued to grow and cross over into mainstream territory, along with their genre, after they were prominently featured on The O.C., at which point they had already released three excellent albums. Their audience had expanded considerably for 2003’s critically celebrated Transatlanticism, prompting their signing to Atlantic for the next album, Plans. While Plans may have marked Death Cab’s shift toward a tighter, less indulgent style, it was their second album with Atlantic, Narrow Stairs, that would change the band’s trajectory.

STEREOGUM: I read an essay you wrote after Narrow Stairs came out. That was 10 years after you released Something About Airplanes, and you said you felt weird listening to Airplanes being so far removed from when you wrote it. Do you feel the same way now about Narrow Stairs?

BEN GIBBARD: I can relate to Narrow Stairs more now than I could relate to Airplanes then. More so because I feel like the songwriting style that I’m still employing started to really come together in those records between Transatlanticism and Narrow Stairs. I think the narratives on Trans, Plans, and Narrow Stairs moved away from the way I wrote on the first couple of records, which was a lot more impressionistic. I was writing those songs in my early 20s so I thought I was being more clear than I actually was.

As I got towards where we are now, literally the middle period of our band, I found myself wanting to write in a more narrative, literal style. When I listen to and play the songs from Narrow Stairs now, that record feels like a record where we had established a style that arguably was more our own than it was in the beginning. Going into that record, I felt a lot more confident in my songwriting. It was a fairly prolific time for me.

STEREOGUM: Could you talk about your experience writing it? I know you went to Big Sur and stayed in Jack Kerouac’s cabin to do some of the writing. In the essay I mentioned, it seemed like there was a lot of angst and self-doubt to get to the place you’re in now, of really being confident in your writing.

GIBBARD: I look back at that period of writing and it was really a much more personal, confessional period, even in relation to the albums on either side of it. To put it in context, we had made Transatlanticism, The O.C. happened, the band’s profile kind of grew exponentially very quickly, and then we signed to a major label. That process and that period of change and growth, having a whole new group of new people we were putting records out with at Atlantic Records versus the four people that worked at Barsuk, it was a stressful time. We signed to Atlantic because we wanted to reach more people. We worked harder than we’d ever worked before, we toured more than we’d ever toured before, we were doing so much press, the profile of the band had just really blown up.

But when we finished that album cycle in December of 2006, my drinking had gotten much worse, the relationship I was in was completely disintegrating. When you’re so singularly focused on working, touring, and living the life we were living at the time, there really wasn’t much time for anything else. I think by the time we got through that long period of promoting Plans, it was like, “Oh my God, we’re going to do that again?” It was emotionally overwhelming. I was in a darker place than really any record that we’ve ever made. It was a dark, depressive period for me.

As I listen back to the record, I think the record kind of reflects that. Chris used the word “bloody” to describe the record when it came out. While I don’t always agree with everything people say to describe that record, I thought that was a fairly accurate adjective to describe the record. We recorded the record on tape, it was a messier record than we had made before, both in terms of lyrical matter and musically. It was just a weird time, a really weird time.

STEREOGUM: There’s definitely a tonal shift that happened after that album. Do you think maybe you reached a turning point in the darkness or a maturity that shifted with your sound after Narrow Stairs?

GIBBARD: I think that Behind The Music narrative of this band and my life, this “sober; briefly married to a famous person” period, was not my best creatively. [laughs] I’m still sober! After moving to Los Angeles for a couple years, I was very detached from a lot of the sources of inspiration that I’d always found. I’m a firm believer that the environment molds an element of one’s creativity. And the Northwest…there’s a reason the music sounds the way it does. You can’t go through six to eight months of darkness and rain and overcast clouds and not have there be a level of introspection and darkness that threads its way through one’s music. Looking back on that period on my life in Los Angeles, it was like living on another planet. I think the record that we made, Codes and Keys, kinda reflects that. There are some things on that record that I really like but if there’s one record I could have a do-over on, I think it would be that one. [laughs]

STEREOGUM: How do you think people would respond if Narrow Stairs came out today?

GIBBARD: If that exact record came out now it would sound unbelievably antiquated. I think that the instrument sets have changed very dramatically over the course of my career. I don’t say that in a “get off my lawn” way. I remember going to see the Notwist in the early aughts. I went there with Jason McGerr, our drummer, and we were sitting there watching the show and I was like, “This is where things are going, this is what’s gonna happen.” The integration of electronic music and rock music… I could see the future. Obviously a lot of people saw the future. As I scroll through new records, kind of listening through stuff to see if anything grabs me, the overwhelming majority of that music, there is certainly a laptop or Ableton involved in it. So, I’m not sure, but at the same time what’s also interesting to me is that this ’90s aesthetic is back in full force now.

STEREOGUM: Oh yeah.

GIBBARD: And there are bands that I loved who are making records now who — and I don’t say this as a diss — but, like, these records could have come out when I was in high school. And that’s comforting to me as someone who loved that music then and is comforted with the fact that people are finding value in that aesthetic 20 to 25 years later.

STEREOGUM: How do you think your fan base has grown or changed?

GIBBARD: Well, what I’ve always found interesting about the fans of this band is that they kind of exist in waves. There are people who say — not without a good point — that we never made anything as good as we had in Facts and that’s the best we could do. And that’s their era, you know, the first couple records. And there’s people who like Transatlanticism and then there are people who like Plans. The growth of the band has been, at least for the first 10 or 15 years, fairly organic. There were definite leaps in fan growth, so to speak, there are certain records that are indicative of that period and that people hold very near and dear to their heart.

One thing I have noticed over the past 20 years, and certainly in the last three or four years, is that there are the people there who are my age, a little bit of gray hair maybe, bringing their kids or whatever, but there are also a lot of young people who are kind of discovering the band as well, and also some people that are older than me. One thing that gives me great comfort is looking out into the audience and see a fairly diverse age range. It’s not just a thousand nerdy white boys with glasses and tennis shoes. It seems like there’s a much more diverse audience coming to see this band in 2018 than I ever would have imagined there would be even 10 years ago.

STEREOGUM: What’s your favorite song on Narrow Stairs?

GIBBARD: I think the song I’m most proud of on that is “Long Division,” because that was the song that we had had all the music written for — and I had two or three different sets of lyrics for it that were all terrible. It was the only song in the history of this band that we had recorded in the studio and had no lyrics. It had never happened to that point and has never happened since. But we had a song that was all recorded and was waiting for lyrics. And I remember I was like, “OK, we’re recording in San Francisco, I’m gonna take the train from Seattle to San Francisco and I’m gonna get a little suite and I’m gonna have a guitar and a notebook and I’m gonna write this fucking song. And I’m gonna finish it and we’re gonna be good.” And it didn’t happen. I just banged my head against the wall, I couldn’t come up with anything.

We got down to San Francisco and we recorded the thing and it sounded amazing, and everybody was looking at me for the first time like, “Hey man, where are the lyrics?” We were literally a week away from being done with the record and it’s looking like the thing’s not going to be on there because I couldn’t pull it together. And then there was this strange confluence of things, one of which being a line in Steinbeck’s Grapes Of Wrath that I really liked, and then I kind of amalgamated it into the song. I was like, “Wow that’s a great image, and what if instead of the wind roaring softly through the screen door, it’s like the sound of the TV?” Everyone knows that sound, so that image kind of sparked an entire story, that one little tiny breakthrough. So we’re going to be done on a Friday, I’m calling on a Thursday like, “I got it I got it! Let me come in and let’s do this.” That’s the song I always think about when I think of that record.

STEREOGUM: We did an interview with you last year and we asked if you had any bold proclamations about the upcoming record, like when you compared “I Will Possess Your Heart” to a Can jam. You said in six months you might have a tagline. Do you have a tagline? No pressure.

GIBBARD: No, unfortunately I don’t have a tagline yet for the exact same reasons I gave six months ago, that whatever I say now I’ll be answering to you — that’s where Chris Walla’s “bloody” comment came from. When Narrow Stairs came out, every interview after that comment was like, “So, Chris said this record was bloody. What do you say to that?” Or you know, the negative reviews were like, “Chris Walla said this record was bloody, but in actuality….” So you can’t really win. I’ll hold off for a while. But if you liked Narrow Stairs and that Death Cab era, you’ll like the new one.