Interview: Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard on muscle dudes, set lists and the influence of country music


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“Unobstructed Views” is the longest track on Codes and Keys, the seventh disc by Seattle band Death Cab for Cutie and their third for Atlantic Records. It’s the centerpiece, too, sitting exactly in the middle of the 11-track album as an anchor and an epic. As such, it unfurls gradually, throbs of keyboard bass bulging against sheets of noise and swelling piano glissandi. After three minutes of glacial, considered movement, Ben Gibbard finally cuts over the sound, his voice confident and clear, as though emerging from the din with a newfound clarity.

That moment is not only one of the best on Codes and Keys–another imperfect but rewarding album from Death Cab–but also one of the most telling: Gibbard says he delved into country music before recording Codes and Keys, using it to reconsider his voice as an instrument. What’s more, guitarist and producer Chris Walla had been exploring Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy, sweeping electronic albums that presage the vista of “Unobstructed Views.” We caught up with Gibbard in Calgary to discuss those influences and the growing audience of the band.

How are the new songs translating live? Texturally, they’re so rich, relative to some of the earlier Death Cab for Cutie material.

It’s good. I think we’re playing five or six new songs tonight, within a set of 25 songs. When I make a set list, I always try to be very cognizant of the fact that we have a pretty wide catalog of material that people want to hear, so I don’t want to make that rookie mistake of saying, ‘We’re going to play the whole record start to finish, and then play 10 other songs.’ As proud as I am of this record, I think it’s important to play what people want to hear.

Have you seen shows like that in the past, where you go as a fan in hopes of hearing a few favorites, only to leave disappointed?

Oh yeah, absolutely. I don’t want to name any names because some of the bands are still playing. I can remember seeing one of my favorite bands in college that had just put out a record that I was absolutely in love with. I went to go see them, and by that point, they were already playing stuff from the record they hadn’t recorded yet, the newest record.

I feel that it’s really important in playing live shows to recognize that people are paying good money to see you play music, and while you certainly can’t play everything they want to hear, and everybody wants to hear something different, at least in our case, there are 10 or 12 songs that everybody wants to hear us play. You don’t play shows for yourself; you go out and play shows for the crowd.

I’ve seen you grow from a band that used to play for 100 people in a tiny bar to a band that’s playing huge theaters and amphitheaters. What’s the biggest lesson that you’ve learned for playing shows in general, wherever or for whomever they might be?

Obviously over the years, the audience has changed pretty drastically. In the past, we were playing to a lot of people who are in the same kind of culture that we came up with. We’re playing for the indie kids, you know, the kids who go and buy 7-inches. We’re playing to audiences who look like us.

Over the years, as the band became more popular, we started seeing how the audiences are changing, and they are becoming a lot more diverse. I genuinely enjoyed watching that transition. There have been times where our bus will be parked in front of a venue, and we’ll see people filing into the show, and the vast majority of the people who are coming to see us play were never the people I thought in a million years would be coming to see us. The songs on the first couple records weren’t being written for a particular audience or certainly with the expectation of what that audience would look like. When you see a shirtless muscle dude singing along with “Company Calls,” I think it’s strangely a beautiful thing to see happen, because I never thought this music would connect with some of these people.

Secondly, I find that a great show in a small club is as wonderful as a great show in a huge amphitheater. The nights that you’re playing and you feel you’re on, and the audience is with you, one is not better than the other. And the same goes for a bad show–if you’re having a bad show it doesn’t matter where you are, you still feel the same feeling of hopelessness that performers feel when things aren’t going their way.

Does an awareness of that shifting demographic for Death Cab for Cutie fans affect the songs, or at least the way they’re produced?

When we’re in the studio making a record, our primary goal is to make something that we would want to listen to ourselves and feels like a logical expansion of who we are and the kind of sound we want to make. So we never make theorizations for where this music is going to end up any more than when we’re checking a mix. You always have to listen through a Mac or something like that, because a lot of people are going to be listening to this stuff on a computer, or in a car, or a home stereo. I think the only time those considerations are made is when you’re mixing a song and you have to hear what it sounds like in different formats and different settings.

The four of us are focused on making things that appeal to us. I feel that we would be doing a disservice to our own catalog–and to ourselves as musicians and a band–if we started taking into consideration who the audience was or what that audience wanted to hear. As we’ve moved through the chapters in this band, we’ve always tried to get better at our craft in our individual ways and collectively. Where that’s taken us has been as much a surprise to me as it’s been to anybody else.

There are a lot of interesting and surprising sounds on Codes and Keys–keyboards and layers and electronics that you maybe don’t expect on a Death Cab for Cutie album. How did the sound of this album develop?

We took about a six or seven month break from doing band stuff. I’d been working on songs, and Chris was making a couple of records. We all found ourselves in our own little corners of the world, being inspired by different types of music and different tools that we happened to be falling in love with at the time.

Over the course of the last few years, Chris has been finding an incredible palate of sounds that he was able to pull out of these old ’70s analog keyboards and synths. I think that when we get in the studio, we’re kind of just getting reacquainted and feeling each other out about, “Oh yeah, you’ve been listening to this, I’ve been listening to that,” putting on music and listening to stuff.

As Chris started producing the first track, “Codes and Keys,” he immediately pulled up a MS-20, an old Korg keyboard, and started going, “I think the bass should be coming through this keyboard.” All of a sudden, this particular palate started making its way into this song, and we all started recognizing the patterns within the lyrics, and the structure, and the tools that Chris is using. Every record at some point kind of just shows itself to us.

Really, it just comes out of wanting to make something new. We don’t have to sit down and a have a discussion about how we need to move in a particular direction. It just happens naturally. When we were making Codes and Keys, there were six records worth of material that we had already made and didn’t want to repeat. Naturally, because we are ostensibly the four same people making records, there are patterns within our records and things that we lean on. I think with this record, we are leaning on those things less than we have in the past.

A few years ago, I believe with Plans, Chris said he thought he was finally figuring out how to make records. Do you think he’s still learning, still evolving as a producer? It sounds that way on Codes & Keys.

Oh, absolutely. Whenever I’m away from Chris for some time and he’s been working on records, I come in and there’s always something new that he’s selling us. I mean that in a good way. He’s got some set of equipment that he’s learned how to use and he’s really inspired by, or a particular modus operandi. For me, as a member of the band, there’s this period where I’m adjusting to what this new aesthetic is going to be. I’m a little bit trepid, and I’m kind of like, “OK, what are we doing here? Oh, I see we’re going to record everything live in a room. OK, I’m cool with that.” This is the first record we’ve done with this recording program called Logic. Because he’s such a passionate musician and so dedicated to continuing to push his own envelope, I think the sky’s the limit for what he’s able to do as long as he remains invested in it.

You mentioned conversations in the band where you discuss what you’ve been listening to and how those might shape an album. What had people been listening to for Codes & Keys?

Chris had been really inspired in the past year by David Bowie’s Low, or that period of mid-’70s Bowie and Eno records. I found myself for the first time as a songwriter and a musician really kind of paying attention to singers. I listened to more Louvin Brothers and George Jones, very old-fashioned country music, than I did any indie rock in the last couple years. I was really taken by the enunciation and the lyricism; I finally started to appreciate the human voice as an instrument. I always felt that I treated my singing voice as a vehicle to get the words and the melodies to the listener, and not so much as an instrument in and of itself. Over the last couple of years, I’ve tried to develop my singing voice as more of an instrument, but at the same time, trying not to obscure it so much that it’s unrecognizable to me. I never attempted that back in the day, as much out of insecurity and probably aesthetic.

What country music inspired you, and why?

Especially with the Louvin Brothers, there’s so much emotion and expression in the way that they sang together, and it’s just the two voices. They weren’t doubling the harmonies or anything; it was just these two brothers who both had incredible singing voices, and the intervals in which they harmonized are so foreign to my ear. I would never write things like that. I wouldn’t even know how. The lyrics are very simple, in the style of the time, and the arrangements are very simple, in the style of the time, but their voices are just so emotive, and pitch-perfect, and they slide in and out in a really effective and beautiful way. To do that in tandem with another singer is a very difficult thing to do.

I don’t want to sound like, “Kids these days,” but I really think that, certainly in pop culture, we’ve lost touch with what it means to be a good singer. We have so many ways to “fix” and “perfect” the sound of the human voice. What gives our voices humanity is all of the imperfections and the way we slide into notes and slide out. For me, when I listen to them sing, it’s all about the sound of the voices. I’m not going to start singing with a twang or anything like that anytime soon.

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Bro and Tell

BFFs And Night Court For Sports

Bromance and Comeuppance On Two New Comedy Crib Series

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“Silicon Valley meets Girls meets black male educators with lots of unrealized potential.”

That’s how Carl Foreman Jr. and Anthony Gaskins categorize their new series Frank and Lamar which joins Joe Schiappa’s Sport Court in the latest wave of new series available now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. To better acquaint you with the newbies, we went right to the creators for their candid POVs. And they did not disappoint. Here are snippets of their interviews:

Frank and Lamar


IFC: How would you describe Frank and Lamar to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?
Carl: Best bros from college live and work together teaching at a fancy Manhattan private school, valiantly trying to transition into a more mature phase of personal and professional life while clinging to their boyish ways.

IFC: And to a friend of a friend you met in a bar?
Carl: The same way, slightly less coherent.

Anthony: I’d probably speak about it with much louder volume, due to the bar which would probably be playing the new Kendrick Lamar album. I might also include additional jokes about Carl, or unrelated political tangents.

Carl: He really delights in randomly slandering me for no reason. I get him back though. Our rapport on the page, screen, and in real life, comes out of a lot of that back and forth.

IFC: In what way is Frank and Lamar a poignant series for this moment in time?
Carl: It tells a story I feel most people aren’t familiar with, having young black males teach in a very affluent white world, while never making it expressly about that either. Then in tackling their personal lives, we see these three-dimensional guys navigate a pivotal moment in time from a perspective I feel mainstream audiences tend not to see portrayed.

Anthony: I feel like Frank and Lamar continues to push the envelope within the genre by presenting interesting and non stereotypical content about people of color. The fact that this show brought together so many talented creative people, from the cast and crew to the producers, who believe in the project, makes the work that much more intentional and truthful. I also think it’s pretty incredible that we got to employ many of our friends!

Sport Court

Sport Court gavel

IFC: How would you describe Sport Court to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?
Joe: SPORT COURT follows Judge David Linda, a circuit court judge assigned to handle an ad hoc courtroom put together to prosecute rowdy fan behavior in the basement of the Hartford Ultradome. Think an updated Night Court.

IFC: How would you describe Sport Court to drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?
Joe: Remember when you put those firecrackers down that guy’s pants at the baseball game? It’s about a judge who works in a court in the stadium that puts you in jail right then and there. I know, you actually did spend the night in jail, but imagine you went to court right that second and didn’t have to get your brother to take off work from GameStop to take you to your hearing.

IFC: Is there a method to your madness when coming up with sports fan faux pas?
Joe: I just think of the worst things that would ruin a sporting event for everyone. Peeing in the slushy machine in open view of a crowd seemed like a good one.

IFC: Honestly now, how many of the fan transgressions are things you’ve done or thought about doing?
Joe: I’ve thought about ripping out a whole row of chairs at a theater or stadium, so I would have my own private space. I like to think of that really whenever I have to sit crammed next to lots of people. Imagine the leg room!

Check out the full seasons of Frank and Lamar and Sport Court now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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Millennial Wisdom

Charles Speaks For Us All

Get to know Charles, the social media whiz of Brockmire.

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He may be an unlikely radio producer Brockmire, but Charles is #1 when it comes to delivering quips that tie a nice little bow on the absurdity of any given situation.

Charles also perfectly captures the jaded outlook of Millennials. Or at least Millennials as mythologized by marketers and news idiots. You know who you are.

Played superbly by Tyrel Jackson Williams, Charles’s quippy nuggets target just about any subject matter, from entry-level jobs in social media (“I plan on getting some experience here, then moving to New York to finally start my life.”) to the ramifications of fictional celebrity hookups (“Drake and Taylor Swift are dating! Albums y’all!”). But where he really nails the whole Millennial POV thing is when he comments on America’s second favorite past-time after type II diabetes: baseball.

Here are a few pearls.

On Baseball’s Lasting Cultural Relevance

“Baseball’s one of those old-timey things you don’t need anymore. Like cursive. Or email.”

On The Dramatic Value Of Double-Headers

“The only thing dumber than playing two boring-ass baseball games in one day is putting a two-hour delay between the boring-ass games.”

On Sartorial Tradition

“Is dressing badly just a thing for baseball, because that would explain his jacket.”

On Baseball, In A Nutshell

“Baseball is a f-cked up sport, and I want you to know it.”

Learn more about Charles in the behind-the-scenes video below.

And if you were born before the late ’80s and want to know what the kids think about Baseball, watch Brockmire Wednesdays at 10P on IFC.

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Crown Jules

Amanda Peet FTW on Brockmire

Amanda Peet brings it on Brockmire Wednesday at 10P on IFC.

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GIFS via Giphy

On Brockmire, Jules is the unexpected yin to Jim Brockmire’s yang. Which is saying a lot, because Brockmire’s yang is way out there. Played by Amanda Peet, Jules is hard-drinking, truth-spewing, baseball-loving…everything Brockmire is, and perhaps what he never expected to encounter in another human.

“We’re the same level of functional alcoholic.”

But Jules takes that commonality and transforms it into something special: a new beginning. A new beginning for failing minor league baseball team “The Frackers”, who suddenly about-face into a winning streak; and a new beginning for Brockmire, whose life gets a jumpstart when Jules lures him back to baseball. As for herself, her unexpected connection with Brockmire gives her own life a surprising and much needed goose.

“You’re a Goddamn Disaster and you’re starting To look good to me.”

This palpable dynamic adds depth and complexity to the narrative and pushes the series far beyond expected comedy. See for yourself in this behind-the-scenes video (and brace yourself for a unforgettable description of Brockmire’s genitals)…

Want more about Amanda Peet? She’s all over the place, and has even penned a recent self-reflective piece in the New York Times.

And of course you can watch the Jim-Jules relationship hysterically unfold in new episodes of Brockmire, every Wednesday at 10PM on IFC.

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