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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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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

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Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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