Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard Deconstructs the Science of Songwriting
On balancing the “blurred lines” between borrowing and being “a f**king idiot.”
It’s a complicated thing, an artist’s relationship with their art — let alone their fans’ relationship to it, as well. And, when you lead a band that has meant so much to so many over the years, the heat is really on. For the past 17 years, Death Cab for Cutie has provided the soundtrack to many a young — and not-as-young — person’s misery and melancholy with Ben Gibbard as the story’s narrator, through songs like “Soul Meets Body,” ► “I Will Follow You into the Dark,” ► and “I Will Possess Your Heart.”►
Gibbard has long been considered one of the most literate and compelling voices on the rock scene, indie or otherwise, and on his eighth Death Cab for Cutie album, Kintsugi, he has staged a return to form that even he acknowledges, crafting a fine and fitting swan song for long-time member and producer Chris Walla.
Cuepoint: I feel like you’d be a good person to discuss the “Blurred Lines” ruling with. What were your thoughts on how that came down?
Ben Gibbard: I’m certainly, by no means, a legal expert on such matters. I’m not very familiar with either song, to be perfectly honest. I was reading a lot about it, as I’m sure a lot of people were, but I didn’t go through the YouTube hole of the mash-ups and that kind of stuff. I do think, though, as we continue to live an ever-increasing meta existence, as a culture, where we are continuing to borrow from works that already exist and taking elements from them to create new ones, I certainly think the ruling sets a fairly dangerous precedent for that. And it doesn’t necessarily have to extend just to music. It seems to me as if we’re dealing with a situation where things are certainly similar, but not necessarily exactly the same.
I think a very clear cut example of, dare I say, plagiarism is the Sam Smith-Tom Petty situation where you have a song that is flagrantly… it is the hook from one song being used for another song. To me, that was a very obvious example of plagiarism. If somebody had done that to me, I would probably take a similar course of action. Or I would expect a similar course of action to be taken against me, if that were the case. But, in the “Blurred Lines” situation, I’ve heard a little bit of it and it seems like a dangerous precedent has been set. We’ll have to see how that proliferates itself further down the road, I suppose.
Sure. And all art is derivative because, like you said, we live in a shared society. But the thing that stuck in my craw about that case was that it seemed like Robin Thicke sat down, played that tune, and said, “I want to make something just like this.” Then, he did that, but didn’t give any credit. Plus the pre-emptive lawsuit…
Well, yeah. And also you have to be a real fucking idiot to, ostensibly, take the vibe of something and then admit to the press that you did that. [Laughs] I mean, look, on many occasions, we have referenced previous work by other artists and said, “Isn’t this a cool drum feel? We should try to do something like this.” Or like, “Hey, you know, isn’t the feel of this song really great?” But I would never talk to you about it. I would never give you a roadmap to a song in which we had utilized previously existing ideas. So, as far as I’m concerned, the central take-away lesson is, “Don’t be an idiot like Robin Thicke and tell everybody that you basically tried to steal something.” [Laughs] Through all of the “What does it mean legally?” stuff, I think, more than anything, it means “Don’t be a fucking idiot. Don’t admit when you’re influenced by a particular work.”
[Laughs] Well, do you ever worry that all the good songs have been written? Or do you feel like there’s an infinite source out there?
I don’t feel that all the great songs have been written. I do feel that where we are now, certainly with rock & roll music, is that so much of it is variations on themes. But I think that it’s one’s particular creativity and individuality that comes out within that variation on a particular theme that makes a song great.
I think there’s something that feels so good about a 1–4–5 chord progression. It’s a very standard chord progression and it just feels good to the ears. When a song goes from a 4-chord down to a 1-chord, the resolution that our brains recognize and that feel and sound good to us are not going to cease to sound good to us if we start creating new whacky chord structures that don’t appeal to us. I don’t know what it is in our lizard brains that — certainly in Western music — make these progressions and melodies sound good to us, but they do. I would much rather hear a song that’s written from a fresh perspective, using ideas that have existed in rock & roll for 50 years, than something that is incredibly abrasive to my ears but is new. I could write you something that you’ve never heard right now. But it’s not going to sound good. You’re not going to want to listen to it. The thing that makes us want to listen to things, and the thing that makes music really embedded in our lives, is that there’s something new-yet-familiar sounding about it.
Right. The Hindustani Classical scale and micro-tones are different, but American ears don’t know how to hear those tones and enjoy them.
Yeah, that’s very true. Maybe someday we’ll evolve to find a similar sense of familiarity with them, but I don’t think that day is coming any time soon.
[Laughs] So are you a guy who feels like songs are just out there floating around, waiting to be captured or do you think songs are created in a more internal, technical process that the composer goes through?
I certainly have written things that I felt were beamed down to me from somewhere else. And they’re some of the best songs, I think, that I’ve written — some of the most well-known and appreciated songs I’ve written. Something like “I Will Follow You into the Dark” or “Such Great Heights”► were songs that I wrote incredibly quickly. After weeks of banging my head against the wall trying to write songs, those songs, when I wrote them, seemingly came out of nowhere. It did feel that there was some sort of spiritual transcendence happening and the song being beamed down to me. But, at the end of the day, I wrote those songs.
You still have to craft and shape and mold it…
Sure, of course. What I do find interesting is a point that a friend of mine once stated, which was, “You know, being a writer of any kind of discipline is kind of like being a magician. You’re defying the laws of physics.” There’s nothing there. And then there’s something there. That defies the first law of physics. So, in that sense, maybe there is something spiritual about the process of writing, in general, but having gone through all of the longer periods of writer’s block and unsuccessful writing, I subscribe more to the philosophy that “inspiration likes to find you hard at work” more than “you are just a vessel for some kind of cosmic transference of music that, if you’re in the right place at the right time, it’s beamed down to you.”
Got it. Is it weird to have people rooting for your misery because they like your sad songs the best?
[Laughs] Well, I was happier than I’ve been in years when I wrote these songs. I get it. I get that that’s a quip that people have thrown around in relation to this record and the previous record, either wishing that I would write from the point of misery or just simply be miserable so I could write songs. But that’s really never been the mindset I’ve been in while I’ve been creating these things.
When you’re alone in a room with an instrument, more times than not, at least I feel very introspective because I’m alone and playing something on an instrument. Whatever I’m playing is kind of dictating the tone of the lyric and where the song’s going to go. I think that environment plays into that — living in the Northwest for the better part of my life plays into that. When you’re writing songs in January and it’s the 30th straight day of rain, it’s hard to write “Shiny Happy People.”
…which is good because that one’s already been written.
Yeah, exactly. I’d get sued by R.E.M. and that would be really awkward when my friend Peter [Buck] hit me with a lawsuit. But there’s a reason a lot of the music that comes from Southern California sounds a certain way, I suppose. Environment certainly is a factor.
But, yeah, I get it. I understand what people mean by that. I think one of the many reasons people gravitate toward sad music and melancholy is that, when you’re listening to a sad song and you’re feeling that way, it gives you the impression that you’re not alone in your melancholy. That’s a really empowering feeling when you’re going through something difficult and you feel like you’re a freak or you’re all alone, if you’re feeling this way. And then you’re listening to a song that’s echoing a similar sentiment, it’s very empowering.
And happy songs just don’t feel that way. You may crank up “Walking on Sunshine” when you’re driving in your car on a nice day and you’re headed to the beach, but I highly doubt that Katrina and the Waves have people coming up to them saying, “Hey, man. ‘Walking on Sunshine’ really helped me when I was in a really happy place in my life.’” You know what I mean? That’s not to diminish the value of that song. I personally love that song. It comes on the radio, I crank it up. But people don’t do that. They don’t go, “Hey, R.E.M. I was really happy one day, and ‘Shiny Happy People’ just really made me happier. So thank you for that. I really needed it.’” That’s just not how it goes. That’s why people’s relationship with sad songs are the way they are. Because people do come up to me and say, “Hey, I was in a really difficult place in my life and ‘I Will Follow You into the Dark’ was very helpful to me. It gave me a lot of comfort.” That’s not something that I set out trying to do, but I do appreciate it when people say that to me.
I’ll admit… on the soundtrack to my life, “I Will Possess Your Heart” comes up in a number of scenes. So I get it, too.
[Laughs] Yeah, totally.
I know every artist’s goal is to keep progressing and challenging and improving their art. So is it ever sort of insulting when people hold on to your early work? Is that a sort of insinuation that whatever you’ve done since doesn’t measure up to that? Or do you chalk it up to personal tastes?
I think we all, being fans of music, we understand that dynamic when the first record — or handful of records — you hear by a band comes in a place in your life when you’re open to them and you’re ready to have a new favorite band and they just knock your socks off and everything they’re saying speaks directly to you. It almost seems that, in order to continue that dynamic between a fan and an artist over a long period of time, requires both the artist and the fan to be on almost identical life paths at the same time. Does that make any sense?
So it’s very rare — almost impossible — for an artist and a fan to be in the mood to do the same thing or to listen to the same type of music and be feeling the same way at the same time… and for that to remain constant throughout the artist’s career. So, at a certain point, you just have to accept that. I believe that I have the ability to write records on par with the best records we have made, according to the fan base. But, I think that what you have to let go of is the expectation that the fans are going to think that every record you make is as good as the best record you made, according to them. I can not be the 25-year-old who wrote Transatlanticism as much as the fan can’t be the 19-year-old college student going through a break-up again.
I think about my favorite records by my favorite bands. The Cure’s Disintegration came to me at a point in my life when it was so important to me to hear that record and I was 13, 14 years old. It seemed to echo every sentiment I had about girls and everything else. [Laughs] While I’ll go through the Cure’s catalogue — and I love so much of their music — that’s just always going to be their best record for me. It’s unclear whether or not that is their best record because there’s no way to objectively determine that. So you’re left with complete subjectivity. For me, that’s the best album. And that’s the great thing about being a fan of music — you can get into arguments with other fans or people who aren’t even fans about what a band’s best record is and why it’s the best record. It’s so subjective and contextual.
At the same time, there are bands — who will remain nameless — that have made records for 25 years and the last records just fucking sucked. They just seemed lifeless and uninspired. It’s hard to say, not having been in the studio with a band like that, what the vibe was like… whether or not they were finishing the lyrics going, “Eh, that’s good enough.” Or like, “I’ve got a tee time at 10 a.m. so I’d really like to be out of the studio in enough time to get there.” You don’t know where their priorities are. You don’t know why they’re doing it — their motivations. All I can say, for myself, is regardless of what our fans’ opinions may be about all of our records, there has never been a moment in the writing or the recording of an album that any of us has ever said, “Eh, that’s good enough. That’ll work. That’s fine.” We always want to make it great. But that’s not something you can do every time.
So where do you think Kintsugi fits within your discography, in terms of how you rank it based on your own preference? And where do you think it’ll land with the fans?
I almost feel there’s no good way to answer that question. Because if I speak from the enthusiastic place of having this be the newest record and the one I’m very proud of right now, then I would, of course, be like, “This is the greatest thing we’ve ever done!” [Laughs] But I can’t say that. I’m too close to it. I do believe this is one of the best records we’ve ever made. I do believe that whole-heartedly.
I think so, too.
Oh, thank you. I feel unwaveringly that this is one of our best records and to say, at the very least, it’s in the top half of the eight records that we’ve made. But where to rank it in relation to all our albums is something I can’t necessarily do right now. But, as time goes on, I certainly have records that I like more than others. And a lot of my feelings about the albums have a lot to do with having been there during the writing of the album, the recording of the record, and then what was going on during that time. Case in point: The Photo Album is my least favorite record we’ve ever made because it was a really difficult, arduous process to make it. We almost broke up during the recording of the record and then the tour after that was horrible. I look back on that record and I think I didn’t have enough songs — I barely had 10 songs and two of the 10 were barely complete thoughts.
Conversely, a record like Transatlanticism was such a joy to make because Jason [McGerr] had just joined the band and we all had a renewed commitment to doing the band. It was like we had this fresh energy of having Jason in the band and we were all on board 100 percent and, in the making of that record, there wasn’t a… Chris [Walla] wasn’t trying to quit the band for the 17th time or whatever. [Laughs] He was successful in quitting the band this time, but it was that window in time, that really sweet moment in time where it really felt like everybody — and, most importantly, Chris — was really there. If the criteria is “How enjoyable was this record to make? How inspired was it in the studio?” then I think Transatlanticism would be our best record. But, even at this very early stage in promoting this record, I definitely believe that this one sits closer to Transatlanticism than it does Codes and Keys. I think tonally, the arrangements… I feel it’s more in keeping with what we are, at our best, known for. And I hope that other people feel the same way. But, I think it’s important to say, that’s not my judgment to make. The fans will hear the record. They’ll spend time with it. Maybe they’ll hate it. Maybe they’ll love it. Maybe they’ll be indifferent to it. That’s very much out of our control, at this point.
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