Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard Really Hates the Word "Moist"
That's a moist looking smile you got there, Ben.
We Are The Rhoads
Read the next word aloud: Moist.
Did the hair on your neck rise to the occasion? Did your coworker's shoulders just curl into a disgusted shiver?
The word makes us cringe, too. When Death Cab for Cutie front man Ben Gibbard recently asked an interviewer to not use that word, we turned to the poetic lyricists to save our cake-loving souls. He can make intense stalker-like lyrics sound sweetly ethereal (ergo: "I Will Possess Your Heart"); he was our last hope. But even the great Gibbard has yet to find an appropriate substitute within the English language.
He has more important things on his mind, anyway. For instance, training for 50-mile trail races whilst touring the band's eighth album, Kintsugi, released March 31. The album's namesake refers to a Japanese method of using precious metals to reconnect shards of broken pottery into a new form. It's a fitting title. With founding bassist Chris Walla stepping down, the band is taking on a new form. It's breaking in two new musicians -- Dave Depper (keyboards, guitar) and Zach Rae (keyboards). Though Walla plays on Kintsugi, this is the first album he hasn't produced. That role was filled by Rich Costey, who has worked with Foo Fighters, Muse and Fiona Apple, among others.
"I think what the next phase will sound like creatively, it's too soon to tell," Gibbard says. "The new album just came out two days ago, so the clock on record nine just started, so to speak. We have a lot of work to do promoting this record and I have very good feelings about Dave and Zach being a part of the group for some time moving forward. What that looks like will become much more clear as we get out on the road and see what that looks like and play together more and get a clearer sense of what they can bring to the creative process."
Phoenix has a front-row view to one of the first Death Cab for Cutie gigs with the new material and new band, so Gibbard took some time, love, to promote DCFC's mainstage role at 93.3 FM's FestivALTAZ music festival on Friday, April 10, at Quail Run Park in Mesa.
Up on the Sun: I was just listening to a podcast you were on -- Grantland. It's about an hour long, but I just have one followup question: What's your deal with moist?
Ben Gibbard: It's just a horrible word. It's just a really offensive word. The way it sounds coming out of someone's mouth, what it connotes, it's just kind of icky to me. I think, we, as English language speakers need to come up with another word for what it connotes that doesn't just sound gross. I know I'm not alone in this. Maybe you have no problem with it and I just sound crazy to you, but I know I'm not alone in this.
I'm with you, but I don't have an alternative. Do you?
It's really hard. If you're eating a piece of cake and you're like, "This cake is delicious." And someone asks, "What is so great about it?" And you're like, "Oh, it's really..." You can't say it's wet. You can't say it's damp. That's even worse. My girlfriend and I joke about it as using the m-word. That's kind of pathetic. I'm sure we'll have to go back to the drawing board.
I read an interview you did with Runner's World years ago , and I remember you talking about how difficult your first few miles used to be. It definitely got me through some crappy runs of my own. If you have the resources handy, would you mind sharing some tracks from your running playlist?
I tend to not listen to music on training runs. Music is [what I use] when I'm running an ultra and I get to that point when I'm just exhausted and need a boost. That's when I pull out headphones. How many do you want? I just pulled up the thing and I have a lot on here.
Let's say five.
Sounds good. Right now I have a song off the new Dan Deacon record called "Feel the Lightning." I've got a couple songs off the Run the Jewels' record [Run the Jewels 2] on here. I have "Close Your Eyes" from the Run the Jewels record -- the one Zach de la Rocha is on. It's killer. A song by The Au Pairs, "It's Obvious." I love that one. I also find that running ultras is the only time I listen to "Sister Ray" by The Velvet Underground in its entirety. It's 18 minutes long. One of the many reasons I don't listen to music on training runs --and I do most of my training runs on trails -- is that you're very unaware. You don't know how far you've gone until you look at your watch. It's like miles disappear. If you're listening to music, every two to three songs is a mile usually so you're able to count how many miles you've done. They're almost like their own mile markers. But, "Sister Ray" is so long, you're like, "Yeah, I'm going to run two or three miles during 'Sister Ray.'" It kind of devolves in the end and becomes unlistenable for the last five minutes, but I make myself listen to the whole thing so I feel good about myself afterwards. "I Think I'm in Love" by Spiritualized is on every running mix I make. The first couple minutes is very languid, psychedelic chunk and then this driving four or five minutes of no chord changes, just this very krautrock-y thing, which I love. I love running to it. When that one starts, I get that introspective chunk at the front and then I get that driving piece at the end.
Are you doing any training now?
We're starting this tour -- obviously we're playing in Phoenix next weekend -- but I'm trying to get a couple of races in before we start touring for real. It won't be impossible, but I won't be able to train on the proper terrain a lot of the time (while on tour). I'm running a six-hour race this Saturday and then in two weeks, I'm running the Leona Divide 50-miler. Later in the summer, when we're home, I signed up for Squamish50 in (British Columbia). It's really fucking brutal. That's the kind of race where I'm going to try to train for it on tour. If I find myself come up short, I'll pull out. That race is not to be fucked with. You do not fuck with it. I'll play that one by ear. I have a 50k around Mount St. Helens two weeks after that. A 50k, I can pretty much jump into. That's a distance, where I'm at now, where you can kind of just fake it. You just suffer for a couple of hours and say, "Eh, I'll just finish it." But, you can't fake a 50-miler. If I can't prepare for it properly, I'll bail on it, but I'm feeling strong right now. Before we get in a bus for the next three months, I want to get out on the trails, you know?I should probably start talking about the album now. You have a legacy for writing introspective lyrics, and over the last couple of years certain elements of your life have been made pretty public (read: divorce from Zooey Deschanel). Did the awareness fans would have of your personal life and what may have inspired the songs affect your writing?
Well, I mean, that certainly went through my mind when I was freshly divorced and going about how I was going to process all of this. Not even writing, but just processing it. Also writing how I write it was naturally going to find its way into the songs. I distinctly remember having a conversation with Jenny Lewis and talking about the same thing and having her basically call me on the carpet and say, "No. You don't change how you write. You don't change who you are because you're fearful people are going to connect some dots." She kind of read me a riot act on it, and it was like, "Yeah, that's absolutely the right approach." I'm not going to change the way I work for fear of people correctly or incorrectly connecting dots in these songs. The one thing I've told myself going into talking about the record is I'm not going to play lyric Battleship with people. You know, where people are like, "Is this song about that?" I'm not going to go into specifics about lyrics. I think people are right about half the time when discussing these songs. You can't go through something that life-changing as a writer and not find inspiration in it.
Now that the album is out and people are connecting the dots, do you feel the same way about the decision?
Oh, absolutely. I don't read any of the stuff. I have better stuff to do than read people's think pieces about the new record. No offense, of course. My job is to make the work and perform the work and I feel like, even in saying that, I really believe a song only really works if someone can see themselves within it. There are a number of songs in rock history where we have an idea of who they're about. Somebody isn't singing along to "You're So Vain" by Carly Simon because they're thinking of who it's about. They're putting someone from their own life in that song. They're contextualizing in their own mind's eye. That's what makes songs work. I kind of realized that years ago, and I kind of am not too concerned with people putting a face to the songs. It seems already the way people react to this record is because they see people in their own lives in the record and the songs. If the record is to be successful by that metric, I hope people do that.
That plays into another question I have. In a recent interview (with the Los Angeles Times), you said Chris Walla may have left because he found the lyrics inaccessible. What do you think is particularly different in the messaging on this album?
I feel that may have been unfairly framed. It's my fault for bringing it up, but I think at the time Chris was grappling with the decision of leaving the band -- and whenever you're leaving a situation, whether it's a person or band, you're kind of finding a lot of reasons that maybe weren't there before for why it's time to leave. It's like, [jokingly] "How you make the coffee. That's why I'm leaving!" We had a lot of conversations about the lyrics, and I think maybe as his life is moving in a different direction, professionally and personally, he probably didn't want to go out and perform a body of work that dealt with something so personal and, at times, very dark and biting. I maybe put it a little bit too harshly in the L.A. Times piece. That's how I felt at the time. At this point, people in the band are going to find different reasons to enjoy playing the songs and connect to them for different reasons. That was one of a myriad of reasons for him to leave the band, but probably a very small one.
Looking at the cover. Did you have any say in the cover?
There's an artist in Seattle named Joe Rudko who was brought to our attention. He does a lot of abstract and somewhat odd sculpture work. He had been doing pieces using photographs found at antique malls. You know, someone passes away and there are boxes of old photographs there, and he ended up making this really beautiful image out of a number of different photos and we just kind of looked at it and there's really...We really wanted to avoid obvious touchstones. [Presenter-style voice] Here's a piece of kintsugi pottery. "Kintsugi." [Back to normal] We wanted to avoid literal album art and I just feel like in the image we ended up using, I found a real connection to it because I feel like that image is very indicative of memory. All of these images are there but all out of place. If you work really hard, you can reconnect all of those little pieces into something that's a clear picture. You can see the photos of the people, the backgrounds. But, over time, memory becomes more and more obscured, and I found a real connection in that piece and that particular interpretation.
I think you may have played a bit of Battleship for me in deconstructing "Kintsugi."
I did? Oh, nice. [Laughs]
Do you own any kintsugi pottery?
I don't. I have a feeling I'm about to own a lot of it. People are going to start sending me a lot of kintsugi. [laughs] My dad is a wonderful man. He has always been a huge supporter. After I made a record with Jay Farrar about Big Sur (on a 2009 soundtrack for a documentary about Jack Kerouac's time at Big Sur), I started getting plates of the California Zephyr (title of the first song on the album) and plates of the California Zephyr. He kind of goes down a rabbit hole on eBay on that stuff, but it's kind of awesome. I have a feeling I might get some kintsugi pottery from my dad on my birthday or something. He likes to connect and do those things, which I love, too.
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