It’s been three years since Death Cab For Cutie released Narrow Stairs, a decidedly dark album, and a lot has changed in the lives of the band members: front man Ben Gibbard married (Zooey Deschanel!), bassist Nick Harmer married, and drummer Jason McGerr had a baby. With the release of their latest album, this week’s Codes and Keys, the famously melancholic band members are headed in some surprising directions: Sobriety? Exercise? Optimism? Wild. At the cozy Atlantic Records digs on the 27th floor of a midtown Manhattan skyscraper, Vulture met with Gibbard and Harmer to investigate this new chapter in their lives, get Ben’s jogging playlist, and find out how they think Transatlanticism holds up.
What were the pivotal moments in your life between Narrow Stairs and the new album?
Gibbard: Well … I got married.
Gibbard: Thank you. And Nick got married. And Jason had a second kid. I’m going to be 35 in a couple of months. Everybody’s kind of moving into their mid-thirties or so, and as you get older, you kind of realize you’re not the center of the universe. You kind of re-prioritize your life. I think real life seeps in a little bit more than it did in my early twenties.
What do you mean by “real life?” Like, responsibility and stuff?
Gibbard: Yes, responsibility. And, for me, being a married man versus gallivanting around as a single guy in a band — I was just kind of doing whatever then. For Jason, I can’t speak for him, obviously, but I think bringing children into the world comes with its own obvious responsibilities and refocusing. I would hope!
Codes and Keys seems generally happier.
Gibbard: Narrow Stairs is a very dark record. There really wasn’t any further down we could go. So by extension of that reality it made sense that the record ended up moving in a more optimistic and a more even emotional spectrum. But I don’t see the record as a happy record. It’s certainly not a Prozac pill of a record.
Going back a bit: 2003’s Transatlanticism had this major impact on suburban high school kids when it first came out. At least, uh, for me. How do you feel about that record now?
Gibbard: I honestly love Transatlanticism. That’s one of my two favorite records that we’ve made to date. [It’s] We Have The Facts and We’re Voting Yes and Transatlanticism.
Harmer: Same for me. With Transatlanticism, that was the first time we became “a band,” in a lot of ways. Jason came in on that record.
Gibbard: For the first three records, we were three people and then a person playing drums. Once Jason joined the band, he completed the quartet in a way we had never felt before. His presence, his influence, and his ideas are very present on that record. Also, that was the first record on which all four of us were really committed to the band moving forward. Like, “Yes, we want to keep doing this. Yes, we want to take this as far as we can. I don’t want to go back to working in a lab again and be like, ‘Yeah, I used to be in this band … ”
You were working in a lab at one point?
Gibbard: I have a degree in environmental chemistry, and I did work in a lab doing environmental tests and stuff.
You’re never going back to that?
Gibbard: I don’t want to, no. Not that there’s anything wrong with that line of work, but it wasn’t as fulfilling for me as being in the band. So I think we all see Transatlanticism as a watershed record for us. It did leaps and bounds better than anything we’d done up until that point. It also marks a very pivotal point in the band, it’s a line in the sand in the fan base: There are people who were fans of the band up to that point and with that record, and people who became fans of the band after that point. Obviously, I don’t care if somebody became a fan of this band yesterday. Knowing the older stuff first doesn’t make you a better fan than someone who heard the band yesterday.
Have you sensed that that album in particular had some unique cultural impact?Harmer: I don’t know if I have that perspective. As we talk to journalists now, it seems like time is a revelator. I don’t know what time is going to tell us about this album or any of our albums and their impacts larger than anything outside my own life.
Gibbard: Honestly, none of us want to be the kind of people who are waxing philosophical about What Our Records Meant to Pop Culture. Probably ever, but certainly not while we’re still a band. [And] at the end of the day, everything we’ve ever made that has had an impact on someone’s life, they’re of equal weights. A guy came up to me a few weeks ago at a party and he mentioned a song from a really old EP that we never play, and he was like, “That was my wedding song!” And I was like, “That’s crazy.” But then I thought about it and it was not a bad choice.
Ben, I read you’re sober now. But I hadn’t realized you’d had a problem with alcohol before.
Gibbard: Yeah. I wouldn’t put it as ‘sober,’ because I was never like … it’s funny, because when I talked to that guy at Spin, that was like a minute in a half-hour interview, and it became the focus of the story. I guess that’s always how it goes. But I was somebody who drank more than he should, and I did for a long time, and I decided it was time to stop.
Has sobriety affected your songwriting?
Gibbard: I wasn’t like Bukowski or something. I wasn’t pounding a bottle of whiskey and then pounding a guitar. It wasn’t that romantic. But in the industry we’re in, people drink at work. And people go out after work, and they drink some more. And it’s even easier to do that if you don’t have to drive anywhere, if you’re touring in a bus, or people are always taking you. Some things got away from me, and I had to get the reins back on them. But I’m in no position to talk about it with some level of authority, or say that this is the right way to live your life, or that I turned some corner and everyone else should too. It was just a realization I came to.
You’re also running marathons now, right?
Gibbard: I ran a marathon. I’m sure I’ll run a second and then I can say I run marathons, but it’s singular right now.
What do you listen to while you’re running?
Gibbard: That’s an awesome question. I made a long mix of stuff. During the marathon, I listened to this group from Seattle, Fresh Espresso. It’s this hip-hop group. It’s the worst name. But they have this song, “The Lazerbeams,” that I listened to literally twenty times for the first five miles of the marathon. [Sings “Laser Beams.”] But I make mixes for running: Beach Boys songs, “All I Wanna Do,” and then a Telekinesis song, and then Ministry’s “Burning Inside,” and then Public Enemy. An ongoing mix of stuff. But I’m also a baseball geek, so I’ll listen to baseball podcasts, like “Baseball Today” or something.
What spurred you to become more disciplined?
Gibbard: When I was 22, I would just kind of sit around and wait for an idea to come into my head and then if I felt inspired I’d try to capture the idea. But the older I get — now I rent a tiny studio so when I’m in writing mode I go there five days a week like it’s my job and I spend five or six hours working on music and then I go home. I’ve always been more productive on a schedule.
And you’re married. How’s that going?
Gibbard: Marriage is great! It’s been almost two years.
They say the first year’s the hardest.
Gibbard: That is what they say, isn’t it?
Did you find that to be the case?
Gibbard: No, no. Each year’s great.
Have you ever had a terrible experience with a journalist?
Gibbard: One time, we were here doing one of these long days of interviews and, long story short, I basically blew up on this guy. I thought he was fucking with me. It remains to be seen whether he took a shot or not. He was asking something like, “Have you guys ever considered selling your songs to commercials? It’s not like you’re selling your songs to M&Ms or something. Is it?” And right around that time, that Postal Service song [“Such Great Heights”] was getting used in an M&Ms commercial — no, it was like the Iron & Wine version of that Postal Service song getting used. And I was just like, “Fuck you, man! What, are you trying to get me or something?” So it was a weird thing.
That song was actually on a lot of commercials.
Gibbard Yeah, it’s just kind of upbeat, that [sings acoustic intro to “Such Great Heights”] “beeep beeep beeep beep”
I guess I shouldn’t bring that up.
Gibbard: Eh, we’re fine about it now. We’ve got better armor these days.