musicians on their own music

Ben Gibbard Picks the Best Death Cab for Cutie Songs

In the early ‘00s, the band Death Cab for Cutie became synonymous with a sort of muted adolescent angst. Lead singer Ben Gibbard, whose gentle voice lends a childlike quality to the music, often used opaque lyrics to capture the mystifying passions of young love. The new Death Cab for Cutie album, Kintsugi, is somewhat of a departure. Gibbard’s lyrics are more direct and authoritative. It’s an album for adults. That said, at 38, Gibbard looks back fondly at the songs from those early Death Cab years. Vulture spoke with him recently about his favorite tracks from the band’s catalogue. It wasn’t easy to pick just one song from each record, he said. “They’re all my children,” but these are a few of the highlights.

“The Face That Launched 1000 Shits,” Something About Airplanes (1998)
It’s a song that was written by our friend Jay Chilcote from the Revolutionary Hydra, which is a band that we were friends with back in Bellingham in the early days. They ran a record label called Elsinor that co-released our first record. During recording, we were coming up short. We had nine songs and we figured that ten songs make a record. So we thought, “Why don’t we cover our friend’s band who also nobody’s aware of?” Being that nobody knew who we were, really, nobody definitely knew who the Hydra was, and that way we’d have ten songs. It’s a nonsensical song, but I’ve always loved it. It’s one of those songs that’s a reminder of where we came from, the small scene that we came up in that nobody really cared about outside of Bellingham. It’s always nice to be reminded of where you came from and why you started doing this in the first place.

“The Employment Pages,” We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes (2000)
When I moved to Seattle in ‘99, Seattle felt like Mexico City. It felt like the biggest city in the world, and I was really struggling to find a job, and I was running out of money and starting to question the decision to move to the big city. I went from living in a house that we practiced in, to living in a very tiny apartment with a girlfriend. It was very cramped, and I spent every day for two months going to job interviews for jobs that I was way overqualified for and I wasn’t getting. I was running out of money and terrified of having made the wrong decision. My girlfriend at the time was teaching elementary school. She would come home and I would literally have the employment section of the paper out going through it trying to find anything to make a living because we weren’t making any money as a band. This song is about the transition of going from idyllic, easy, college-town living, to trying to become an adult for some reason, but you’re not quite sure why.

“A Movie Script Ending,” The Photo Album (2002)
I ended up in Los Angeles for love. At the time, I would have moved to Siberia. When you’re that goofy in love, you’ll move to Siberia. I figured, I’ll go into this with an open mind, and maybe the city will reveal itself to me in ways that it had hitherto not done. After that experience was over, I realized that most of my feelings about Los Angeles were carried through my experience there. I did find some things about it that I really enjoyed, but for me, personally, it was kind of a net-zero experience. For everything that I liked about it, there was something I despised about it. It canceled it out. When I lived there, I had this general feeling of malaise. The density, the extreme wealth aside extreme poverty, and everything that that does to the dynamic of the city, it just felt like a powder keg. I enjoyed most of my time living there, but there was no question that I would be moving back to Seattle. I’m from the Northwest, I was born here, this is where I belong.

“We Looked Like Giants,” Transatlanticism (2003)
This song is about first love and the newness of the experiences we all take for granted. It was written about a person I was very in love with at the time. The song conjures up some images that are not appropriate for this interview, but there are all kinds of veiled messages to this person. Jesus and Mary Chain was one of our favorite bands. Darklands is a record I still love very much, and me and this person were obsessed with it. I always liked the couplet of “Do you remember the JAMC / And reading aloud from magazines.” The vast majority of the people who listen to this song don’t know what JAMC refers to. Most likely a lot of them did not grow up listening to Jesus and Mary Chain.

“Stable Song,” Plans (2005)
We originally recorded this song for an EP. It’s a companion piece for a “Movie Script Ending.” They were written around the same time, during the Bellingham-Seattle confusion, when we didn’t have a drummer or money. So it’s a song about transition, leaving something familiar and departing into the unknown. When we were doing Plans, Chris [Walla] and I floated the idea of trying to record a more definitive version of this song for the record. It has the 6/8-waltz feel that’s common in a lot of our earlier music.

“I Will Possess Your Heart,” Narrow Stairs (2008)
Nick Harmer saved this song with his bass line. As we started working on it, it was okay but it wasn’t special. Nick came in and said he was up all night working on it. Eric Avery and Simon Galop from Jane’s Addiction and the Cure, respectively, are two of his favorite bassists, and the song plays up those influences in the best possible way. It’s the same thing with the coda on Transatlanticism; we just didn’t want to stop playing it, and thought if we enjoyed playing it so much, people will enjoy listening to it.

“Unobstructed Views,” Codes and Keys (2011)
Something I was trying to do with this record was to write love songs that were more uplifting and had depth to them. I feel that this song was very successful when doing that. I was trying to write more directly, and it threw some people off, but there are some observations and lyrics that I’m very proud of. The opening line is an example: “There’s no eye in the sky / Just our love / No unobstructed view / No perfect truths / Just our love.” The one true thing that we have is love. Me, as an agnostic and recovering Catholic, all of the spiritual things we are taught to believe in and view as true, in my opinion, they don’t exist. There’s no unobstructed view. There’s no real path. The only clear life is love. You cannot see anything perfectly clearly, but love. Of course, that’s not entirely true either.

“Little Wanderer,” Kintsugi (2015)
There are very few songs written about the person who’s waiting for the other person to come home, and that feeling of “Am I going to feel the same way when this person comes back?” So the lyric, “You send a photo out your window of Paris / Of what you wish I could see / But someone has got to be a lighthouse / And that someone has got to be me” is about that, and how for any two people, someone has to be the lighthouse. In terms of the music for the song, the guitar work is similar to some of our older records. I had a new guitar and it made me want to play guitar the way I used to play songs.

Ben Gibbard’s Favorite Death Cab for Cutie Songs