Formed 14 years ago in Bellingham, Washington as a solo outlet for Ben Gibbard, Death Cab For Cutie has blossomed into one of indie-rock’s more successful institutions. This week, they take the stage on another rock institution — VH1’s Storytellers — and talk in-depth with veteran author/Storytellers producer Bill Flanagan about their extensive catalog and their newest album, Codes and Keys. Hive’s proud to present this exclusive conversation between Flanagan, Gibbard and Chris Walla about their songwriting evolution and turning your band into your full-time job.
VH1 Storytellers with Death Cab For Cutie premiers at 11pm on Friday, May 27, on VH1.
One of the things that hit me about “You Are a Tourist” is that it took all of these negative issues from earlier in Death Cab’s movement, and turned them into something powerful. [Do you] have a different attitude? When you’ve written a lot of songs, do you say, “I don’t have to write that one again. I’m going to do something different.”
Ben: I mean, I honestly wasn’t even sure what “You Are a Tourist” was about when I wrote it. That song is not meant to be a larger statement than it is. To me, it’s just a series of affirmations and positive thoughts. But in the bridge, the explanation for why those affirmations exist within the lyrics. Nothing is really ever as it seems, and there’s a little bit of nervousness in every one of our songs. And a slight bit of unassuredness. So, as we have all of these stacked vocals in the verses, kind of singing these affirmations, it’s somewhat telling that it’s a single voice in the bridge underneath, a low register vocal that’s almost whispering to you, after you’ve been shouted at.
One of things that I’ve noticed more in the earlier songs is a sense that the representation is better than the reality. The movie, the TV show, the painting. Fair enough, or total rock critic?
Chris: I feel like maybe they’ve gotten a little less nostalgic. That nostalgia, for a little while, got replaced by this dark realism, and that is giving away to a sort of tempered, but bright, realism … maybe. The thing is that the nostalgia – especially in the new record – the nostalgia is there in explorations. Because in the earlier records, to me, there’s lots of little cross-sections – like exploded drawings of tiny, tiny moments. It’s weird, I feel like I’m giving a book report. We never talk about this stuff. But yeah, that stuff kind of gave away to sort of bigger life themes for whatever reason.
Ben: I feel like when I was younger, I read further into smaller things. The lipstick on the end of a cigarette – that meant a lot, that was a very powerful image for me. Looking back on the songs that have those kinds of small moments in them, they’re kind of blown-up in my mind. I still hold the same importance for those particular images, but I don’t necessarily feel that that’s a type of writing I want to delve further into, because the minutia just gets smaller and smaller and smaller. As you get older, your world view starts to widen a little bit. Also, I find myself listening to different music than I was listening to in my early 20s … like Randy Newman. I love Randy Newman now. I didn’t really know Randy Newman when I was 21, but now I see the economy in which he writes and I see the brilliance in it, and there are moments and ways which he writes that I want to emulate.
Can you give me an example from the new stuff that reflects something you wouldn’t have written when you were younger?
Ben: A perfect example of that is a song that I’ve written recently that’s on our newest record. I know that I probably wouldn’t have felt comfortable writing “Stay Young, Go Dancing” 15 years ago, which is an incredibly simple song. A bare bones love song. There was a time in my life where I would have felt that the simplicity was not enough to hold the song, that there had to be something complicated in the lyric to justify the simplicity of the melody and the sing-songiness of it. Whether people are willing to go along with me, as a writer, into the forced, simple style remains to be seen.
Do your songs naturally follow the path of your life in development or is it a matter of songwriting?
Ben: One thing that draws people to this band is that with every album we make, whether people like the album or dislike the album, the music that we’re making is very honest and is very true to who we are as individuals. That doesn’t mean that every record we make is a series of autobiographical moments of my life, by any stretch of the imagination. A lot of the earlier records – there was a lot of big change in all of our lives throughout those records. We were a bunch of kids in a college town, most of us living a beautiful life, on minimum wage, playing in a rock band. And the world was just this open field of possibilities, and everybody was going to be a star. I look back on those moments and that time in my life, it’s written about in “Photo Booth” and “Movie Script Ending.”
We transitioned to moving into the big city and moving to Seattle. All of a sudden your money doesn’t go as far as it used to. You don’t see people anymore. Everybody’s trying to make a living working crap jobs just to get by, and even so, they can barely get by. Around that time people start getting married. People get regular jobs. They stop the slacker kind of manifesto that we all sign. I’m almost embarrassed at how hard I took a lot of those transitions in my life – they really had an effect on me. I moved from Bellingham to Seattle, and was miserable in virtually every facet of my life – except for the band. Through those periods of our lives, I became drawn to writing about transitions in life, marriage being one of them. And a song like “Cath,” when you see this person and you can see somewhere within them that they’re about to become a new person, and that the narrator is projecting their own trepidation upon the person who’s getting married. We’re projecting all these things on to her because that’s how we feel about ourselves.
That’s really common, especially if you’re in a band. When you’re 18, there are a hundred guys with you. When you’re 22, there’s 30 guys with you. When you’re 25, suddenly you’re trying to keep four guys together who still believe.
Chris, from your perspective: It’s one thing when you’re the guy writing the songs and singing the songs to go, “OK. Cornbeef hash for breakfast again. And lunch. And dinner.” But you have to believe in the vision enough to keep Ben going. Were there moments when you felt like, “Come on, we can do this!” Or, “I gotta go pursue my own thing.”
Chris: It’s probably more of the latter than the former. Especially “Employment Pages,” We Have The Facts era. We all move to Seattle within a month of one another and faced the challenge of having just lost a drummer. The thing about that record is that it was in a lot of ways, like, even more my friend than these guys were. It was those songs and those lyrics. I was living “Employment Pages,” and “Scientist Studies,” especially. I was living 25 miles away from Ben and almost 45 miles away from Nick. I wouldn’t see these guys for weeks. I was holed up working on the record. I’ve always sort of struggled with the question of, “Do I want to be in a band or do I wanna be a record producer?” There have been times when it’s been really, really difficult to do both of them. But I am so thankful that I’ve stuck it out.
Ben: We always joke that Chris didn’t realize he was in a band until three years of being in this band.
Chris: Maybe five, six, or seven years.
When you write as many songs as you were saying that you wrote for this album, do they come back for the next album? If they don’t find their moment, are they disposable?
Ben: A lot of the songs fall away. On this record we ended up going back to the song “St. Peter’s Cathedral,” which I had written in 2001 or 2002. I did some rewriting on it and we cleaned it up quite a bit. It’s certainly recognizable from the original demo, but it was something that I always really liked and it just never had a home.
I’ve heard Pete Townshend and Joni Mitchell say that when you’re writing songs and no one’s listening, and you’re really just pouring it out, and then all of a sudden people start listening, it can be really disconcerting. Have you experienced that at all? Have you experienced that feeling of: “I’d rather not put it out there if it’s going to cause me this feedback.”
Ben: Well, I feel that way. I feel that now, being everyone knows who I’m married to [actress and singer Zooey Deschanel], there is more of a sense that if I were to write a particular type of song people would assume either correctly or incorrectly that I was writing about my own life. Songwriters are really the only type of writers that I can think of that when they use the first person, everybody assumes that the person singing is who this series of events happened to. And it’s a really useful tool as a writer to use first person because it gives the writer a level of authority. However, there’s myriad of things to write about that I have yet to even scratch the surface of.
Even though Michael Stipe writes 99% of the lyrics in R.E.M., occasionally the guys will go, “Can you change that line? I don’t want to say ’Hang, you freedom fighters.’ That’s a little too heavy.” Are there moments when you think, “I can’t get behind this line.”
Chris: For the most part, if we end up digging into writing and word choices and that sort of thing, it’s because we already are into the song and there’s something that’s not working. There’s a weak spot, here’s a chink in the armor. And if we’re doing that, we’re doing it from a place of trying to make it bulletproof and trying to improve it. If there’s something that is just not resonating, or we’re not into it, it gets left on the cutting room floor pretty quick.
Ben: Yeah. And I’m always open to any suggestions for the lyrics from these guys. At this point, we’ve been doing this long enough that I trust them implicitly – if something’s not working, they’ll let me know. And the division of labor in this band is such that we all allow each other a little bit of leeway. I have to give them the authority to call me out if something isn’t working properly. In the early days we were all a little more precious about everything. But at this point, if a lyric isn’t working, I see it more as a challenge of how to write something better. Because if these guys are calling me out on it, then it’s inevitably going to happen when the record goes out into the world.