Solo Meets Body: Death Cab's Ben Gibbard On Making an Album Without His Band

Although he’s collaborated outside of Death Cab For Cutie several times, frontman Ben Gibbard had never released an album under his own name until this fall’s "Former Lives." The reflective rocker spoke to Co.Create about the difference between working within a group and doing it all himself.

If you were a teenager (or, frankly, any age) during the first five years of this young century, there’s more than a fighting chance that you had a makeout session soundtracked by Benjamin Gibbard.

Over a period that saw record sales in general slaloming toward the edge of a cliff, Death Cab’s numbers defiantly soared, buoyed by steady touring and a fervent fanbase that now included those teens’ older siblings. Additionally, Gibbard’s collaborative album with Dntel, as The Postal Service, took his distinctive voice and pathos-laden lyrics platinum and helped define the bedroom pop sound. He’s had other collaborators since, but like many a frontman before him, Gibbard is now testing the sonic waters with an album all his own.

Solo ventures are a risky proposition. While some artists find themselves unshackled by their bandmates and break through into second acts in their careers that would make F. Scott Fitzgerald eat his words on the subject, others are simply unmoored. For every Gwen Stefani, there are multiple Patrick Stumps, whose attempts to carve out their own niche (in Stump’s case, outside of the band Fall Out Boy) turn into public debacles. Somehow it’s hard to imagine a similar fate befalling Gibbard’s October release Former Lives.

Playing all the instruments on the album, as he did before forming the band that made his reputation, Gibbard seems comfortable wearing multiple hats, and with the stakes for solo success (according to him, they’re relatively low). Co.Create recently spoke with the singer/songwriter about the perks of working without the safety net of a group and the pressure of facing expectations and hype all on his own.

Don’t Let Extra Material Go To Waste

Death Cab for Cutie kind of came out of the demos I was making of my own solo recordings on 4-track. Our first tape was basically Chris [Walla] recording me playing everything—early versions of what became the first record. So I know I can build a song on my own and make it presentable, but I guess in a way it was kind of enjoyable to remind myself that I could do it. I obviously had songs lying around, but not all of them I considered of a quality worth releasing to the world. But I felt with some of these songs I had, and others that I’ve written recently, that they would all hang nicely together.

I just kind of woke up one morning and realized "Oh yeah, I have some time on my hands, and I used to always record on my own, so why don’t I see how these new tunes turn out?" I felt like these songs needed to be recorded definitively just so I have them. If they form a record, great, and if not, they can be farmed out to movie soundtracks. Also, since the last time I made a recording like this, my musicianship has improved. Jason from Death Cab for Cutie has taught me to be a better drummer. I used to rimshot everything, so that’s certainly improved. I’ve picked up a more traditional style of playing bass too.

Try Things On Your Own That Don’t Work Within a Group

The songwriting on Death Cab records and on Former Lives all starts the same. They all start with me trying to complete a song to the best of my abilities. It’s not much different in the writing, but in the execution, there’s a lot of difference. In the band, I’m bringing songs to the rest of the guys and they sort of take them into the end zone, so to speak. The songs that I recorded for this record were more fully formed and more like the demos that are turned in than certainly most of the songs that end up on Death Cab records are at first.

The songs we choose for Death Cab records are based on a number of things, but they’re also based on what I feel everybody else can bring to the song and ideas they might have from a part they hear. They tend to be songs that the band can hear themselves in and are inspired by. A lot of the songs on Former Lives stray from the band and have a style that’s not really keeping with what we have established for ourselves. They’re like deleted scenes—they tell more of the story of this time in my life, but without furthering the story of the Death Cab album they might have been on.

Even On Your Own, Someone Else Should Play Devil’s Advocate

I didn’t miss [the system of checks and balances] that much with this collection of songs because I sort of knew exactly what I wanted to do. That’s not to say that I don’t appreciate it—I absolutely appreciate it. But I kind of knew how I wanted these songs to sound, and [co-producer] Aaron [Espinoza, from the band Earlimart] was there to help achieve the vision of the songs. Aaron was very good at lightly telling me if something wasn’t working, but those moments were relatively few and far between, and I don’t say that to be self-aggrandizing. The songs were far along when they came in. They had a bridge, an intro; everything was pretty much laid out in front of us. I think because I spent so much time recording with Death Cab, though, it was nice to kind of stray off a while into my own area and either fail or succeed depending on my own stake in the record.

Be Ready To Represent Yourself By Yourself

You kind of have to carry everything. You have to carry all the interviews. When we as a band are doing press, if I’m not in a good mood that day for whatever reason, I can just lean heavily on my bandmates who I’m doing the interviews with. It allows me to be a little less social. But doing it on my own, I have to carry everything, so I have to be on all the time. Being that this is the first time I’ve done it and the last for certainly a long time, I’m not complaining about it. I might feel different when this wears on into month three or four, though.

[Images: Flickr users Junia Mortimer, LucasWestcoat, and Laura Musselman Duffy; Death Cab for Cutie Promo Image: Tiny Human/Autumn de Wilde]

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