Something ridiculous happened to Ben Gibbard yesterday, but aside from that small detail, he can’t talk about it. While he’s explaining the absurdity of the event without mentioning much more, it sounds like a story is on the tip of his tongue. Maybe he wants to say something, if only to express how crazy the whole ordeal is. But still, I’m a writer, and he’s on a major press push for his first solo album, Former Lives, after a chaotic 2012. I wouldn’t trust me either. But whatever it was, it only could have happened in L.A.
“I’m not at liberty to discuss my activity yesterday, but there’s a crazy thing about being in Los Angeles,” Gibbard laughs. “You end up with the weirdest people around a dinner table or at a show or at a party. You have to step back and go, ‘This is the trippiest day of my fucking life.’ It’s weird, it’s one of the benefits of not living here anymore, but passing through here, you find yourself with those people. It’s exciting, but it’s not real.”
The thought’s a funny one, but it’s not unfamiliar to the songwriter, whose recorded fascination with the city started in 2001 when he first asked “Why You’d Want to Live Here” on Death Cab for Cutie’s The Photo Album. He’s had a complicated relationship with the place since, moving there in time to run his first marathon in 2011 and ultimately relocating to his native Seattle shortly after.
It’s fitting with the release of this solo album, which sees the songwriter finding new light in old ideas. It’s a collection that spans over eight years, starting around the time of Death Cab’s Plans in 2005, but if you haven’t cracked a music rag (or skimmed a cover of People or Runner’s World) since then, it’s been a stacked near-decade that’s seen Gibbard trade too much drinking for long-distance running, get married to indie darling Zooey Deschanel, record three albums with Death Cab (that’s Plans, Narrow Stairs and Codes and Keys if you’re keeping track), get a divorce, collaborate with greats like Jay Farrar, travel the world and, as his Twitter proves, watch plenty of baseball.
That’s where this solo album comes into play for Gibbard. It’s a celebration or reflection on all of these times, good or bad.
“Every song that you write is about a time that no longer exists,” Gibbard says. “But the interesting things about songs, you know, doesn’t just stand a fiscal year of writing and recording. Every record that Death Cab has made is a reflection of my musings over a set period of time. The oldest song [on Former Lives] is eight years, but most of the songs are certainly more recent than that. They exist as stages of my life and I just felt that giving the record the title Former Lives was a nice bow to tie around these songs, kind of make them all live harmoniously next to each other.”
But even after the shifting times, one thing has remained constant for Gibbard: unsurprisingly, that’s his relationship with the craft of songwriting. Although he does concede that it’s much easier to write without a throbbing headache from being hungover, the process, the getting up and writing daily is the one thing that’s stayed the same, and if anything, his newfound focus on running has changed this process for the better.
“That’s not what I felt in my mind when I stopped drinking and started running. If anything I felt much more clear and focused. Most of the highs and lows, you can’t run away from them. Lord knows I’ve tried. I’ve logged hundreds of miles trying to get away from emotional demons but they don’t go away. You’re still at this process. It happens whether you’re drunk or sober or you’re a runner or you’re not.”
It might be the rough times that contribute to the art he’s writing, but that execution comes from sitting down with his guitar day to day. After all, Gibbard says, he doesn’t believe in the myth of Charles Bukowski, that the author’s genius came from drinking himself silly night after night, or even that “getting sober makes you any better than staying drunk,” he maintains.
For Bukowski, his talent came from his hours sitting at a typewriter, not in front of a bottle. Likewise for Gibbard, his own execution comes from year after year with a guitar. And it’s helping him a little along the way, too. ??“You can augment problems with substances or behavioral patterns, but they don’t go away,” Gibbard says. “The demons are chasing you. They’re going to chase me until the day I die and may catch me. But at the same time it’s like I said, I’m literally trying to outrun them. But they don’t go away. You have to kind of face them and I face them with a pen and a guitar.”
Gibbard’s finding this inspiration to sit down every day all over. He’s finding aural truths in everything from St. Vincent’s arrangements to seeing the beauty in the two-chord, melodically sound ‘90s hit “There She Goes,” to working with Farrar and watching him flip a song’s key on a whim. Whether it’s simple and sweet or lush and layered, that perfect song is still something he’s interested in attaining, and this collection sees him exploring every avenue of that experimentation.
We see it all over Former Lives, starting with the charming, a cappella “Shepherd’s Bush Lullaby,” a song that caught Gibbard in such a fit of inspiration in (you guessed it) Shepherd’s Bush, London, that he recorded the whole thing on his iPhone. And between a home-run collaboration with Aimee Mann on “Bigger than Love” and a twangy, pedal-steel driven track in “Broken Yolk in Western Sky,” we’re rewarded with those hours in front of a guitar.
It’s a collection that only dates Gibbard by his tales that he spins, and you need to look no further than the album’s first single, “Teardrop Windows,” to see that. It’s a tribute to the Smith Tower in Seattle, but at the core it’s about worthwhile art being discarded day-to-day, something that’s more present now than Gibbard could have imagined in 2001. We see it not only in consumption (take a look at the daily timestamps on any constantly updated blog to see how fast the music world is turning), but also in dated production trends that are noticeably absent on Former Lives.
“The song is literally about a building in Seattle, but I certainly meant it to be about something more than just that. I wanted it be in my mind, the song is a story about something beautiful that has gone underappreciated in the literal shadow of something flashier…I definitely did not write the song about myself, but I think it is sort of a comment on the culture that is so quick to discard things as soon as something new and exciting holds into their field of vision.
“That’s the culture which we live in and there’s nothing we can do about it. There’s no point trying to think about it because you sound kind of like an old man. I would be kind of remiss if I didn’t comment, if I didn’t feel, if I didn’t kind of act on my feeling of wanting to write the best songs I can.”