The Music Interview: Ben Gibbard

Pin it

[Editor’s Note: The introduction to the following Ben Gibbard interview has been reimagined as a transcript of the most harmonious McLaughlin Group episode ever. Guests include Terry McAuliffe, Sen. Orrin Hatch, Ann Coulter, George Stephanopolous and Janeane Garofalo.]

John McLaughlin [host]: Topic! Ben Gibbard! Terry McAuliffe, what say you?

McAuliffe [chairman of the Democratic National Committee]: Ben Gibbard is the rare indie-rock dude you want to hang with. You begrudge him nothing that he scores in his pursuit of stardom.

Hatch [Senator]: He’s someone you could take out for a beer and discuss your breakup with. And he might write a song about it. Not like Stephen Malkmus.

George Stephanopolous [host of ABC’s This Week]: Yeah, I’m down with the Ess-Dog, don’t get me wrong. But Steve’s a dude you hang with in a keep-an-eye-on-your-girlfriend type way. If you know what I mean.


McLaughlin: Garofalo, information please! Who is Ben Gibbard?

Janeane Garofalo: [comedian] The Sgt. Pepper of Seattle, sweet-voiced leader of the guitar-poppy, lonely-hearts-club band called Death Cab for Cutie. In his lyrics, he expresses vulnerability from a male perspective, but he’s not, like, Dashboard Confessional.

Coulter [?]: Which, in emo terms, means “bearable.”

Garofalo: I would have to agree with you there, Ann.

Coulter: Hell yes, girlfriend. And he’s hot too.

Garofalo: Snap!

[Coulter and Garofalo produce snaps.]

Hatch: I would remind Ms. Garofalo that the man has quite an an ear for melody, best heard on Death Cab’s second record, We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes. The third album, not so much. But the new one drops this summer, and the Daughters of the American Revolution and I have heard it will be better.

McAuliffe: Oh, the man says “Death Cab” like he’s down with the band! Don’t throw me that shit! Backstage, I asked you for your opinion on the import CD-5 of “The Ballad of Evan and Chan,” and you had no idea what I was talking about!

Hatch: [pause] My bad.

McAuliffe: God, the man is so ’95. He’s still waiting for the second Failure album.

McLaughlin: Topic! The Postal Service!

All: [Sighs of rapture.]

[Garofalo begins stroking Coulter’s flaxen hair and murmuring somnambulantly.]

Hatch: It’s Ben Gibbard’s latest project, a collaboration with the electronic artist Dntel. The album, Give Up, is a poppy dissection of modern romance. Hot track: “Brand New Colony,” a sweeping love song that envisions running away with a Nerve date to a parallel Logan’s Run-style universe. Only without the enforced death.

[Coulter rests head on Garofalo’s shoulder. Wispy golden strands catch in the sides of Garofalo’s mouth; she does not remove them]

McLaughlin: In this clip, Gibbard discusses Music for Airports, “records for fucking” and his serious thing for a certain ’80s hair band.

[Helpful note: The following is an interview that was actually conducted.] — Michael Martin

Nerve: So what was it like working with 50 Cent and Ludacris on Give Up?
Ben Gibbard: It was awesome! 50 Cent would come in and smoke some fat blunts, and we would just start rhymin’.

You have confessed to a love of Hall & Oates.
Yeah, I love Hall & Oates a whole bunch. You know, I think nothing’s not cool anymore. Everything’s been around the cycle of irony to the point that . . . well, I don’t even like them ironically. I’m kind of over hipster irony. I just think they’re great.

Did that love manifest itself in this album?
I don’t know if there’s a pinnacle song that’s a marker for anything on this record, but “Out of Touch” was my first introduction to Hall & Oates when I was a little kid. The way the chord progression moves through that song . . . it’s just so linear . . .

All I remember is the hair.
Yeah. They both had outlandish haircuts for the ’80s. Daryl Hall’s was pretty outrageous and huge. I saw him lately in Entertainment Weekly or some shit like that. He was still rocking the same haircut, and it looked good.

And I remember “Sarah Smile.”
You know, I dated a girl named Sarah in college. I sort of got really excited that there might be that chance that “Sarah Smile” could be our song. But then, of course, she dumped me.

The Postal Service album is a lovely record. It was put together through the mail. Tell me about that.
Dntel would send me the music on CD-R, like he was sending a mix CD. I would throw them into my computer and kind of cut it apart, and then I would sing and play over the top of it and send a demo back to him. I wasn’t sure it was going to work. I was afraid of fucking his shit up.

What kind of junk mail do you always open? I tend to open things labeled like “Save the Children,” and they’re always for penile enlargement.
I’m pretty good at not getting junk email. I used to have Hotmail, and I would open it up and have fifteen opportunities to enlarge my penis and get herbal Viagra from twenty-three different locations. That was nice. I liked that, because you could compare and contrast prices. But ever since I switched over to Earthlink, I don’t get any junk mail.

Does “emo” equal evil?
Um, not really. I think that there are gradations of emo. It comes up every once in a while with us. I think Death Cab is seen as more of a pop band than an emo band. I think a journalist in the UK put it best: if you’re going to use the word “emo,” say “emo affiliate.” We’re the quieter ones. Kids who like big rock bands listen to us when they’re making out. But I don’t really care. I mean, once you make music it’s somebody else’s job to give it a name.

Explain emo.
I think the stuff I grew up being into — like the Smiths, Morrissey and Afghan Whigs — was driven by confessional, highly emotional content. For whatever reason, when punk rockers started listening to that music and bringing it into their own realm, it took on a different name.

I wish I had a profound answer, but the only thing that comes to mind immediately is that a lot of really emotional music is spreading from the middle of the country out. It’s these Midwest-style bands. It seems that everybody growing up and finding their place in the world feels this kind of alienation. It gets boiled down to what some people might consider trivial: love, lost love. Everybody’s had the bad breakup and their record to help them through it. Whether you’re a fifteen-year-old kid in Lawrence, Kansas, listening to Dashboard Confessional or you’re a forty-year-old listening to Paul Simon. I think everybody has those emotional touchstones. Seems like in the last five to six years, there’s been an upsurge of that, more mainstream independent music. Music comes in waves, and people get excited about things.

Generally the Pacific Northwesterners have an ambivalent relationship with the dance beats. But not you.
It started when I worked on an earlier Dntel record [the lovely single “The Ballad of Evan and Chan”] I’ve never professed to be a big bank of knowledge on electronic music, and I met him through a friend. First and foremost, we were going to put out a really dancy pop record. We wanted to do hits — big pop songs without sacrificing texture and making a Justin Timberlake record.

What else were you listening to at sixteen?
I guess there are two different points of musical epiphany. The first is when you realize you like music, and that usually happens when you’re seven or eight years old. You hear the radio for the first time, or your parents spinning a Beatles record. The second is the turning point. For me, that involved bands like the Stone Roses and Charlatans UK and 80s-early 90s Manchester. Happy Mondays, that kind of junk, along with American punk and Bad Brains. Early on, it was poppy British stuff, and then American. I like punk rock music. I’ve always considered myself a fan of just pop music in all subgenres.

What albums do you play during sex?
It depends on what night it is and how many drugs have been consumed. You can’t go wrong with Low records for lovemaking. What would I grab if my girl was in my bed right now? American Analog Set, probably. Any soft, quiet stuff. This is creepy, but the last time I had sex, I had sex to a Kinski record. Bombastic and crazy. I think we were really wasted. I usually pull the quiet records before I pull the fucking records.

What are the fucking records?
I have a lot of lovemaking records, but not a lot of fucking records. I think the Blonde Redhead is kind of a fucking record. Blonde Redhead is definitely fucking, with the shrieks and et cetera. Yes, the Faint is definitely fucking. The Faint is all about fucking.

And what about music for self-love?
I didn’t have a lock on my bedroom door when I was a kid, so I couldn’t masturbate with music on. I never got caught, like blatantly caught, but there was no lock on my door when I was really getting into it, when I first discovered how awesome it was. But now, I’ve been going to sleep to lots of ambient stuff, like Brian Eno, Music for Airports. It’s either that or Sade.

Are you serious?

Name the perfect pop song.
“There She Goes” by the La’s. it’s the perfect length, the melody is simple, it just picks you up and pulls you off the ground. It’s just the perfect uplifting burst of happiness in an otherwise dreary existence. It uses the same three chords as a million other songs and somehow manages to pull a new melody out of it. Beautiful.

Have you ever pulled an Elvis and started weeping onstage?
I don’t think so.

Any intra-band brawls?
Collectively, no. I think the last time I hit someone, I was twelve.

What’s the most sensitive fan gift you’ve ever received?
I got a poem one time. It was a long poem, and I felt really bad about it. It happened during a show in a small town, and I happened to be dating this girl who lived nearby. A woman gave me an envelope from the stage, and I put it in my backpack and didn’t read it. I didn’t want to read it there — I didn’t want to pull a bunch of guys over and be a dick and be like, Heyyyy! Well, at the end, the letter said, “My friends are going to be standing outside after the show smoking a cigarette. Come by and we’ll get a drink after.” Unwittingly, I walked out after the show and saw this girl, and I was like, “Hey, what’s up?” and I was holding hands with this other girl. It looked really bad, because I hadn’t read the letter and I didn’t say anything. I felt like it was kind of lame.

You’re going to have to live with that, every day for the rest of your life.
I know.

Oh look, “Fan-sex question.” I didn’t even bother to write it out.
Well, I’m really not that aggressive. I tend to get the least amount of girl-fan attention, probably because my bandmates are far more attractive than I am. I’m more passive. I guess if you’re some attractive fashiony band you might get some of that, but not us. I think we’re too normal. But I’ve never heard of people being aggressively stalked or approached by female fans in indie-rock circles. I don’t think it’s like a Slaughter show. There’s not much Winger action happening.  


© 2003 Michael Martin and Nerve.com.