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Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard: 'I find it easier to write about my past than my present'

Death Cab for Cutie play two shows at the Palace Theatre in St. Paul this weekend.

Death Cab for Cutie play two shows at the Palace Theatre in St. Paul this weekend. Eliot Lee Hazel

Nothing stays the same—not your hometown, not your heroes, not even your favorite indie-rock band.

In the case of Death Cab for Cutie, that’s not a bad thing. The group’s ninth studio album, Thank You for Today, is its first recorded without guitarist-songwriter Chris Walla, who left the band in 2014 after a 17-year run. Dave Depper and Zac Rae, formerly touring Death Cab musicians, are now full-fledged band members. If anything, the band’s sound is smoother, more unified than in the past.

What hasn’t changed throughout Death Cab’s 21 years are frontman Ben Gibbard’s mesmeric vocals, dreamy arrangements, and tender, truthful lyrics. Thank You for Today is a futuristic, pulsating meditation on loss, leaving, and letting go. Gibbard’s masterful songwriting makes nostalgia and regret seem like perfectly valid reasons for a dance party.

We spoke to Gibbard ahead of the band’s sold-out show at the Palace Theatre on Friday.

City Pages: Let’s start with the album’s title. Is the phrase “thank you for today” something that you say or something that was said to you?

Ben Gibbard: Our producer Rich Costey worked with a Scandinavian band that would say that to each other at the end of their days in the studio. We kind of co-opted it and started saying it, maybe slightly in jest. Over time, it became an earnest expression of gratitude, so we decided it would make a nice title for the album.

CP: This is the first Death Cab album without Chris Walla. How did his absence affect the sound, for better or worse?

BG: I don’t think his absence affected anything. Somebody not being there doesn’t have an effect on what the record sounds like. For me, the sound of this record is more determined by the contributions that Dave and Zac made in the studio rather than someone not being there. I like to think this record is the product of addition, not subtraction.

CP: You’ve been playing in this band so long. Does its music still surprise you? Or is it old hat by now?

BG: I certainly wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t feel there were still areas to explore and discover new things in. Obviously, I have developed a particular style of songwriting that has been prevalent throughout our catalog, but I’d like to think that every record that we make – whether it’s things that long-time fans are excited about or they might dislike or truly loathe – has some elements that are presenting the sound of this band in a new way.

CP: Is the subject of the song “60 & Punk” a real person or a fictional character?

BG: That song is very much about a real person who I’ve intentionally been keeping anonymous. For me, that song is about the concept of hero worship and how, growing up in the era we grew up in, it was very easy to look at our heroes onstage and that’s all that we knew about them. There wasn’t social media. There weren’t people saying, “Ryan Adams really loves cats and pinball machines!” You wouldn’t know that about people you grew up listening to and idolizing. We just knew them as musicians. This song is meant to be a humanizing take on someone who I grew up admiring who fell on some hard times and let addiction get the best of them for a period of time. The song is not meant to be an indictment in any way whatsoever but more so the humanization of, as I call them in the song, a superhero.

CP: Has the music industry has allowed you to age gracefully? Or do you feel like whoever is young and new and hot is constantly nipping at your heels?

BG: I’ve never subscribed to the notion that there are a finite number of music fans in the world or that if someone is a fan of whatever’s got Pitchfork’s “Best Of” music today that they can’t be a fan of a band that started 10 years ago or 20 years ago or 40 years ago. One of the things that’s really great about this era we’re living in is that what is ostensibly the history of recorded music is at our fingertips at all times. If I see how young people listen to music now, sure, they’re probably gravitating towards things that are new and contemporary to them, but because of playlist culture, people are being introduced to music from all different eras.

As I look at how our audience has evolved over time, we certainly still have fans who look like us as far as our age group and demographics, but what’s most surprising is the swath of ages and demographics that are at our shows now. Also, when you see people online talking about who their favorite bands are, it could be a band that just put out a single today, it could be the Jesus & Mary Chain, and it could be us, and it could be the Beatles. I don’t see any kind of disadvantage in aging in music. As long as you keep the tempos up and write from an honest place, I’m not concerned about that piece of it.

CP: “Gold Rush” sounds like a lament for a changing neighborhood. Where did that song come from?

BG: I’ve lived in Seattle for pretty much my entire adult life. All cities change over time, but I think Seattle – because of the advent and rise of Amazon – has been changing rapidly. I go away for six months and I come back and the city’s different. Whenever a city goes through the kind of growth and change Seattle is going through, there’s very little time to think about the long term and there’s very little time to recognize what’s worth saving and what isn’t. I’ve noticed how much I’ve connected my memories to the geography around me. That’s something that I’ve done myself; that’s not something that’s been done to me, but the song represents my coming to terms with how when one places the hard drive of memory on physical places and those physical places go away, it’s almost as if you’re grappling with the loss of that period of your life or that memory.

CP: Longing and loneliness seem to be recurring themes in your music. Are you lonely and/or longing for someone?

BG: I’m certainly not lonely, but I, like many people, write from a solitary place. Being a writer of any discipline involves long periods of time in one’s own head, normally alone. Those moments of solitude – for most people, and certainly most artists – tend to be introspective times. When one is experiencing a self-imposed period of solitude for the purpose of writing, I just know that my mind tends to gravitate towards those places. I find a lot of those explorations much more enriching and I find many more answers that I’m looking for in my own life in those moments of solitude than I do when I’m surrounded by people.

CP: Do you find that it’s easier to write about love you’ve lost rather than love you currently have?

BG: I don’t think it’s love as much as it is I find it easier to write about moments in my past than moments in my present. When you write about a moment that has passed, the further you are away from it, the more you allow fiction to enter into the perception of your own reality. The distance allows much-needed perspective and it allows poetic license to take hold of it. The best compliments I could get as a songwriter are the ones where people think the song is ripped exactly out of my life. There are certainly songs I’m more present in than others, but when someone asks me how I could write something so personal, I consider that a successful song, that someone is immediately jumping to the conclusion that because I’m writing in the first person, that these lyrics appear so confessional, that there’s no way they could not have happened to me. Obviously, I never go through every line and tell people what’s true and what’s not, but to me, that’s the goal: create a world in which the listener can kind of visualize that the writer had this experience in which to be able to write about it as eloquently as they perceive it to be.

Death Cab For Cutie
Where: Palace Theatre
When: 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 5 and Saturday, Oct. 6
Tickets: Friday sold out, Saturday $47.50; more info here