BENJAMIN GIBBARD and JULIE DOIRON at the Danforth Music Hall (147 Danforth) Sunday (October 14) at 7:15 p.m. $25.50-$35 416-778-8163. See listing.
Death Cab For Cutie's Benjamin Gibbard is in Seattle, where he lives, again, when I speak to him about his debut solo album, Former Lives [Barsuk].
Late last year he made headlines after his split with actress and singer Zoey Deschanel, who he had lived with in Los Angeles - but that's just one of a number of former lives referred to in the album's title, as these songs were written over a span of about eight years.
Like the early Death Cab For Cutie cassette from 1997, most of the songs on Former Lives feature Gibbard on every instrument; he even bookends the album with songs he recorded himself on an iPhone and in Garageband. Most were recorded in Los Angeles with producer Aaron Espinoza, while a couple were recorded in Brooklyn by Mark Spencer (Spencer and Jon Wurster played on those).
Musically, the unifying theme is that the songs don't sound like Death Cab For Cutie: they range from folky a capella, to jangly acoustic pop, to reverby and stately descending electric guitar (on Teardrop Windows) to Kinks meets indie-pop (on Bigger Than Love, a duet with Aimee Mann) to mariachi (on Something's Rattling).
In our short conversation, we touched on his tribute to Seattle's Smith Tower, the joys of recording alone, the wealth of musicians in L.A., being back on Barsuk, and his duet with Aimee Mann.
Can you tell me a bit about Smith Tower (the building in the song Teardrop Windows)?
It's been one of my favourite buildings in Seattle for as long as I can remember. Up until a point it was the tallest building west of the Mississippi and it was the tallest skyscraper not in New York City. It's still a functioning office building but it's gone through a series of unfortunate twists and turns over the years that have left it somewhat decimated as far as its vacancies goes.
Also the area that the building is in, Pioneer Square, is the old town part of Seattle, which, in fact, is going through revival right now, but for a long time was frat bars and junkies basically.
It's a beautiful building, I attempted at times to write it into songs and never really was able to do it justice until I gave it its own tune.
Did I read your tour itinerary correctly: are you playing a show there?
I am. There's an observation deck at the top and I'm playing a benefit for Referendum 74, which is a referendum here in Washington State to approve gay marriage by popular vote. So it's a very small show, but it's a high ticket, fundraising type of event.
Why did you decide to make your first solo album now?
For the first time I felt like I had enough material to do so. Over the last maybe three records, here and there, I started accruing a couple tunes that weren't in keeping with the Death Cab records we were making at the time, either stylistically or lyrically. It's not as if I made this record because I was feeling like I wasn't happy in the band or that the band was stifling my creativity but it seemed apparent that these songs were not going to see the light of day in Death Cab For Cutie. And that, you know, I found myself with some time on my hands while I was writing for Codes And Keys and figured I'd break up the other recording sessions for Codes And Keys with some of my own, just to keep my chops up.
I [recorded them] with the hope that, "oh, maybe these will turn into a record" and thankfully for me they did. I'd do five or six days of recording every couple months. Until I had all the songs in front of me, I didn't really think about it even being a record.
It sounds like a record.
Well, it should. I think it's because even though the songs are newer and older as far as the last eight years or so goes, I recorded them all at virtually the same time.
What's the oldest song on the album, and are any of them recent?
I've gone on record talking about the song Broken Yolk In Western Sky, if only because I was playing it live at solo shows in 2005. If it weren't for the fact that I played that song so long ago, I suppose I could have lied about them all being brand new. It's somewhat of a disadvantage as far as the narrative goes. But it was a song I wrote around the time of Plans, and it was always one of my favourite little songs that I wrote, but if you've heard Plans, and you've heard this song, I think it's pretty apparent that they don't belong on the same record. I kind of sat on it. I figured at some point I would record a version of it, it would live somewhere.
Something's Rattling (Cowpoke) was a song that I wrote when I was living in Los Angeles. I took the music from a cowboy song called Cowpoke, by Stan Jones - I had to write new lyrics for it. We got permission to do that after the fact but I was a little bit nervous there for a while, [as] we were trying to find the owner of the copyright for a while to try to clear it. Foolishly I didn't realize that was something that you couldn't do without permission - you have to have the owner's permission before using a song.
Those are at opposite ends of the spectrum chronologically.
Speaking of Something's Rattling (Cowpoke), where did you find the mariachi band? Who are those guys?
They're not guys, they're girls. They're an all-female mariachi band called Trio Ellas. Literally this is one of the great things about being in Los Angeles playing music: you can decide you want a mariachi band in the studio on a Monday and they'll show up on a Tuesday.
[My management] called Ozomatli's people, and Ozomatli had worked with these women, so we just brought them in.
I gave them the song with the vocal and my guitar, and said, "play this song as if it was your song, as if this was a song you were playing tonight at a gig."
They took it and ran with it and they just killed it. They did such a great job.
Other than that and the few people in Brooklyn, NY (Jon Wurster and Mark Spenser) and Aimee Mann this was an almost entirely solo album, right?
Yeah, I played pretty much everything on the record. Which is something that [I did on the] first Death Cab tape, that's kind of how the band started, with me playing everything first, recording it.
Don't get me wrong, I love making records with my band, it makes me incredibly happy, but it's also nice to be behind the mic the whole day [in the studio]. When you're in a band, you end up reading a magazine 75% of the time.
Did you have Aimee Mann in mind for the duet for a long time?
I didn't write it with her in mind, but certainly when I was thinking of people who could maybe come in and sing it, Aimee was the first person I thought of. Aimee and I have been friends with some time, and she came down to the studio and knocked it out in a day. I don't think I'm speaking in hyperbole when I say that she's a legend, so it's an honour to just know her, but to be able to have her come down and sing on my little song; it's great.
How does it feel being back on Barsuk?
It feels good. I've enjoyed working with people at Atlantic, and my desire to put this record out on Barsuk was not in any way an expression of any dissatisfaction with Atlantic: it just seemed like the right thing to do. I think if I were to have done this on a major label, I feel it might have given the impression that this was my attempt to step out and be a big rock star, you know? And that was by no means my intention with this record.
Also, it feels kind of like going home again. The people at Barsuk (especially Josh Rosenfeld and Emily, and Christopher) we've known each other now for almost 20 years, so it feels like a mixture of business and friendship that feels very natural, kind of like putting on an old soft shirt.
Are you going to do another solo album?
Who knows? Maybe someday.