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Ben Gibbard Drives Death Cab For Cutie Down Memory Lane

The celebrated indie rock frontman glances in the rearview mirror while approaching the band's 25th anniversary.

by Madeline Lines

In the weeks since the drop of Death Cab for Cutie’s latest album, Asphalt Meadows, I’ve found myself humming a song that reminds me of Christmas drives across the Prairies. In ‘Wheat like Waves,’ frontman Ben Gibbard sings an ode to being on the road with an old friend. So when I call him to chat, I immediately thank him for shouting out Saskatchewan. “It’s a lot of syllables and hard consonants,” muses Gibbard. “So maybe it’s not exactly the most singable of the provinces, but I nailed it.” 

In big and small ways, the new album sees Death Cab challenge themselves while simultaneously staring down the past. It’s clearest in the standout ‘Foxglove Through the Clearcut,’ a bittersweet ballad where Gibbard doesn’t sing but talks. He was adamant the song be one of the first singles, because it felt like such a departure from the last couple of records. 

“Having never done recitation in a song, I thought it would be kind of a nice curveball to throw at people,” says Gibbard. “I thought people might like it, but I didn’t expect it to be one of the more lauded songs on the record.”

Producer John Congleton also nudged the making of Asphalt Meadows into the sweet spot it exists in – between the comfort of the Death Cab you love and some subtle surprises. Gibbard says this happened in the studio, when Congleton would encourage them to stop and reconsider the usual ‘fixes’ that were a part of their music-making workflow. 

“He worked against our worst instincts of trying to make things sound perfect,” says Gibbard. “It’s easy, in this world of very quick and easy digital manipulation, to make things sound that way.”

Asphalt Meadows’ sound was also shaped by a fractured band working across cities during the pandemic, taking shifts shaping each piece. Gibbard was clearly writing from this quarantined, hyper-reflective state as well. In songs like, ´I Miss Strangers,’ he sings about missing strangers more than friends. It wasn’t the first time he’d made a long distance record, though. The Postal Service’s Give Up was famously made by, and named after, sending tapes back and forth in the mail. 

“Making that record was the first inkling of like, ‘Oh wow, when somebody else writes the music, my mind goes to different places,’ lyrically, and narratively,” says Gibbard. 

Nearly 20 years have passed since Give Up and Death Cab’s Transatlanticism shook up the sound of early aughts indie almost at the same time. Leave it to a prolific dynamo like Gibbard to release two of his most beloved albums within the same year. In the 25 years since the start of Death Cab, he’s never slowed down – remarkably so. While the rest of us were spiraling in our bedrooms in early 2020, Gibbard immediately sprung to action with the comforting ‘Live From Home’ sessions. His healthy work ethic is powered by bouts of down time and going for runs, gulping in the fresh air. 

“The older that I’ve gotten, the more I’ve relished in and needed a distance from my work,” says Gibbard. “The hours on the trail, when I’m running in the mountains, that’s time to not think about music.”

Asphalt Meadows is a meditation on getting older, and the bittersweet emotions that spring up from looking back on a life compulsively chaptered in song. It’s an album that wrinkles when it smiles. Gibbard is clearly considering his legacy, musing in “Fragments from the Decade” about watching 1950s movies with long-gone movie stars. When I ask what he’d like to be remembered by (aside from the obvious picks), he points to the soundtrack he created for the 2006 Nirvana documentary About a Son. That’s the beauty of Gibbard’s near-constant music-making – there are plenty of avenues to wander down, and this album proves that there are many yet to come. 

“There’s a sense of comfort in knowing that, as an artist, you leave something behind that might impact someone’s life later down the road,” says Gibbard. “If I’ve made anything that could have any kind of impact on somebody’s life in generations past when I’m on this planet, that’s an incredible honor.”