You might know Ben Gibbard as the frontman of Seattle alt-rock stalwarts Death Cab for Cutie. Or maybe you're still hooked on "Give Up," the glorious album he and producer Jimmy Tamborello recorded back in 2003 under the name The Postal Service. Or maybe I'm kidding myself and you know nothing about him apart from the fact that he used to be married to Zooey Deschanel.
Whichever category (or categories) you fall into, you're now about to discover a new side of this silver-voiced singer-songwriter, who's using the name Benjamin Gibbard for what's being billed as the first solo album of his career.
Its title, "Former Lives," refers to the sweeping changes that have upended Gibbard's life in the eight years since he began writing the songs collected here. He got married and divorced. He gave up drinking. He moved to L.A., and then moved back to Seattle. He became a vocal advocate for the legalization of gay marriage and wound up in the crosshairs of the Westboro Baptist Church crazies.
Gibbard knows he's lucky to make his living writing songs, but not every song he writes fits into the gently epic Death Cab template. Hence the need for "Former Lives," which collects tunes that don't deserve to be ignored just because they're a little bit different. There's an a-capella ditty sung into an iPhone, a jumped-up yodel featuring an all-female mariachi band, and a duet with Aimee Mann ("Bigger Than Love") that's based on the letters of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. But there are also more familiar Gibbard ingredients, like yearning, heartbreak, lovesickness and woe.
HuffPost Entertainment caught up with Gibbard to discuss his new name, the death of local rock scenes and the changes of the past eight years -- including a major one he really kind of doesn't want to talk about.
Michael Hogan: Why are you calling yourself Benjamin Gibbard?
Ben Gibbard: I thought I'd use something a little more formal for the solo album. People call me Ben, but maybe go with something a little more regal. The full name gives it a little more elegance.
Is that what your mother calls you when she's upset with you?
Maybe once in a while. But I feel like naming it Benjamin was more of a formality than something people call me when they're mad at me.
It's interesting to hear an album of songs that were written over the past eight years.
There are some that are more recent. The oldest song is eight years old, but the vast majority of them are more recent. They're not quote-unquote old songs, and I certainly don't consider them throw-aways -- which is why I wanted to make a record of them.
But they do reflect a more varied set of inspirations than you might hear on a Death Cab album.
Every record that we make, there tends to be a theme that makes itself apparent as we sift through the songs, and there tend to be sonic threads we want to put together, and that unfortunately leaves a song or two along the way as a deleted scene from the record. And I think these songs are more indicative of my dusty record collection than they are the sound of the band that I'm in.
On some of these songs, you can hear specific influences, whether it's Big Star or Teenage Fanclub. Do you think that's something we're losing in the Spotify, iTunes era? A recent blog post about the Brooklynization of music argued that musicians today hear too much and have lost their connection to local scenes.
I think there's some truth to that observation -- that the reason indie-rock scenes were able to grow and flourish, certainly in the 90s, was that nobody had a camera pointed at Chapel Hill, North Carolina, or Seattle or Athens or any of these other towns where all of a sudden, overnight, it seemed that there were at least five great bands and a lot of other really good bands. There was a scene and everybody knew each other. These people had been playing music together for a long time and making 7-inches and tapes and swapping bands and all that sort of thing. And I think that what we've lost in the Internet age is any scene's ability to grow organically and be specific to the region that it's in. I'm certainly not going to take the position, now that I'm in my mid to late 30s, that there's nothing good anymore or it's not the same as it was in my day. I would never take that position, because I firmly believe that music has never been better, and the ability for weird-ass bands like Animal Collective to sell out theaters around the country is something that never would have happened when I was in high school. I think it's better to live in a world where people have access to the niches that they love, but I think what we do see -- I didn't read that article, but I can only assume that it makes this point -- when we look across indie rock are a lot of very similar production trends and sonic trends. And they're happening, you know, as an outcropping of maybe Brooklyn, but they seem to be happening everywhere, and that's a little bit unfortunate.
How did the Aimee Mann collaboration come together for this album, speaking of scenes cross-pollinating?
I've been friends with Aimee for some time now, and when I was writing that song I envisioned it as a duet. It's written from the perspective of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, and I took a lot of inspiration from their writing but also specifically a book of letters that they wrote back and forth to each other called "Dear Scott, Dear Zelda." I wanted it to be a duet and I thought that Aimee would make a great foil. And she's wonderful. She's a legend, for Chrissakes, and she's also one of the funniest people I've met in my life. She sees the humor in everything, and I think that any good songwriter has to have a good sense of humor.
Are you still in trouble with the Westboro Baptist Church?
I wouldn't say trouble. They had their little protest. Emphasis on little. I think there were more people counter-protesting than there were from Westboro. But as much as I find that sort of speech disgusting, I'd rather live in a country that allows for it and for everybody to see what a small minority that group represents, than to live in a country that would hinder that kind of speech. You have to take the good with the bad.
You've just been through a divorce. How much has that affected the songs on this album?
Well, you know, I don't really kind of want to talk at all about that. I think that anything that I write moving forward, you know, people are going to speculate till the cows come home. And I certainly don't want to give people a road map to that speculation. More times than not, when people think a song's about a certain thing, it's not. But for obvious personal reasons, but also because I want these songs to exist within the context of people's lives who are listening to them, I don't want to tell people what part of these songs are my own confessions about my life and the life of those around me. I think it kind of cheapens the purpose of writing a song in the first place --
When it becomes a biographical footnote instead of its own living thing?
Sure. And people are going to and will speculate, and I will continue to write the kind of songs that I write -- and dodge questions like this all day long.
A couple years ago you sang with Jenny Lewis and Conor Oberst on a really wonderful version of "Handle With Care," which was originally recorded by the middle-aged rock stars of The Traveling Wilburys. Where do you hope to be in your career when you're their age?
I've lived my entire adult life never looking forward more than six months in the future, so that's kind of difficult to speculate on. But as I continue to move forward in my life as a musician, I just want to continue to accrue a body of work that people can place in the context of their lives and relate to, and find some joy in. And I am doing exactly what I want to do with my life. You know, outside of playing shortstop for the Seattle Mariners -- I didn't do that, but after that dream this became everything I wanted to do. And for all of the things that people get caught up in, press says this, press says that, people said this, message board that, I've long since cut that out of my life and realized, Listen, I get to do exactly what I want to do with my life. I get to make a really good living doing it. And there are people who have contextualized the music that I write into their lives in a way that it will be there forever. I can't ask for more than that.
Stream 'Former Lives' in its entirety below.