Death Cab’s Ben Gibbard Survives Scorpion Attack
In 1998, the now-defunct TRL launched its reign over pop music, the Backstreet Boys and Third Eye Blind topped the charts, and an unknown band called Death Cab for Cutie released their first album, Something About Airplanes — a carefully-crafted collection of tunes recorded in a house in Bellingham, Washington. Ten years later the band is still making songs but have since moved labels from Barsuk to Atlantic Records, made their own mark on MTV (recently winning a Video Music Award for the song “I Will Possess Your Heart”), and captivated boys and girls the world over who appreciate a little erudition with their music. This year saw the release both of Death Cab’s sixth studio album Narrow Stairs (which reached #1 on the Billboard chart in its debut week, scoring the band their first number-one album and a couple of Grammy nominations) as well as the re-release of Airplanes, with a bonus disc of the band’s first Seattle show in February of 1998. Ben Gibbard spoke to us about the re-release, his budding acting career, and the unintended benefits of being stung by a scorpion.
I want to you to take me back to the time of Something About Airplanes. What was 1998 Ben Gibbard into? What were his hopes and dreams? At that time that we were recording the record, I was in my last year of college. I was finishing a degree in environmental chemistry, and I was working at — this is going to sound crazy — but I was working in an environmental testing lab at an oil refinery. I had this internship that I worked at one or two days a week, and between that and school, we would all figure out what times of the week worked out, we were recording in our house, and we would all meet there and make the record. And at the time I think that the most that I could ever hope for, or the ideal state of living at that point, was to sell enough records to have touring be something that wasn’t lofty. We could make enough money to maybe cover a couple months between temp jobs when we got back.
So your fallback plan was to be an environmental chemist? At the time I was working at this job, I had gone through lots and lots of training at this job for my internship. So I kinda kept my employers like, I would go in and be like “Hey listen, I’m going to go on tour for a few weeks, and if you need to let me go that’s fine, but it’ll take you six months to train somebody to where I am, so I’m only going to go for two weeks, is that OK?” and they’d be like “Yeah, OK, go.” So it was kind of a nice thing to hold over my employer’s head.
There was a 14-year-old commenter on one the posts from when Death Cab took over the website Stereogum for a day. He wondered about what your first show was like. What can you tell him about it? The first show I ever played as a kid, I was in a band, a high school band. We were called Oddfellows Local, after the REM song “Oddfellows Local 151.” I remembered being so nervous between songs, but when I was playing, it felt so natural, it felt like exactly what I was supposed to be doing. I felt very much at home.
Do you have any advice for that commenter, as a young musician? I think the advice that I would give anybody who’s starting out in playing music is just that you’re doing it for the right reasons — that it’s fun and that you can’t not do it. None of us started a band because we wanted to be rich or famous. We started it because we loved each other and we loved playing music with each other. And the bonds that form with your band mates are very strong and really unique, and they’re something very special. It’s the collective that makes the music great. And I think it’s really important to recognize that and coddle that.
OK, now I’m going to bring you back to the present. It was just announced that Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, based on the David Foster Wallace book, and directed by John Krasinski, is going to Sundance. Are you going to go? Yeah, I think I may actually. I’m not quite sure yet. I still haven’t seen the movie, so I don’t know. The movie went through a number of different cuts, first I was in it, then I was out, then I was back in, then I was a different character. It’s a little complicated to be able to follow it. But apparently now I’m back in the movie, and I’m anxious to see how it turned out. I know that John’s been laboring over it in the very limited amount of time he’s had to work on it, with his TV show and his movie career. So I’m really proud that he finally got it all put together and I’m really excited to see it.
What can you tell me about the AIDS benefit album Dark Was the Night and how you got hooked up with Feist on that? Well, you know Leslie and I are friends, and when we were recording Narrow Stairs, she would be in San Francisco when we were recording, and we were just hanging out after a show and somebody had mentioned this compilation, and it just kind of came through that it was all folk covers, and I just suggested like “Well, I’ve always loved this Vashti Bunyan song called ‘Train Song.'” I’ve always loved the idea of traveling to see somebody that you’ve haven’t seen in a really long time, and you’re not sure if the spark is still going to be there. And I kind of like the idea of doing it like a duet, where he sings, then she sings. The hardest thing about singing with her is that her voice is so acrobatic, so trying to match her vocal was difficult because I have a pretty matter-of-fact singing voice.
The video for “Soul Meets Body,” directed by Jon Watts, is one of my favorites. How much input do you have in your music videos, and do you have a personal favorite? I kind of shy away from videos that are literal interpretations of the songs, because then they’re redundant or unnecessary, so we’re always looking for video treatments that kind of feel the spirit of the song rather than just rip the lyrics out and re-create the lyrics. With Jon, we looked at a lot of treatments, and we weren’t trying to be like, “Let’s try to get Spike Jonze.” There are all of these great people doing videos who are young, hungry, and they want to do it. Jon came with this great idea which was the video for “Soul Meets Body,” and really we just want directors to make us look as good as possible, but move forward with their ideas and execute their vision.
As far as favorite videos, it was a miserable video for me, but I really l like the video for “I Will Follow You in the Dark.” I loved the concept, and the execution is really great. We shot that in Romania, and it was on a totally dark soundstage, and I was jetlagged for about two days, but I think it turned out really well, and I think the concept was beautiful.
You’ve survived a scorpion, uh, let’s call it an attack, recently. Did you show it who was boss? I will say that it was very painful, but over the course of the evening, I got stung, and then we played a show, then I was driving — we played in San Diego and I was driving a rental car back to my girlfriend’s place in LA — and they were like “Are you OK to drive?” and I was like “Yeah, I’m fine.” You know, I felt fine. I think after an hour of jumping up and down, the poison would have made its way through my body to the extent that I would have known if I couldn’t drive. So I was driving back up, and then I started feeling this really strange euphoria running up my upper back and then my neck, and by the time I got to LA I was really kind of high. Like, a really strange euphoric sensation that I can only attribute to whatever the scorpion put in my body. I’m not trying to be that guy that’s like “Yeah, I was fucking tripping out on scorpion blood.” You know, I got stung, it was poison, my leg was killing me. It felt like I poured boiling water on my thigh. It was painful, but at the same time it was a strange kind of euphoria, and then by the time I woke up the next morning, I couldn’t feel the bottom of my feet or my tongue. So it was an odd 24 hours as the poison moved through my body. I wouldn’t recommend it for psychedelic purposes, but it was an experience, to say the least.