AS Review: What is it like returning to Bellingham, the place where it all began, to play a show for students at your alma mater?
Ben Gibbard: It’s odd to kind of come back here because so many of my formative musical and life memories are here. This was a really formative time of my life living here. When I was driving up Garden to come to the PAC, I was driving by my sister’s old apartment and my old girlfriend’s apartment. When I come back to Bellingham, so much of it is frozen in time for me. When I drive up through campus, I still feel like I’m a college student. I have all this flood of memories but then I realize that it has almost been 20 years since I’ve gone to school here.
Review: Where did you live while you attended Western and what was the college housing experience like for you?
Gibbard: I lived in Nash my freshman year. Nick and I lived in an apartment down on Indian Street. I remember it was a house that had been converted into three apartments and some snowboarders lived above us, we lived in the middle and some hippy girl lived on the bottom. By the time the year was over, the girl had like two school buses parked in the back and her friends had moved in and were running power from the house. I guess what I’m getting at is there’s this particular kind of lawlessness that occurs in college towns when you have young people living all together and they’re in that stage right between being a teenager and being an adult. I kind of look back rather fondly at those memories and I learned a lot about what I wanted to do with my life and what kind of person I wanted to be when I was here in Bellingham.
Review: What did you study here at Western and what have you taken away from your educational experience here?
Gibbard: When I was here at Western, I was studying biochemistry and was initially going to be a bio major but in the midst of doing all this hard science I was also hanging out with all these music people and theater people and starting to really have my eyes opened to creative things that I was really a lot more interested in. I feel like the education I got here at Western and in Bellingham was as much if not more just with the people I connected with and the musicians and friends that I made here than it was the actual education I got at the school, which was also exemplary. As I look back at it, I really feel that what I took from being here was more the people and communities that I was apart of as much as it was the actual education that was paid for.
Review: A lot of people look up to you and Death Cab for Cutie as a model for musical success here in Bellingham. What would you say to the aspiring musicians out there that are trying to make in this city?
Gibbard: I feel that community is really the most important element. When a band is starting out, they’re trying to figure out how to get shows, how play places and tour or make records. When I was in bands before Death Cab, I didn’t realize you could call up a record pressing plant and send them the tapes and then get records back. It sounds silly, but I didn’t realize that was how it worked. We had some friends that started a record label called Elsinor Records. We kind of became friends with them and started sharing tapes and playing shows together and putting on shows together. I feel like once you establish a kind of network and community of like-minded people that are all kind of interested in the same thing, if the music has something to offer people, I think it’s just a matter of time before people find that music. It’s a lot different now than it was when we were playing here in Bellingham but for me it still comes down to the connections you make with people based not in ambition so much as your desire to connect with people and share art and music with people. Those are the things that kind of get you to a place where you can accomplish something. I think that people who carry themselves with blind ambition and walk around and just meet people who can do something for them, you can see right through those types of people. You can always tell when their agenda is serving themselves and not being a par of a community and not sharing anything. That would be the piece of advice that I would give anybody in a band that was starting out now or whenever – find community, find people who have like-minded goals and try to share with them. If it’s meant to be, it will happen.
Review: How do you manage all of duties between Death Cab, The Postal Service and your solo work without going crazy and what sorts of things do you like to do during your down time?
Gibbard: I feel very luck that I get to make music for a living, so in that sense, it’s really not hard to juggle it. For me, it would be much more difficult if I had to go tomorrow and go to a regular kind of job at a standard profession like if I was an accountant or something like that. The amount of work is relative to the field which you’re in. For me being a musician, a lot of it is creating my own schedule but I also like to be busy and I like to be working. I don’t like to go on tour and then come back and do nothing for six months. I want to start working on another record or I want to plan another tour because this is what I do for a living and I want to take advantage of this window of time where people actually care and people want me to be places and do things. I don’t see it as being too much work just because I really enjoy it. I took up running like six years ago. When I’m not playing music, I like to go trail running and watch too much baseball – read, go see movies, things like that that people tend to like. I don’t always have this perspective, but I do feel very blessed that I’ve been able to do pretty much exactly what I wanted to do with my life and I don’t want to squander that. I want to take advantage of that as much as I can.
Review: When you come back to Bellingham, do you have any favorite restaurants or shops or places like that that you like to visit that are dear to your heart?
Gibbard: We had Casa Que Pasa tonight. It was such a staple of my diet for the five years I lived in Bellingham. Whenever I come up here, I end up stopping there. I have some friends who still live in town so whenever I come through here, I always end up going down into Aladdin’s Lamp and picking through whatever stuff is there. It’s funny, I think they have a lot of stuff in that shop that has been there for 20 years. I remember stuff that looks very familiar to the stuff I was flicking through 15 years ago. It’s interesting how a city can stay virtually the same but be ever changing. I’ll come back maybe a couple times a year and driving through the streets, there is stuff that I’m surprised has survived all these years and then there are some things that are gone that I thought would have been there forever. I think a college town has such a transient population with people leaving and coming to school that I admire anybody that can establish some permanence in a place like this. You figure that every year, there’s a whole new group of people that you have to introduce to whatever your business is.
Review: There are some Death Cab For Cutie songs that are directly referring to Bellingham. Are there any songs on “Former Lives” that may be directly or indirectly referring to your experiences at Western or your life in Bellingham?
Gibbard: Not directly, but I feel like I always like to experience things in life and then get some distance from them and then write about them later. I feel like songs like “A Movie Script Ending” which is a song I wrote after I moved to Seattle and I missed Bellingham so much. There were so many things about it – life was a lot simpler and different here. It was difficult for me at the time to go from living in a house with all my best friends and we’d play music in the living room to living in a small apartment for about three times as much money than I was paying in Bellingham. There’s a song on the record, ‘Teardrop Windows,” that I wrote when I was living in Los Angeles about Seattle. I think that sometimes, whether it’s “A Movie Script Ending” or “Teardrop Windows,” I get kind of mournful and reflective about people and cities and things that are kind of somewhat in my rearview and only after leaving I am able to really appreciate.
Review: How do you think the fact that “Former Lives” was written over several years instead of one point in time translates into the tone and feeling of the album?
Gibbard: It’s interesting because when I told people that some of these songs are a little bit older and some are a bit newer, I was surprised at how confused people were about it in the sense that I guess I took for granted the fact that it seems like there are some people who want to hear an album that is a collection of the newest experiences of a band or a songwriter. There are certainly some songs on “Former Lives” that are coming from a year and a half of my life but there are also songs that are coming from several years ago. For me, I kind of wanted to tie them all together because I felt that they made a nice scrapbook of these songs that had remained orphaned over a number of years and I never had a place to put them. I think it was kind of damned if you do, damned if you don’t kind of thing. If I don’t say these songs are spanning a particular block of time, people are going to make some assumptions about the songs that I don’t want them to make but also, If I say that they are, people might be disappointed that they aren’t all brand new songs even though they’ve never heard them before. I like the record for what it is and I kind of wanted it to be a place to put all of these songs that I’ve been fond of but that I’ve never had a home for.
Review: In the past few years, your personal life has received a lot of media attention -both good and bad. How do you go about dealing with that and does it ever affect you personally or as a musician?
Gibbard: It’s not fun to have that stuff out in public, but it’s not as if I didn’t know that was a possibility. I think that more than anything, there are times in your life were you go through unfortunate events and strife and it’s in those times that you realize who your friends really are and who the people are who are always going to have your back. You never want to have to go through those kinds of things to find that out, but the silver lining is that the people who are always going to have your back, the people who are your true friends and your family, they come out and they are there for you in every way that you possibly need them. Creatively, I’ve never felt an urge to hold back really anything. I think a lot of songs that I’ve written that people have kind of made assumptions about, nine times out of ten, they’re never about the thing that people think they are about or the person they think they’re about. I suppose as a songwriter, people always assume that if I’m using personal pronouns or using first person that I’m writing about my life and sometimes I am, sometimes I’m not. That’s kind of a dance that I wouldn’t say I enjoy, but I certainly have brought upon myself as a songwriter when I chose to write songs about the subject matter that I do. I just take it all in stride and stay off the Internet. That’s the best piece of advice I can give people is to stay off the Internet.
Review: What are your thoughts on the upcoming Postal Service tour celebrating the ten-year anniversary of the critically acclaimed album, “Give Up”?
Gibbard: I suppose we were working under the assumption that people would be excited about it, but I didn’t think people would be as excited about it as we are. We need to rehearse. It’s going to be fine, but it’s strange to be selling out a basketball arena in New York and have not played these songs in ten years. We’ve got plenty of time coming up in the next couple weeks to kind of start getting together and working on stuff. It’s going to be fun. Going out and playing these shows is meant to be a hello and a goodbye at the same time. It’s a way to celebrate this thing that we never knew in a million years would turn out to be what it has. So many people didn’t get to see it live at all. It’s not going to be a long tour, but we’re going to do a bunch of shows and make sure that we play in Seattle. It’s going to be a bittersweet experience because it will be saying hello and goodbye at the same time. It’s going to be a lot of fun.
Review: You have a bit of experience with drinking, as do some college students. If you could describe the music you create as an alcoholic beverage, what would it be and why?
Gibbard: I think it would be a kind of an Islay region scotch like a Lefroy or a Bowmore. It’s not everybody’s cup of tea the first time they have it, but it grows on you a little bit. I’d like our records and our music to be the kind of thing that maybe is not for everybody, but the people who spend the time trying to appreciate it, something will open up for them that will be rewarding.
Review: What are the differences between producing music on your own as opposed to with Death Cab and which do you prefer?
Gibbard: I’ll always prefer collaboration over doing things as an individual. I feel that the collective is always greater than the individual and when you’re working with other people, they can bring things out of yourself that you would not be able to harness if you were doing it by yourself. I also appreciate the unbridled expression of making a solo record. It’s a lot of good ideas and bad ideas put together at the same time. Some of my favorite solo records by people in bands, I love them because you can hear what they bring to the band but you can also hear their bad ideas too. I’ll always lean toward band stuff over solo stuff all the time but I also like being put in a position where I can make bad decisions too.
Review: Think back to when you were a student here. If you could go back and tell yourself one thing or give yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?
Gibbard: I think I would’ve not taken school as seriously as I took it. I don’t mean that I wouldn’t have tried as hard or I wouldn’t have cared about it. I was really high strung when I was in school – really high strung. I lived and died on every grade and test. I wouldn’t have told myself, ‘hey, you’re going to be a musician for a living, don’t worry about it,’ but I would’ve told myself to take it easy. I really feel like there are people who go to college and they take what they learn in the classrooms and it becomes who they are and then there are people like myself who enjoyed their time in school and what they studied, but I knew all along that it wasn’t going to be what I did for a living. I would have tried to be a little less high-strung and I wish I would have had the foresight to realize that there’s more to your life than taking tests and grades and you shouldn’t get too bent out of shape about them.