Death Cab for Cutie Keeps the Future at Bay

Ben Gibbard reflects on age, fandom, and what inspired his band’s ninth album, Thank You For Today.

Who listens to Death Cab for Cutie?

In the Seattle band’s earliest days, the answer was clear. Following their 2003 breakthrough, Transatlanticism, the work of the quartet that consists of Ben Gibbard, Nick Harmer, Jason McGerr, and Chris Walla became a soundtrack for a generation of teenagers and young adults who found solace in the band’s wistful, lush odes to love and melancholic anthems of suburban malaise. Then came Plans, their 2005 platinum-selling album that saw the band leave their local label, Barsuk, to sign with industry heavyweight Atlantic.

By the time Death Cab reconvened to make 2008’s stunning Narrow Stairs, their fanbase had widely expanded. Admirers of the group’s early, low-fi sound now found themselves traveling to bigger venues to see the band, where they stood next to parents and pre-teens and waited to buy beer alongside teachers and bankers. A glossier production approach would stay with the group through their next two albums, the latter of which — 2015’s Kintsugi — would mark the band’s final work with Walla.

As a major contributor to Death Cab’s sound — Walla was a multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and producer for the band — you might expect the group’s ninth studio album to reflect the loss of a core member, but Thank You for Today is not an album that identifies itself with absence. Instead, Gibbard sees it as a celebration of Death Cab’s two newest additions: guitarist Dave Depper and keyboardist Zac Rae.

“In writing and recording this record,” Gibbard says, “we framed it personally much less as a record without Chris but as a record with Dave and Zac. I think when you’re a creative person, and you’re trying to continue to make things that first and foremost excite and inspire you, and, hopefully, in the process, also excite and inspire other people, it can’t be looked at from a subtractive perspective.”

Gibbard’s analysis of his band’s approach is also a fitting lens through which to understand their fans. Over the years, Death Cab has pivoted from indie darling to commercial rock act, but their focus has never been to become a Coachella headliner or subvert their genre by working with unexpected collaborators. The reason they play bigger shows is simple: They have the fans to sell them out, having added new listeners with each record.

Then there are the faithful, who have stuck with Death Cab for over two decades. They’ve gotten older in tandem with the band, whose frequent motifs of changing seasons, wry retrospection, and acute loss seem to gain renewed meaning as the years pass by.

At 42, Gibbard doesn’t feel that the milestones of age are a major factor in his lyrics — in part, because he’s not entirely sure he’s fully grown-up yet.

“When you hit what you hope will be the midpoint of your life, you hope it comes with a particular level of introspection,” he explains. “But turning 30 or 40 — these decade marks in your life — they’re really just an excuse to throw a party. I also don’t feel like what I thought 40 would feel like. I don’t, as of yet, have a family. I don’t have a commute. I don’t have a traditional job. I live in somewhat of a state of arrested development by being a rock musician.”

Of the 10 tracks on Thank You for Today, it’s album closer “60 & Punk” that ultimately offers Gibbard’s most poignant musings on what it means for a rockstar to grow old.

Addressed to an unspecified musician — Gibbard confirms it is based on one of his true-life idols but declines to name the artist — the song catalogues the pain of seeing someone you once viewed as a superhero reveal themselves as merely human thanks, in part, to alcoholism.

“I find ‘60 & Punk’ to be a very empathetic song,” Gibbard says. “I don’t see the song as an indictment as much as the humanization of this person. I’ve noticed the lack of reverence we have for our rock stars and celebrities today, and that’s probably for the best. As a kid, I was able to have a very monolithic view of the people that I admired, and, not to quote myself, in a sense they were kind of superheroes. They only saved women from burning buildings. There wasn’t any fallibility.”

If we’ve entered a new era of rockstar worship — one where Instagram photos of what a musician ate for breakfast comprise the new Rolling Stone interview — that’s fine with Gibbard.  He’s not concerned about which pedestals Death Cab might ultimately be placed upon, or who it is that’s listening to his words.

What matters is that they’re still listening.

“I am certainly more than thrilled that at 42, I’m still playing rock ’n’ roll music for a living,” Gibbard says. “Soft rock ’n’ roll, but rock ’n’ roll nonetheless.’ ”

Death Cab for Cutie, Thursday, Sept. 27, 7 p.m., at the Greek Theatre, 2001 Gayley Rd. $55; 510-548-3010 or thegreekberkeley.com

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