Ben Gibbard on The Importance of Teenage Fanclub, Mourning Musicians Like Chester Bennington and Death Cab's Next Record

Rachel Demy
Ben Gibbard

In 2016, Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard was asked to put his twist on a full album of his choice. The 41-year-old quickly said yes, and almost immediately knew which one he’d cover: Teenage Fanclub’s landmark third LP, Bandwagonesque.

For Gibbard, Bandwagonesque is a record that came to him at a time when he was starting to discover music beyond what he learned from his parents. The Scottish lo-fi band’s tunes spoke to him, and his interpretation of the 1991 classic plays with its tonality, with Gibbard making his re-work a bit more hushed than the original.

The Bandwagonesque cover is technically Gibbard’s second solo album — his debut, Former Lives, came out in 2012. Before Bandwagonesque comes out this Friday, we caught up with Gibbard about the personal impact of Teenage Fanclub, celebrating 20 years of Death Cab for Cutie and the human connection of music.

Why did you decide to cover Bandwagonesque in full?

I was approached about a year ago by a label based out of Seattle called Turntable Kitchen. I’ve been struggling to describe exactly what they are, which is probably what makes them so unique. They had started this series where they were contracting out bands to cover whole albums. They had reached out to me via management and I just thought the idea was fantastic.

So I was contemplating a couple different records to do, until I kinda had that no-duh moment: Well, of course you would do Bandwagonesque! It’s a record that made such a massive impression on me when I was 14 years old, and Teenage Fanclub to this day is my favorite band, due in large part to that album.  

What other albums were you considering covering?

The one I was planning on doing initially was the first Emitt Rhodes album. I don't know if you’re familiar with him. He’s a really amazing songwriter that was in a garage band called The Merry-Go-Rounds in the mid-60s, and made this brilliant album where he played all the instruments himself. It was a very Beatles-esque kind of pop record.

But I realized he recorded the whole thing in his garage, produced it himself, and it seemed kind of counterproductive for me to do the exact same thing: to just recreate an album that somebody had done by themself. That’s an album that means a lot to me, but Bandwagonesque is a record that really changed me at a point in my life that I really needed it, you know? Not to say that Emitt Rhodes’s albums have not meant a lot to me, either. But these are records I discovered as an adult, and Bandwagonesque was a record that I fell in love with when I was 14.

What’s your first memory of this record? You said it came to you at a pivotal point in your life. What was happening at that time for you?

In 1991, I was 14 or 15 years old. I think a lot of people who become music fans have that moment where they break from their parents’ music, they break from the radio and MTV — at least in my generation, they did, and MTV isn’t really a thing anymore. And you discover something that defines you, that is outside of the mainstream. You are now discovering your own culture — you’re creating your own cultural mosaic of yourself that is not just what has been prescribed to you by mainstream culture.

You’re from Seattle. What are your memories of the music scene at the time, when grunge was getting ready to explode?

[There were] not only the big bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam -- that was just starting to happen at that point -- but also a lot of the underground things. Bands that never became household names, but bands I loved nonetheless, be it Treepeople -- which is Doug Martsch’s first band, from Built to Spill -- or Hazel or Hammerbox.

And I felt like Teenage Fanclub was timeless in the sense that the music reminded me how great the music my dad listened to was, and it was cool to like that music. In this very nuanced modernization of that music, in Don Fleming’s production of Bandwagonesque, this music could be contemporary — and not only contemporary, but it could be timeless. But Teenage Fanclub felt like something that wasn’t cool to like, but it wasn’t uncool to like either. I didn’t feel like a cooler person for listening to it. I just felt like it spoke to me.

It’s also been 20 years since you started Death Cab for Cutie. How have you seen yourself evolve?

It really wasn’t until five years ago that I was kind of thinking, “Maybe this is what I do now. Maybe this isn’t a prequel to grad school. Maybe this is actually what I do. Maybe I’m not going back to get an advanced degree and entering the job force – this is actually my job.” When I think about the fact that we were recording that first tape literally 20 years ago, it just feels like a month has gone by.

I guess that’s just how life is: It seems like it speeds up the older you get. I think that’s one of the many reasons why it’s important to take stock in the things you truly loved and the things that truly inspired you and that really made you who you are. And thankfully, for me, not only is Teenage Fanclub my favorite band, Norman [Blake], one of the singers in the band, has become a friend of mine. And they’re still a band -- they’re still putting out great albums.

Death Cab typically releases a new album every three or four years. Where are you at with the follow-up to 2015’s Kintsugi?

I feel like I’ve got 80 percent of the record written. I’ve written a lot of songs in the last couple years, but writing a lot of songs doesn’t always mean writing good songs.

I think that we’re getting really close. The plan is to be in the studio in the fall. That’s really as much information as I have at this point, even being the frontperson of the band. I think as we move into our ninth album, a large part of what I want out of our albums moving forward is that we can contribute to this body of work, and hopefully bring the perspective that I have as a 41-year-old man, musically and personally, but also have those songs exist along the songs I wrote when I was 20.

Last week, Linkin Park frontman Chester Bennington passed away. People had a deep connection to his songs, because they made them feel less alone or feel like they fit in more, and Death Cab’s music often has the same effect. How often do you reflect on that quality of your music?

Well, I would remove that question from my music specifically, and just speak about music in more general terms. I think that the wonderful thing about music and about songs is that you can listen to a three-minute song whenever you feel you need it. If you’re going through a difficult time, and there’s a piece of music that speaks to you — be it musically or lyrically or both — you are almost always able to access that music. You’re always able to sit down with it. You’re able to put it on in a room with 10 other people or just have it in your headphones on the subway on your way to work. It’s always available to you. And I feel that the relationship we form with our favorite songs is unique amongst all other art forms, and it’s why my favorite songs feel almost like some of my best friends: Because they’re always there for me.

I think that’s one of the main reasons why we mourn — and I don’t say this to be self-serving, by any stretch of imagination — musicians so much. We’re sad when an actor dies. We’re sad when a beloved politician or public figure dies. We mourn those people. Their lives are not any less or more important than you or mine or Joe Blow on the street. But I think that when a musician dies, who’s put music into the world that is very comforting to people, it’s not only that that music has comforted people -- but just until a couple days ago, if Linkin Park’s music meant a lot to you, you could go see Chester sing those songs in almost any city in the world when they came to you. You’re not only listening to that music when it makes you feel sad, but then you have the ability to actually see the person perform the song that means so much to you.

It’s one of the reasons I’m so thankful that, in this case, Teenage Fanclub are still making records. I can go see them play these songs, not only on Bandwagonesque, but also throughout their entire career. They mark emotional moments in my life. They help me reminisce about times in my life that have now since passed, or sometimes they take on new meaning. Songs that are old somehow gain new relevance in my life.