How Death Cab for Cutie Came Back After Parting Ways With Founding Member

Ben Gibbard slides into a booth at Canter’s Deli in Los Angeles with news from his Seattle ­hometown. “City Hall is fucking insane right now,” the Death Cab for Cutie frontman tells bassist Nick Harmer, drummer Jason McGerr and guitarist Dave Depper. He’s ­referring to a protest to save the ­landmark Showbox theater -- which has hosted everyone from James Brown to Pearl Jam -- from being torn down to build a condominium. The timing is impeccable: With three weeks atop Billboard’s Triple A chart, Death Cab’s recent single, “Gold Rush,” off its ninth album, Thank You for Today, is an anti-gentrification ­rallying cry. On it, Gibbard, who lives in the rapidly upscaling Capitol Hill ­neighborhood, sings, “Our haunts have taken flight and been replaced with construction sites.”

For all the resistance to change on “Gold Rush,” Gibbard, 42, is ­buoyant about some radical shifts in his own life. Two years ago, he married photographer Rachel Demy (his first marriage, to Zooey Deschanel, ended in 2011). And the new album, released earlier in August, is the first without founding member Chris Walla in Death Cab’s 21-year career of ­otherwise unassailed ­consistency, marked by eight Grammy ­nominations and nearly 600 million U.S. streams, according to Nielsen Music. Walla had produced almost all of the band’s projects, including its major-label debut, Plans, which spent 50 weeks on the Billboard 200 in 2005, but left the group ahead of Kintsugi’s 2015 release, after handing over the reins to current producer Rich Costey (Muse). Walla later said in an interview that he had stopped ­connecting with Gibbard’s songwriting.

“I was unsure how it would go when we got in the studio” without Walla, says Gibbard. He recruited ­guitarists Depper and Zac Rae, both of whom toured with the band on its last album, and who had a different set of anxieties. As Depper says, “All of a sudden there are demos from Ben in my inbox, and I’m like, ‘Am I allowed to tell one of my favorite songwriters that I don’t like this song?’”

Gibbard considered seeking the advice of Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, whose group survived equally ­critical lineup changes, but that proved unnecessary. “The environment while making this record was the most ­fulfilling since Transatlanticism,” he says, referring to Death Cab’s 2003 breakthrough LP. “It was very open. I don’t want to frame this as a Chris problem. He’s a brilliant producer, [but] a lot of times we would be seeing things differently, and passive-aggressively fighting for our ideas.”

Considering Death Cab zoomed into the early 2000s on the same alternative wave that carried Interpol and The Strokes, it’s remarkable that the act has been not only resilient but consistently successful. “Those bands and some of their big songs will be canonized in ways that it looks like our music never will,” says Gibbard, with a thoughtful self-awareness. “They embodied a scene; they were incredible.” Depper jumps in. “You looked like dorks,” he jokes. “But that made you relatable.”

In the beginning, it seemed like mopey adolescents everywhere -- most memorably, The O.C.’s Seth Cohen -- would never experience anything that Gibbard couldn't put perfectly to verse, whether with his band or the short-lived Postal Service. Now, Death Cab is tied with Florence + The Machine for the most No. 1 songs (nine) on the Adult Contemporary chart, ­suggesting those same adolescents have ­followed the act into middle age. But “the ­writing doesn't come as quickly as it once did,” says Gibbard. “The ­inspiration comes from [fewer] places, which means I have to work twice as hard.”

Still, he continues to capture all manner of pain, from friends’ absences (on Thank You’s synth-driven “You Moved Away”) to the disappointment of witnessing a hero struggle with alcoholism (piano ­ballad “60 & Punk”). Gibbard himself abruptly gave up alcohol and took up marathon running 10 years ago. “I really enjoyed drinking, but our shows became a preamble to rounding up people to go to a bar,” he recalls. Harmer adds the bandmembers took the rider money they were spending on booze and bought a treadmill. “We all lost weight,” he says.

Looking back, Gibbard admits his relationship with Deschanel was probably his one and only rock-star move; it didn't suit him. “The moment I became the least relatable is when I got married to an actress and lived here [in L.A.] for almost three years,” he says. “I remember being like, ‘What, people hate me now?’" Harmer answers: “It was very off-brand for you.” Everyone laughs.

While Gibbard and Walla’s ­creative differences never appeared to threaten the band, the former did write a solo record, 2012’s Former Lives, in part to gain some clarity. Because of that, he now doesn't have to overthink his group’s popularity. “We love being in a band, being in a gang,” he says, as the others nod. “We love hanging out with each other. This is the only thing I ever wanted to do.” 

This article originally appeared in the Aug. 25 issue of Billboard.