Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard? is ready for some tough questions. On March 31, the Seattle indie-rock institution released its eighth album, Kintsugi (Atlantic); the record is Death Cab’s first since 2011 — which also makes it the first since the 38-year-old singer-guitarist finalized his divorce from actress Zooey Deschanel in 2012. Gibbard’s three-year marriage to the New Girl star, 35, made him an unlikely celebrity, that rare musician who turns up on both Pitchfork and TMZ. And now that it’s over, everyone’s wondering if new songs like “Black Sun” and “Ingenue” are about his ex. He saw the speculation coming, but Gibbard didn’t get to be one of rock’s most respected songwriters by skimping on the personal stuff.
“I’m not going to change the way I’ve always written for fear of people correctly or incorrectly assigning a name and face to these songs,” says Gibbard, sitting in Atlantic’s Manhattan offices, still wearing a brace on the wrist he broke while running a 50K race in February. “I’ve always written about my life and the lives of people around me, and how everything intersects.”
The son of a Navy officer, Gibbard moved around a lot as a kid, but grew up primarily in Bremerton, Wash., where he fell hard for punk and indie rock. He started Death Cab, a solo project that expanded into a quartet, in 1997 while studying engineering at Western Washington University. After signing with Barsuk and releasing a string of acclaimed albums, the foursome rose to bigger fame around 2003, when the character Seth Cohen on Fox’s era-defining teen soap The O.C. started giving the band weekly props — Death Cab even appeared in a second-season episode. To a generation of geeky-cool indie kids like Seth, Gibbard was a sympathetic voice, a fellow nerd who wrote earnestly about love and heartbreak. Especially heartbreak.
“People turn to us because they don’t want to feel alone in their melancholic moments,” says Gibbard. “And I’m happy to provide that soundtrack.”
He won’t say which Kintsugi tracks were inspired by Deschanel, who is now expecting her first child with her film-producer fiance Jacob Pechenik (The Skeleton Twins, Jobs), but admits it’s “fairly obvious.” And Deschanel isn’t the only A-lister who might think the album hits too close to home. Dance-rock groover “Good Help (Is So Hard to Find)” is a pointed celebrity critique that begins, “You’ll never have to hear the word ‘no’/If you keep all your friends on the payroll.”
“The person I’m singing to is an amalgamation of people I came across living in Los Angeles,” says Gibbard, who returned to Seattle after the divorce. (He has a new girlfriend, but is mum on details about her.) “Being around people in entertainment who are fairly well-known, I noticed all these neuroses and psychoses.”
But the vibe on “Good Help” is far from vengeful. “I wrote it from a point of biting empathy,” says Gibbard. “[Celebrity] is a strange way of living one’s life.”
That lack of spitefulness characterizes Kintsugi, a lyrically somber, sonically rich album that begins a new chapter for Gibbard and his two bandmates, bassist Nick Harmer and drummer Jason McGerr, both 40. Named for a Japanese pottery technique wherein gold plaster is used to patch cracks — an apt metaphor for creating beauty from distress — Kintsugi is Death Cab’s first album not produced by multi-instrumentalist Chris Walla, who left the band in September 2014. By all accounts, the split was amicable, and Harmer credits Walla’s replacement, Rich Costey (Muse, Interpol), with pushing the band in new directions. But asked what makes Kintsugi special, the bassist points to Gibbard’s songwriting. “There’s a heaviness in these songs,” says Harmer. “There’s a fearlessness in the way Ben approached the themes. It’s an evolution: We’re confident in what we do now.”
It’s a confidence perhaps born of longevity. Like Modest Mouse, The Decemberists and Sleater-Kinney, fellow Northwestern indie heroes with new comeback LPs, Death Cab has stayed relevant in a way few 2000s rockers have. Since signing with Atlantic in 2004, the band has scored three top five albums on the Billboard 200, including 2008 No. 1 Narrow Stairs and 2005’s Plans, which has sold 1.2 million copies, according to Nielsen Music. Its last LP, 2011’s Codes and Keys, spawned “You Are a Tourist,” which topped the Alternative Songs chart. Later this year, it will headline Madison Square Garden. And yet Gibbard doesn’t feel like some giant rock star — mostly, he says, because they no longer exist. Thanks to fractured digital culture, there are no new Springsteens, and oddball art-rock bands can find fans and sell out arenas. “This wouldn’t have happened 20 years ago,” says Gibbard. “People wouldn’t know Animal Collective existed. In the ’90s, if I wanted to buy weird music, I had to take a ferry to Seattle. It’s better now. You give people all these choices, and there’s an audience for weird.”
Gibbard doesn’t mind that Death Cab is just one of countless bands rock fans get to choose from. He gets to sing his heart out and tour the world, and with his divorce behind him, he’ll probably stay off Perez Hilton’s radar. “We’re on a major label, we have a platinum record — all the standards of success. But I never get bothered when I walk around Seattle,” says Gibbard. “We’re in this sweet spot: We’re successful but we’re not famous.”
This story first appeared in the April 11th issue of Billboard.