Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie Talks 'We Have the Facts' 20 Years Later
In the shattering wake of the coronavirus pandemic, hundreds of canceled tours have given way to musicians streaming live shows from their own living rooms to keep fan interaction alive and alleviate boredom. Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard’s Live from Home series has been one of the most-watched, not least because he’s covered everything from Def Leppard’s “Hysteria” to Rilo Kiley’s “Silver Lining” to the I Think You Should Leave song about the skeletons whose bones are also their money.
This week also happens to mark the 20-year anniversary of his band’s first widely available album, We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes. A longtime fan favorite, Facts is the album that set the stage for the Death Cab we know today, proffering downtempo, imagistic indie-pop songs that read like short stories. (Typical couplet: “Talking how the group had begun to splinter / And I could taste your lipstick on the filter.”)
For the newly online generation, the album functioned as sort of an update to The Graduate (coincidence that both protagonists are named Benjamin) on a smaller scale. Death Cab’s music would go on to be featured in several landmark coming-of-age films and TV shows in the early 2000s, like Garden State, The Office and The O.C., the latter of which treated his band like a household name and halfway fulfilled its own prophecy IRL. SPIN spoke to Gibbard via phone looking back on Facts’ 20-year anniversary and the whirlwind week he’s had with his home-concert series in a time of extreme international duress.
SPIN: What’s it like looking back at We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes 20 years later?
Ben Gibbard: So many things as one slouches into their 40s…it seems like it was just yesterday. And because the band is still very much a living, breathing organism, the songs from the entire catalog are continuing to be part of the live set at this point. So because we’re playing these songs so often, it’s difficult to have a perspective because it feels like we’re still promoting it if that makes sense.
Did it feel like you were making a great leap forward in your songwriting or album-making?
Oh, not in the slightest. But the construction of that record is something I’ll always remember. We made that record ostensibly as a three-piece. I played drums on that entire record. Nathan [Good], our original drummer, had left the band in early ’99. We had what turned out to be an interim drummer from April ’99 to September ’99, but we always knew we were gonna make that record as a three-piece. I was practicing drums and trying to get my drumming up to snuff. We Have the Facts was made predominantly in Nick’s mom’s house in Puyallup, Washington and Chris Walla’s parents’ house in Bothell. We basically lived at Nick’s mom’s house for a month. She was working on her Ph.D. at the time, cloistered in another part of the house; it wasn’t a giant house but she was, like, in another room. We were for all intents and purposes, homeless, when we made that record. We had places to live but we didn’t have our own homes: Chris was living in his parents’ house, Nick was living in his dad’s basement, I was fortunate enough to have a partner at the time who was a teacher and I had saved up a little bit of money so we were able to get an apartment in Seattle. But for the most part, we didn’t have a home base — we didn’t have a practice space. That’s what I remember most. It was made at a time when we didn’t have any sense of what the future held for us as individuals, let alone as a band.
On your livestream Monday, you said “Company Calls Epilogue” is the song you’re most proud of writing. Did you write it before or after “Company Calls?”
I remember finishing the lyrics in June or July of 1999, so it was after the first “Company Calls.” Looking back, there’s not much rhyme or reason to why one in particular is “Company Calls” and one is “Company Calls Epilogue” — they’re not particularly connected. For some reason, I put those things together. I was going through 4-track demos from earlier in the year from that era and found a version of “Company Calls Epilogue” that basically used the majority of the lyrics from “Company Calls.” Maybe it was an early version or I retroactively took the lyrics out of that and changed them. Looking back, a lot of the lyrics on [1998’s Something About Airplanes] were very obtuse and I think I thought I was being more clear than I actually was, trying to be more akin to early R.E.M. lyrics than anything else because they were such an influence on me. “Epilogue” was the first song I’d written that I was very proud of the imagery and the narrative of it, if I can pat myself on the back. I think I was able to meld some of the obtuse imagery from the first record but tell a story that I think hopefully people could get the gist of. That became a benchmark for me for how I wanted to go about writing songs from that point on.
“Title Track” and “405” are some of the most sexual things you’ve ever put on record, was that an intentional focus on Facts?
I don’t think that anybody making music at 21, 22 is doing anything intentionally. But a lot of the songs on Facts were written from my post-collegiate neuroses: “Where is my life leading? What am I doing?” As a middle-class college-educated white man in America, so many people would probably kill to be in that situation of graduating from college with no debt and just being slightly nervous about what the future holds. But in reality, it’s not something one should garner too much sympathy about. We had all decided to move to Seattle. Bellingham as a city which I still love, but was just not very ripe with opportunities musically, or more importantly, employment-wise. You needed some kind of job. We were driving to Seattle to play shows almost every weekend, it just became untenable. But I do think the record is steeped in this kind of nervousness. I think to your point, there are some songs that are certainly more sexual than anything I’ve written in a while.
One of my favorite songs on the record is “Employment Pages,” which stemmed from living in a $950-per-month one-bedroom apartment with a girlfriend, having never lived with one before — who was a teacher at an elementary school. I was now combing the want ads for jobs that I felt were far below my education and skill set but I was being rejected from even those jobs. I remember thinking, “I have a degree in environmental chemistry, I worked in a lab and I can’t get a job stocking shelves?” It felt like this great injustice at the time. But looking back on it, I think I was just nervous about the future. In 1999, it was the most difficult thing in the world to find a competent drummer who’d be willing to tour and be able to join a band who wasn’t making any money.
Did you ever consider playing drums live and getting someone to play your guitar parts instead?
Never. No, no. [Laughs.] There was this brief moment of time where it was looking like Nathan might rejoin the band. While Nick and Chris and I are very fortunate to have parents who were very supportive of the band from day one. Nathan wasn’t as fortunate as that. I’m not saying his parents didn’t support him, but his situation was very different. He had accrued a lot of student loans, he wanted to marry his then-girlfriend and settle down. At the time, you have to realize we were just these four shit-kickers in a $3000 Econoline playing to nobody. Anybody outside looking in would go, “This isn’t sustainable, this is a waste of your time.”
We were very lucky to have parents who were not just emotionally supportive but financially supportive. A lot gets made about independent music in America and the spirit of artists who start independent labels and touring bands. But it’s important to recognize the overwhelming majority of those people have an advanced degree or some kind of support from family with money. We wouldn’t have gotten out the front door if Nick’s mom hadn’t offered us a $3,000 loan so we could be a van. We wouldn’t have been able to make We Have the Facts if Nick’s mom wasn’t gracious enough to let us use her house. We’re not trust-fund kids, we are staunchly middle-class kids. But we also come from very stable households with loving parents who supported us in our endeavors. That’s something a lot of people don’t have, and the older I get, the further away I get from that period, the even more grateful I am for the people who helped us out along the way. And that goes all the way down to people who let us stay in their houses. I reject the pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps narrative in America for a number of reasons.
Was “Title Track” written with the unusual production in mind, or did the band decide to filter the first half of the song in post-production?
That was Chris’ brilliance at work there. I remember talking to Dave Bazan when Facts came out, we had become friends and did a lot of shows together. And I remember him saying he put that thing on and was thinking, “Okay, kind of lo-fi, just like the first record. And then everything just kicks in.” If we were making a top 10 of Chris Walla production moves, that would be in the top three for sure. It was just such a psych-out, it went for so long before the song actually kicked in.
What other production moves of his would be at the top of that list?
I would have to sit down and come up with it. Certainly, the drum looping work in the song “Transatlanticism” is up there. If you listened to my original demo, it turned out very different.
Have you been in contact with the fan whose T-shirt inspired the album title?
That was a gentleman by the name of Herbert Burgle, and he was in a band named Rat Cat Hogan in the ‘90s. Very Mountain Goats-style songwriting, narrative-based storytelling. Just drums and guitar, very stripped down. Some of their stuff may be on YouTube, I don’t know. And Herbert was wearing a t-shirt at one of their shows that read We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes, to promote a local initiative at the time. I’m in contact with Herbert every once in a while. But I’m shocked that one of those shirts hasn’t popped up even once yet. There had to be at least 100 made right? I’m surprised somebody hasn’t walked into a thrift shop and found one…I mean it’s not like We Have the Facts is a very famous album by any stretch of the imagination. But I’m assuming if you walked into a thrift shop and saw that, you’d be like, “Holy fucking shit. What is this doing here?” and post it on Reddit.
Your Live from Home solo concert series has covered so much ground and the range of cover choices is insane. Are there any songs you attempted to practice but knew quickly wouldn’t work?
Today, I’m doing 2007 to 2011 and a bunch of suggestions have come in and it’s like…‘Well, it’s hard to play “You Are a Tourist” which is essentially a bunch of drones and a riff.’ There are three specific entry points to this band for most people: We Have the Facts, Transatlanticism, and Plans. I’m not trying to, like, weasel an answer out of you about this. But I tend to notice a lot of people who…and before I say what I’m about to say, let me say, if anyone likes anything I’ve ever done, I’m happy about it. It doesn’t bother me if someone only likes one thing that I was involved with. That being said, there’s a particular type of person who tends to come up to me say, “Dude, We Have the Facts is my favorite record.” And it tends to be the most indie-forward of the fans who weren’t much into anything after that point.
We’ve probably already made the records that will be on our tombstones, right? So at this point, I’m curious what people are getting out of the more recent albums. So for me what’s been interesting is seeing people suggest songs I haven’t thought about in years. And not, like, one person, but, like, 50 people. [Editor’s note: At this point, Ben goes off the record to quickly refer to a song that he’s surprised to have received so many requests for.]
It’s been wild to see people suggesting that song, which I played yesterday because dozens of people were asking for it. That’s not necessarily going to change how we make setlists or whatever, but it’s interesting to see multiple people coming to a consensus about wanting to hear some songs that I just assumed people didn’t like. So that’s been heartening for me to see, ‘people do like this record’ or ‘they do want to hear that song.’
What else have you been doing under quarantine besides the “Live from Home” series to pass the time?
I think it’s really important to note that we’re not on tour, we’re not promoting an album, we’re of means to the extent that we can wait this out. For some reason, I’d never read War and Peace, so I was like, “Fuck it.” Every time I’m gonna read the news, I dig into some of War and Peace instead. Trump, stop talking. Stop talking. Let the experts talk. Rachel [Demy, Gibbard’s wife] and I have been cooking a lot, staying in. Every ultramarathon I’m signed up for through July has been canceled. I’m training a bit, trying to get up and out the door running first thing in the morning before the sun’s up. There’s not a lot of people on the streets right now, anyhow. Thankfully the weather has turned more towards what Spring is in the Northwest, that means gray and gloomy, so that should keep people inside. And I’m catching up on shows… that show Tiger King, have you watched this thing yet?
I have not.
It’s insanity, complete insanity. Wild characters. So we’re just doing what everybody else is doing. Hopefully when [coronavirus] comes to pass it won’t be at the cost of too many more human lives.