Like his literary idol Sal Paradise, Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard has always been propelled by a sense of wanderlust. Which comes in pretty handy when you’re the lead singer of a band that’s been on the road since 1997. As one half of The Postal Service – the precociously successful side project he created with Jimmy Tamborello by sending music back and forth in the mail – the Washington-born singer-songwriter has never let a simple thing like geography stand in his way. Now, at thirty-six, Gibbard is about to embark on a new adventure with his forthcoming debut solo LP, Former Lives, but still finds time to reflect on his journey so far.
You’ve cited Jack Kerouac as a major influence. When did you first discover his work?
I was eighteen and going to college, on track to become a Biochem Major. My roommate at the time, who later became the bassist for Death Cab for Cutie, was an English Major who was always in the library and the theatre department. I was living this duality of studying this really hard science stuff and then being around all these creative people on the weekends. He actually was the first person to give me On The Road. I read it and immediately knew what I wanted to do with my life. It was an epiphany. I devoured everything [Kerouac] had written in a fairly short period of time and I was really aware of the hope and the beauty and the open-heartedness of On The Road. In my own writing I wanted to be the Jack Kerouac to all my Neal Cassadys, I wanted to be the person who wrote about the experiences of my group of friends in the same way that Kerouac wrote about his group of friends, in a cinematic and glorifying way that aggrandised people who were probably just normal people. Dean Moriarty was just a low-level hustler, a philanderer who was a good talker and knew how to have a good time, but the way Kerouac writes him makes him seem larger than life. I suppose those are the people we really remember in life, the ones who stand out or go against the grain.
Touring in a band can be quite a rootless existence. Did you find yourself returning to Kerouac when touring became a big part of your life?
Oh sure, I revisit his work often. I still see the wonderment and beauty in the words but there’s also a sense of melancholy in that, when you’re always away from home, it becomes difficult to maintain relationships in life, whether it’s with friends or loved ones or whatever. I live in Seattle again now and my sister lives a couple of blocks away from me, and whenever I go to her and her wife’s house I get to hang out with their group of friends. It’s that kind of group where if somebody has a baby then everybody comes over and it’s just a really close-knit community. There’s a part of me that’s really envious of people who have that because the trajectory of my life is not very conducive with those types of relationships. And that’s hard, but at the same time I wouldn’t change anything about my life. Also, I feel strangely the most comfortable here.
Talking to a journalist in a hotel bar?
Just out here in the world. It’s more normal to me than being at home, strangely. Sadly. I love Seattle but I tend to look forward to leaving and going on trips because that’s how I work. I feel like I have purpose and that I’m doing something when I’m away from home because when I’m at home I’m just trying to focus on writing and that’s very rewarding but it’s not as exciting. So in a way, unfortunately, I’m always searching for adventure that I know I can only find out in the world. I’m like Kerouac in that way, I guess.
Do you prefer going on huge world tours like you did recently to support Codes and Keys, where there’s perhaps a greater sense of adventure, or was it easier in the earlier days of Death Cab when touring took place on a smaller scale?
I certainly look back with nostalgia on the early days of the band when we all had day jobs. Our ten-day tours were really like vacations away from what was at that point real life. We were four shit-kickers in a van staying with weird people and crashing on floors. We were twenty-two and there wasn’t a sense of wanting to become rockstars. Our heroes were people who lived like that anyway. None of us saw that as a means to an end. Nowadays it’s really nice to not have to carry an 8X10 cab up a flight of stairs and flying around just makes the playing of the music that much easier, so I certainly wouldn’t want to go back to those early days.
You recently wrote a piece on same-sex marriage for Dave Eggers’ pro-Obama site 90 Days, 90 Reasons, and you mentioned earlier that your sister is gay...
So what does it mean to be a heterosexual Democrat with a gay sister in 2012?
Well, first off I’m more anti-Republican than pro-Democrat. But one thing that’s been striking me more and more recently, watching the Republican National Convention and then the Democratic National Convention, is that when I watch the speakers at the DNC I see the country I live in. I see white people, black people, Latino people, gay people, straight people… I see the mosaic that makes up the country I live in. And when I watch the Republican National Convention I see white people, old white people with a smattering of minorities almost placed intentionally within a sea of whiteness to kind of make a play at diversity.
I was posing this question to a family member who’s relatively conservative and I was asking them to explain why the people who represent the Republican Party tend to be almost all white, and there was a lot of umming and ahhing about how minorities are always going to vote for Democrats because that’s just what they do. Not only is that incredibly offensive to what is becoming the majority of our country – that Democrats somehow presume they are the party of minorities – but also, if Republicans had anything to offer minorities wouldn’t you think that they would vote for them? If any of these policies were shown to benefit minorities you would see a lot more of them supporting this party. It’s incredibly unfortunate that a party like the Republicans, which I think has some perfectly valid fiscal positions and was initially born out of non-secular small government politics, has been hijacked by the religious right and has started to speak on a lot of social matters that they are not nearly forward-thinking enough to be discussing. You know, critics of Obama and Joe Biden will say that they only really took a stance [in support of] gay marriage when it started polling over fifty per cent, but if it’s polling over fifty per cent then why aren’t the Republicans getting behind it?
People in my country need to look back to the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s because there were some people who were against the principles of that movement. What are people who are against extending the same rights to gay and lesbian couples going to say when they’re asked about that thirty years from now? When I was a kid the only time you saw gay people, either in the media or on TV, they were always ‘bull dykes’ and ‘fairies’; they were jokes, caricatures. In my lifetime, acceptance of gay people in America has grown exponentially because we began to realise, as a nation, that gay people are just like us. All they want is equality. When your husband or wife gets sick, it’s about being able to be there in the hospital with them, being able to sign health-care directives. I don’t think most people understand what’s really at stake; they think it’s about gay people wanting special rights. They don’t. They just want to be treated the same. If my sister, god forbid, were to get sick and had to be in the hospital, her wife could not sign directives on her behalf, could not visit her, could not be by her side. That’s not right. I get really passionate about it because that’s my family.
It’s pretty crazy to think anyone would invest so much energy and money into stopping two people who love each other from being together…
Right! It’s crazy. The worst thing is that people act like gay people are trying to turn the world gay, like there’s some gay conspiracy to convert you and your children. It’s that mindset that’s got us into the mess we’re in right now. There’s this fear amongst the religious right that they’re under attack from gayness. It’s nonsense.
This is what a plug at the end of the article should look like.