Twenty years ago, lighting struck twice for Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard. That year marked not only the release of the band’s breakthrough album Transatlanticism, but also of Give Up, the debut effort of his acclaimed one-off project, the Postal Service. At the helm of two of indie rock’s most influential projects, Gibbard is known for his incisive lyrics and deeply emotional songs, which build to cathartic, anthemic releases. Later this year, he’ll pull double duty on a six-week tour, hitting the road with both bands to celebrate the two anniversaries, performing each album in its entirety.
Ahead of that tour, Death Cab for Cutie will play back-to-back shows at Toronto’s Massey Hall, on June 2 and 3. The Globe spoke with Gibbard about the band’s 25-year legacy and his thoughts on looking back.
What does it mean to be celebrating Transatlanticism and Give Up 20 years later?
A lot of that material on Transatlanticism has been such a large part of the live set for Death Cab over the past 20 years, so it’s difficult to get that much perspective on it. The songs have evolved in small little ways, and I have difficulty breaking them out from all the other material. With Give Up, it still boggles my mind that that record did as well as it did, given the fact that there wasn’t a band around promoting. It was this crazy cultural phenomenon that grew wings and started soaring.
You mentioned in an interview with Stereogum that part of writing for the band’s 10th album, Asphalt Meadows, was to eclipse your own feelings of unease about the world. How has your relationship to anxiety evolved over time?
I think that it’s difficult to be an observant, sensitive person in this world and not be overcome at times from the anxiety of living in a modern world. The 24-hour news and social media have done nothing but harm us. For me, my salve for being overwhelmed by the world is making music and long distance running in the mountains. I feel that the one thing we do very little of in this modern world is really be in our bodies.
As people spend increasing amounts of time online, including musicians, do you think that artists have become too accessible?
I want mystery amongst my favourite artists. I want to think about [the Cure’s] Robert Smith, as I did when I was a kid and be like “I bet you he’s somewhere making some amazing music or doing something cool.” If I’d have known every meal he’s eating or what football team he’s rooting for, I don’t necessarily think that his music would mean as much as it does to me now. I’m 46 years old and remember a world before social media. I just feel that art without mystery is kind of disappointing.
And as our online presence grows, our nostalgia for the not-too-distant past seems to be growing as well. Do you agree that our collective connection to nostalgia has shifted?
As I said, I’m 46. Just the advancements in technology between me coming online as a sentient being and today are unlike any other time in human history. We are inundated with information about not only how beautiful the world is, but also of every terrible, sad, tragic thing that happens. I look back on the period of the pandemic and think that, in the eye of the hurricane of all that tragedy, there were also some very beautiful moments and life became a lot simpler.
Yeah, and everyone sort of had to slow down.
Absolutely! I just read this incredible biography of jazz tenor Sonny Rollins, and there’s a story that at the height of his powers he decided to just walk away from live performance and recording. He found a spot on the Williamsburg Bridge in New York City and played every night for six to eight hours by himself. He spent a year away, honing his craft. It was a reminder that as creative people, from time to time, we need to take a year on the bridge; time away from the obligations that are being foisted upon us.
Death Cab for Cutie has been together and touring for more than 25 years now. Looking back, how do you view the band’s legacy?
We just didn’t know what the shelf life of indie rock would be in 1997, when we started this band. When you’re 21 or 22 years old, you certainly can’t imagine being in a band for this long – let alone one that’s been successful. I think qualifying the legacy is not necessarily something that I should be trying to do, but a lot of music that we’ve put out in the world has really resonated with people and continues to. It’s a humbling feeling.
This interview has been edited and condensed.