Points of Reference

How Louis C.K. Shaped Ben Gibbard's 'Former Lives'

The Death Cab for Cutie frontman tells us how John Lennon and the perfection of 'Louie' informed his new solo record.

By Seth Sommerfeld November 14, 2012

As the Northwest’s most publically adored songwriter, Ben Gibbard could have indulged grandiose fantasies on his first full-length solo album, even gone all Brian Wilson. Luckily, the Death Cab for Cutie frontman keeps things simple on Former Lives, released in October on Barsuk Records. It's what a solo record should be: a change of pace. These aren’t Death Cab songs that Gibbard's hogging; they’re tracks that fall outside the band’s indie rock realm while still staying true to his earnest songwriting style. Whether he’s singing longingly about the Smith Tower’s architecture on “Teardrop Windows” or adapting F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald’s letters in his tremendous duet with Aimee Mann, “Bigger Than Love,” each note rings with the honesty he has built his reputation on. After spending the past few weeks on tour, Gibbard comes home this week for sold-out shows at Showbox at the Market and Washington Hall.

For our latest Points of Reference interview, we caught up Gibbard (while he was taking a break from tweeting about the Mariners) to talk about the pop culture that influenced Former Lives.

Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda by Jackson R. Bryer

The book is a collection of letters between F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald throughout their lives. It’s rather moving because of the tone of the letters and how they shift through their lives together, and then at the end somewhat separated. What also struck me was what an amazing writer Zelda was as well. I mean, F. Scott Fitzgerald...he's been heralded as one of the greatest voices of the 20th century. I wouldn’t go so far as to put Zelda in that same category, but I certainly think that she was a really wonderful writer and never got her dues.

Plastic Ono Band by John Lennon

The first Lennon solo record was kind of a sonic point of reference a lot when I was in the studio with Aaron Espinoza (from Earlimart) making this record. One of the many things I like is how the songs are just right up in front. They’re very straightforward and the drums just sound incredible. We found ourselves referencing those drum sounds a lot. As a record, it’s so tight and compact.

SS: I see the parallel between that and Former Lives. I feel like your record goes in and out of each song succinctly without relying on window dressings.

Yeah. I think one thing that has continued to kind of bother me about modern records is just—as you put it, the amount of window dressings has gotten a little ridiculous. I wouldn’t so much call it overproduction as much as there seems to be this trend in modern records, and indie rock specifically, of this sort of [overly complex] stereo sound. That’s something that, at times, is enjoyable to listen to for me, but more times than not, I’d much rather put on a record with less sonic information where the songs are really leaning forward and driving the bus.

Five Easy Pieces

It’s one of my favorite movies, and when I was living in LA I was able to see it at the Nuart in 35mm. Jack Nicholson’s character in Five Easy Pieces is a very troubled and distant man. I think that somewhere, kind of deep in my psyche, there’s something that relates to the wanderlust of that character and the inability to really focus on anything that’s directly in front of them. That’s not something I’m proud of. Throughout the film, you get the point of how disconnected he’s become and how little this character knows people around him and how it continues to isolate him. When you spend as much time touring on the road as I have... I deal with the kind of darker parts of my psyche.


I’m convinced that Louie is without a doubt… I will speak in such hyperbole and say I think it’s the best thing that’s ever been on television. It’s like seeing somebody fly. I think that any writer of any sort who watches that show can’t help but be inspired by just how Louis C.K. is able to meld absurdity, humor, self-effacement and incredibly touching moments that really open up what it means to be alive. How is he doing this?! How is he able to pull this off in 22 mintes? It’s wonderful.

Whenever somebody hasn’t seen that show, I’m both angry at them that they haven’t seen it and also jealous that they get to see it for the first time. I think it’s a show that speaks very much to the nature of what it means to be an artist—all the ups and downs, and how difficult that can be at times.

Emitt Rhodes by Emitt Rhodes

I don’t know if you’re familiar with Emitt Rhodes, but he was in a band in the '60s called the Merry-Go-Round that was like a Nuggets band, that era. He signed a solo deal and made this record for Dunhill in which he took the advance, bought all this recording equipment, and recorded the whole record himself. And it’s a perfect record. It’s been referred to as the best Paul McCartney record that Paul McCartney never made. I love that record, it’s something I never tire of listening to. ... It’s a record that has provided me a lot of inspiration for a number of years: the economy of the songwriting, on the back of the Lennon thing, and the proficiency of the playing, especially when it’s just one guy. Also, combine that with having to do it on an eight-track in a garage. It’s really impressive.

Ben Gibbard
Nov 16 at 7, Showbox at the Market, sold out
Nov 17 at 7, Washington Hall, sold out
Show Comments

Related Content