Death Cab For Cutie are a model of contradiction.
A devoutly independent group on a major label, they're perhaps the biggest cult group in the world. Not recognisable enough to prompt Beatle-mania style devotion, mind you, but big enough to command a global audience, one that throngs to some of the largest venues in the land.
'Kintsugi', then, just happens to make sense. Borrowing the term for a Japanese art form in which the cracks of a broken object become part of the overall aesthetic, it's a beautifully imperfect object, a wonderfully flawed record.
Which is perhaps not surprising. Death Cab For Cutie have lost guitarist Chris Walla – on amicable terms, he contributed to the 'Kintsugi' sessions – while many of the songs were directly influenced by Ben Gibbard's divorce to Zooey Deschanel.
Of the first, Ben is stridently straight-forward. “A lot of people have been assuming that the title is meant to refer to Chris leaving the band. People can draw what they want from it,” he asserts. “Whatever our intentions are, are fairly unimportant in that sense.”
“What resonated so much with me, with that word, is that in some ways it's what I've been wanting to do as a songwriter my whole life and never really had a metaphor for it. I think what I've always been trying to do is make sense of the broken pieces of life and try to reconstruct them and make them something new and beautiful. Resembling the original thing, but not necessarily a one for one model of the original.”
For Ben Gibbard, the visual arts – in particular cinema – are becoming a much more prominent influence on his work. “For me, a song really never takes flight in the writing process unless I can see it like a movie in my own mind,” he says. “Unless the colours are really vivid and you can see the characters and watch them interact - which, in so many instances, is kind of like writing a movie about yourself. Writing a screenplay about yourself, in which you change a lot of the details and drum things up for dramatic effect.”
Often appearing to be a painfully honest songwriter, Ben insists that while 'Kintsugi' may well be part of a musical biopic, of sorts, the names of many of the characters – and, indeed, some of the events – have been changed. Probed if he has ever asked for permission to reveal certain details, the answer is unequivocal.
“I've never asked anybody's permission because I don't feel as if I've ever divulged anything,” he states. “I feel like maybe there's a sleight of hand - you're tricked into believing that you're given an intimate detail when in fact more times than not there isn't one there.”
“Of course there are personal details about my life and the people that I care about - or even the people that I can't stand any more - that I would never divulge. There are private conversations, damning things that people have said, that would ruin - at least in the public eye – would ruin their reputation forever. And I'm sure those things exist about me as well because I'm as imperfect as anybody else. So yeah, of course there are things that you don't share.”
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I don't think it's any kind of secret that a lot of these songs deal with my failed marriage.
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Ultimately, though, 'Kintsugi' will be interpreted in the light of Gibbard's divorce. Of that, he is quite sharply, almost endearingly, open. “I don't think it's any kind of secret that a lot of these songs deal with my failed marriage. So I think, as a songwriter, you have the time to create something perfect about a failure. The perfect song about something wildly imperfect.”
But this would be to place to narrow a definition upon 'Kintsugi' and upon Death Cab For Cutie. Very much a band in every sense of the word, the album opens with 'No Room In Frame' – a lengthy, weighty track which has been termed a travelogue through Los Angeles. “Rich (Costey, producer) emailed me a couple of weeks ago when the song went out to the world, a little review of it referred to it as 'effortless' and he was like: boy, if they only knew what a laborious process it was to bring this song to life!"
“I think that's a lesson learned in that case. There are times when making records or in any kind of creative venture where someone might say: look, people will be able to tell how much we worked on this and that's a bad thing. I think the lesson with this is that it's not always the case. There are times that you do labour over something and even so it feels very organic.”
Los Angeles it self appears as a backdrop to much of the material, lending sharpened hues of light and dark in its vast mesh of contradictions. “For me, Los Angeles is a place that I don't particularly enjoy spending time in, which is ironic given that I live there,” he laughs. “For me, the one thing I find is that Los Angeles is an unbelievably interesting and inspiring place because it is a city of so many flagrant contradictions, so many extremes.”
“There's so much fodder for creativity because the artist talks about truth.,” he continues. “If you want to understand the truth about a particular situation or a person or a place and in that sense it's one of the many reasons I find Los Angeles so fascinating because it is a place of vast contradictions. Yet as a creative person I'm trying to find clarity and truth within that place. I think that's what draws so many people to it creatively because it is undefinable.”
Defined as undefinable, the truth rendered patently untrue; in many ways, Los Angeles acts as a mask for 'Kintsugi' itself – the many influences, the many moods. Asked if he himself is a perfectionist, Ben Gibbard seems torn.
“I feel I should finish everything,” he explains. “Something I've been doing in recent years which I didn't necessarily do when I was younger is finish songs, put them away and not think about them, not listen to them. Try to gain a little bit of objectivity about them so when I re-engaged with them I would hear whether the second verse was good or what needed another crack.”
“I'm not a tinkerer,” he continues. “I don't tinker with the lyrics down to the last vocal take. I tend to come into the studio having done my homework. Open to changes but not necessarily overly tinkering on things.”
Admitting his faults, embracing his failures, Ben Gibbard seems able to relish the chance to move forward. 'Kintsugi' has been received rapturously by critics, while an upcoming tour will no doubt witness a re-unification of the very special relationship which exists between this band and their fans.
“I feel really proud of the choices that everybody made,” he says at one point. “I don't think we could have made better choices on this record. I feel... I stand by it in a way that I don't think I've been able to do with one of our records for a while.”
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'Kintsugi' is out now.