Death Cab for Cutie
Death Cab for Cutie knew immediately that Kintsugi would fit perfectly as the title of their eighth studio album. A philosophy derived from the Japanese art of repairing cracked ceramics with gold to highlight flaws instead of hiding them, kintsugi speaks to the way an object’s history is part of its aesthetic value. “Considering what we were going through internally, and with what a lot of the lyrics are about, it had a great deal of resonance for us -- the idea of figuring out how to repair breaks and make them a thing of beauty,” says bassist Nick Harmer, who suggested the name to singer-guitarist Ben Gibbard and drummer Jason McGerr. “Philosophically, spiritually, emotionally, it seems perfect for this group of songs.”
Long before they gave the album its name, the band embarked on a process that forced them to do things differently than they ever had before. For instance, in the course of making their seven previous albums, the Seattle band hadn’t written much in the studio together. They had always preferred to hone their arrangements separately, or with just two or three of them playing at once. But when it came time to record Kintsugi, Death Cab for Cutie went into the studio with the openest of minds. Their willingness to try anything -- including a twenty-minute exploration that evolved into one of the album’s finest tracks, “The Ghosts Of Beverly Drive” -- yields Death Cab’s most compelling new work in years: an album that packs as much sonic as it does emotional wallop.
Kintsugi is the band’s first time recording with a producer other than their own Chris Walla, the guitarist and multi-instrumentalist whose talents behind the board had helped shape Death Cab’s sound since Gibbard released the You Can Play These Songs With Chords cassette in 1997. For Kintsugi, they worked with Rich Costey (whose production credits include albums by Foster the People, Muse, Vampire Weekend, Chvrches), recording at his Los Angeles studio Eldorado over the course of twelve weeks in the first half of 2014. “He was all in in a way that I don’t think a lot of producers are nowadays,” says Gibbard. “We couldn’t have landed on a better collaborator for this record. He accomplished what we’ve always attempted, which is to make Death Cab sound on a record how we sound live. And we’re a rock band live. The difficulty now for the live show is making them rock as hard as they rock on the record. That’s a new quagmire for this band.”
Work on Kintsugi began back in early 2013, as all Death Cab LPs have, with Gibbard writing and demoing the songs on his own before arranging and recording them with his band mates. They initially convened in fall of 2013 at Walla’s Hall Of Justice studio in Seattle. Ten days into recording, Chris decided to step down as producer. Says Gibbard. “Nothing dramatic, he just said, ‘I don’t think I’m the right guy to do this album and we should find someone else.’” The band all felt that they needed to shake things up a bit. “We challenged each other more and left no stone unturned. That was as gratifying as it was frustrating at times, but I couldn’t be happier with the end product,” says McGerr. Walla has since decided to leave the band but participated in the recording process as fully and vitally as he had on their previous albums. In fact, Costey didn’t even know Walla was leaving the band until after Kintsugi was finished. Chris played his final show with the band in September at Rifflandia Festival in British Columbia.
When they started recording, there weren’t any rules at all. They’d work on a song for a while and then regroup with Costey to figure out elements to expand or elaborate. “These guys have a chemistry that’s existed for a long time, and that chemistry can’t be ignored,” says Costey. “When you have a band that can play as well as they can play with each other, having them jam together in real time can actually be the quickest way to try a bunch of ideas and get them on tape.” Songs such as the instantly memorable “Good Help (Is So Hard To Find),” the warm and vulnerable “Little Wanderer” and the brooding lead single “Black Sun” were all tracked with the four members of the band playing together in a room, reacting to each other in real time, adding layers -- and later subtracting some. “All four of us being on the floor together in the studio was something that hadn’t happened in years, because Chris was always behind the glass or in the control room,” says McGerr. “But this was more like when we’re onstage, where everyone has their eyes closed and we’re playing in the moment. With ‘The Ghosts Of Beverly Drive,’ it turned into a twenty-minute thing they captured in the control room on a two-track. We had started it in Seattle months prior and it just wasn’t getting there. Rich brought us into the control room and was like, ‘This is our song.’”
Costey credits another element of their production set-up with helping achieve the perfect balance of their classic approach and the new one: “My studio has one big live recording space and two control rooms,” he says. “Once we got basic tracks together, Chris would work on them in the other control room. And he would end up doing completely different versions of the songs. For ‘Black Sun,’ Chris did all this super old school sequenced synth stuff that we used on the final track, and it really brought that song to another level.”
“Black Sun” is also a perfect example of Gibbard’s customarily honest, fearless approach to writing about affairs of the heart. “‘Black Sun’ is about divorce and the ugliness and conflicting emotions that come with that: anger, sadness, finger-pointing, acceptance, forgiveness, understanding. To me, the idea of a black sun has multiple meanings: The black sun could be an eclipse, where one thing eclipses another. The sun is supposed to be a radiating light on the world but in this instance it is blacked out. We’ve all been that at some point in our life when we’re supposed to be shining upon someone giving them support, but for some reason are unable to do that. I am the black sun, and the song is as much an indictment of myself as anything.”
Although, in the case of “Black Sun,” Gibbard says he’s willing to elaborate on the elements of the song that are autobiographical, he’s never been one to reveal the precise meaning behind his lyrics. “I know that people will assume these songs are about certain things, and in some instances they are going to be correct,” he says. “But I’m not going to give people a road map.”
Gibbard acknowledges that, early on in the process of writing this group of songs, as he was still trying to make sense of the major changes happening in his life, he had to remind himself not to change his creative process. “If there’s a reason people can relate to my songwriting, maybe it’s they feel like they’re getting an honest, fearless approach to writing about affairs of the heart. I’m certainly not going to censor that just because people think they know something about my personal life. I would be cowardly as a songwriter and not be true to what I’ve always done if I shy away from these events in my life because I was in relationship with a public figure.
“I know the lyrics aren’t 100% fiction and they’re not 100% nonfiction, and only Ben knows what that blend is,” says Harmer. “But with this group of songs, I do think he is writing from a genuinely vulnerable and honest place and I’m proud of him for putting himself out there and being fearless about it.”
One of the songs on Kintsugi that Gibbard says he holds closest to his heart is “Little Wanderer,” where he sings, “You sent a photo out of your window of Paris of what you wished that I could see. But someone’s gotta be the lighthouse and that someone’s gotta be me.” He explains: “There are innumerable songs about, like, ‘The road ain’t no place to start a family.’ ‘Home Sweet Home’ by Motley Crue, ‘Gone Til November,’ by Wyclef Jean, and so on. But nobody ever writes a song about sitting at home, waiting for someone to come back. And for so much of my life, I’ve been the one off somewhere in the world trying to maintain a connection through digital portals. Now, being with someone who travels pretty much all the time, I feel like I’ve gotten a taste of my own medicine. All the songs are personal, but that one is personal in a way that is very tender to me.”
Here, too, “The Ghosts of Beverly Drive” encapsulates important elements of the album’s larger theme -- embracing flaws and being open to change. “If only you had known me before the accident,” it begins, “for with that grand collision came a grave consequence.” Says Gibbard: “There’s this charade you play with someone when you start seeing each other, that no one has ever made you feel this way before,” says Gibbard. “‘The Ghosts Of Beverly Drive’ is about when you say to the person you’re with, ‘Let’s just acknowledge that we are not the first people to feel this way. Let’s be honest with each other that we’ve been in love before or that we’ve fallen out of love with people before, and that’s OK.’”