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Ben Gibbard Talks About Songwriting,… But Not To us



I have always had a somewhat distant relationship with Death Cab for Cutie, I like them but I have never been a super fan. Still some of their songs resonate in me and I find Ben Gibbard to be an interesting guy. His songs have a lot of emotion and existential angst, they are sophisticated enough to keep people from every age group interested. The band has a lot of young fans but does not exclusively address to youth culture. On a personal note, I like the fact that Ben gave up alcohol in 2008 to start running marathons, I like the fact he is a strong non-believer, flirting with nihilism something you can often hear in his lyrics.

In this interview for, Ben Gibbard ‘Deconstructs the Science of Songwriting’, an essential topic for a songwriter. First, he gave his opinion about the Thicke-Pharrell-Gaye and the Sam Smith-Tom Petty debates, where does plagiarism start Ben? This is part of his answer:

‘I do think, though, as we continue to live an ever-increasing meta existence, as a culture, where we are continuing to borrow from works that already exist and taking elements from them to create new ones, I certainly think the ruling sets a fairly dangerous precedent for that. And it doesn’t necessarily have to extend just to music. It seems to me as if we’re dealing with a situation where things are certainly similar, but not necessarily exactly the same.

I think a very clear cut example of, dare I say, plagiarism is the Sam Smith-Tom Petty situation where you have a song that is flagrantly… it is the hook from one song being used for another song. To me, that was a very obvious example of plagiarism. If somebody had done that to me, I would probably take a similar course of action. Or I would expect a similar course of action to be taken against me, if that were the case. But, in the “Blurred Lines” situation, I’ve heard a little bit of it and it seems like a dangerous precedent has been set. We’ll have to see how that proliferates itself further down the road, I suppose.’

Ben had more to say about being original in songwriting,since so much has been done already!

‘I don’t feel that all the great songs have been written,’ says Ben. ‘I do feel that where we are now, certainly with rock & roll music, is that so much of it is variations on themes. But I think that it’s one’s particular creativity and individuality that comes out within that variation on a particular theme that makes a song great.’

Then he becomes more technical and finally admits that he or the public don’t want to hear stuff too unfamiliar:

‘I think there’s something that feels so good about a 1–4–5 chord progression. It’s a very standard chord progression and it just feels good to the ears. When a song goes from a 4-chord down to a 1-chord, the resolution that our brains recognize and that feel and sound good to us are not going to cease to sound good to us if we start creating new whacky chord structures that don’t appeal to us. I don’t know what it is in our lizard brains that — certainly in Western music — make these progressions and melodies sound good to us, but they do. I would much rather hear a song that’s written from a fresh perspective, using ideas that have existed in rock & roll for 50 years, than something that is incredibly abrasive to my ears but is new. I could write you something that you’ve never heard right now. But it’s not going to sound good. You’re not going to want to listen to it. The thing that makes us want to listen to things, and the thing that makes music really embedded in our lives, is that there’s something new-yet-familiar sounding about it.’

Which brings us to the dilemma: if you are not original enough you may venture into plagiarism but if you are too original you may fail. It seems like a tough conundrum for songwriters

Ben also explains the very tricky feeling that characterizes inspiration. I once read an interview with the great Tom Waits and he was saying this beautiful and very poetic thing about songwriting: ‘there are ‘songs that you have to sneak up on like you’re hunting for a rare bird, and there are songs that come fully intact like a dream taken through a straw. There are songs that you find little bits of like pieces of gum you find underneath the desk, and you scrape them off and you put them together and you make something out of it.’ Ben’s answer may be a bit less poetic and less imagery-filled, but it is interesting nevertheless:

‘I certainly have written things that I felt were beamed down to me from somewhere else. And they’re some of the best songs, I think, that I’ve written — some of the most well-known and appreciated songs I’ve written. Something like “I Will Follow You into the Dark” or ‘Such Great Heights’ were songs that I wrote incredibly quickly. After weeks of banging my head against the wall trying to write songs, those songs, when I wrote them, seemingly came out of nowhere. It did feel that there was some sort of spiritual transcendence happening and the song being beamed down to me. But, at the end of the day, I wrote those songs.’

At the end, he is more into hard labor and strenuous craft than into a sort of spiritual belief channeling the magic of writing

‘You know, being a writer of any kind of discipline is kind of like being a magician. You’re defying the laws of physics. There’s nothing there. And then there’s something there. That defies the first law of physics. So, in that sense, maybe there is something spiritual about the process of writing, in general, but having gone through all of the longer periods of writer’s block and unsuccessful writing, I subscribe more to the philosophy that ‘inspiration likes to find you hard at work’ more than “you are just a vessel for some kind of cosmic transference of music that, if you’re in the right place at the right time, it’s beamed down to you.’

And what about the old myth that you have to be miserable to be able to write great songs?

‘Well, I was happier than I’ve been in years when I wrote these songs. I get it. I get that that’s a quip that people have thrown around in relation to this record and the previous record, either wishing that I would write from the point of misery or just simply be miserable so I could write songs. But that’s really never been the mindset I’ve been in while I’ve been creating these things.

When you’re alone in a room with an instrument, more times than not, at least I feel very introspective because I’m alone and playing something on an instrument. Whatever I’m playing is kind of dictating the tone of the lyric and where the song’s going to go. I think that environment plays into that — living in the Northwest for the better part of my life plays into that. When you’re writing songs in January and it’s the 30th straight day of rain, it’s hard to write ‘Shiny Happy People.’

‘I understand what people mean by that. I think one of the many reasons people gravitate toward sad music and melancholy is that, when you’re listening to a sad song and you’re feeling that way, it gives you the impression that you’re not alone in your melancholy. That’s a really empowering feeling when you’re going through something difficult and you feel like you’re a freak or you’re all alone, if you’re feeling this way. And then you’re listening to a song that’s echoing a similar sentiment, it’s very empowering.

And happy songs just don’t feel that way. You may crank up ‘Walking on Sunshine’ when you’re driving in your car on a nice day and you’re headed to the beach, but I highly doubt that Katrina and the Waves have people coming up to them saying, ‘Hey, man. ‘Walking on Sunshine’ really helped me when I was in a really happy place in my life.’’ You know what I mean?’

I guess we all can see what Ben Gibbard means.

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