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Death Cab for Cutie fixes what’s broken with something precious

Death Cab for Cutie, including Jason McGerr (from left), Ben Gibbard and Nick Harmer, will play Thursday at the Midland.
Death Cab for Cutie, including Jason McGerr (from left), Ben Gibbard and Nick Harmer, will play Thursday at the Midland. Chris Rhoads and Sarah Rhoads

Death Cab for Cutie’s latest album opens with the line, “I don’t know where to begin.”

For songwriter and vocalist Ben Gibbard, that’s likewise the case when approaching every new album.

“I often find myself with a musical empty nest syndrome when we’re starting a record,” says Gibbard, whose band performs Thursday at the Midland. “I go from having 30 ideas to having no ideas. In the early years of the band, there was a very fearful period where I felt insecure not having new material. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned the songs will reveal themselves.”

That revelation emerges on the Washington group’s eighth album, “Kintsugi,” which is named for a Japanese art technique that involves fixing broken pottery with lacquer comprised of precious metals such as gold. This creates an object that doesn’t retreat from damage, instead finding a new kind of beauty in the process.

It’s a perfect allegory for Gibbard’s mindset going into the writing and recording of this project, which occurred during the most tumultuous period of his life.

Not only did Death Cab guitarist, producer and 17-year member Chris Walla announce he was leaving the band, but Gibbard got divorced from actress Zooey Deschanel of “New Girl” fame.

“Going into this album, people were going to make assumptions about the subject matter of each song,” the 38-year-old Gibbard says. “It was in my best interest and the best interest of the fans to be very upfront about this stuff. You shouldn’t live in fear of what those assumptions might be in relation to who the songs are about … or not about.”

The assumptions are rather clear when they take aim at the self-absorbed celebrity culture Gibbard encountered upon relocating to Los Angeles to be with Deschanel. The track “Good Help (Is Hard to Find)” begins, “You’ll never have to hear the word ‘no’/If you keep all your friends on the payroll.”

Gibbard admits the best position for a more introverted musician like himself is to be in a band that’s successful but not necessarily famous.

“Having had a peek behind the curtain of what truly famous people’s lives are like, it’s not something I would wish on my worst enemy,” says Gibbard, who currently resides in Seattle.

“In my time in L.A., I’ve seen some of the craziest things around people who are very well-known. The kind of lives they have to lead because of their fame is not something I desire for myself or somebody I love. In this band we’re in a wonderful position where we can raise families and own homes and play to thousands of people. But at the end of the day, there aren’t three black SUVs parked outside of my apartment waiting for me to walk around my neighborhood.”

Since beginning as Gibbard’s solo project in 1997, Death Cab for Cutie fashioned an instantly distinctive sound. Anchored by Gibbard’s soft-but-sincere voice, the quartet became exponents for a style of indie rock that paired serene melodies, candid lyrics, layered guitars and bob-and-weave rhythms. (The group takes its name from a doo-wop parody tune created by the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band performed in the 1967 Beatles film “Magical Mystery Tour.”)

Despite the shakeup, “Kintsugi” delivers what fans expect out of a Death Cab for Cutie album. From the escalating pulse of the guitar-heavy single “Black Sun” to the textured, near-techno vibe of “Ingénue,” the material becomes both melancholy and seductive.

“If we were making this music in the mid-’80s, we’d be called rock. If we were making this music in 1991, we’d be called alternative. There’s always a trendy genre name for independent rock music — or whatever they’re calling independent rock music at that time. Even calling it independent rock music is giving it connotations that are maybe a little skewed, certainly for a band that’s on a major label,” he says.

While the ensemble (which also includes bassist Nick Harmer and drummer Jason McGerr) has crafted memorable songs such as the shuffling memoir “Grapevine Fires” and the hypnotic, Grammy-nominated “I Will Possess Your Heart,” Gibbard says fans are most interested in hearing one particular Death Cab composition when attending a live show.

“A lot of people have contacted me to say that ‘I Will Follow You Into the Dark’ has been used in some very heavy moments in their lives. It certainly wasn’t intended to be that. But I hear from those who use it in their wedding or during a difficult time,” Gibbard says of the acoustic ballad.

“I feel strongly about the idea of social contracts. When you have songs so integrated in people’s lives — the big songs by any band — I feel an obligation to play them. That’s a large part of the reason people are coming to the show and putting up with the new songs. Now eight records in, we’re fortunate enough to have a lot of those songs. We can’t get to all of them, but we know which ones we have to play.”

Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”


Death Cab for Cutie performs Thursday, April 23, at the Midland. Tickets are $35-$40 through