Ben Gibbard

Coming home again

Thursday, February 21, 2013

According to Thomas Wolfe, “You can’t go home again.” So strongly did the author believe this that the title of his most well-known work bears this adage, and the entirety of his weighty tome is devoted to an exploration of the topic.

Clearly, Wolfe never called Bellingham home.

Here, we have an entirely different, opposing viewpoint. Indeed, if the adage were reworded to accurately depict life in our corner of the world, it might read, “You can go home again. In fact, odds are, at some point you probably will.”

Chalk it up to the unique charms of this region—or blame those cursed Chinese coalminers if you like—but, when it comes to this town, as one gone-and-then-returned resident once eloquently put it, “Bellingham is a hard place to leave and an easy place to come back to.”

This seems to hold true whether you’re a barista at the local coffeehouse or a multi-platinum, Grammy-nominated recording artist.

Without a doubt, Ben Gibbard is Bellingham’s most famous musical export. In 1997, while living in Bellingham and attending Western Washington University, he wrote and recorded a cassette-only release that he dubbed You Can Play These Songs with Chords. Although the album was rough around the edges—as ideas that are conceived of and realized almost entirely within one’s basement or bedroom often are—it wasn’t long before copies of it were being made and passed around Bellingham’s music scene and a buzz around Gibbard and his music began to build.

Gibbard wasn’t a stranger to the local music scene—he’d already made a mark here with Pinwheel and All-Time Quarterback—but You Can Play These Songs with Chords displayed a talent for songwriting, a knack for arrangement and that certain indefinable something that marked this release as something wholly distinct and entirely special.

The reaction to the tape was such that Gibbard realized his was a musical project with longer-term potential than just a one-off release recorded for friends and a few interested strangers. He enlisted some friends and fellow musicians to form a band to play his songs, began to play shows at various local venues and generally did that which has been done by Bellingham bands before and since.

This, in broad strokes, was how a band called Death Cab for Cutie came to be. And neither Gibbard nor the Bellingham music community would ever be the same.

I could detail for you the rest of Death Cab’s ascension to indie-rock glory; tell you all about the way they changed the music industry with their refusal to bail on the indie label that had backed them and their albums; wow you with the endless amounts of critical acclaim that has been showered upon them; impress you with the tale of how when they did finally sign a major-label record deal, they did so on their exact terms and with their ethics firmly intact; regale you with stories of their album sales, Billboard hits, Grammy nominations, and other industry accolades. I could do all that, but it’s likely you already know all about it. After all, Death Cab for Cutie hasn’t exactly been flying under the radar for all these years.

If you know all that, it’s likely you also know about Gibbard’s moves, first to Seattle and then, several years later, to Los Angeles. And if you know about that, you probably also know about his romance with that Hollywood It Girl, their subsequent marriage, and the divorce that would eventually bring him back to Seattle.

You may further be aware of the band’s and Gibbard’s prolonged absence from Bellingham, an absence that came to an abrupt end when the band came back to play a pair of sold-out shows in 2009 at the Mount Baker Theatre in front of a crowd that was as proud as it was ecstatic.

It seems you can, in fact, come home again. And coming home can feel pretty darn good—at least, if your name is Ben Gibbard, that is.

Which almost brings us up to date in the long, not-so-strange saga of Gibbard and his relationship with Bellingham.

Of course, this is hardly a comprehensive history, and as with any incomplete story, I’ve left a few things out. One omitted fact is that Gibbard has returned to his roots in more ways than just those related to his personal geography. Last year saw him release a solo album, one that boasts the enigmatic-yet-telling title Former Lives, and while its production was certainly a step up from the lo-fi days of You Can Play These Songs with Chords, Gibbard once again manned nearly all of the instruments, and when it came time to release his solo effort, he chose not to go with one of the major labels that were almost certainly available to him, but returned to Barsuk, the Seattle indie label that gave Death Cab its start and provided staunch support to the band during its leaner years.

And, with that, we’ve finally reached the present day—and a glimpse into the future. For the first time since 2003, Gibbard will undertake a short tour with one of his other successful musical collaborations, the Postal Service (their album, Give Up, just went platinum nearly a decade after its release), and presumably more music from Death Cab will be forthcoming.

But before any of that happens, Gibbard will, once again, return to the town whose musical history he is such an inextricable part of, to play a show on Sun., March 3 at WWU’s Performing Arts Center Concert Hall. As befits his stature as Bellingham musical royalty, tickets for the show sold out in less than 48 hours.

Setting aside the words of Wolfe—and that pesky coalminer curse—when it comes to Gibbard’s relationship with Bellingham, all I can say is, welcome back, Ben. There’s no place like home.

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