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Ben Gibbard on His Daily Livestreams: ‘It’s Given Me a Purpose’

“We have a moral obligation to pitch in,” the Death Cab for Cutie songwriter says of his charity broadcasts. “There’s no excuse not to”

Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie discusses his daily livestreams in support of COVID-19 relief efforts.

Greg Chow/Shutterstock

Ben Gibbard hadn’t used social media much before the COVID-19 crisis. But the Death Cab for Cutie singer-guitarist decided to give it a shot on March 17th when he livestreamed an hour-long performance that included songs by from Death Cab, the Postal Service and covers like Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees.”

That performance has now been streamed more than 200,000 times, and Gibbard has continued to broadcast every day since. (He will now move to a weekly format, going live Thursdays at 6 p.m. PST.) The shows have themes, including request nights, various eras of his career and covers.

In addition, Gibbard asks fans to donate to a different cause each day. Early on, he picked Seattle’s Aurora Commons: “They’re a safe space on Aurora Avenue for people who are temporarily living on the streets,” Gibbard tells Rolling Stone. “Sex workers who live in motels can come in and make a meal or do their laundry. It’s absolutely vital.” When the building’s facilities had to close for safety reasons, Gibbard asked fans to donate sleeping bags and tents for the homeless who had nowhere else to go.

“Within three days, they had filled three pickup trucks with sleeping bags and tents,” Gibbard says. “People want to do something. They may not be able to make a financial donation, but they go, ‘I do have a tent in the garage, and we haven’t gone camping in five years. So let me just take it down.’ This is something I can do, and people feel empowered when you give them a simple, altruistic directive that they have the ability to accomplish.”

Rolling Stone spoke with Gibbard about why he’s been so committed to keeping fans entertained during the pandemic — and where we go from here.

It’s been really cool to watch you do these livestreams every day. I saw someone write in the comments, “I feel calm for the first time in three months.” I think using social media in this way is helping a lot of people through this.
That’s really nice to hear. It’s really helpful to me as well. It’s given me a purpose, not that being at home and being a good husband and working on music is not a purpose. But, you know, in these uncertain times, it’s been really helpful to me and my mental health to know, “OK, it’s 4 p.m. I gotta have a job. I can’t disappoint these people. I have to get on the computer and play music.”

You know, for someone of my age and demographic, doing these kinds of live internet things is always a little bit terrifying — just because I was quite sure how it would be received or what have you. But the outpouring of joy and the positive vibes coming my way from everyone who’s been watching has been really amazing.

And while I would like to think that that would happen at any point, I think that this particular crisis we’re in, it’s been wonderful how we’ve kind of put a lot of people’s bullshit aside and just allowed us to realize that we might have differing political opinions, but this is something we are all going through together.

The question that people keep asking each other is no longer, “How are you?” It’s, “How are you holding up?”  Because with “How are you?” the answer is always, “Fine, I’m fine.” You’re never honest.

[Now] people are asking, “How are you holding up? How’s your family?”

I’m hoping that after this is all said and done, we will enter a new era of increased empathy and understanding that we are all flawed humans on this planet and we’re all going through a version of the same thing.

Whose idea was it to start broadcasting every day?
Well, Jordan Kurland, our manager, had suggested doing a live internet show and I was like, “I’ve been thinking of doing that.” And then I just, for whatever reason, was like, “I’m gonna do it every day for two weeks.” I don’t know why I settled on that number. But I certainly have the time right now.

And once we realized that we could utilize it for charitable purposes, that really sealed the deal. The shows are almost completely by request. Last week, I did a number of theme shows based on the eras of my songwriting in the band. But I was very adamant that I want it to connect to a charitable component because I think people in my situation — musicians who have had any modicum of success and who are in a position to wait out this crisis — have a moral obligation to pitch in in some capacity. And the reality is that in today’s day and age, it’s unbelievably easy to do so.

I don’t want to harp on that “Imagine” debacle. But everyone who spent God knows how long singing their version of “Imagine,” if you can do that, you can do a Q&A or an AMA for charity or make a video thanking first responders. You can do a number of things. I’m sure those things are in the works. But no one’s filming anything. No one’s recording; everybody’s at home.

I would argue there’s no excuse to not find, at least, bare minimum, an hour every couple of weeks to put oneself out there and either perform songs or read kids storytimes or do a Q&A or do a live interview with somebody. These are all things that can be done, and I think we’re learning, while people might not have a lot of money right now, if you have 10,000 people watching a livestream and everybody gives an average of one dollar, that’s $10,000.

So we’re in this period where we have this enormous capacity for altruism. And I think a lot of people right now are looking for a way to help. They just don’t necessarily know where to start or what to do.

People in my situation have this advantage of having an audience and also having a team of people who are able to help dot the I’s and cross the T’s and present these options. Over two weeks, we had 12 different causes. And by the end of the week, we thought, “If you haven’t given and you’re not able to do so, that’s totally fine, but this is the last show, we have a Venmo Account tab for this organization that’s helping people who are temporarily experiencing homelessness in Seattle, and if you have one dollar, that would be great.”

And a lot of people gave small donations. I don’t want to overplay it. But I do think that people who are in situations like mine have a moral obligation to help out. 

“We have a moral obligation to pitch in,” Gibbard says of artists. “There’s no excuse to not find, at least, bare minimum, an hour every couple of weeks to perform songs or read kids storytimes or do a live Q&A.”

How do you structure these performances? It’s amazing how many songs you remember.
Well, I have to admit that part of the reason I’m going [from daily] to a weekly show is because I’m spending a lot of the day preparing for that show. I’m going to once a week now because I said I would do two weeks. And, not to be insensitive, but I do have work I need to be doing right now.

Even though it seems like I’m just kind of up there effortlessly playing an hour’s worth of music, I’m spending days preparing those songs. People are requesting songs I haven’t played in 16 years, and I don’t want to be in front of people learning a song. I have too much respect for the people to waste their time like that.

You mentioned playing songs you haven’t played in 16 years. Which ones have been interesting to go back to?
I played a song on Saturday called “Underwater,” which is a song that we recorded for the Sub Pop Singles Club in 1999, I believe.

Because I have historically had so little interaction with people on social media, you start to get the impression that the majority of the people that come to the shows are more familiar with the quote-unquote “hits,” you know? If you get into some deep cuts from 1999, if we’re playing to 5,000 people, you’re gonna be looking at 4,700 people who don’t have any idea what’s going on. At this point now, 23 years in, we can’t give too much time to those moments in a set, because then we start losing the audience.

But in these shows, it’s been really cool for me to see people suggesting these songs that I had kind of forgotten about, or that we hadn’t played in a long time. And not just like one person, but dozens of people asking for some obscure old song.

And then as we’ve gone through — “OK we’re doing 1997 to 2001, then we’re doing 2002… doing these eras” — it’s really of cool to see these songs bubble up and people realize, “Oh, yeah, a lot of people like that song ‘Ingénue‘ from the Kintsugi record; we’ll have to play it live some time.”

So that’s been cool to see and to interact with our catalog. I think [there are] nine studio albums and four EPs and a couple of compilation records, plus all my solo stuff, Postal Service. So it’s a pretty big catalog at this point.

What kind of music do you turn to in a time like this?
I’ve been listening to a lot of the new Eluvium record. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Eluvium, but he’s a kind of ambient composer from Portland named Matthew Cooper. If you want to start out with a record, Talk Amongst the Trees is one of my favorite records. It’s just beautiful in the same way that Brian Eno is: It just feels like this music been beamed down from the heavens.

It’s kind of filling a space around me and allowing for my own thoughts and allowing me to read and make food and things like that while also not giving me emotional directives. Does that make sense?

What do you think is going to happen to the music business in light of COVID-19?
If there was a tragic incident… Let’s say there was a gas explosion at this restaurant down the street. And you went there all the time and you know the people that work there. There’s a loss of life, people are out of work.

You’d be like, “OK, this is a localized tragedy. And here are the people who are involved and have been affected by it.” And that number is, let’s say, 20 people. OK, here are the things we can do to alleviate the suffering of those people and to try to get this place back ASAP. That would be a problem to solve, but a fairly easy problem to solve in relation to what we’re dealing with now. 

“People like me who have some money in the bank can wait this out. But the guy who owns the club can’t.”

Now, it’s like there was a gas explosion everywhere at the same time. I think that so many people are suffering in very similar ways. I fear we will enter a period in which we are starting to rank people’s suffering and prioritize the needs of people who are all literally suffering from the same thing.

When I look at my industry, people like me who have some money in the bank can wait this out. But the guy who owns the club can’t. And the guy who’s driving the gear and the guitar tech can’t. And this is happening in every industry around the world right now.

I, as you might imagine, am no fan of President Trump — to put it mildly. And when the insanity of getting the country back on track by fucking Easter was getting thrown around, I was despondent and livid and just angry. I was so mad. This guy is finally starting to understand and grasp it, hopefully — if not only for his own political survival. At this point, I don’t care; I want him gone on as soon as possible. But if he’s only listening to experts now to save his own ass, I’ll take that.

And I think that the only way we are going to move through this if we continue to follow the guidelines that people like Dr. Fauci are placing in front of us. We cannot get our economy back up and running — or our small economy of touring and putting out records — until we have flattened the curve and gotten to a place globally that people can come out of our houses.

So if we jump the gun on this and get impatient, it will just prolong this period of being in our houses. I wish I had a strategic plan to solve this. But, you know, the only thing we can do to get through this is to walk through it. And part of walking through this is is by not going anywhere.

I think that people who are in positions like mine or have even larger spheres of influence, I’ll say it again: They have a moral obligation to do what they can given their influence. Whether it’s helping pay a friend’s rent or doing these seemingly insignificant live shows that to my great delight have raised quite a bit of money.

We don’t know how long people will feel it. If this is two months down the road and people are really broke, we might see people starting to turn on themselves and become very selfish. But right now, it seems like people are sensitive to people who are suffering and we need to capitalize on that.