Three Great Things: Ben Gibbard

The Death Cab For Cutie frontman talks vegan ice cream, Michael Jordan, and jogging through Seattle.

Three Great Things is our series in which artists tell us about three things they absolutely love. During the pandemic, those things have also helped them get by. Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard is pretty sure he already had COVID-19 back in late February, when he had to pull the plug after just a few songs at the Innings Festival — the last show his band played before the pandemic closed everything down. But Gibbard has been using his lockdown time well, first performing daily acoustic concerts from home that helped raise money for Seattle charities. His band has always been politically active, and they recently launched, a site whose proceeds benefit Fair Fight and Future Now, which seek to support voter rights and combat voter suppression. Here, Gibbard tells us about a few things that are keeping his head on straight during the weirdest year any of us has ever known. 
—Josh Modell, Talkhouse Executive Editor

1. Frankie & Jo’s/Eating in general

The livestreams became my focus for a while, and while I appreciate all the compliments, it wasn’t a completely altruistic venture. It’s good for my mental health as well, it gives me a reason to get up in the morning and focus on something. 

For both my wife Rachel and I, food is a fairly large component of our free time, whether it’s going out to eat or making food. We’ve been doing so much cooking recently and that’s been really enjoyable, but the one thing that’s been my comfort food, or that falls into the category of stuff I shouldn’t be eating all the time… There’s a vegan ice cream place here in Seattle called Frankie & Jo’s. They make the most insane flavor combinations you could ever dream up. Every college town has that place that combines weird food, like the pizza place in Madison that puts macaroni and cheese on the pizza. It’s not like gross-out, drunk food, but just incredibly well articulated flavors that you never thought to put together. I never thought of putting tahini in ice cream. So as we are trying to support the local restaurants and businesses that are still open and active, we’ve gotten on this delivery circuit with this vegan ice cream place, and it’s starting to get kind of bad. I’m certainly eating my feelings. That’s been a place I enjoyed in non-quarantine times, but when you can get five pints delivered to your door—it becomes a problem kind of quick. I feel like it’s just a matter of time before they become a thing you can find in your co-op or Whole Foods, and people are freaking out about it in other parts of the country. 

Every week we’re just opening up cookbooks by people like Josh McFadden. We’ve focused on this sausage-and-broccoli pasta that’s in Josh’s latest book. We’ve made it every week, and we’re like, “This is bad. This is some really high calorie stuff.” But at the same time, I’m running a shit ton, and we’re riding our bikes a shit ton. We’re able to maintain somewhere in the normal range of our BMI, even given the amount of eating that we’re doing. I’ve been baking sourdough bread for years now, and it’s odd that it’s become a quarantine activity. When we first went to the grocery store after the first few days of lockdown in Seattle, we expected to see certain things that were gone. Pasta, canned beans, rice. But I was really shocked that the flour aisle was gone. It didn’t compute for me for a couple weeks until I started seeing everybody I know posting photos of their sourdough on Instagram. I don’t know where that hive mind came from, especially now that we live in a culture that shuns bread to such an extent. And honestly I haven’t heard much from the keto crowd in a while. They were pretty loud there for a while.

2. The Last Dance

We are currently demolishing The Last Dance, the documentary series on ESPN about Michael Jordan’s last season on the Bulls. I’m not a huge basketball fan, I’m much more of a baseball fan, but that period of the NBA is frozen in everybody’s mind of my age group, because it was just these titans at the height of their powers, battling each other.

I’m floored by it — the breadth, and the footage, which from my understanding is something like 500 hours from that era that’s never been seen. It’s incredible. I’d forgotten how physical the NBA was at that point. In watching a lot of this footage, there’s just a barrage of stuff that would 100 percent be called as technical fouls now. For example, the ‘89-’90 Pistons, none of them would’ve been on the court halfway through the season if they were playing now. And because Michael Jordan has been such a ubiquitous presence in pop culture from the ‘80s on… Michael Jordan of the last 20 years has been Hanes commercials, a weird little Hitler mustache, and the “crying Jordan” meme. I think we have somehow forgotten — and there’s a whole generation who didn’t get to see him play — how great he was. Seeing him in action in the context of this documentary is mind-blowing. He truly is the greatest player of all time. That to me has also been eye-opening, to re-interface with his career. His abilities at that time were just otherworldly.

A lot of state parks and DNR land was closed at the beginning of quarantine. When the initial lockdown measures were starting, I was astounded at the number of people who were out there on the trails. It just seemed crazy. It was like a Sunday in the summer, but times two. It was wild. And then I realized the gyms were closed, the yoga studios were closed, anywhere people would go to do activity was closed, and they were all getting pushed out here, where clearly some of them had never been before. 

3. Road-running

While the parks kind of accordion-ed between being open and closed, it’s pushed a lot of us trail runners out on the roads again. I had shunned road-running years ago, I just found it not as enjoyable as being on the trails. But I started to really enjoy exploring my city on foot. I found myself in areas of the city that I certainly would never be in on foot and in some instances had never been before, ever. It’s been fun for me to explore the city that way. The conversations I’ve had with my trail-running friends and community is just how enjoyable this is. None of us thought it would be. It’s still running, it’s not as if it’s a whole other activity.

I’ve been putting together these little routes that connect parts of my past or parts of the city’s musical history together. A couple days ago, and this is not something I do all the time — I don’t want to give you the impression that I go out and run these kinds of distances for fun, weekly — but I did this 46-mile route where I connected about 12 different grunge-era locations and made a big loop around the city. I started at the building where they shot the movie Singles, and then I ran down to the Cobain house, where he sadly killed himself, and then through the International District, locations where Quincy Jones and Ray Charles had met, or where Guns n Roses played, or where Nirvana played, the old Sub Pop building, the Edgewater Inn, where the infamous Led Zeppelin snapper story takes place. I ended up sharing that on Instagram and was in some ways maybe expecting some quarantine-shaming. I wrote a little disclaimer that talked about safety. But it was really cool to see how people reacted. I also linked every photo with a web link that explained the location, and about what I was showing people. That’s been the thing that’s keeping me the most sane—the ability to get out of the house and explore the city on foot. For someone who loves being outside and on trails and in mountains, it’s been the thing that I enjoy the most. It’s given me a new way to interface with my city and appreciate areas that I would have no reason to go to otherwise. Not everybody knows where Nirvana recorded Bleach, or where their first show was. I didn’t set out to do it for edu-tainment, but it kind of turned out this way.

(Photo Credit: Rachel Demy)

Ben Gibbard is the frontman of Death Cab For Cutie. The band recently launched, a site whose proceeds benefit Fair Fight and Future Now, which seek to support voter rights and combat voter suppression.

(Photo Credit: Rachel Demy)