Preservation Magazine, Spring 2019

Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard on the Ties Between His Music and Historic Places

Ben Gibbard, lead singer of the indie rock band Death Cab for Cutie, has captured audiences’ attention for decades with his nostalgia-tinged lyrics covering love and loss. But another subject rises to the surface of many of his songs: places that matter to him. One place he cares about is The Showbox, a Seattle music venue in a 1917 building that may be replaced with a residential tower. Along with Historic Seattle, Gibbard has worked to raise public awareness of the threat to this staple of Seattle’s famous music scene. As of press time, the venue’s future remained uncertain.

We recently talked with Gibbard about his advocacy work, his music, and historic places.

Why did you become involved with saving The Showbox?

It’s the only room in the city like it. It feels intimate, though it’s a large space. It’s one of those places where you go to see a show and you truly think you’re seeing something special. As a performer, it just feels like something amazing is going to happen.

The Showbox is part of a very small handful of rooms like it. The only rooms comparable are First Avenue in Minneapolis, the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C., or Metro in Chicago. If someone were to try and demolish First Avenue, people would say “No, absolutely not, this place is an institution.” And people from all over the world were devastated [when they heard about The Showbox]. Unfortunately, the Seattle landscape is peppered with so many structures that weren’t built for permanence, and a lot of people historically have had a difficult time agreeing on what is worth saving and what is not. That’s incredibly frustrating when it comes to The Showbox, which is and will be an extremely uphill battle.

Why is Seattle important to you?

Growing up [in Bremerton, Washington], Seattle was the only place I wanted to be. It’s been interesting to see its transition from this kind of sleepy town [that] people associated with flannel and coffee to now, with Jeff Bezos and Amazon here.

Ben Gibbard is helping save the historic venue The Showbox in Seattle.

photo by: Getty Images

I’ve lived in Capitol Hill [in Seattle] long enough to see abandoned warehouses turn into apartments and restaurants. There wasn’t a lot going on here 20 years ago, but now people are living where they work, spending money at local businesses, interacting with others on the street.

I’m not unrealistic. I don’t think the place where you live should remain the same as long as you live there. Despite all the changes I think it’s a net positive, though I am upset about Seattle’s increasing cost of living.

The interior of The Showbox is cozy and intimate.

The Showbox has hosted acts including Louis Armstrong, The Police, and Lady Gaga.

Many of your songs are place-based, such as the recent “Gold Rush.” What was the impetus for this song?

I didn’t want to make any specific Seattle references in the song. With the speed at which Seattle and the demographics, skyline, landscape, and cost of living are changing, the song could apply to Austin, Denver—so many cities that are turning into a particular kind of 21st-century boomtown.

“Gold Rush” is about realizing I’ve placed a “hard drive of memories” (to borrow a phrase from one of my bandmates) in a lot of physical places. When those buildings come down, it’s a very introspective moment. It reminds me of the impermanence of life and the passage of time and your story in this city.

What other historic places matter to you?

One of my favorite rooms we’ve played at a number of times is a place called the Trocadero in Philly. It’s an old vaudevillian theater, and at the top is a balcony where reportedly [at one point] African Americans had to sit. It’s really disturbing, yet these are the reminders we need. To have these buildings survive into the modern age and be utilized for similar purposes, but also to acknowledge the history of them, is a particular type of living history that I think we benefit from as touring musicians.

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Meghan White is a historic preservationist and a former assistant editor for Preservation magazine. She has a penchant for historic stables, absorbing stories of the past, and one day rehabilitating a Charleston single house.

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