"This record sounds more like my record collection than the band I'm in," explains Ben Gibbard of his first official solo album outside his primary group, Death Cab for Cutie. Indeed, the chiming folkie guitars and acoustic pianos dominating Former Lives (due October 16th) provide organic contrast to the futuristic sonics that underpin Death Cab's most recent effort, 2011's Codes and Keys, or the electronica-driven pop of Gibbard's successful Postal Service side project.
"It's more Big Star-y and rootsy," Gibbard says. "I didn't set out to make something distinctly retro, but if you strip out modern production, that's just what rock & roll sounds like. It just ends up more timeless." According to Gibbard, the 12 tracks comprising Former Lives represent "deleted scenes from [Death Cab] albums, written around different times. They aren't throwaways, but for whatever reason, tonally or lyrically, they didn't help tell the larger story of those albums, or fit in their context."
Largely produced with Aaron Espinoza (of L.A. indie rockers Earlimart), Gibbard played most of the instruments, sometimes taking the one-man-band thing to an extreme: the startling a cappella opener "Shepherd's Bush Lullaby" consists entirely of Gibbard overdubbing his voice into his iPhone.
"I literally recorded it on my FourTrack app, walking around London in the rain," he says. "It seemed like an appropriate curveball to start the record."
Former Lives does feature a few crucial guest appearances, however. Aimee Mann duets memorably with Gibbard on "A Bigger Love," while the songs "Lady Adelaide" and "Broken Yolk in Western Sky" feature Son Volt's Mark Spencer on pedal steel and Superchunk/Bob Mould drummer Jon Wurster adding percussive heft.
"Mark's parts just made those songs so yearning – he plays too many instruments too well," Gibbard says. "As for Jon, Superchunk has been one of my favorite bands since I was a teenager, and he's one of the funniest people on earth, in addition to being one of the greatest drummers of a generation. And with Aimee, we've been friends for a while. She killed it, and she's also hilarious. The whole making of this record, we were laughing the whole time."
Gibbard's most surprising collaboration, though, is with the all-female mariachi ensemble Trio Ellas, who've worked with Lady Gaga, Ozomatli and Mariachi El Bronx, adding here surprising south-of-the-border horns to the standout track "Something's Rattling (Cowpoke)."
"I told them to play it like it was their song, and they ran with it," he says. "I was absolutely surprised – it's like mariachi à la George Martin."
Meanwhile, despite the album's seemingly autobiographical title, Gibbard advises against inferring connections between the doomed romance inhabiting his new songs' lyrics and his recent divorce from Zooey Deschanel.
"Events in my personal life might lead to assumptions that some pronouns refer to certain people, but 99 times out of 100, they're dead wrong," he says. "When a songwriter uses the first person, the immediate assumption is that the lyric is telling a personal story, but it's storytelling. I don't try to be overly confessional in my work. We live in a world of oversharing, and writing a song is different from writing a tweet."
Gibbard also claims that despite striking out on his own, Death Cab remains a healthy ongoing concern. "Every project we do outside the band feeds it – we're actually getting along better than ever," he notes. "We go off and learn new tools, and that finds its way back into how we make music."