It was a great artistic experiment author Jack Kerouac's fame-shunning getaway to Lawrence Ferlinghetti's remote California cabin to pen his '62 classic, Big Sur. And if it worked for his beat-poet hero, it could work for him, reckoned Ben Gibbard, when he rented the same rustic retreat a few months ago. The Death Cab for Cutie frontman wanted to ditch his Seattle surroundings to compose the high-pressure follow-up to the band's Grammy-nominated '05 breakthrough Plans, and a two-week stint in Big Sur seemed like the perfect solution.
"I thought it would be rather romantic, being there by yourself in this beautiful, idyllic place in a canyon," he says.
Gibbard had discovered and been offered the place while taking part in a Kerouac documentary. But being creative wasn't easy on the road.
"But it's funny how nature in its purest form is a far more terrifying sound or lack thereof than being in a bustling city, where people are smoking crack out in front of your apartment," says the bespectacled intellectual, who had ditched cell phone and computer. "My mind immediately turned to thoughts of, "What if there's a mountain lion out there? What if there's some crazy, deranged lunatic who lives in these woods?' And all of a sudden, all of my fears became these weird horror-movie scenarios, where just the creaks that happen in an old house had me going, "What was that?'"
Which could account for "I Will Possess Your Heart" the first single from the forthcoming Narrow Stairs turning out as a nearly nine-minute Floydian epic about an unhinged stalker. But no, counters the 31-year-old Gibbard, the period was an oddly unproductive one.
"I had this idea that I was gonna go to that location and just reel off 20 amazing songs, but the hit-to-miss ratio was more like one in five," he says. Only two tracks resulted: "Long Division" and a Cali-themed "Bixby Canyon Bridge."
Unlike Kerouac, who cracked under the weight of his own notoriety, Gibbard seems remarkably grounded. Stardom for DCFC has been a decade-long build, one that crested with the ethereal, gold-selling Plans and its flagship radio hit "Soul Meets Body." All over the world now, fans approach the quartet's singer on the street.
"And you have to adjust to that, because it can run counter to what's important in your life," he says.
Gibbard admits that his analytical mind is always on overdrive.
"It's part of the reason why, when I go to sleep at night, I have to have the radio on, or I have to be listening to an ambient record or a book on tape I have a hard time getting to sleep when I'm alone with my own thoughts," he says. "So I came out of the cabin OK, and it was what it was. But it's not an experience I'd want to re-live. One trip to that level of isolation was enough for the rest of my life."