In the three years since Death Cab for Cutie released Narrow Stairs, frontman Ben Gibbard has turned his life around: He married his sweetheart, actress and singer Zooey Deschanel, began running in marathons, and overcame a serious drinking problem, the singer reveals in the June issue of SPIN.
Speaking with writer John Sellers, Gibbard opens up about how he kicked the bottle in 2008 and replaced that vice with a healthier addiction to running. His thirst for alcohol was partly borne out by the intensity of writing music for Death Cab, especially during the sessions for Narrow Stairs, which he calls the group's most "depressing record."
"Writing is such a solitary act," Gibbard says. "You spend hours alone, only with your thoughts, and you torture yourself. It's a tendency of many writers to temper the self-destructive act of writing with other self-destructive acts. I certainly was one of those people for a long time."
Gibbard says that he realized he needed to change after a particular bender with a friend in Big Sur, CA. "It was so stereotypically my own little Kerouac Big Sur weekend," Gibbard says. "And I remember being on the flight home, going, 'You know what? I really have to do something about this. This has really gotten out of control. But I have a friend's birthday tonight, and I need to go out and have a beer with him.' Cut to three in the morning, five beers and five shots in, eating a pizza. I woke up the next morning and I was like, 'That's it. I'm done. I have lost the ability to control this.'"
These days, Gibbard prefers running long distances — he recently completed the L.A. Marathon in under four hours — and spending time with his wife, Deschanel, whom he started dating soon after hopping on the wagon. "Quitting had been such a positive change in my life," he says. "Nothing was going to make me want to go back to that. But I want to qualify that. I'm not, like, walking around with a chip in my pocket. I don't have a sponsor. I don't go to AA. It's not like that."
Getting sober has had a big impact on Gibbard's writing for the band's new Codes and Keys (out May 31), their least mopey album yet. "Once you realize that a positive act helps to balance out the negative act of being a writer, you become a more balanced person emotionally," he says. "I think the writing reflects that. The music is much more balanced than ever. Whether people are along for the ride is to be determined, but I'm proud that this record is a more even emotional palette than Narrow Stairs was. That last one is our most depressing record."