Ben Gibbard on Teenage Fanclub: 'A reminder of beauty in the world'

The Death Cab for Cutie singer has rerecorded Bandwagonesque, Teenage Fanclub’s 1991 album. How did an ‘incredibly romantic’ Seattle teenager get hung up on four blokes from Scotland?

Last year, I was approached by a multimedia venture called Turntable Kitchen about doing a vinyl-only covers album. I contemplated a few options, but I landed on Teenage Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque: my favourite album by my favourite band. In a lot of ways, it changed my life.

In 1989, I was 13 years old, growing up in a navy town near Seattle. I had recently discovered punk rock, but it felt like an ill-fitting suit. I had a lot of friends who were into straight-edge hardcore music, and I had gone to some of those shows like: OK, fine. But I wasn’t an angsty kid – my parents were – and still are – together and my dad was a hippy before he joined the navy. I didn’t have the youthful aggression of many teenagers, so there wasn’t that thread that connected me to punk rock. I went to the shows, I bought the records, but the music that really spoke to me was music from my childhood that my dad liked: the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Devo.

Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie
‘I didn’t have the youthful aggression of many teenagers’ ... Ben Gibbard. Photograph: Rachel Demy

I loved love songs: the Cure, Depeche Mode, Treepeople, Hazel ... music that had something emotive about it. I was an incredibly romantic kid. My dad’s job meant we moved every two to three years; I had a hard time adjusting, meeting new people and getting comfortable with them. There is a line of xenophobia that runs through me, from moving every couple of years and having to assess new relationships – was it worth giving myself to this person in a friendship or a relationship? I remember a teenage memory of listening to the Cure’s Pictures of You on repeat after I had moved from one high school to another, just after I had got my first girlfriend, just started a band. I felt like I was fitting in, then we had to move again.

There was a show on MTV called 120 Minutes that played underground indie and alternative videos. I would tape it on VHS and watch it over the course of the next week. The first Teenage Fanclub song I heard on it was probably The Concept – it was so melodic and beautiful, and the harmonies were amazing, but at the same time, like the punk rock I was listening to, I could see myself playing it. When I bought Bandwagonesque, it felt attainable to me, but also from some other magical world of music that I could only dream of travelling to. Teenage Fanclub, four men from Scotland, were making music that seemed to grab me by the heart and lift me off the ground. There was such an openness. I fell in love immediately.

As I have toured the UK with Death Cab for Cutie, I have always felt that Americans have more in common culturally with Scots than with the English: the sense of humour, the self-effacement, the musical references. The motivation for playing music seems to be different, too. I can’t tell you how many bands we have toured with from England who are very careerist: “Yeah, I’ll do this for a couple of years then maybe I’ll become a manager.” What the fuck – why are you doing this? If this isn’t in your heart and soul, get the fuck out of the way. I remember touring with a band from the Midlands, who will remain nameless, and I was sitting with the singer, who was like: “It’s a nice thing to do in your 20s, right? Play in a band?” No! I’m going to do this in my 50s, even if no one is paying attention. But bands from Scotland, their motivations are similar to ours as Seattleites: we love playing and we love our community and we love putting on friends’ bands.

Bandwagonesque runs the gamut, from light, playful pop songs such as Sidewinder to ones where you are like: is this a cry for help? Obviously, the production sounds like 1991, but the instrument choices are two guitars, bass and drums and the lyrics don’t place the record in a particular time period. It truly could exist at any point in the past 50 years of rock music.

Of course, just because it is simple doesn’t mean it was simple to write. As I tried to recreate its harmonies for the covers album, I had the record on and I was pulling the needle back over and over again for five seconds at a time: what is that third vocal harmony? For 25 years, I thought it was simple stuff, but actually trying to execute it was far more challenging.

Bandwagonesque has taken on a new importance in my life now, because it is a retreat from the passage of time, a retreat from the political climate in our country and a reminder that there is beauty in the world. I live in a country that is getting scarier by the day; it is rare that you read good news about it. But a great pop song can make you forget about everything ugly and evil for three minutes and achieving that respite is what you need to get through the day. These songs transport me back to a more innocent time in my life, and that time in my life exists for young people today in the music they are listening to, regardless of what era it is from or what it is. That sacred space – where the world doesn’t exist, except for this wonderful piece of music – needs to be protected. Hearing this record took me to that space, and I thought: maybe I can create this, if I write my own songs.

Ben Gibbard was speaking to Ben Beaumont-Thomas

Bandwagonesque by Ben Gibbard is available for pre-order via Turntable Kitchen’s music subscription service Sounds Delicious

Ben Gibbard

The GuardianTramp

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