Death Cab for Cutie frontman, Ben Gibbard, grew up in Seattle – a city that nurtured upcoming local artists and saw the band grow to the point where they were selling out popular small venues in town. The city holds precious memories for the musician, who has now reached his 40s. The latest Death Cab for Cutie album to see the light, “Thank You for Today”, can be described as a requiem for the memories that were tied to the city – a place that now looks completely different.
The opening song on the album, “I Dreamt We Spoke Again”, grabs you behind the neck and pulls you right into a world of cumulus clouds and dream-pop rhythms, and has you reminiscing about moments that are now lost to the past. “Been so long my mind filled in the blanks”, “Your voice was like a ghost in my head” – the song represents a strong theme that runs through the album – that of trying to locate a seemingly lost past.
It was a performance on The OC that skyrocketed the band to stardom, firmly establishing Death Cab for Cutie as one of the most recognised names in American indie rock, and allowing Gibbard to permanently settle in in his hometown. He bought a house in Capitol Hill, a neighbourhood that was very popular among artists and creatives. But things have changed since then, and the city is no longer known for its welcoming culture for artists.
In an interview with the Independent UK, Gibbard commented “I never thought I’d live in a world where people are moving to f***ing LA because it’s more affordable to live there and be a musician than Seattle or Portland. It’s the same thing that happened in New York and San Francisco; the artists and musicians are the people who were bold enough to live in the city before anybody else did. They created the culture, and then that attracted corporations to the city. Just by their very nature, they end up demolishing the thing that led them there in the first place. I love San Francisco more than any other city outside of Seattle, but I’ve seen it go from a vibrant creative community to a playground for tech bros.”
“You moved away” is a song dedicated to eccentric artist Jeff Bezos – who recently left Seattle and is described by the Independent UK as “a loveably anarchic presence on [the] city’s arts scene”. Local Seattle newspaper The Stranger described the move as a “local tragedy”. His departure became, for Gibbard, representative of a cultural spirit that is leaving the city, and “you moved away” voices a sense of feeling “irrationally betrayed” by those who leave.
If you’re a Capetonian, this is bound to sound very familiar to you. Cape Town has long been known as a place of artistic vibrancy. The streets are lined with art galleries, some are hidden away behind quaint coffee shops and under old buildings. The city walls are canvasses for artists and its bars have always echoed with sounds of jazz, kwaito and rock ‘n roll. But in recent years, the artists who have played a major part in the city’s identity, have been finding it hard to afford to stay in the city, and small businesses that form part of the very fabric of the city are now being forced to close their doors.
“Gold Rush” is perhaps the most direct reaction to the changes that Gibbard has experienced in his own city. The potent metaphor of a gold rush comes to represent both the influx of businesspeople who have followed the economic stream to the city, and Gibbard’s personal search for golden moments from the past in a city that is now hardly recognisable.
One of the main catalysts for Seattle’s recent development is the growing presence of tech giant Amazon. “Since 2000”, reports Business Insider, “the area has added 99,000 new jobs, with 30% of them in tech, contributing to a construction boom. As Seattle’s largest property taxpayer and private employer, Amazon has continued to spur an influx of high-skilled tech workers”. Gibbard mourns the destruction of familiar sites, “where all the old buildings stood”. These now make ways for parking garages “so that their cars can live underground”.
This sort of gentrification can completely change the identity of a city. A clear example of this closer to home is in the Cape Town neighbourhood of Woodstock. In an article in The Guardian, Raymond Joseph describes how popular hipster destinations have attracted more and more upper-class visitors and caused small businesses to buckle under rising living costs in the area – families who have called the area home for decades are now being evicted from their homes.
But Gibbard realises that there is a sense of inevitable change embedded in the very nature of a city, and recognises that it is unwise to hold expectations of stability when it comes to something as ephemeral as a modern city. The third verse of “Gold Rush” confesses “I’ve ascribed these monuments / A false sense of permanence / I’ve placed faith in geography / To hold you in my memory”.
Despite his growing frustration with the departure of the artistic spirit from his city, Gibbard remains realistic. He told Independent UK, “I’m not sitting here on my perch saying ‘oh, sucks to be 20 in Seattle these days’. I know that the Seattle my parents knew is not the Seattle I know, and that these things exist in a state of constant flux and change. The hope is that at least some of that change can be for the better”.
As a someone with a deep affection for Cape Town, I echo Gibbard’s sentiment. I remain hopeful that the Mother City, whose development undeniably also has had many positive effects, will continue to embrace artists in her bosom.
Featured image by Eliot Lee Hazel