Sound & Vision: Ben Gibbard on Running and Recovery

Sound and Vision
Emily Fox
photo by Matthew B. Thompson

Sound & Vision airs on KEXP every Saturday from 7-9 AM PST, utilizing interviews, artistry, commentary, insight and conversation to that tell broader stories through music, and illustrate why music and art matter. On last week's episode, producer Emily Fox chats with Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie about recovery from alcoholism and finding enlightenment in ultra marathons. Listen to the segment or read the story below.


KEXP: So there was a moment in 2008 where you said I'm gonna quit drinking and I'm gonna start running and you really started running. You started running marathons and then ultra marathons. Can you talk about where you were in 2007, 2008 in terms of your relationship with alcohol and then the recovery that you found in running? 

Ben Gibbard: I think for me and I think for a lot of people – and by me, I mean musicians – I think alcohol abuse, it sneaks up on you slowly. And it starts with... we're around town, we're playing a show this Friday, we had a great show, we're going out drinking afterwards. And then we're starting to tour a bit, but the tours are short and they're kind of a break from real life, so we're gonna go out and kind of just go crazy because I'm going to be back at my job in two weeks. Over time, at least with me, I think what happened was the tours got longer. The drinking became a normal part. It became quickly normalized.

So many musicians drink so much. I found myself making those false equivalencies of like, 'Well, I don't really have a problem because I don't drink as much as that guy.' Well, you're already around people who drink more than almost anybody in the world, so that's not really a fair measuring stick for that. Over time, I got to a place where we had been touring on 'Plans' and that tour kind of wrapped up in the end of 2006. By the end of the tour, I was waking up at 2:00 or 3:00 in the afternoon, just going right into soundcheck and the show became a preamble to just going out drinking. I think it was due to homesickness, boredom, just trying to kind of create some excitement in an environment where we'd been playing so many shows that the shows were becoming less exciting bedrincause we'd just been doing so many of them. I kind of continued that behavior even after I got back throughout 2007. I think I kind of knew I was heading towards an impasse. 

I kind of had a moment where you know I went on a bender and then on the flight home from that bender told myself, 'I can't do this anymore... But tonight is my friend's birthday party. I should just have a drink and then go home.' And then it was 3:00 in the morning and I'm stumbling home trying to get my keys in my door. I woke up the next morning and was like, 'Not only can I just not... I've lost the ability to control this and also we have a record coming out in a couple of months...' – which was the record 'Narrow Stairs' – and I just realized there was no way I could continue with this behavior into the next album cycle or someone was going to throw me into a rehab program or something. And being kind of stubborn and prideful, I wanted to be the one that cut it off rather than had somebody tell me. I didn't want to walk into a room and have all my friends there telling me I had a problem. Because I knew I had a problem. 

And then you found running. How did you find running and what did running feel like to you? Was it to you, 'Oh, I found something completely different that satisfies.' Where was that transition where you realized that running could be this outlet for you? 

I'd been running a little bit in 2007. I just one day decided like, 'I think I could run two miles.' And so I had been running a little bit, but not a lot. I think for me especially as a touring musician, I just needed something other than sitting on a tour bus all day waiting to play at 9 p.m. T he idea of getting up in the morning, have some coffee, breakfast, reading a bit and like strapping on some running shoes and going exploring whatever town we were in was much more exciting than just remaining sedentary all day. And it wasn't that I was worried I was gonna slip back into drinking if I wasn't running. It filled this void that I didn't really know I ever had had before that. 

I'm a runner, not an ultra marathon runner, but my co-host John Richards is a marathon runner. I think for us, running is just a really great way to clear the mind and also gives you that goal like, 'I can't eat this or I can't drink this because I want to go on this awesome run tomorrow.' And also just that, you know, I've done the Bellingham trail running series where you go on these amazing routes and and you kind of get lost and 'Woah, I just ran for you know 13 miles.' But how would you describe how running feels to you? And do you believe that it was a part of your recovery? 

Running for me is very much a spiritual practice at this point.  certainly don't think that you need to run as far as I do to achieve a level of enlightenment. But I have found when I've been deep into an ultra marathon, there is inevitably a moment where everything falls away and I'm just a being in space. Just moving through the world. Moving through this beautiful environment on a trail on a mountain somewhere and all the concerns that you might have about anything in your life just disappear and you have these  moments of just flow and Zen that people achieve them by myriad ways. People do yoga. People take psychedelics. People run. People fast. People sweat it out, whatever. But this has just been something that I've found has beena very real spiritual practice in my life.

As it relates to recovery, I know there are a lot of ex-addict ultra runners. Ultra runners fall into maybe two or three categories. There is the lifelong track and field, cross country, star athletes who get bored with shorter distances and find it. There are the type- A people who are measured professionals who set goals and then achieve them. And then there are weirdos and then there are addicts. There are ex-addicts. I've met so many addicts, so many people in recovery who have at some point kind of discovered that kind of transcendence that you'd find running or doing ultra marathons and have put that in place of the addiction that they had.

That's a dangerous thing to do, I think, if you're just replacing one addiction for another. I mean, obviously an addiction to running is inarguably better than an addiction to like crack. But at the same time, one thing that running ultra marathons doesn't necessarily give you is balance. Runners get injured. Life gets in the way of your training log. One thing I'm always constantly struggling with is trying to make sure that I'm not robbing Peter to pay Paul in my own life when it comes to my running and make sure that, yeah, I do a lot of it, it's a huge hobby of mine, but it's not the only interest I have outside of music. 

I mean something that I've spoken with other artists about is, especially in your music, a lot of it can be very emotional and some people feel like they need to drink in order to tap into that space. It's a vulnerable act to be onstage and sharing basically your diary to an audience. Sme drink as part of the touring process to share that. But when it comes to running, how do you think running has impacted you creatively or just you know how you approach the songwriting process? Has it been different now running has been a big part of your life?

Well I spend less time obsessing over the minutia of songwriting. I've learned as I've gotten older that it's very important to walk away from a piece of work and clear one's mind of the creative process and then return to it later. When I was younger, I would start a song and I wouldn't think about anything else until it was done and it would just consume my entire being. Obviously there are some good results in that. But more times than not, I think about the work that I could have done if I would have had the wisdom to just focus on something else, walk away from it, and come back to it.

If I'm working on a song and I'm hitting a wall and then the next day I go for a three or four hour run the mountains... It's not that I'm writing while I'm running, I'm just not thinking about writing. And then when I get back to the car or I go back into my studio I go like, 'Oh yeah!' And I put the thing on and I'm like, 'Yeah, you know, actually with this thing probably does need is this. I need to clean up that line or maybe it needs a new bridge or something.' I think that running is because it has become a outlet for that. Just a place where it's almost 100 percent physical. It's actually a lot mental too. But engaging in physical activity when one spends so much time in their own head in a creative space I think is a perfect foil to the time I spend in my head writing and now I really needto have  both. I can't just have one without the other. 

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