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Death Cab For Cutie | Transatlanticism | interview | Chris Walla | alternative | rock | Lollipop
Death Cab For Cutie
by Evan Solochek
An interview with guitarist/backup vocalist Chris Walla
To watch the guitar interaction between Ben Gibbard and Chris Walla is to watch one of the great musical relationships ala Simon and Garfunkle. While Death Cab For Cutie might be best known for its indie rock posterboy frontman Ben Gibbard, Chris Walla has flourished much more behind the scenes. Or behind the mixing board, to be exact. Walla has built a name for himself in the business as a bright up-and-coming producer/engineer/mixer and musical contributor. He's most recently produced the new Hot Hot Heat album while also appearing on the new John Vanderslice record. He may be far removed from the days when he recorded Death Cab's first full-length, Something About Airplanes, in his parent's house in suburban Bellingham, Washington, but his demeanor is still as humble as those beginnings. Chris now owns his own studio in the Seattle area, the House of Justice, in which Travis Morrison, of the recently defunct Dismemberment Plan, is currently recording. With pop music in his heart, an indie rock cred list a mile long in his pocket, and the King Midas touch at the mixing board, there's little doubt that big things lie on the horizon for both Chris Walla and Death Cab For Cutie.
Are there any songs that you guys don't play live?
There are a few that we don't play just because we're not so fond of them anymore. "Amputations" is not gonna get played anymore. I'll never say never, but not for a long, long, long time. We haven't learned "Lowell, MA" with Jason. There are a few songs we just haven't played with Jason, and then there are a few songs that just never translated that well on stage. Like we all love "The Employment Pages," but it never comes off right on stage. And we all love "Debate Exposes Doubt," the last song on The Photo Album, but it just doesn't happen on stage.
Could you trace the origins of the band a bit?
Ben was dating a friend of mine, and that's how I met him. I asked him to play drums on a demo that I was doing. Then I started driving up to Bellingham on weekends and we would record covers or whatever. It didn't really turn into a band until You Can Play These Songs With Chords was done. Ben and I had already been screwing around together for two years by the time we made that. That was sort of his "I wanna see if I came make a record where I play everything myself" and I was like "That's cool, give me a chance to do something."
Have you always produced Death Cab?
Basically, yeah. Even before it was a band. I went to school for recording for a couple years, but I was a miserable sloth, a total failure. I was always the guy with a four-track or eight-track.
Who else have you produced?
I've produced records for Hot Hot Heat and The Velvet Teen, The Stratford 4, Rocky Votolato, The Long Winters, and a bunch of records for a band called The Revolutionary Hydra. There are more, but I'm drawing a blank right now.
What were the circumstances surrounding the departure of Nathan Good and Michael Schorr?
Nathan was more than four years ago... We were getting to that point where things were going really well, but we still weren't making enough money to be able to support ourselves, and that's such an undefinable frame of time. Like, you never know if it's ever going to turn into something where you're actually making money and able to support yourself. We were all in a position where we were either willing or able to just sort of live uncomfortably for a while or not. In my case, it was because I have amazing, amazing parents. I think Nathan just wasn't comfortable doing it. None of us would ever hold that against him, and we never have. I've known him since I was thirteen. He was the only drummer I'd ever played with in a band.
With Michael, it was just falling out of love. Sometimes it just sort of fizzles, and you can't put your finger on why. He wasn't pushing us, and we weren't pushing him in the right ways. It sounds silly to say creative differences, but that's what it was.
How did you guys pick up Jason?
We've known him for years. He's known Ben longer than any of the rest of us, I think. He's a Bellingham guy, and he's been in dozens of bands and he does all sorts of recording stuff. Ben had played with him off and on, Nick was in a band with him for like three years, and I'd recorded him at one point on something or other.
We've always sort of toyed around with the idea of playing with him, but the timing was never right. And this time, everything just fell into place. That's kind of how all our decisions are made.
What is the typical songwriting process? Do most of the songs start with Ben?
Yeah. Ben will demo songs - sometimes on a four-track, and sometimes on his computer - and then he'll bring it to us in different forms. Ben loves to arrange stuff, and he loves to arrange stuff into the ground. He does the thing that a lot of songwriters do: They sit on a song, and they sort of get bored with it so they just keep putting more and more stuff on it. So sometimes, we end up digging through the arrangement to figure out where the song is in the song. Ben is best at writing melodies and lyrics, and sometimes we have to boil it all the way down to that to be able to put it back together. There was a lot of that on this record: Rebuilding from the ground up.
So on this album, you'd say you guys worked together more?
On We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes we did a lot of that. Like really tearing songs apart and putting them back together. But The Photo Album was pretty stocked, just because we'd toured on the songs for so long. It was hard to tear them apart. Any time we tried, it felt wrong.
Growing up, what were your musical influences?
I grew up on Springsteen, Elton John, The Beatles, Hall & Oats, and Steely Dan. Just sort of like, pretty middle America, white-bread pop music. The things that really make me tick, like when I really started getting into music for myself, were Talking Heads and the first three of four XTC records. I dunno, a lot of that stompy stuff from the late '70s. I got into Eno and Bowie in high school. Sort of all the '70s avant-garde but still pop songs kind of stuff. And then REM and U2 and all those staple radio rock bands. I tend to be drawn to records that are either really sparse or really orchestrated. When we put this album together, I was referencing The Joshua Tree a lot. U2 tends to get knocked a fair bit, but I think they made some great records, and I'm not convinced that they can't still make great records.
Bands like U2 and REM are gigantic bands. You have a pretty big, extremely dedicated fan base; do you have any desire to move to a bigger label?
When we were on that tour with The Dismemberment Plan last year - the part of the tour we did with Cex - one of us made a comment about being perfectly happy selling twenty or thirty thousand records. And Cex said "Why would you possibly want to make music that a few thousand people like? Why would you want to write a song and then have only a group of people that would half-fill a baseball stadium enjoy it?" I thought that was a real interesting point. Ultimately, we make music for ourselves. We're friends and we love playing music with one another, and we push and challenge one another. But as soon as you put out an album, it's product. If we can figure out how to do exactly what we're doing the way we want to do it - for ourselves, basically - and if that thing can reach millions of people without us tweaking it or thinking about writing hit singles, then I'm all for it.
As far as more exposure is concerned, I was watching The O.C...
Did you guys have to approve that, or were you aware of that at all?
Yeah, it's a hefty licensing deal. It's pretty funny. It sounds like we're going to get written into another script. They asked us to play on the show, but it conflicted with our tour schedule. I've never actually seen the show, but I've heard it's really funny. The night it aired, at like 9:27 or whenever, my phone rang for an hour straight.
Do you know how that came about?
There are a series of, like, Barsuk boosters who work at major labels who're huge fans and buy like thirty copies of our record and hand them out to T.V. producers and stuff. There are a lot of people who are kind of pulling for us. It's really cool.
What was your involvement in the video for "A Movie Script Ending?"
We had exactly nothing to do with that. Nothing at all. There were a lot of people with The Photo Album who came up to us and were like "Hey, I wanna make a video," and we just didn't have any time to be involved in any of it. So it was always like, "Cool, make a video and send it to us. But just understand that we don't have to use it and we can't pay you anything. So if you do it, it's because you want to do it." We got a bunch of different videos. This one guy, Josh Melnick, sent us this treatment, and it's great. It's absolutely great. It's a situation where it works out well for him too, because he wanted to have a sort of pet-project type video, something that he was really involved with and came out exactly the way that he wanted for his reels so he could shop it around. So we got an amazing video, and he got a piece that's getting him a bunch of big gigs.
Do you have any plans to shoot a video for anything off the new album?
There are two videos in the can. There's a video for "The New Year," which I think is going to go to MTV this week or next week. Whether or not they play it is something else. And then we shot a video in Toronto for "The Sound of Settling" just a couple of weeks ago.
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