chris Walla is a busy man. When not playing Johnny Marr to Ben Gibbard's Morrissey in Seattle-based Death Cab For Cutie, he keeps himself busy producing bands like the Long Winters, Nada Surf, Hot Hot Heat and, of course, Death Cab themselves. Oh, he also helped out Ben with a little side project called The Postal Service. The Death Cabbers are currently over in London, embarking on a European tour in support of their fourth album, Transatlanticism.

I met up with him at the University of London's Student Union, the site of their show later that evening. I walked into the auditorium, navigated through the obstacle course of open guitar cases and amps, past Gibbard (said "Hi," since I have met him before – it would be rude not to) and found my way over to Chris. He looked up and said, "Hi, I'm Chris," and I actually found myself a little tongue-tied, but finally managed to blurt out "I’m here to do the interview." "Great, let's go get a coffee and talk," he replied. And so that's what we did.



How do you think the Death Cab For Cutie sound has evolved over the years? For instance, how is Transatlanticism different than previous albums?

I think that mostly this album is more collaborative than the last ones have been. I think all four of us worked on it a little more closely than we have in the past. I think it’s a little more confident and a little more focused. This record is just an extension of what we have been doing. Its just another year older and you know a little bit more and you make a little bit different record.

How have the side projects that specifically you and Ben are involved in inform or feed back into the band?

Everything in a good way, it’s very cool. It’s a chance for us to sort of try things. I learn lots from the bands that I record and if I try something out and it works, I bring it back and if I try something out and it fails, I don’t being it back. And it seems like its worked out the same way with the Postal Service thing for Ben--its just another and different way to writing and approaching songs.

I loved that Long Winters album that you produced…

Really? That’s great, that’s awesome. They are bunch of really nice guys. And John [Roderick] is a phenomenal writer.

Do you resent how big and how much attention the Postal Service has gotten?

They are not really any bigger than Death Cab has gotten, and we are doing just fine for sure. The Postal Service is definitely a side project. Nobody’s recording, and they aren’t doing anything. They released it and they did like 22 shows and that’s it.

Is it tough for Death Cab to carry the mantle of the indie “darlings”?

Not really. None of us really think of ourselves that way.

It just seems that you are so loved by critics and fans…

I mean that’s great, but that isn’t why we do this. The fact that people are enjoying our music and buying our records and coming to our shows is kind of frosting really because we do this because its fun and because we love playing music with one another, and as soon as we aren’t having fun or don’t like playing music with one another, I mean as soon as that day comes, this will be over, it will be done. But it’s a great time and the fact of everything else that comes along with it, I mean, we make a living doing it and that’s wonderful and everything else is just bonus. I don’t even really think about it, I don’t even consider it. I just want to make records.

I understand from a colleague in the States that on the Fox TV show The OC there is a character that is very into Death Cab. How did happen? Did you guys know all about that?

Yeah, we did.

Really? So how does it feel to have The OC pimping for you?

[Laughs] Well…

Did they approach you?

It’s just like any licensing thing starts. The way licensing works is that somebody in marketing or creative development has this idea of really wanting to use a song in a commercial or this scene in this movie or in this TV show or whatever, and they contact our management and then they contact our lawyer and then contracts go back and forth and everybody is aware of what’s happening all the way through. But it’s the rare rare rare occasion that either we get involved or an actor on the show gets involved. But the way that The OC thing was set up by the producers was, Fox just sort of threw some money at the them and were like, “File this, try to make something, this is totally not going to work but whatever you guys want to do,” and it was just an ugly duckling kind of project. So the producers turned it over to the actors who are all like 22, 23-year-old kids, like indie rock kids and they were like, “Okay, so what are you kids listening to? What are your favorite records? What should we try to write into the script, and how can we make these characters believable?” And there were a handful of bands that the kids brought back like us and Bright Eyes and Rooney and there were a couple of other bands that sort of were brought onto the show that have been made into staple social reference points. So that’s basically how it happened. I think the whole thing is cool. Its kind of part of the new world order, because TV, commercials, and the Internet are the kind of new radio. You know radio is not selling albums the way that it used to, so we’re now at a point where its socially acceptable to be an indie rock band that has a song in a commercial. I mean, if we are doing this independently and we get to call all our own creative shots and people are paying us for our music, I mean, what more can you ask for?

Exactly. It wasn’t any sort of compromise.

No, it was like, “Hey, we like your music.” We also found out that the title track from Transatlanticism has been written into the opening episode for next season’s Six Feet Under. They are going to use like a four minutes piece of it in the season premiere.

Okay, so where is it all going now? What’s next?

This year is pretty much consumed by touring. We go to the continent tomorrow and we get back from Europe on March 5. Then I’ve got seven days in the studio with Nada Surf, and then we go to Japan for five days, and then we come back and then we do a U.S. tour, and then we are back home for two days, and then we go to Australian for 10 days. So we are basically done like June 1? It’s pretty heavy duty.

So that’s all you are really thinking about now?

There’s that, and I am doing a record with a band called The Velvet Teen in June and July, and then I think we will be back in England for festivals in August, and then September/October will be another national tour in the US.

What’s the scene like in Seattle now? Grunge still big there?

[Laughs] No. It’s really vibrant right now. Everything that’s happening in Seattle has been, um… I think so many people got burned by everything that happened with the grunge thing, the explosion, that a lot of what has happened in Seattle over the past 10 years is really reactionary. You know, people fighting to get out from underneath labels or out of pigeonholes, and I think the community is as strong as it’s ever been. We’ve got tons of friends in bands that don’t sound anything like what we sound like, and it seems like its really pretty cool and pretty acceptable in Seattle to put together a bill full of bands that don’t really make sense together musically. It’s kind of weird. Like, Pretty Girls Make Graves could play a show with us, and Pedro the Lion could be on that bill, and there are no musical boundaries in a way. But the scene is really strong, the studio community is really strong, and personally it’s really strong. It’s great—it’s really alive right now.

Do you guys have any desire to leave Barsuk and become major label people?

We’ve talked with major labels off and on, through the course of this record. But to date there has been nothing that has been wholly appealing about making a move to a major. The most appealing thing about a major would be having international stuff squared away, all under one thing. Its becoming really apparent how difficult it is and how time consuming it is to have your record parceled out to 8 or 10 small labels like Barsuk all over the world. There’s a label in Japan, there’s a label in Australia. Like, our record is out in Taiwan on some label that I don’t even know the name of, the UK, and Germany. For a European tour, of course it makes sense to do all that stuff at once, but that’s a logistical nightmare for all the labels to figure out how to share the costs for tickets, and rental gear, and vans, so it’s tricky and it makes it hard. But the UK has been great so far and all the continental shows are selling really well. I mean, no one is complaining about it, but its just kind weird because we aren’t in control of it. So the short of it is yes, we’ve talked to major labels but there is no reason to make a move right now.

What would be your dream gig? Who would love to play with?

Um, let me think. I don’t know if I could name a band that I would love to play with. I mean, there are a ton of shows I would loved to have seen, bands I would have loved to have seen. I would have loved to have seen Talk Talk when they were still playing shows. Their last two records, Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock are two of my favorite favorite records. I would have loved to have played with Bedhead. They were a band I absolutely loved. Wouldn’t make any sense, but I would have loved to have played with them.

So what about when you produce people? How does it come about?

It happens all different ways. Sometimes bands just email me out of the blue and I’m not doing anything when they want to record and I say “sure, send me some music”. I am in the fortunate position that I don’t have to work on stuff that I don’t like. I mean the band is the bread and butter and that allows me a lot of freedom in whom I record and what I choose to do. But yeah, it happens all different ways. Its friends who’ve gotten into bands, its bands we’ve met on the road, it’s a friend of a friend of a friend and it happens all different ways and I’ve gotten to be really good friends with the bands I’ve worked with.

I write a column for Stylus that is kind of an advice column for mostly guys. So, with Valentine’s Day and all, do you have any advice for my readers out there?

My advice is don’t forget. And whoever you are, and whatever it is, just don’t forget. It’s something different for everyone, but that’s my advice. You know what it is, and if you forget it – you’re stupid. So just don’t forget.

Do you have a favorite love song?

Well, this might not be the one, but it’s the one right now. It’s “God Only Knows” by the Beach Boys. Heartbreaking. It’s amazing. There’s been a few lately. There is a song on the new Decemberists records called “Red Right Ankle,” that isn’t exactly a love song but it’s not exactly not a love song. Its sort of one of those creepy weird… like it’s a story song and it comes in this really circuitous round about kind of way to “I really need you in my life.” It’s just a series of little vignettes and it ends up like that. It’s not really clear if he is singing to somebody or about somebody specific, but its just perfect. It’s an amazing song.

I was running a competition on the column for a Valentine’s Day mix, and the Decemberists feature on a lot of the mixes I have gotten.

Really? Wow, that’s great. There’s a lot that goes into making a mixed tape. I am big fan of emotional volleyball and comic relief in the process of mixed tape making. Like I can’t make a theme mix, like love songs. I just can’t. I’ll get about three songs in on a topic and then I have to do some sort of palate cleanser and then move onto another topic. And the palate cleanser typically for me is something really short and really ridiculous. It’s sort of like a blank page in a book. There are a lot of Pavement songs that clock in at around 35 or 40 seconds that are wonderful to drop in and then move onto the new theme.

I am realizing that crafting these things is a big deal.

Oh, mixed tapes are a big deal. The mixed tape is much bigger deal than the mixed CD. The actual cassette part of coming back and getting all your segues straight and making sure the spaces between the songs are all right. It’s so much like sequencing an album. My love for the mixed tape is complete and so absolute that I swear it impacts on how we make our records. I am super-obsessed with getting things to land just right next to each other. Making sure that—you know how some CDs are quieter than others—making sure all the levels are matched up and making sure that if you have Billie Holiday next to Kraftwerk that it makes sense somehow or another. I mean, there is a way to do it and I can’t tell you what it is but I can sit and fuck around with it for an hour until I get it right.

Right we should really wrap up, I’ve taken up so much time.

No, it was fun. Good questions. You are coming to the show tonight right?

You bet.

Cool, we’ll try not to fuck up.




By: Lisa Oliver
Published on: 2004-03-01
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