Chris Walla of Death Cab for Cutie
I guess I would like to start off by asking a question that spans the years of the Death Cab Recordings. How do you view the growth of Death Cab for Cutie’s sound from the inception of the band until now? How have you all grown as musicians and how has the recording process changed?
Our growth hasn’t been particularly conscious. We’ve always tried to make the best records we can under the circumstances, with whatever we can scrape up as far as equipment and time go. The first recordings were made with the same spirit as the most recent ones, just with more and better equipment. Our process has evolved somewhat; it’s more collaborative than it’s been in the past, for certain, but the focus is still the same.
Transatlanticism is a fantastic album. Could you give us some insights into the writing and recording process of that album in particular?
Thanks, first of all; we’re all proud of it. I personally think it’s the sound of our band firing on all cylinders, maybe for the first time. Ben demos songs at home and brings them to the band in all forms, sometimes completely finished, sometimes pretty skeletal. The ones that seem to be working as-is get basically left alone (reference ‘Passenger Seat’ and ‘A Lack of Color’ on this record). Some need only a change in attitude; ‘The Sound of Settling’ started life as a meek, Elliott Smith sounding thing, but I always wanted it to feel like ‘Walking On Sunshine.’ ‘Lightness’ was built in the studio out of a series of happy accidents and broken pieces. ‘Title and Registration’ got completely turned on its head at the last possible second. Every song has its own story.
How do you view the reception of Transatlanticism? How are your long-time fans reacting and how is it being received by new-comers to the band?
The record has been received very well by most. There are always naysayers, and there are always fans who fall off with a new record because the band is stretching its legs, but that’s evolution. I adore AC/DC for sticking to what works for almost thirty years, but I can’t imagine us making ‘Something About Airplanes’ again and again.
Transatlanticism has some great, big pop songs, but I really like the quieter, stripped down arrangements on the album. “Tiny Vessels” and “Transatlanticism” are two of my favorite tracks on the disc. Can you give us some insight into the writing of these songs both lyrically and musically?
I can’t help you out much on the lyrical side, as that’s Ben’s department, though I will say that his words always direct and inform the general mood of the song. That said, Ben’s delivery of the ‘Tiny Vessels’ lyric seemed to smoulder rather than burn for all but the middle four lines, where the whole thing catches fire. The first and last bits were intended to have a Bedhead in Motown sort of feeling; a quiet but still edgy swagger. And the landscape change of the rock part is intended to be nothing less than angry, unignorable and snarling.
Transatlanticism was pretty and small but sincere when it came to us, with the ‘I need you so much closer’ lines repeated a few times over a modest outro. All the band arrangements seemed awkward, though, until we landed on the build, which was inspired pretty directly by ‘Only In Dreams’ on the first Weezer record. The choir part came from a simple melody that Ben brought up right toward the end of the process, and was originally meant to be nothing more than an aside. This is the only song on the record that was done on two reels of tape. It’s also the only automated mix on the album.
Some of the guitar work on the slower songs of Transatlanticism remind me of Alan Sparhawk’s work. Is there any influence in there? Do you consider Low to have influenced DCFC?
Absolutely. Low are actually one of only a handful of bands that all four of us can agree on.
So, what is next for Death Cab for Cutie? Are you writing new songs for a forthcoming disc?
Ben has some new demos that I imagine we’ll work on over the summer, but this is a touring year to be sure.
I know you have answered this question in the past, but has your favorite Death Cab for Cutie song changed with the release of Transatlanticism? What is your favorite DCFC disc and why?
I have a new favorite, yes; it’s ‘Passenger Seat.’ I think the new record is my favorite, which has never before been the case. It seems to me like we’ve finally found the chemistry that was so close with the other records. There are fewer and fewer near misses as we move along.
Do you have any interesting tour stories to share with us? Beside funny stories, where do you like to play most? In other words, what cities, countries, etc?
The funny thing about tour stories is that they’re not instantly good. They have to cook, and it usually takes months or even years before they make any sense to anyone. Tours are still fun, but the stuff that people find interesting happens all the time, and kind of becomes wallpaper. So, aside from a series of intoxications, there’s not a lot to tell.
There are certainly cities that are fun to play. I have soft spots for Lawrence, KS and Austin, TX, especially. San Francisco has always been good to us, too. And Australia was simply perfect.
What are the members of Death Cab for Cutie listening to these days?
Ben has been pitching and listening to a record by a woman named Joanna Newson. It won’t be long before we’ve all fallen in love with it – it’s totally arresting and instantly compelling; great visuals, spooky melodies, the harp (not the harmonica, but the one like the angel in heaven plays). Nick has been listening to Brian Eno’s ‘Thursday Afternoon’ once a day for about two years, but I don’t know what else he supplements that with. Not that a supplementary is necessary. I’ve been listening, pretty exclusively, to the bands whose records I’ve been recording; Nada Surf, the Thermals, Kind of Like Spitting. Jason is rocking out right in front of me, and he could just as easily be listening to ‘2112’ as Britney Spears, so I’ve got no idea. BTW, ‘Toxic’ is fantastic. So is ‘I Miss You’ by Blink 182.
Thanks again for the interview. Do you have any other comments?
You’re welcome. Wear your seatbelt or helmet, whichever is appropriate for your transportation of choice.
*Chris Walla, Death Cab for Cutie, in a van somewhere in Sweden.
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