Death Cab’s Chris Walla On UGGs, Nine Inch Nails, and Bacon as the New Vegan

Marc Hogan

By Marc Hogan

Lead News Writer
on 05.31.11 in Spotlights

Codes and Keys

Death Cab for Cutie

Chris Walla is best known as the guitarist for Death Cab for Cutie, but the Pacific Northwest musician is also a solo artist and veteran producer in his own right. But while Walla produced Codes & Keys, Death Cab’s first album since 2009′s chart-topping Narrow Stairs, he delegated the mixing duties to someone else: Alan Moulder, whose name has appeared in the liner notes to many of the greatest alternative-rock albums from the past 25 years (Depeche Mode, Smashing Pumpkins and My Bloody Valentine, to name a few).

Shortly before the release of Codes & Keys, eMusic’s Marc Hogan got on the phone with Walla during a brief tour stop in Edmonton, Canada, ahead of the band’s headlining slot at the Sasquatch Music Festival.

You tweeted yesterday about room service. How do you see yourselves now that you’re at a stage where room service is a common occurrence?

In fairness, I’ve been a room service devotee for as long as I’ve been staying in hotels, whether or not I could actually afford it. Room service is sort of a lifestyle choice, in the way that blinds versus curtains is a lifestyle choice, for me.

[As far as] how I feel about the band. In global, “changing the world” kind of terms, we’re just a band. We’re just four guys. But I think that it’s only been in the last like two years that I’ve really figured out how important that is and how powerful that can be, personally, and how great these guys really are as friends. I’ve always known that, but really experiencing that, in a way that you sort of take for granted when you’re charging ahead as hard and as quickly as you can in a van through your 20s. It’s really, really cool right now.

Back to room service: Is it easy to get vegetarian food that way?

It kind of depends on the hotel. And, too, there’s that whole, like, the hipster movement du jour is that meat is the new vegan. Or bacon is the new vegan. There are all these cool-kid restaurants right now where there just isn’t anything vegetarian on the menu. And the other new trend is, like, “Don’t even ask us to modify anything,” so even if it’s just bacon bits on the spinach salad, you can’t ask them to remove the bacon bits. Which is kind of tedious; that sort of bothers me. But this particular hotel is good. They had a quasi-acceptable stir-fry thing that I ate last night, and I was fine.

Now the hipster trend is bacon and meat. The hipster trend in the mid ’00s was, “Let’s listen to these cool, smart, sensitive, vegetarian dudes who have the same politics that I have.”

It’s a reactive world that we live in, and there’s a time and a place for everything. When any particular band or any particular movement, whatever it is; whenever it strikes a nerve, there’s usually a reason for it. You can trace it back to something really specific. You know when you’re driving through the prairies or out on the coast or wherever and there are those huge groups of birds that all move in seeming impossible ballet with one another and take all the same turns at all the same times? And it seems so incredible and impossible. But largely we do the same thing, on a slower scale, culturally. Like, how it is that an entire planet gravitated toward UGG boots all at once will always fascinate me.

It is a cyclical world, and sometimes those cycles are really infuriating for somebody who is…I mean, I’m pretty principled and reasonably idealistic, and definitely not a weather vane, politically or socially or otherwise.

That kind of brings us, conveniently, to the new album. It really feels like you guys just sound really comfortable, kind of more at home in yourselves. At the same time, this album is about finding a home.

It all dovetails with the thing that I was saying when we started, just really recognizing how much we really give one another as friends; as a sort of family outside of our families. and picking a collection of songs that reflect that. I mean, Ben [Gibbard, Death Cab's lead singer, guitarist and lyricist] wrote like 35 songs. And somewhere in that 35 songs we could have picked another pretty bleak record, I think. But nobody wanted to do that. None of that was really very interesting to any of us.

I know you’re a fan of New Order. Their lyrics are so emotional and vulnerable in a lot of ways, and I think that’s a big thing that a lot of fans of Death Cab for Cutie have taken away from your band – that real confessional sense you get from Ben’s voice and lyrics. How do you feel it affects the band, being the type of group where collegiate people really, really identify with these lyrics?

Well, I’m happy that our audience isn’t composed primarily of assholes. Those people grow up and either they’re bigger assholes or they are repentant. There’s a lot of damage there either way, I suppose. With this record particularly, just all the way through the album, from the demo phase to moving in on the week of release, it was such an easy album to work and to fall in love with and to listen to. Narrow Stairs at different points was a little harder to work on, just because I was kind of worried about my friend Ben – he was clearly having kind of a bad go of it. That record’s a big dose of not-very-happy; there’s a lot of dissatisfaction. So this record’s got a really even keel, and I think that there’s a lot in it to love. I also think that the emotional spectrum it covers is really interesting, too. Because some of it is really direct and really autobiographical. A lot of it, though, is kind of obscured in a way that Ben hasn’t really written for years and years. Like, I think it’s a really great balance of the kind of literalism of the last couple of records and maybe the mystery of, especially, the first two.

One thing I’ve noticed: There’s a sense of “happy endings” on here. This isn’t the last Death Cab record, is it?

I don’t think so. Like I said earlier, we’re having so much fun right now. It’s awesome. It’s just really fun. And I think there’s a lot more to explore in process. In how we made this record, I feel like this is maybe the first record that we’ve ever made where I don’t want to make the next record completely. Because every record that we’ve made has kind of been a reaction to the previous one in some way or another. And I don’t want to do that this time. I just feel like everything we did kind of worked. And that’s kind of awesome.

I understand that for some of the songs on this album, in kind of a change, you wrote some of the instrumentals first. Which ones did you write and then give to Ben?

Just a couple of them. “Home Is a Fire,” the first song, and then “Underneath the Sycamore” was something I put together and sent to him. And then I mangled “Unobstructed Views” beyond recognition. It’s an interesting record because the idea with Narrow Stairs, in record producer terms, was kind of to try to be invisible. I’d spent some time at that point listening to some of the records that Joe Henry‘s done – I’d gotten way back into that Solomon Burke record that he did in like 2002 or something.

On Fat Possum?

Yeah, totally! And that kind of timeless, invisible record production, where you create an environment and put microphones up and hit record and just let something happen. Just trying to make sure we were tracking as much of it live as we could, and that sort of thing.

What albums were you listening to while you’ve been making this one?

That intersection of electronics and rock ‘n’ roll from the end of the ’70s through the early ’80s; particularly the Bowie-Eno-Visconti, first three Devo records, E2-E4, the Manuel Göttsching record. And other Ash Ra Temple records, too, I guess, in smaller doses – some of the Ash Ra stuff gets really kind of goofy. The first couple New Order records. All of those places where there was no rulebook and bands were just kind of trying to figure how to integrate electronics into music.

The thing about that stuff that is most interesting to me is, like, in that era of electronic music nothing had a memory. Every time you pulled out a keyboard or a piece of processing equipment or something, you had to rebuild it there on the spot.

So what did Alan Moulder contribute? Obviously he’s sort of a luminary when it comes to so much 1990s alternative rock and all that.

I went over to England for five weeks to watch him mix it, and it was pretty amazing. I mean, he’s one of my heroes, and he was my first choice to mix this record. It was a little weird for me because this was the first record that we’ve ever done that I haven’t mixed. But it was pretty amazing watching him work and listening to the choices he made. He has a sense of – God, how do you put it? – I don’t know. The reason I wanted him to do this record was, I mean, I was a huge Swervedriver fan, I was a big Ride fan. That first Elastica record I loved. Most of [Nine Inch Nails'] The Downward Spiral was Flood, but Alan had a big hand in it at different points. Just on and on, so many records.

But one of the records that really sold me on Alan for this album was Nine Inch Nails’ The Slip, which came out like three years ago now – it’s super good, like, kind of the best Nine Inch Nails record in a dozen years. It’s so good, so awesome. And I’ve always kind of been a fan, but there’s that point where, like, “Oh, I’m not 22 and super mad anymore, I don’t need to have this in my life.” But that record, it’s sort of equal parts abject noise and there’s some really, really song-y, hooky moments on it. It’s great!

You’ve been on some TV shows recently: Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, and you’re going to be on VH1′s Storytellers. But you guys have been on a bunch of TV shows by now. Is it starting to feel normal yet?

I don’t have any sense of…nothing feels normal ever. I still have nightmares about finishing the record. I mean, I still have nightmares about whether or not I’m wearing pants at school. I don’t know, I just can’t tell.