After releasing its luminous new album, Transatlanticism, last fall, the Seattle-based band Death Cab for Cutie is bringing a blend of lush vocals and delicate instrumentation to the masses. Just a few hours before Death Cab’s set at the 9:30 Club last Saturday, I was ushered through a tour bus strewn with jean jackets and messenger bags. Chris Walla, the guitarist/keyboardist/backup vocalist and producer for the band, greeted me at the back of the bus. Wearing jeans, a red sweater and a pair of Asics, Walla enthusiastically introduced himself and told me to make myself comfortable.
Hatchet: What does the album mean to you? Transatlanticism, I understand, is about distance, but what do you personally find in it?
Chris Walla: (pause) I sort of feel like it’s the first in a series of records. For me, Transatlanticism is the first record where we just about nailed it. I mean, we’ve always made it a point to, but this is the first record where I feel like, “Oh, wow, we made a record. We made a rock record!”
H: What are the differences between this and The Photo Album?
CW: The Photo Album was made at a point when we were having a hard time communicating with one another and we were not doing well enough to take time off during the recording. So it was basically like 31 or 32 days straight in the studio without a break. I mean, I like the record, but it’s definitely not the record I thought it was going to be when we started it. A lot of that has to do with the fact that we played the songs on tour for a really long time before we ever went in the studio.
H: So how did you remedy that problem on this album?
CW: We went in not having played anything live. Transatlanticism is the album where we put together arrangements based on what was really at the core of the song instead of what we had just gotten used to when we were playing on stage. Operationally, it was really cool to make.
H: So you produced the record, too?
CW: Yes. The glory of recording is that you have a rewind button all the time. You can try something as long as you have the track space to do it. Or you can make a mix, and you can do something that somebody’s really into, and then somebody says, “Well, yeah, I really like this. Can we try it if we change this, this and this?” With Transatlanticism, finally, we were able to try a bunch of different stuff and just cut and paste things together.
H: You just did some production for Nada Surf, and Ben Gibbard, the lead singer, has his side project, The Postal Service. What does that bring to the dynamic of Death Cab – people being involved in other things?
CW: I think it brings a lot. We’re all pretty driven, sort of lifelong musicians now. You can always learn something from somebody, and it doesn’t matter if it’s a writing partner, a project with somebody else, a band that you’re recording, or just watching a band play on stage, or live DVDs. I’m at this point in my life where it doesn’t matter what I’m listening to. There’s obviously music that I really enjoy, but I’ll sit and watch anything. I’ll watch any bullshit, cheesy live performance or whatever, and I’ll get something out of it. So anytime I get to dig in with a band, I learn something. I think it really informs and helps me in the recording process.
H: So evidently you guys get mentioned a lot on “The O.C.” Is that bizarre for you?
CW: You know, just like you said, evidently that’s what happens. It’s weird. We met a bunch of the cast of the show when we were in L.A., and they’re fans. One of the producers and the creative director worked really closely with the cast to try to put together sort of a picture of these people, something that these actors can get behind and understand, just to try to contextualize all the kind of stuff that happens in the story.
H: What did your parents think when you told them, “Mom, Dad, I’m going to be a rock star. That’s going to be my job”?
CW: There’s this point where you’re like, “Well, people like what we’re doing, but we’re not making any money. We have to all quit our jobs to be able to continue because it’s becoming a full-time job that we’re not getting paid for yet.” All of our parents and respective girlfriends and whatever have been really supportive and really helpful in all that. They all hang out and have barbecues and talk about where we are every night. They’re really wonderful people.
H: I was reading about how you guys have been made offers by major labels and turned them down. What are the relative merits of staying on at an indie like Barsuk?
CW: Well, the primary thing about Barsuk is that it’s working. No, we’re not selling a million records, but the flipside of that is that the Barsuk overhead is really low, and our point split with the label is better than any other label on earth, I think. We’re making a really good living doing this, and it’s happening that way because a lot of it has been really sensible – low overhead, hard work. Every move that we’ve made forward has been carefully considered.
H: I’ll leave with one broad, nebulous question.
CW: That is fine, please.
H: What does Death Cab for Cutie mean for you?
CW: It’s like family, kind of more than anything. We’re really super, super tight. I think we do a really pretty remarkable job taking care of each other and making sure things are all right. I also think we push one another a lot creatively. We have a lot of respect for one another, and we also know when somebody is doing what they’re actually capable of doing. We’re needley with one another. But it’s all out of respect, and it’s out of love. I mean, that’s the super, hippy-dippy flowery version, but it’s pretty much it.