An Interview with Death Cab for Cutie’s Chris Walla
by Sarah Hammill
There are few taboos in rock ’n’ roll. It is, of course, a movement based on the power to do and say whatever the fuck you want, yet there are some tender topics out there. I touched on one inadvertently during my interview with one of the members of the wildly popular, melancholic alternative rock band Death Cab for Cutie.
I had originally emailed Death Cab’s publicist in October, requesting an interview with band frontman Ben Gibbard in order to preview the band’s December 6 show at the Arlington Theatre. I’m a huge fan of Death Cab, and the band comes as a musical highlight in the city’s post-summer off-season when the Bowl is out of commission. I waited patiently for the publicist to arrange an interview. Weeks wore on and deadlines loomed before she came through with an early morning phone interview with one hitch: Gibbard couldn’t do it, so Death Cab guitarist, organist, and producer Chris Walla would be stepping in. As a diehard music lover and equally devoted Death Cab fan, my head told me to seize the chance to speak with Walla and hear from an oft overlooked behind-the-frontman perspective. But — I’d be lying if I didn’t admit it — my heart said an interview with Walla just wasn’t the same, and the view I wanted into the soul of the band could only come from its lead singer.
Of course, my head won out in the end, and when Walla got patched through to me last Wednesday morning, I was more than happy to probe him about Death Cab’s road to fame. Formed by Gibbard and Walla in 1997, Death Cab for Cutie — which takes its name from a Bonzo Dog Do Da song featured in the Beatles’ film Magical Mystery Tour — has been a long time in the making. After recruiting bassist Nick Harmer and drummer Nathan Good (later replaced by Michael Schorr), the boys released Something About Airplanes on Barsuk records in 1999 and almost immediately developed a devoted underground following. During the next five years, they released four more albums on Barsuk, culminating with the album many consider to be the band’s best one to date, Transatlanticism. The success of the album caught the attention of some major record labels, and after much consideration, the band decided to sign with Atlantic.
“Our expectations seemed impossible at the time. We wanted to have a good personal working relationship with them, and also be able to sell more records and get our music to more people without compromising,” Walla told me. But any fears the band had about being micromanaged were quickly put to rest. “It’s not rocket science to make records; at least it shouldn’t be. They’ve been amazing,” Walla said. “We can talk about what we want to do next, and they’ll say, ‘Great!’” The harmonious working relationship with Atlantic has certainly paid off. Since Death Cab’s first major-label release, Plans, came out in 2005, they have become the indie-turned-major-label golden boys of the industry.
But the rise to fame that Plans facilitated wasn’t the band’s first taste of commercial success. A few years before, Gibbard had teamed up with Jimmy Tamborello in 2003 and released Give Up, an electronic trip album that paired the digital beats of synth pop with Gibbard’s notoriously emotive voice. The experiment was a big-time success; three years later, The Postal Service still holds its place in the iPods of many a hip, young audiophile. One might even say The Postal Service has, in large part, helped pave the way to Plans’ runaway success. Funny, then, that Walla seemed audibly uncomfortable when the “band” — a title that would later come into question — was brought up. And herein lay the taboo.
“That was such a blip on the radar in terms of any time that was devoted to it on the front end,” he told me. Because the album was mostly electronic, there was little involvement from Walla, who spent a few days in the studio recording drums, guitar work, and vocals. This may have been the source of Walla’s discomfort, which seemed to increase when I asked if there were any plans for The Postal Service to record more material. “No, not at all. It’s not a band, it’s a record,” he said. “Speaking of it in the past tense is important.” Sensing Walla’s growing impatience with the subject, I asked whether he gets tired of talking about it. “Well, yeah. I suppose so. It’s sort of a non-issue. It’s a completely different band,” he answered. Realizing I had stepped on some kind of landmine, I let the is-it-a-band / isn’t-it-a-band debate slide and asked whether he thought allowing band members the freedom to work on outside projects was a help or a hindrance to Death Cab.
“I think it’s a really good thing,” he said, perking up. “We get to look at things from a whole bunch of different angles. As long as this band is our stated priority — and it certainly is — then only good things can happen.” It was a positive note on which to end our rollercoaster of an interview, and shortly thereafter we said our goodbyes.
Looking back, I still can’t put my finger on exactly what got Walla so annoyed. Maybe he really is frustrated with his bandmate’s successful side project and the questions that inevitably rise from that. Or maybe he’s just stoked about Plans and is tired of talking about a dead album from his friend’s band. Either way, I’m glad I took the interview. After all, Gibbard may be the heart of the Death Cab outfit, but all we have to do is press Play to hear from him. It’s inside another musician, just outside the spotlight on accompanying guitar, where there lies an equal amount of the anger, pain, hope, and joy that makes a rock band great to begin with.
4•1•1 Death Cab for Cutie and Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins perform at the Arlington Theatre on Wednesday, December 6. Visit ticketmaster.com for ticket information.