An Interview with Death Cab for Cutie’s Chris Walla

by Sarah Hammill

walla.jpgThere 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

“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.

deathcab.jpgBut 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 for ticket


Please note this login is to submit events or press releases. Use this page here to login for your Independent subscription

Not a member? Sign up here.