It's kind of amazing what Death Cab for Cutie—a band often dismissed as kids' stuff or the mushy embodiment of all things "emo"—gets away with. This year's Codes and Keys is an ambitious, dark and futuristic effort that culminates in a six-minute atheist anthem. If it's kids' stuff, the kids are more complicated than we tend to give them credit for.
While frontman Ben Gibbard is responsible for much of the band's appeal—his high word count and turns of phrase have been widely praised, hated-on and imitated—it's his bandmate Chris Walla who gives Death Cab its forward-looking, layered sound. Walla has produced every Death Cab record, and his aesthetic can run refreshingly obscure (Codes was inspired, in part, by the spacey krautrock of Ash Ra Tempel) for a guy whose productions have spent so much time hovering toward the top of the Billboard charts. WW talked to Walla, who returned to his native Seattle in 2010 after a four-year stint living in Portland, via phone.
WW: Why did you move back to Seattle?
Chris Walla: There was some family stuff happening. Long story, but everything is OK. I'm trying to plot my return to Portland, because I miss it a lot.
What makes it so different from Seattle?
Oh my God, where do I start? Portland's a town where I don't mind paying my taxes, because I understand that whatever is going to happen at a civic level is probably going to be cool and going to make the city better in some way or another. Seattle just doesn't seem to have any capacity to solve any of its myriad problems. It's my hometown. It's a beautiful place, it's full of people I love, but it's just not nearly as livable a city as Portland is.
What inspired you in producing this album?
I got way into the Bowie/Visconti records, the three records that happened between '77 and '79,
. The delivery and shape of those songs is kind of unlike anything anybody else has ever done. They're not his most successful records and they're not his most accessible records, but they're really, really cool.
Has being on a major label ever hindered you?
There has never been a problem with any sort of creative interference. I think in the seven years since we signed to Atlantic, they have figured it out. They're the only major label that's in the black, and I think they've been able to do that, in part, by meeting bands where they're at. They have largely left us alone.
Has Death Cabâs âemoâ rep finally faded?
I think it has faded, and I think the mushier rock-and-roll has gotten pretty popular. We're not as soft as Bon Iver, and I think we're sort of on the rock-and-roll side of what the Fleet Foxes are doing. There has been a real movement toward opening up and letting it all out in the last four or five years—thankfully! It's a pretty big, muscly, football-y kind of world. So I say bring on the mush.
So youâre on less of an island these days?
Yeah, for sure. I think we were one of the first bands of our peers, our little era or whatever, to make the leap to a major label. It was weird. A lot of people were really excited and a lot of people were really mad. [But] we're still writing songs that we like and making music that we like.
How do you feel about your first two records?
I love the first couple records! I mean, I don't put them on to do the dishes or whatever, but I revisit them fairly often. There's this kind of weird panic about those records that I just love. You don't get that back at any point. It always dismays me when bands try to go home again.
Why are you not on Twitter anymore?
I deleted every single one of my 4,400 tweets, tweet by tweet. I needed to take a break. I was just getting mad a lot. I was getting caught up in Internet fights. And it was sort of fueling my terrible feelings about anything political that was happening. My blood was boiling and I needed to turn it down. I'm ultimately a happier person right now. But perhaps I will come back to it.
SEE IT: Death Cab for Cutie plays the Crystal Ballroom on Thursday, Dec. 8, with Telekinesis. 8 pm. Sold out. All ages.