A Fiendish Conversation with Chris Walla
Before playing the whole record at Bumbershoot, Death Cab for Cutie's guitarist and producer talks about what makes Transatlanticism so special.
On Sunday night, KeyArena will be filled by the sound of thousands of indie rock geeks' hearts squealing with joy. The reason? Death Cab for Cutie headlines Bumbershoot by playing its breakthrough album—Transatlanticism—in its entirety for the first time. On the strength of songs like "Title and Registration" and "The New Year" (with an assist from The OC), the record helped transform the band from a hidden Northwest gem to the mainstream powerhouse it is today. Death Cab has laid dormant for a couple years while front man Ben Gibbard released a solo record and reunited the Postal Service, but guitarist and producer Chris Walla has kept busy. Walla's fingerprints can be found all over some superb non-DCFC sounds, both on the albums he produces (past credits include Tegan and Sara and the Thermals) and releases by his label Trans Records (home of the Lonely Forrest and Now, Now).
For our latest Fiendish Conversation, we chatted with Walla about why Transatlanticism still connects with fans, Barsuk Records' 15th anniversary, and his dedication to coffee.
How do you feel about playing Transatlanticism in its entirety after all these years?
I’m really excited about it. We’ve never played the record in running order. I’m a producer, and it has always been one of my duties to present the first rounds of running order for the album. It’s one of the few places where I have a weird sort of puppet master role. I’ve always really loved the way that record unfolds from beginning to end. It’s really exciting to get to play that running order for a crowd. And I think it’s also a balanced enough record in terms of running order that it’s not like the record is super front-loaded and people are gonna be super bored after, like, song three.
Why do you think people still have such a strong connection to Transatlanticism?
Ben’s writing on that record, from top to bottom, has a diversity of youth-oriented experience, that, to me, is one of the things that make that record spectacular. It’s not a “down” record, and it’s not an “up” record, and it’s not an angry record, and it’s not a record of pure joy. It’s kind of all of those things song by song. A lot of my favorite records are like that. They kind of have an arch to them we have as people from the beginning of the day to the end of the day; from the beginning of the week to the end of the week.
Ben hit a really consistent strong point for the first time in his songwriting. Plus, we were firing on all cylinders musically. (Drummer) Jason (McGerr) had just joined the band, so there was a lot of energy and a lot of influence that was really different from anything we had done up until that point. I don’t think it’s any one single magic bullet. I think it’s a whole bunch of different things.
With Barsuk Records (Death Cab for Cutie’s first label) celebrating its 15th anniversary, what do you think are the strengths of the label?
Honestly, the thing about Barsuk has always been the people that work there. They’re so awesome. They’re just so sweet and so dedicated and so into promoting and making and helping to make things that they genuinely love. They’re so committed to it beyond any personal gains or agenda or anything else. It’s just that honest. There are not a ton of record labels out there where that is universally true. It is true of Barsuk Records.
How are things going at Trans- Records?
The Lonely Forest’s (new album) came out really well, and that’s going to come out in the fall. We just signed Cumulus, and that record is going to come out in October. It feels so cheeseball to say, “There’s other stuff in the hopper, man, we’ve got some big plans!” I understand when people say things like that, because there’s stuff that I’m really excited about, but you can’t talk about it until it’s a real thing. So yeah, label’s moving forward. It’s healthy and strong and solid, and I hope that we are following the Barsuk example of doing everything we can to be honest and trustworthy and artistic and integrity-full people.
Besides The Lonely Forrest and Cumulus, are there any up-and-coming bands in Seattle you think people should check out?
There was a band at the studio a couple weeks ago called Scriptures. I had not heard them before, but the shit they were doing in the studio was really cool. And I adore Pollens. I think they’re just amazing. The coolest people, such bonkers-good players, a lot of interesting musical and personal chemistry.
If you weren’t a musician, what other line of work you might you have pursued?
My love for coffee is so monastic and absolute that I’m fairly certain that my Starbucks barista/shift supervisor job that I quit to be in Death Cab for Cutie full-time in 1999, would have blossomed into a lucrative, important, ridiculous corporate career. It’s totally possible.
Aug 31–Sept 2, Seattle Center, $140 (three-day pass); $56–$60 (single day admission)