For Death Cab For Cutie
fans, it was a three year wait, before the group's 7th studio album; "Codes And Keys
" finally surfaced last year. Mixed by Alan Moulder (My Bloody Valentine, Jesus and Mary Chain, Smashing Pumpkins) "Codes And Keys" saw the bands' guitarist/keyboardist, Chris Walla
take a step back from his usual role of solely mixing/producing the bands recordings, to produce an exciting collaborative record, showcasing not only the bands signature sound but one that has been dubbed as "sonically innovative
" by renowned music journalists worldwide.
"Codes And Keys" boasts a fierce evolution within the band, which is no surprise given the changes each member has experienced since the release of 2008's "Narrow Stairs
" - Ben Gibbard
and bassist Nick Harmer
got married (Gibbard to actress Zooey Deschanel); drummer Jason McGerr
had a baby; and guitarist Chris Walla
relocated from Portland to Seattle. Since then the group have embarked on a constant cycle of touring the world all over. On their recent stopover in Australia, Joe Matera
managed to grab some time with Chris Walla
to discuss the group's most recent effort, his efforts to explore the realm electronica further and his thoughts on the music industry.
UG: The first thing I noticed about Codes and Keys is that it is more of an upbeat record, rather than the usual melancholic material Death Cab For Cutie is known better for.
Yes it is much more upbeat, but it still has its cloudy moments I think, but by and large it is much more balanced, certainly more so than Narrow Stairs was, especially emotionally. So balance is the best word for it, as it is a much more balanced affair.
Last time we spoke you mentioned your preference for analog recording, yet Codes and Keys was recorded primarily in the digital domain, why the switch from analog to digital?
I still prefer making records on tape, so that habit hasn't changed, but there is stuff you can do in the box that is much trickier to do on analog tape. Going into this record, it wasn't necessarily going to be a record that was about just capturing the performances and capturing the sounds. It was going to be more about assembly and arrangement after the initial impulse of performances to capture.
It is well documented producer Steve Lilywhite is one of your recording heroes, but on this album, Brian Eno was your central influence on your approach.
Brian Eno is my first recording hero as I have always been fascinated by his thing. And by that, I don't mean that it is necessarily about his sound, but more about his approach and his process and how he thinks about the process, of getting an impulse of an idea and from there getting it to a record. I think his vision for how he gets from one point to the other point and how he achieves that, is completely unlike anyone else.
Was it a challenge on your behalf as a guitarist, to not make such a guitar-centric album?
"There are only a couple songs that are really guitar driven on the record and that is about it."
Yes it was very challenging and quite tricky. The guitar is such an impulsive instrument, where you pick it up and you play it and a song comes out of it. And a lot of times that is really great but, at a certain point you can just start to repeat yourself if you're not very careful, and especially since none of us are shredders or virtuosos of any kind. We're completely acceptable guitar players but our tricks of tricks aren't miles and miles deep. So the idea with this record was more about building a different harmonic foundation for the songs to live in than we have done previously, whereas in contrast Narrow Stairs was a very guitar centric sort of album. Even if the songs were written on guitar, the ideas used was primarily about not having the guitar be the main focus of how we were building everything, but rather using it more as an embellishment in the same way as you would use a shaker or a glockenspiel or something. There are only a couple songs that are really guitar driven on the record and that is about it.
Has it also been challenging to recreate the album in the live setting?
Yes this has been a really tricky album to learn to play live. There are some songs that are working out really well, but then there are some others that are really taking a lot of work to figure out how to play onstage. So it has definitely been kind of a challenge to say the least. There are a couple of synths on tour and a sampler too that we didn't have before, so it is all a little trickier in that regards too, but now that all that stuff is incorporated into the live set up, it leaves us with so much more room to expand and build from here on forward.
How much does your production approach influence the way you and the band write?
I don't know really as Ben is generally the one who is bringing in the bulk of the raw material that we end up pulling apart and then putting back together. And he just writes songs. He doesn't write them with much concern as to whether they're going to be presented in some certain way or some other way. And that decision always gets made as we start digging into the arranging and rearranging of the song in the studio. For me, I usually hear the record first before I even hear the songs. I hear the direction and the aesthetic choices and all the styles before I have any of the actual content all worked out.
Is that the same approach you use when you're working on a project outside of the band's format?
When I am working on something myself, I will usually start from a sound or a particular chord or a particular instrument that will inspire me and I will go from there.
Turning to songwriting, have you begun the process for the next studio album yet?
Not really, as to be honest, it has been really busy since we finished the record and with having to play shows as well. I don't think we'll get into starting to get into any new material until maybe towards the end of the year or the beginning of next year.
Aside from Death Cab For Cutie, are you spending any time on your own side projects?
Well, I am rebuilding my own studio in Seattle as I moved to Portland about five years ago but I have moved back up to Seattle. I am back at the place where we did The Photo Album  and Transatlanticism  albums which is really nice because I have always loved that place and it was really hard to give up, so it is really cool to be back in there again. So I am rebuilding that studio and that should be up and running realistically around July or August of this year. And I've also got a project that I have been working on and off for the past two and a half years that is very varied and much more synthesizer and machine focused than the Death Cab For Cutie record is.
So you're exploring the whole electronic approach to the fullest?
"Brian Eno is my first recording hero as I have always been fascinated by his thing."
Yeah, the idea is that I want to make an electronica record that was made in the way that my favorite electronica records were made back in the Seventies, like with no screens, all tape and with a room full of machines. So I am working on that too and once I have some down time, I will dig into that again.
On the current tour cycle behind the latest record, what are using live?
The guitar set up I'm using at the moment, I am really happy with. I have two amps; a '64 Fender Bassman running through a Dr. Z closed back 2 x 12 cabinet and an amp made by a guy called Steve Crow over in London. His company is called Audio Kitchen, and I am using his Big Chopper which is kind of a crazy amp as it has this enormous transformer for it to actually work, but it works well and is really fun. And that is also running through the Dr. Z 2 x12s. Then I have a Radial Engineering Loopbone, a ZVex Super Hard-On and a Maxon AD-80 delay pedal. Guitar wise I have got a 1980 Rickenbacker 360 with a Bigsby on it and a couple of Seymour Duncan mini humbuckers fitted in it. And a 1999 Gretsch Duo Jet with a Bigsby as well as a 2001 Gibson 335.
How do you view the current sate of the music industry with major labels becoming less important it seems?
I will start my answer by pointing out that Warner Music [Australia] has been on the block for the past four years and they're going gangbusters with us and making really smart decisions. I don't know what the fuck the other major labels are doing because I think Warner's really seem to have it all together. The thing with the majors and the indies, and what the successful majors and the successful indies have in common is that they're making decisions based on the economy and scale. Like Atlantic Records understands that they can pump a ton of money into Bruno Mars if Bruno Mars is making a ton of money. But they also understand now finally - that if they sign a baby band and nobody knows who they are, and nobody is buying any of their records, then they shouldn't dump a million dollars into that project from the word go. They should support that project as much as they can and use them to build the infrastructure at whatever level they can. And like wise, with a small label like Merge Records they have done a really good job of being able to scale up to serve a project like Arcade Fire. Certainly for Warner and Atlantic it has been a matter of figuring that out, like all of the old world of ivory towers and private jets and the whole thing that people sort of think about as the glamour of rock and roll, that is all but dead. That does not happen anymore. Certainly the execs at the record labels fly first class but beyond that, it is not run the same way as it was before. So it is really just a matter of being smart about where the industry is at, and where it is headed. It is the dinosaur theory in its simplicity really; you either evolve or you die.
Interview by Joe Matera