Photo by Autumn de Wilde .

I recently caught up again with Death Cab for Cutie guitarist/producer Chris Walla , who had lots to say


INTERVIEW: Death Cab for Cutie

Which Metallica album is Narrow Stairs?


Photo by Autumn de Wilde.

I recently caught up again with Death Cab for Cutie guitarist/producer Chris Walla, who had lots to say about the quartet's new album, Narrow Stairs, the band as a brand, and Metallica.

How much does something like debuting at number-one on Billboard matter to you?

I mean, it matters more than the number-four slot did last time, but I don’t know what…I feel like we’re supposed to start doing something really different now, like we’re really supposed to start complaining about the brand of blank backstage. “When I asked for chamomile tea, goddammit, I didn’t mean my grandma’s Celestial Seasonings tea! What were you thinking, you stupid blank?!” It’s so absurd. But it’s not the same kind of marker that it was when we were kids. It used to be that the number-one mark on a record meant you were selling millions of records. I’m thinking like the Madonna of the ’80s, or George Michael. Those are number-one records. And those people were, at that time, at the height of their careers. They were massive celebrities, and depending on how you look at it, we don’t have to do that, or we don’t get to do that.

OK, so how do you look at it?

I would say we don’t have to do that [laughs]. I think that’s pretty great. I’m not interested in being in that position -- my life’s weird enough. Yeah, I dunno, motorcades and stuff don’t rub me the right way.

You guys have gotten pretty huge -- on the cover of all the magazines, doing all the TV stuff… do you feel at all like you’re being pushed into that position by the media that needs the “big, important rock band” of the moment?

I mean, it’s always felt to me like in pop culture, different people get elected whether or not they’re even running for office. And I’ve felt a little bit of that with us. Like, getting elected to the covers of magazines and … there’s just more and more and more, people need more and more content than they ever have for any number of press outlets, but there still needs to be someone that all that content can be defined by for every genre and sub-genre and sub-sub-genre. And those bands, I guess it’s like us and the Shins, and Modest Mouse to a degree, get sorta paraded around and trumpeted as some sort of yardstick, which is really weird.

It seems in a way that your band, even if you just say the name Death Cab for Cutie, it’s become a signifier for a whole group of people and their lifestyle and tastes, you know, even beyond the music.

Well, it’s that thing that happens when your band becomes a brand, and I really love that concept, actually. I really do. I’m totally fascinated with marketing. And we’ve done very little around it in any conscious sort of way. There’s so many different ways to be a band and how to make your dent in the world, and we have always gone about it…since we got together, we chose a very, well, Ben chose a very complicated name, and we went about doing our thing the best way we knew how, and we’ve always really been proud of the fact that we’re just four guys in a band, and that very thing has become our brand.

Well, the word “brand” often has a negative connotation in terms of music -- it seems so cold and corporate and distant, and rock history has been full of musicians who didn’t want that, who’ve run away from that, or, you know, even killed themselves over feeling like they’ve turned into that.

Right, right. I mean, we all have versions of those feelings, too. I think that the thing that we’re so lucky to have had is that we were able to get ourselves to some modicum of success internally, in creative terms, by just the four of us. We absolutely needed Barsuk, and Barsuk was really important to us, and they did so much heavy lifting when it turned into heavy lifting. But by the time we got picked up by Atlantic, we knew exactly who we were, we knew what we wanted to do, we knew what we were doing, and we just wanted to continue doing it, and that was one of the non-starters for anyone who came to us with anything less than that. So just the fact that we were lucky enough to continue to call all of our own creative shots and make our own records makes whatever notoriety we get much easier to swallow, because it’s very much by our own hand. If we do something ridiculous and shitty, we chose to do it, and that’s pretty great. It also gives us some sense of control, whether it’s imagined or not, that we really can steer the ship. And in so many ways we really can’t.

Are you guys still in a place where you’re trying to convert people with your music, or is it more of a “Here’s our music, if you like it, that’s great, if not, oh well…” kind of thing?

Well, basically…okay, so, the thing that happened with Plans is that we got a lot more fans, like a lot more people came to the record, and those people came to this band largely for “Soul Meets Body” and “I Will Follow You Into the Dark.” And we’re totally happy to have them along, but that part of the arena’s full now, and it’d be great to bring in some rock and roll people. And I think that’s what this record is. I don’t think it was designed to do that, necessarily, but if there’s some different kinds of people that get drawn to the record, we’d be totally happy.

So would you say that when you’re making an album, in an least some small way you’re taking into consideration the audience that will eventually hear it?

There was a very conscious decision made to make sure that there wasn’t a song on this record that was just Ben and a guitar, or just Ben and a piano. The reason those songs have made it to past records in the form that they have is because we’re really committed to record-craft, and “Passenger Seat” and “I Will Follow You Into the Dark” -- aside from being two of my favorite songs that Ben has ever written, they do so much for those records. I think that they are beautiful palate cleansers; they really work for the record and with the record. But the thing that has happened is that with “I Will Follow You Into the Dark” being a huge single, there has been the public impression that Death Cab for Cutie is just Ben. And that’s not…he knows that’s not the case just as much as we do. We’re a pretty tight unit, and we’re really, really careful about making sure that everybody is involved and is a quarter of the process. So some of this record was definitely meant to be concentrated on a four-of-us-together-in-a-room kind of thing, to try to bring some of that forward, I think.

The Death Cab live show has evolved so much over the years -- when you’re onstage is it still the same feeling as it was at the beginning?

Funnily enough, onstage it’s really devolved. When we started playing it was pretty timid and small, and then it got sort of bigger and then it got kind of complicated, like we were trying to do a bunch of stuff that we really shouldn’t have been trying to do, and now it’s just like…it’s the realization that Metallica had between …And Justice For All and the Black Album, like, they started getting into arenas and were like, “Oh this sounds terrible, nobody can even tell what we’re doing!” So then you end up with “Enter Sandman.”

So Narrow Stairs is your Black Album, is what you’re saying…

I don’t think this is our Black Album. It’s not Kill ’Em All. I don’t know. God, maybe this is the Black Album! No, because Plans was kinda the Black Album. But oh my God, does that make this St. Anger?

No, I guess this would be, uhh, Load, or one of those?

Oh, I guess it would be Load. That’s pretty bad, too. No, no, no…

You probably can’t go wrong just screwing the timeline and saying it’s your Master of Puppets.

Yeah. Okay, that’s what it is!

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