Chris Walla of Death Cab for Cutie on Codes & Keys and losing gear in Ottawa stage collapse
Just over a month ago, Death Cab for Cutie (due tomorrow night at Red Rocks with Frightened Rabbit) was slated to close out the Ottawa Bluesfest when a freak storm hit and sent the stage crashing to the ground, destroying a lot of the band's equipment, which was stored under the stage. While the band has pretty much dialed in its equipment situation since then, there were a few pieces of gear that were one-of-a-kind. We spoke with guitarist Chris Walla about losing the gear, making Codes and Keys, the band's latest effort, and how it differs from 2008's Narrow Stairs.
Westword: How's the tour going, besides the stage collapsing in Ottawa and damaging a lot of your equipment?
Chris Walla: The tour has gone really well. The hangover from that was not insubstantial, but I'm reminded again after Indiana how much worse it could have been. It's kind of no small miracle that nobody was killed or seriously hurt. It kind of puts a lot of stuff into perspective. It's kind of nice to be alive and playing music and contemplating easy things like what I should have for dinner.
Have you guys got your equipment dialed in again since then?
More or less. There's even still a few things that are a little weird that we're sorting out. A lot of it was just completely destroyed. With a lot of it, it's stuff you can just buy off the shelf at Guitar Center, and it's fine. There are a few Unicorns that we are not going to be able to replace, which is kind of sad. There's one guitar that I had that was kind of a one-of-a-kind that is essentially irreplaceable, which super bums me out. But what do you do! It could have been worse.
Why did you guys decide to record Codes and Keys in four different studios?
I really subscribe to the idea that -- and I might be delusional -- that every studio is more or less its own tool and has its own set of strengths and weaknesses and skills and, you know, whatever. Just like it takes a box full of tools to build a house, I started to feel like when you have the opportunity of having a whole host of studios, it kind of makes a more well-rounded record, I think. It's like you can use a pair of pliers when really you need a crescent wrench, but if you find a crescent wrench, usually it will go a little more smoothly. It's sort of like that.
Sound City in Van Nuys, where we recorded the first leg of the record, is a dark, window-less kind of sleazy '70s place with carpeted walls. I mean, there was nothing to do in there except either do drugs or make a record. And since we don't do any drugs, we sort of figured making a record would be the good thing to do. It's like so far out that there's nothing to walk to. It's not a day spa. There's nowhere to entertain yourself, so it really lends itself to sort of heavy construction projects -- stuff that requires a lot of focus and concentration and really getting a couple of days deep into a project or a sub-project or whatever.
On the second leg of the record we went to Vancouver, to a place called the Warehouse. And the Warehouse is a literal warehouse, and the second floor has a wall of windows that look at downtown Vancouver. The light is beautiful and it's sort of open. It just inspires a whole different kind of thinking about music. Where you're really in a cave and where you're really sort of inside your own head at Sound City, you can really sort of think of the context of your work over the course of a day and a night when you're working at the Warehouse. It's just a completely different vibe. It gives you a different perspective on what you're doing.
I would imagine that each studio has its own personality, and that would seep into the music.
Just like anything in your life, like every pair of pants you own qualifies as a pair of pants. Like, they keep you warm and they cover you up and that sort of thing, but they all feel different. And you have your favorite pair of pants and your second favorite pair of pants and your dress pants.
Interview continues on the next page. They all do the same thing, but they sort of serve different purposes for different moments. Studios are totally the same way. Some people have favorite places that they go to over and over again. I don't know, sometimes you have to dress it up and sometimes you have to dress it down.
I read that you guys started off with about forty different tracks and then whittled it down to eleven.
There were a lot of songs that came into this record, for sure. There's a pretty natural entropy that happens with making a record. It's gets filtered out pretty quickly. What usually happens is that five or six songs rise to the top really quickly, and based on what those songs suggest topically or atmospherically or... You know, based on what those songs have in common, the rest of the songs get chosen for the record. That necessarily ends up ruling out some really great songs that maybe just don't fit into this body of songs. It has a natural sort of focusing, centering effect on how the record comes together.
What happens to the songs that end up on the cutting floor? Do you ever come back to those at all and try to rework them?
Sometimes. Like "St. Peter's Cathedral" on this record is a song that Ben wrote in 2002 that we tried to record for Transatlanticism and failed and tried again to record for Plans and failed. But it's a song we have all loved for years and years. We've just wanted to figure out how to do it and how to put it together. So we did. We finally got it worked out. That's one of those. So every now and then they come back to the front. They all have a time and a place, and they'll end up on records or they'll end up as some sort of digital box set, or they'll end up getting completely lost forever. Any of those three things is perfectly fine.
A lot of people are saying Codes is a brighter record than Narrow Stairs, partly because you guys have had some good stuff happen in the last few years, like Ben getting married. Would you agree that the vibe of the record is lighter than Narrow Stairs?
Well, sure. But you have to admit that it couldn't be much less bright than Narrow Stairs. I mean, Narrow Stairs' commitment to sadness and wallowing in a kind of pity is almost monastic. It's a big downer. We could have made any record after Narrow Stairs and people would have said, "This record is totally happier!" That said, there is some real brightness on this record, but it's not all puppy dogs and sunshine. There's a lot of reflection on the record, too, and I think that it's that kind of balance that makes the record really work.
You said that Codes was sort of like a construction project. Can you elaborate on that?
Yeah. The idea was... Plans was built brick by brick by brick by tiny brick. Narrow Stairs was sort of a reaction to that. After Plans, we toured like crazy for almost two years. It just seemed like we were a good live band, and it felt like it would be kind of crazy for us to get into the studio and not try and capture that. The idea with Narrow Stairs was to put up microphones and grab as much of it as we could off the floor, just live, everything to tape.
When we got to this record, it sort of felt like moving back towards a construction project, given a lot of factors. It's sort of how the band started. It started as a recording project, and we only had one microphone, so we necessarily had to build everything piece by piece. That's just always been familiar to us, weirdly. I guess in one small way, that was sort of us getting back to our roots, or whatever, again. But then again, it sort of seemed like it served the songs as well. With this batch of songs, it felt like there was a lot of opportunity to sprawl and morph and change over a big chunk of time rather than getting committed sort of quickly and immediately and impossibly by grabbing everything as it went down.