The USA is in its biggest economic crisis in years. Hurricanes are literally tearing the country’s infrastructure apart. The upcoming election is the most pivotal in years. Oh, and there’s a war going on? Finbarr Bermingham finds Death Cab For Cutie’s Chris Walla with a head full of steam
“I’m sitting in my truck in the car park of the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada.” Symbols of Americanism don’t normally manifest themselves as boldly as that. “It’s pretty intense,” admits Chris Walla, lead guitarist and producer for Washington state indie-pop stalwarts Death Cab For Cutie. But partisan symbolism isn’t something he’s too comfortable with right now. “It’s a troubling and complicating time to be a progressive American,” he sighs, his resigned tone speaking volumes.
Over a lifespan of seven albums, Death Cab For Cutie have carved themselves an educated and attractive niche; one filled with irresistible melodies and impressively literate song writing. Transatlanticism, Plans and most recent offering Narrow Stairs are a catalogue of safe but sound twee-tinged tunefulness, but not some of the hardest hitting records put to press. Yet despite being affable and polite throughout, Walla’s conversation is at odds with the niceties of his band. To go with his ear for a sugar-coated melody comes a keen eye for politics, bulging at the socket and baying for reform.
“A John McCain presidency runs the risk of being potentially worse than the last couple of years of Bush’s reign have been,” he states matter-of-factly. “He is so angry and so committed to the destruction of Iran. In the same way that George W really had it out for Iraq in 2003, I think McCain has got it out for Iran and I don’t think there is any way around this.”
Having appeared on the Vote For Change Tour in 2004 in support of John Kerry alongside more illustrious politico-musicians Springsteen and Stipe, Walla’s fear of another Republican tenure in the West Wing is hardly surprising. But his viewpoint is certainly not blinkered. Speaking to The Skinny around the time of the Democratic Primaries in June of this year, his frustration with former prospective candidate Hillary Clinton is almost as impassioned as his fiery mistrust of McCain.
“It’s mathematically impossible for Clinton to win the nomination for the Democratic Primary in any conventional sense and yet she is continuing to run. She’s started to run her campaign the way Bush has run his whole presidency; by ignoring the facts; by operating as though everything’s great and by hammering away on her opponent relentlessly. It’s so hideous and tiring. There was so much excitement at the beginning of this primary season. Everybody was energised in a way that I haven’t known in my lifetime and that excitement is quickly waning.”
With retrospect we can now see that Mrs Clinton has fallen into the party line, tail between her legs. The energy Walla had feared was lost has been recaptured in the form of Barack Obama’s trailblazing campaign of glitz and glamour as he prepares to lead the Democrats into what promises to be a pivotal, if bitter and tense final stretch. With both sides picking at the issues of credit crunch, Bin Laden and global warming like vultures, trying desperately to endear themselves to the electorate, it’s easy to forget, Walla says, that thousands of miles away there’s a real war going on, one not based wholly on rhetoric.
“We’ve got 130,000 troops overseas and the war doesn’t make headlines in the States. You can go 3 or 4 days and lift any newspaper anywhere in the country and not see a front page story about Iraq or Afghanistan. The reason? Well in marketing terms, it doesn’t react well with the public at large. Nobody is really that interested. People are running the news industry as though it were the entertainment industry. It’s so sad because so many kids are overseas fighting for something, but it’s so unclear as to what they’re fighting for. Clearly they’re incredibly brave patriotic kids. But what the hell are we doing?”
Walla seems unafraid of putting anyone’s nose out of joint, politically at least. And whilst it may be fashionable for musicians to take a pop at Congressmen, it should be noted that since they first came to prominence around the turn of the century, Death Cab have always been fiercely independent. Signing to Atlantic Records in 2004 was viewed as a move that could have alienated fans who’d been with the band since the outset. So much so, in fact, that it prompted front man Ben Gibbard to issue a statement to reassure them. “The only thing that will change,” he promised, “is that next to the picture of Barsuk (the band’s longtime home before the move) holding a “7”, there will be the letter “A” on both the spine and back of our upcoming albums.” According to Walla, though, the transition was not as painless as they might have expected.
“I think the biggest pressure came with Plans. That record felt like making a record for a major label. It felt big. It felt important. It felt like something critical was about to happen and there was really this sense of anticipation and anxiety about it and I think we played that down at the time. We didn’t really recognise what it was and what it felt like.”
Despite Plans being released to critical acclaim, Walla thinks it is the sound of Death Cab trying too hard to be Death Cab. The “coming to terms with it,” as he puts it, took place after the record. After a three year hiatus, in which both he and Gibbard took their solo material on the road, the band reconvened, more settled and comfortable with their status as a major label act. From Walla’s perspective, the results (this year’s Narrow Stairs) are a better representation of what the band are all about.
“Making this record felt so much more like making a Death Cab record. We did it in places that are familiar to us. It was just so much more comfortable than the last record. I feel like we have a confidence about us now that I don’t know that we’ve ever had before. I don’t think its cockiness and I don’t think it’s particularly brash. I just think it’s… well, I think that for the first time, we completely know what we’re doing.”