When Death Cab for Cutie guitarist/producer Chris Walla woke up on Monday, his “To Do” list probably read something like this:
1. Call MTV News to discuss upcoming, long-delayed solo record.
2. Call U.S. Department of Homeland Security to discuss seizure of hard drive containing said long-delayed solo record.
3. Head into town for weekly tuque fitting.
Yes, it seems that recently, Walla’s solo record (which has been scheduled to come out at various points over the past, well, four years) took another step toward oblivion when the master hard drive — containing all song files — was confiscated by Homeland Security at the Canadian border, for reasons not abundantly clear, and sent to the department’s computer-forensics division for further inspection.
If it sounds like a huge joke, Walla ensures you it isn’t.
“It’s a true story. Barsuk [Records, which is putting out the record] had hired a courier — who does international stuff all the time and who they had used before — to bring [the album] back from Canada, where I was working on it. And he got to the border and he had all his paperwork and it was all cool, only they turned him away, and they confiscated the drive and gave it to the computer-forensics division of our Homeland Security-type people,” sighed Walla, who has produced nearly all Death Cab’s output, as well as records by the Decemberists, Hot Hot Heat, Nada Surf, Tegan and Sara and others. “And now I couldn’t even venture a guess as to where it is, or what it’s doing there. I mean, I can’t just call their customer-service center and ask about my drive. There’s nothing I can do. I don’t know if we can hire an attorney … is there a black-hole attorney? You can’t take a black hole to court.”
And though his song files might have disappeared into a web of government bureaucracy, Walla does still have the tapes containing all his songs, which he’s now trying to master and mix on his own in order to have the record out — Lord willin’ — in January.
“Luckily, the tapes are Plan B, so while I’m bummed about the whole thing, it could be a whole lot worse,” he laughed. “I still get to play music. I mean, I’m not at Guantánamo or anything like that. I mean, my drive might be. They could be water-boarding my drive for all I know.”
And though Walla’s laughing when he mentions Guantánamo, he’s not joking when he adds that his record — which he’s calling Field Manual — is “very political,” packed with songs about issues both foreign (“The Score” tackles the war in Iraq) and domestic (“Everyone Needs a Home” deals with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina; “Sing Again” is about so-called “morning after” pills and whether they’re a form of contraception or abortion). Easy listening, this is not.
“I’m calling it Field Manual because myself and the guy who designed the packaging were looking through all these Army field guides from World War II. And there was one that he found that was really terrifying, actually,” Walla explained. “It was basically a manual issued by the Army in the late ’30s, early ’40s, about how to build what we now call an [improvised explosive device] in Iraq or Afghanistan. Like how to hide a bomb in a bed or in a tube of toothpaste. Just terrible stuff, and I started having this feeling of, like, ’Well, we need a new field manual.’
“And while it really is a political record, it’s also intensely personal, and it’s not like, political in a way where I hope to change anyone’s mind, because I’ve been doing my political-rock homework for a few years now, trying to decode what works and what doesn’t,” he continued. “Basically, it was my hope that I would be able to write a bunch of songs about the sh– that I think about pretty much every day. But there aren’t any character assassinations or indictments on the record. It’s tricky to write a political record. It was tough to get to a place where I felt comfortable with the words coming out of my mouth.”
And getting to that place has taken awhile. Walla said that though he’s been writing songs for years, it took him a long time to figure out just what he was trying to say. As it turns out, he had plenty to say, and Field Manual is the sound of him coming to that realization (he credits the directness of Ted Leo, Against Me! and the Thermals’ Hutch Harris as “touchstones” for that discovery). And while he hustles to finish the record — and continue work on Death Cab for Cutie’s new record, which he said is “coming along super heavy … we’ve got six songs done. They’re really bloody” — he’s finally prepared to stand on his own, come hell or high water. Or looming, shadow-like government organizations.
“This is a solo record, which is a little bit scary, because there’s a feeling of ’Oh, you’re officially making a statement,’ and you’re either the fist-waving left or the flag-waving right, and there’s no in between,” he laughed. “But I made this record because it felt irresponsible for me to have a platform for what I’m thinking and not use it. And not just to do political songs. If all I wanted to do was cover Air Supply songs, I could’ve done that too.”