It took roughly a month for anyone to report on the Department of Homeland Security’s seizing of files containing Chris Walla’s solo album. It took less than 24 hours for those reports to spiral w-a-a-y out of control.
MTV News was the first to break the story, talking to Walla earlier this week about the incident. On September 19, an employee of the Vancouver, British Columbia, studio where Walla had recorded his Field Manual was stopped at the Peace Arch border crossing near Blaine, Washington. U.S. Customs seized a hard drive containing unmixed versions of Walla’s songs, claiming it had to analyze the information contained on the drive, and sent the unwitting employee back to Vancouver with only a box of half-inch audio tapes.
Of course, when the story began to make the rounds, it became less about the seizure of a hard drive and more about the U.S. government allegedly attempting to censure Walla’s album because of its — as he put it — “very political” nature. (Of course, it didn’t help that the Death Cab for Cutie guitarist/producer joked, “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 this, not surprisingly, did not sit well with Mike Milne, a representative for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, a bureau that operates under the Department of Homeland Security.
“I want to point out very emphatically that the U.S. government, this administration, the Department of Homeland Security and specifically [USCBP] does not censor musical content coming into the United States. Period. That’s not the reason this hard drive was kept,” he told MTV News. “We followed standard operating procedure … and when you start talking about … Guantánamo Bay, you get my ire up. I go on Google News, and I see 125 different news stories out there with the headline ’Homeland Security Seizes Musician’s Music,’ and it strikes me as unfair. And I will be spending the rest of the day trying to contact those people — The Associated Press, the record company [Barsuk Records] and Mr. Walla — to ask them if they can set the record straight.”
Milne said the reason the hard drive containing Walla’s songs was taken had nothing to do with politics or security measures, but rather was a simple case of commercial merchandise — the tapes and drive, specifically — being brought across the border at an incorrect point and without necessary paperwork. Conspiracy theorists, he scoffed, should go look elsewhere.
“Our officers on the line are not politically motivated by what they do, they’re driven by the law … If you have recorded music — from a professional recording studio, from a professional musician, from a foreign country that’s being imported to the United States — there are certain import requirements,” he said. “If it’s worth a certain amount of money, it requires a formal entry into the United States, which means a bond needs to be posted and there needs to be formal invoices presented. There are copyright and trademark ramifications in the music industry that we enforce as well. And there are certain places or ports in the United States that are designated as commercial ports, where that merchandise can be imported into the United States. Where this person tried to bring this commercial merchandise in is not a port that is designated to bring in commercial merchandise.”
According to Milne, if the employee of Hippowest Studios had attempted to bring the hard drive in through the nearby Pacific Coast Highway border point — and not through Peace Arch — things would’ve been handled differently. Not everyone sees it that way, though. Like, for example, Barsuk co-founder Josh Rosenfeld. He sees files of songs from a record not as commercial property but actually as personal property.
“I’m not a lawyer, and it could be that there is legal precedent stating that source material intended to be reproduced for commercial products is itself a commercial product, and we were just naive about the proper procedures. But, common-sense-wise, I don’t know why anyone would think that,” he said. “But this is a case of a U.S. artist who went into Canada to record and then wanted to bring the fruits of that recording back home. It doesn’t seem like a commercial product to me.”
The way Rosenfeld sees it, the hard drive was confiscated because Customs agents believed its contents were a security risk … though he doesn’t buy into reports that the drive was seized because of the politically charged songs contained within. He just chalks it up to an agency that’s not up to speed on the technological side of things.
“I don’t buy the whole ’politically motivated’ thing. They had no means of listening to the music on the drive at the time they confiscated it. In some ways, I think that whole side of things is a bit of a red herring. It seems like a funny coincidence,” he laughed. “I mean, a hard drive containing data, and if it was confiscated for commercial reasons, why would they let him leave with the tapes? There’s something that doesn’t make sense about the whole concept of it being confiscated for commercial reasons.
“My initial thought was that Customs didn’t know what was on it, so they thought it was a security issue, and they seized it,” he continued. “And then I think, ’Does U.S. Customs have no idea things like FTP sites exist in the world, and data can be brought across borders much more easily and without any questions, and not on a hard drive?’ ”
But then, why weren’t the files just sent over an FTP site? Well, Rosenfeld said the process would’ve taken too long — “Ironically, we had someone bring it across the border to avoid delays,” he laughed — and added that the audio tapes were needed in Seattle for a session at RFI/CD Mastering. So the fateful decision was made to have a Hippowest employee take the tapes down himself.
And that employee is 22-year-old Brandon Brown, an engineer at Hippowest. According to his boss, studio owner Rob Darch, he’s a “great young guy who volunteered to drive the whole thing down.” By all accounts, Brown drove to the border armed with letters from both Rosenfeld and Darch, explaining who he was and just what he was doing with tapes and a hard drive.
But to Brown, none of those things seemed to matter to Customs officers.
“I had letters from Rob and letters from Josh, they pretty much outlined what I was doing and what was going on. It seemed way more thorough than necessary,” he said. “But then I get to the border, the officer asked me my purpose and I said I was taking property of the record company back to them. I said I had tapes and a hard drive, and as soon as the officer heard the word ’hard drive,’ it was like a light went off.
“He wouldn’t look at paperwork, he didn’t want my side of the story, he just told me to pull over,” Brown continued. “So I got inside and showed them the paperwork, explained what was on everything, and then they went away for a bit, and they came back and said they had to confiscate everything. I had to explain to the officer how tapes worked, with voltage and magnetic particles and all that stuff, and they let me have the tapes. But they wouldn’t let me have the hard drive, because they didn’t know what was on it.”
Of course, after the drive was confiscated, things got interesting.
U.S. Customs told MTV News that it gave Brown a receipt and informed him that the drive would be back “in a few weeks.” They then spoke to him on September 28 to report that the drive would soon be back from a computer forensics department in Blaine, and that he could pick it up then. On October 4, Customs left Brown a message saying the drive was back at the Peace Arch office and could be picked up. When they got no reply, they tried again, “on or around” October 12. Again, they heard nothing.
Brown claims he never received any messages from Customs and added that, “Obviously, I would’ve gotten the drive if I would’ve heard from them.” Barsuk and Hippowest came up with an alternate plan, mailing the tapes to Walla himself so he could have a listen to the mixes. Walla gave the interview to MTV News and the story began to gain traction. All while, Milne said, the drive was sitting in the Peace Arch office, awaiting pickup.
“We made three attempts — phone-call notifications — to have [Brown] pick up the drive,” he said. “Any of the comments by Mr. Walla or the record company are out of order and out of line … the drive is here now, [and] the rightful owner can make arrangements to pick it up. You can give them my number, have them call me. I’d like to talk to them.”
So, will Brown or Barsuk head down to Peace Arch to pick up the drive? At this point, Rosenfeld doesn’t see why he’d bother. Thanks to the shipped materials, Field Manual will still hit stores in January. Plus the album’s already benefited from more publicity than he could ever have dreamed of.
“It’d be nice if we could get the drive back, but the data is already back in the United States. So in some way, it doesn’t really matter,” he laughed. “The whole thing ranks somewhere on the continuum between questionable and clueless to me. And so I think that’s hilarious. It’s frustrating, sure — we’re behind schedule, but fine. But that isn’t going to affect the quality of the final product. And now at least everyone knows Chris Walla has a solo record coming out.”