It might be difficult to remember — what with all the international intrigue surrounding his hard drive — but there was a time, not so long ago, when Chris Walla was better known as the guitarist/producer for Death Cab for Cutie and not "the vaguely political guy in the beanie who took on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security."
And, not surprisingly, Walla would like things to go back to the way they used to be. So even though his (now) much-discussed solo album, Field Manual, hits stores in January, he's already hard at work on Death Cab's next album, the follow-up to their commercial smash, Plans, which has sold more than 920,000 copies (!) since being released in 2005 (see "Death Cab Blasé Over Big Chart Debut; Say Next LP Will Be 'Complicated' ").
"We have six songs in the can already. Not mixed, but basically done. And beyond all logic — and against everything I told myself after making Plans — I'm producing it," Walla laughed. "We're actually doing it at [DCFC drummer] Jason [McGerr's] studio. He built a place in Seattle called Two Sticks. It's a really cool studio, with this clubhouse vibe. We have a couple of those little handheld Nintendos in there."
Walla said the early vibe of the record is "bloody and loose," a reflection of where they chose to do the record and a reaction to the problems they — and many of Death Cab's fans — had with the shinier, more nuanced sound of Plans.
"So far, it's a crazy, weird, heavy-rock record. It's all on tape too. It's not going to leave the tape machine, which is pretty exciting in 2007. It's so much fun. The six songs we have now are just killing me," he said. "With the last album, there were a bit of nerves when we signed, and as a producer, I sort of felt [like,] 'Oh sh--, this is my first major-label record. I better do something sort of hi-fi and semi-industry-standard.' And I'm really proud of that record, but it was too studied and too concentrated in a few spots. And with this one, it's all bloody tape style. It's all-or-nothing."
Though he wouldn't go into detail about the songs the band has already completed, Walla did mention an epic, 10-minute jam that calls to mind the work of German kraut-rockers/ anarchists Can and was recorded live to tape. And he doesn't see things changing at all as Death Cab progress with the album.
"The experience I had working on [the Decemberists'] The Crane Wife — that was a record that didn't leave the tape machine, and I had forgotten how fun it is working with tape. You can't skip around. And when you get a song, it's a performance from a group of people. It's a complete thought, rather than little bits of a sentence you cut and arranged and made into a paragraph," he said. "And in a world where nothing's linear anymore, it's really nice to be able to commit to a performance. Like, the Can jam, it's live bass, guitars, drums, vocals — it all went down together. And I don't think that's going to change. I'm going to deliver tapes to Atlantic [Records], and see if they know what to do with those."
Death Cab plan to keep hammering away at the yet-untitled album until January (or until Atlantic fires up the helicopter and hightails it out to Seattle to put a stop to all the lo-fi madness), by which time Walla estimates there will be somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 songs to whittle down to a final track list.
Then again, who knows? The whole plan might change ... after all, if Walla has learned one thing in the past week, it's that, truly, anything can happen at any time.
"The tape stuff is great, though I don't know. I often long for the '70s. Because I know that when something was 'pro' in 1978, it was f---ing pro. And, like, my band, we're still duct-taping microphones to chairs and stuff, and we sold, like, a million records," he laughed. "I mean, I guess if we wanted it, we could be recording at some big studio like Sunset Sound or in the Bahamas someplace. There are always problems. Every record is a journey. Or whatever."