Chris Walla looks like he's about to make his first Communion. Or go to a job interview. And that's somewhat fitting, because in a way, he's doing both.
He's in New York doing publicity for his first proper solo album, Field Manual, and he's decided to wear a pinstripe three-piece suit for the occasion. And why not? After all, he was never quite sure he'd finish the album, which he recorded for more than a decade in off-and-on sessions between work with his primary band, Death Cab for Cutie, and the myriad of production he does on the side (including Tegan and Sara's The Con and the Decemberists' Picaresque and The Crane Wife). Not to mention the fact that for a brief period last year, the album was the property of the Department of Homeland Security.
So, yeah, he's sort of earned the right to dress up. This is a big step for him.
"Oh, man, I don't know about the suit. I mean, it's February, it's New York, it's a wool suit. I guess it's also a solo-record suit, 'cause I wore it in one of the publicity photos too," he laughed. "I delivered the Death Cab record to Atlantic yesterday, and I wore it yesterday because it seemed like the right thing to do. And it's so warm and comfortable, I decided to wear it again."
He also looks strangely like a guy on his way to an Iowa caucus location, which is sort of fitting, considering the strong political themes that surge through Field Manual. The war in Iraq, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, a call to organize, an imagined conversation between a Seattle librarian and a U.S. senator about federal budget cuts: It's all there, albeit buried beneath a DCFC-like layer of indie sheen.
"I wanted to make sure this album reads as good as it sounds," he said. "You can listen to it and then open up the lyric sheet, and it reads like a little story, like some weird piece of prose.
"The whole goal with this record was not to beat people over the head with the political stuff," he continued. "But at the same time, it's all there, because it's totally stuff I talk about all the time. I'm not playing some 'formal character of myself' or something like that. I mean, it's a carefully considered record, but it's all me."
Those political leanings are nothing new — in 2004, Death Cab took part in the Vote for Change Tour, alongside acts like Bruce Springsteen and Bright Eyes. But now, Walla is taking it one step further and coming out in support of a candidate: Democratic Senator Barack Obama.
"I certainly don't remember an election like this," he said. "I was motivated in 2004, but I was motivated from a place of disgust and fear. Whereas this time, I really feel motivated from a place of possibility. And all of those terms, Obama has sort of picked them out of the dictionary and put them out there — possibility and optimism and change. It's so refreshing, even though it's turned into a bandwagon for the other candidates to jump on. Like, what an awesome bandwagon for everyone to jump on!
"It's been sad for me, but I've had a real problem being able to get behind Senator [Hillary] Clinton in any real way, particularly over the last couple months," he continued. "Six months ago, I would've told you I would've been thrilled to cast my vote for her, but the way her campaign has unfolded is so wrong to me. The mailers that have gone out in a couple of the primaries calling into question Obama's record on choice are particularly phony, and for her to try to attack him over that is counterproductive for politics; it's counterproductive to the cause. In policy terms, she's an excellent leader, but I feel that the way she's playing this game is so old, and the rulebook she's drawing from is so outdated, that it isn't translating to me, it's alienating to me."
While Walla realizes that his power to sway people's minds might be limited, he has been encouraged by what he's seen in voter turnout so far. Whether voters cast ballots for Obama, Clinton or the Republicans, Senator John McCain or former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, he's just happy they're participating. After all, it's what he wrote the song "Sing Again" (which just so happens to be the first single from Field Manual) about.
"Stephen Colbert coined the term 'solitarity' at one point, which is the new solo activism, where you sit in front of your computer and you're super-angry about whatever and you blog about it and that's all you do. And there's no community in that. There's only so much collective power that you can get out of connecting to someone through your laptop," Walla said. "And this whole idea of caucusing, where people are caucusing in record numbers that we've never seen before, is so exciting. It's citizens interacting with other citizens and other voters, maybe for the first time ever. 'Sing Again' is about just getting connected with people, whether they value the same things you do or not. That's what's important."