Chris Walla’s Comeback
CHRIS WALLA. PHOTO COURTESY OF DIANNA WALLA.
Almost exactly one year ago, Death Cab for Cutie‘s founding guitarist and producer Chris Walla announced that Kintsugi (Death Cab’s eighth LP) would be his last with the band. The Washington-born musician, producer, and composer admitted that following his 17-year tenure he would continue making music, but remained enigmatic about how and with whom—until now, that is. Here we are pleased to announce that Walla is returning this fall with a sophomore solo album (the first was released in 2008), Tape Loops, which will be released October 16 via Trans Records, and premiere the first single, “Kanta’s Theme.”
In its entirety, the album’s five songs—which vary between four and eleven minutes in length—compose a purely sonic landscape with no vocals, allowing the listener to become truly entranced and engulfed in sound. It is difficult at times to distinguish where one song ends and another begins; soft piano notes and languid undertones engender an escape into one’s own mind, with few answers from the 39-year-old. He offers specific and telling titles but leaves the rest up to the listener. So just as Tape Loops was an introverted exploration for its creator, the album also enables the listener to delve into his or her own thoughts.
In addition to the album, Walla is currently scoring his first feature film, North, although he has credits on previous soundtracks for Blockbusters like Easy A and The Twilight Saga: New Moon. As a producer, Walla founded the recording studio Alberta Court in Portland, Oregon, and also worked frequently at Hall of Justice in Seattle, where many Pacific Northwest bands such as Nirvana recorded. He’s also produced records for seminal indie rock/pop bands including Ra Ra Riot, Telekinesis, The Decemberists, Hot Hot Heat, and Tegan and Sara. To coincide with the album announcement and release of “Kanta’s Theme,” Walla reconnected with one half of Tegan and Sara, Sara Quin, over the phone. He was at his new home in Norway. She was in California.
SARA QUIN: Hi Chris, how are you?
CHRIS WALLA: Hi Sara. I’m pretty good. I’ve been assembling IKEA furniture all day.
QUIN: Ugh that’s upsetting.
WALLA: It’s really challenging. To keep you from over-tightening the screws, they make the screw head a little too big for the screwdriver so you don’t even have the satisfaction of getting something to be the way it’s supposed to. I’m really unhappy. I don’t like it.
QUIN: I have always been a very determined furniture assembler because my parents raised us to be very hands-on. We spent the summers working with my dad and my step dad on their construction site. I always prided myself on being able to use tools. When Stacy and I moved to L.A. last year and we started from scratch with furniture, it’s like everything comes with the option to pay a guy named Bob to come over and put it together for you. We put together a couple things ourselves, and then I was like, “Fuck, no. I’m 34 years old. I can pay to have Bob come and do it.” I guess that’s when you know you’ve made it Chris, that’s when you know you’ve hit the top.
WALLA: I feel like I’ve had Bob assembling my furniture for the last number of years. One of the things about moving to Norway is that all of a sudden there’s no Bob. If there’s a Bob, you don’t know what his name is and you definitely don’t know how to get a hold of him.
WALLA: I’m going to tell you a story because it’s so ridiculous—so we moved to one of the towns in the Arctic, I live in the Arctic now. I’m learning all sorts of things about the international supply chains in a way I never thought that I would. Of course people live here, but they order everything and there’s no warehouses. Everything is like 46 weeks away. If you don’t have a Norwegian bank account then you can’t order anything online in a Norwegian internet store.
So Dianna [my wife] and I didn’t have any furniture. It was starting to get really difficult and really sad. For a few days we were like, “Oh we can sleep on this inflatable mattress for 12 weeks,” and then we stuck to about four before we were like, “No, we can’t, we’re adults.” So the plan that we hatched and I executed was for me to fly one way from Scandza, which is where I live, to Trondheim, which is a 1,000 miles south. Then I rented a van, took that van to IKEA in Trondheim, and drove a bunch of furniture 1,000 miles up the country—and these are not North American highways. These are not straight lines. It’s mountains and madness. It’s beautiful, it’s the most amazing country I have ever seen, but it’s a lot of driving and all for IKEA furniture, which makes me feel insane. I feel so crazy right now.
QUIN: Forget the IKEA part—you’re having these challenges, having to go get something in a time where, culturally, socially, for most of us here in North America, it’s so easy. I find it intriguing that you’re now making your life harder. I wonder how that ties into the music you are making, because I was struck by how calming and beautiful the album is.
I have a new kitten and he is making my life very dramatic—he has diarrhea everywhere, and my other cat is just crying and growling—but when I played your music, the cats calmed down, laid on the floor, and we had an hour of quiet. I thought, “This is the most beautiful but also somewhat melancholy music.” I was wondering how that juxtaposes with your current lifestyle that sounds challenging?
WALLA: It’s a degree of difficulty. I wanted to make a record that was just what came out of me at the moment, and that’s what this album is. It was calming while I was working on it, too. In some ways that was the point.
After three weeks of being in the producer seat for the Death Cab for Cutie album number eight, I decided that I shouldn’t be producing that record. Right at that moment, I started working on Tape Loops. [Kintsugi] was the first record I made with that band that I hadn’t produced and that was a huge shift in my identity. It was long before I decided I was going to leave the band, but it was at this moment where I was feeling like the record wasn’t sticking and the ideas weren’t totally blooming like they should. At that moment, it wasn’t very satisfying. It was a big decision that I didn’t want that job. I sort of felt like, “Shit, if I’m not doing this then what will I do? What do I do? Who am I? What if I do something creative that’s satisfying? What is it? What comes out of me? ”
I started plugging in tape machines and fiddling around with razor blades, slicing tapes, and I started making loops. When I came to the studio in the morning, instead of putting on a record to listen to when I was returning emails, I would just make a loop. Some of them were terrible—they made me angry and I took them off—but then a couple of them felt really nice and continued to feel nice after they were on for 20 minutes, or after an hour, or after couple hours. I started dumping those onto the multi-track deck and embellishing them. The fun thing was snapping into and out of a pointed, direct consciousness when I was working on it.
QUIN: One thing I kept thinking about when I was listening to the songs, beyond thinking they really feel loopy, is that I didn’t always know where we were, where I was listening—is this end or the middle or the beginning? I became immersed in what I was listening to without needing to think, whereas with the music we’re currently making and pop music in general, there’s always an awareness of that. You are always thinking, “Is this the second time I’ve heard the chorus? Okay great. What’s the next thing?” There is a lot of anxiety in that.
So, do you know when the music is done? How do you know if the song should be three minutes or seven minutes? Is there beginning, middle, and end?
WALLA: Sometimes there is a beginning and middle and end, but it feels like it’s all more middle. There is development and there are changes, but there’s development and changes the way there is development in the color of the sun as it moves across the sky. The loops are very finite, there are definitely beginning and end point, but how long they go? I just let them go until I’m bored.
Like “I Believe in the Night” felt like it was kind of done after three minutes, and then the one called “Goodbye,” I couldn’t bear to turn it off, it kept going. [laughs] But those decisions are totally ephemeral, and happen in the moment on the day. Had I had too much coffee the day I was working on “Goodbye,” it may have ended up being two minutes long or not made the record.
QUIN: I thought the song titles were interesting. I’m such a verbal person, such a lyric person, that when I’m listening to instrumental [music], I think about the titles a lot more than when I’m listening to songs with vocals.
Also, I know nothing is throwaway with you, that there would be deep meanings in each of these titles. I thought the one that was most interesting was “Flytoget” because I immediately assigned my own narrative to it. But when I Googled it, I realized it was the high-speed airport train in Norway and I was like, “Maybe it’s just that.” I did find the titles more intriguing than most titles to regular pop songs.
WALLA: The titles were terrifying because you are giving it so much color. In good writing, every word counts, but then where there is no writing and you have to find a word or title, it carries so much weight. I didn’t want to not title them or give them meaningless titles, because really specific things were happening that I was thinking about things as they developed.
When you’re not looking at a screen all the time, the eye of the mind, or whatever you want to call it, has so much more opportunity to open up. You get to see scenes unfold and pictures and visions. It’s a very, very different experience from working in Pro Tools or Logic. The thing with that one is it literally means “fly train,” the airport train. It’s the title of a couple of things because it’s a beautiful trip from the Oslo airport into the city. It’s so quiet, and ater a day of being in an airplane, it’s such a nice way to approach the city. I think it’s maybe my favorite airport to city trip in the world.
The other thing about the title is that the airport connotation suggests [Brian] Eno—I wouldn’t be doing any of this without the work he did, particularly the loop-capo-based stuff he and Robert Fripp were doing in the ’70s. That particular piece of music started as a very personal exercise; I was trying to reverse engineer the first piece of music on [Eno’s] Music for Airports, called “1/1.” I was trying to figure out the order of operations was as they were working on it, how the pieces fit together. I’d been listening to that record a lot, I first bought it when I was 14 or 15—it’s such a huge part of my development and landscape. So I was exploring that and then the piece turned into something that felt really good. I was surprised that something that started as an exercise, and something that was very literally and intentionally derivative, tuned into its own piece of music.
QUIN: One thing I’ve always admired about you [is that] you are knowledgeable about the technology but also the process, both for yourself and other people. So much of what I do is intuition and throwing stuff at the wall. I don’t always care or pay attention to the kind of things that you do. I think that made our collaborative relationship so interesting because you were a missing link for both me and Tegan; you had the knowledge and skill set we didn’t have. We were impatient and didn’t have the discipline you did.
Do you have a desire for people to care about the way you make music and the process you go through and your influences? In a time in music and culture where there is so little emphasis on those things, is this a reaction? Not to say there isn’t substance behind music being made now, it’s just that it seems the majority of people are not as interested in the process. Do you think by making this type of album and music, you are affecting that? That you are sort of aiming the music at a very specific listener?
WALLA: I think I would like people to care about process somehow or another, but I also feel that’s a pretty impossible thing. The certain type of listener, in this case, is me. This is the least audience-interested or audience-focused thing I have ever done. It was very, very personal. I kept turning back to, “What did I want? What would I do? If I was doing this, what would I do?” “Oh wait, I am doing it so what would I do?”
One of the things about being the kind of record producer that I am is that I’ve never been particularly product-oriented or product-focused. I’ve always felt that whatever I’m doing is art. Sometimes I feel it’s art with a capital A, in an age when Art with a capital A is very uncool and maligned a lot of the time. I spent a lot of time trying to push that back and be more product-focused, trying to find the thing that everybody else is going to want to hear or experience, and I think this record might have been a reaction to that. It felt like a necessary vacation from that and it was a kind of therapy, it was a process that allowed me to reconnect with the stuff that actually sparks my imagination, moves me emotionally, and inspires a sense of potential possibility and atmosphere.
Sometimes I really enjoy music that I’m very engaged with and dance to, but I feel like there’s a dearth of good music that isn’t directive or commanding. I don’t think this record is passive, but it’s also not commanding; it’s not telling you what to think or how to feel. So I guess if there is anything I hope, it’s that it can find people who maybe didn’t realize they wanted it, or maybe didn’t realize they needed it, or maybe didn’t realize that what they’ve been listening to has been screaming at them.
QUIN: I so rarely listen to music that feels similar to the music we make as a band. I rarely want to listen to music with vocals and maybe it’s because I am tired of listening to myself talk—it could be a reaction to that.
As I am listening to you talk, I’m wondering if you imagine playing this music live and is there any satisfaction in that? This seems so intimate and insular to you, is there any desire to go out and connect with people in a personal space?
WALLA: I think potentially it could have a live life of some sort. There are so many easier ways to make a tiny piece of music repeat over and over and over again—that’s a couple of mouse clicks, it’s not rocket science. So there’s something about the kind of wonder and discovery factor of this, because it’s a very physical process and feels a little bit like a party trick.
If something really needs some piece of random atmosphere, that doesn’t feel like it came out of the brains of the people in the band, if it needs something that sounds incidental and unintentional, a tape player is such a good way to do that. Over the last two or three years, I’ve done it a fair bit on people’s records. It’s a very natural thing for me to do in the studio. People pull out their cell phones and start filming and taking pictures like, “Whoa, that’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen!” I do it without thinking.
One of the things we were working with on the last Death Cab record was this piece of equipment from the ’80s called The Fairlight. It was one of the first reliable looping samplers that actually sounded good. Nobody in the music consuming public knows what a Fairlight is, but we started wondering, “Whatever happened to The Fairlight and can we get one of those?” It felt really quaint and foreign and kind of old, because we’re so used to machines that just do everything all the time.
QUIN: If there was an iPhone app that did the exact thing and it replicated it identically, would you be turned off and not want to use it as a point of pride and to go back to the original technology?
WALLA: It really doesn’t have anything to do with authenticity or point of pride. It simply has to do with the engagement of the curiosity and wonder. I just do so much better in the physical tactical world than I do in the digital world. I want to make it clear: I’m not judgmental when I say that—people are making beautiful shit on computers, and possibilities are huge and endless. But all I see when I see a computer is websites and email; I don’t look at it and think, “Oh, a world of musical possibilities.” I do work on the computer, I make records on computers, but the world of possibility and problem solving, inventiveness, and creativity for me is the world of atoms and magnets. I love that stuff. I loved Legos as a kid; I love building things; I love making weird contraptions. I don’t like building IKEA furniture. [laughs]
QUIN: You obviously were making records and a producer, and were in a band and toured all the time. Was that that sort of unpredictability and hand-on, magical, tactile experience, playing live? Is there any part of you that misses being in a band and touring and having those experiences?
WALLA: One of the things about being in a band for 17 years and then leaving the band is that if I don’t make time for myself to play music, I don’t play music. I mean, I play music—I’m working on a film soundtrack right now, I am making music, but I’m not sitting down and playing songs, and certainly not performing for people. I do miss that a lot. I would like to do again at some point.
The thing that changed very, very slowly with the band, those first four records, we were all very close personally for a long time. We have lots of the same friends and lots of shared experiences together. Ben’s writing for those first five and moving into the sixth was like he was writing the soundtrack of my life. That made those songs such a joy to go out and play over and over and over. He was giving voice and language to things that I was feeling. He gave voice and language to stories in a way that was very, very powerful for me.
In the studio and on stage, as we got older, our priorities changed, and we moved to different paths, there was a point when we would be in four different cities. Ben’s experiences and his writing, places that resonated with me were getting fewer and further between. It was making it harder and harder for me to know what to do musically. On a more existential level, and eventually one of the things that led to me wanting to leave the band, was feeling like Ben’s stories weren’t coinciding with my own life in a way that I could continue to prioritize my whole living experience for.
QUIN: I was just talking about [how] Tegan and I had a long collaborative relationship and there are such incredible moments where I could be so in sync with her, and opposite moments when I feel I’m trying to make music with an alien that I don’t understand. With The Con, Tegan and I were deeply in sync and complimented each other’s stories in so many ways. Then with Sainthood, I struggled so much more to understand Tegan’s aesthetic, and her lyrics and her story didn’t always relate. That album was challenging for me to play live and understand hat it was we were offering to one and other as partners in the band. It’s hard to rewrite an intimate connection when you’ve been with each other for so long.
WALLA: Yeah, sometimes it’s hard and sometimes it’s impossible. It was hard for a long time, and then I started to recognize, as we moved into this last record, that it was probably going to be impossible for me. Part of me feels like that is an enormous personal failing, part of me that feels like that is absolutely the feeling you need to deal with, and another part of me feels like, “Holy shit what am I doing?” The thing is, all three of these can be exactly true.
I struggled so much trying to make sense of that emotional difficulty and incongruity. Those guys, they are my brothers. We haven’t spoken a lot, but it doesn’t change the fact that I love them dearly and I hope it all continues to go well. I hope that those relationships can be new again someday, and strong again, in a way that is probably very different from how they were, but not fraught.
QUIN: When you were in Death Cab, you always had such an outside life being a producer. I always was amazed at how you were able to compartmentalize. You could be so emotional and present with us, it almost started to feel like you were in our band during The Con—like it was Tegan and Sara and Chris, might even be Tegan and Chris and Sara—while also being deeply committed and very busy in another band. Do you [think] there have been times in your life where you have been stretched too thin and now is the time to be with yourself, create on your own, and be singular? Do you feel whole without a band?
WALLA: I feel whole without a band, yes, but that doesn’t mean I don’t miss it and I don’t miss them. Saying that I feel whole doesn’t mean it hasn’t been a total mindfuck of an identity shift because it’s so enormous. Almost my entire adult life was devoted and committed to being a quarter of a title I share with three other people. Right now, I’ve been in the process of dumping out all the baggage of feelings and emotions surrounding those experiences for all of those years, and trying to figure out what is mine, what’s not mine, and who I am.
This thing you are talking about being present with you and Tegan—I don’t know how to not do that. It drives people crazy, like I don’t return emails or phone calls. When I’m in a room with somebody, that’s what I am doing. There is nothing else. So when I was doing the record with you guys, I gave everything I knew I could give to it; that’s how I work on music and that’s how I make records. Aside from fucking around for my first track at my parents’ house when I was 19, I feel like this record is the first time I have one for myself. I turned off my phone for 10 hours a day and I sat and paid attention to myself and my own music and followed that thread until it was either a sweater or a pile of wool on the floor.
QUIN: That’s beautiful to think that from the time you were a teenager to now, you have been such a force and a leader for other people. It’s nice to think you are turning that towards yourself now.
I always hate this question when people ask it, but I feel like asking it to you. People always ask, “So what happens next?” and you’re like, “Go fuck yourself, I just made a record! What am I doing next? Another interview…this is what I am doing next.” But Chris, tell me, what are you doing next?
WALLA: I am trying to count the IKEA boxes. I think there’s 12, so there’s definitely still IKEA furniture in my future. I am working on some soundtracks and scoring a film called North that I am really excited about. I have never scored a film. I don’t know if the directors are aware of that.
QUIN: I feel like we’ve covered everything that needs to be covered. It was really nice to catch up with you. I really think the music is beautiful. I hope the first single goes off the charts, I hope you are starting a movement of disciplines, beautiful, patient music listener, I hope there is an insurgence, just as we unleash our hyperactive next record.
WALLA: Oh god, I am so excited to hear it.
QUIN: It’s fun, I can’t wait to play it for you.
TAPE LOOPS WILL BE RELEASED OCTOBER 16, 2015 VIA TRANS RECORDS. FOR MORE ON CHRIS WALLA, VIIST HIS WEBSITE. FOR MORE ON SARA QUIN, VISIT TEGAN AND SARA’S WEBSITE.