“The record came from a place of insecurity and confusion. I mean, if I can’t produce a record for the band I was in for seventeen years, who am I? What do I do?”
In 1997, whilst still a student at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Chris Walla met Ben Gibbard, and founded Death Cab for Cutie. He spent the next seventeen years at the heart of their progression from obscurity to college rock favourites to, eventually, one of America’s biggest indie rock outfits, with number one records and sell-out arena shows to their name. He played guitar in the studio and on stage, but his key role was as the group’s producer; he sat behind the desk on every Death Cab record up to 2011’s minimalist, guitar-sparse Codes and Keys, being chiefly responsible for crafting Death Cab’s sound from album to album - the lo-fi scuzz on We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes, the crisp warmth of their breakthrough, Transatlanticism, and the moody, jagged desolation of Narrow Stairs among them.
Shortly after work began on Death Cab’s eighth full-length, in 2013, Walla decided he was not the man to produce it. Within a matter of months, he’d walked away from the band entirely, playing his final show in Canada in September of last year and dissolving, in the process, one of the most formidable indie rock partnerships of recent times. Gibbard, bassist Nick Harmer and drummer Jason McGerr have pressed on without Walla, releasing Kintsugi - named, presciently, after the Japanese art of fixing broken ceramics with gold - in March, and touring as extensively as ever with new members. Gibbard spoke stoically, almost unemotionally, of the split in interviews, and in the few that Walla’s given since, he’s addressed the topic gingerly and with a deliberate vagueness - “there’s still a lot of static,” he told Sara Quin of Tegan and Sara back in August - that suggests that the break with his bandmates probably wasn’t an entirely clean one.
For years, Walla had spent what downtime he did have from Death Cab lending his production services to other artists; he’s done extensive work with Quin and her sister on The Con and Sainthood, as well as overseeing albums from the likes of The Decemberists, The Thermals and Now, Now. He put out a solo record, Field Manual, in 2008, and started his own label, Trans, in 2010. Gibbard opined that Walla had always been far more enamoured with the studio than the road and that it was always a manner of when, not if, he’d step away from the group, and the creative disconnect with the rest of the band that forced him out of the producer’s chair on Kintsugi seems to have proved the point of no return. Given his impressive CV, though, and the sheer volume of irons he’s long had in the fire, it’s a touch surprising to learn that quitting Death Cab didn’t just leave Walla wondering where to head next - it actually left him in the throes of an identity crisis.
Tape Loops, his second LP, is the sonic manifestation of his transition into a post-Death Cab world; he began work on it right around the time he decided against producing Kintsugi. Entirely instrumental, it represents a wholesale departure from both Field Manual and his work with the band, but not with his favoured medium of recording - straight to tape, rather than digitally. As the straight-faced title and the convoluted pattern on the album’s cover suggest, Tape Loops is exactly that - five songs created by cutting, splicing and looping magnetic tape on a reel-to-reel machine to creative repetitive sounds and rhythms. You could perhaps infer a double meaning from the ‘loop’ part, though; as Walla himself tells it, the album closes a personal circle of sorts.
“It’s not really that I’ve drifted away from the kind of music that I made with the band,” he says from his hometown of Seattle - he’s currently dividing his time between there and Tromsø, Norway, where his wife is at university. “It’s more that I’ve been drifting back home, towards what I was doing twenty years ago when I first met Ben and when, ultimately we started Death Cab. I was playing in another rock band back then, but for the most part, I was making instrumental music. I was always interested in being a songwriter, but it was always challenging and not always totally satisfying. I’ve always been more comfortable making stuff that speaks without speaking, and sings without singing.”
The impetus to move back in that direction was provided by, as he describes it, the moment of “creative semi-crisis” at which he stepped away from Kintsugi. “When I decided that it’d be better for the Death Cab record that I didn’t produce it, it was such a feeling of “what do I do now? What am I good at?” I was in a place I hadn’t been before, and those are the moments when we choose to go home, when we choose the things that are closest to comfort food, musically. That’s what I did.”
Tape, specifically, felt like a safe haven; five of the seven Death Cab LPs that he produced were cut to it, with the two exceptions being Plans and Codes and Keys - Walla once described the former as “the outlier in the catalogue”, partly because it was captured digitally with RADAR, whilst the latter is comfortably the most divisive album the band have made to date. In an era when blemishes can be evened out and takes re-run at the click of a mouse, the tape machine’s relative inflexibility can prove its greatest asset.
“I like that commitment factor, that you have to make decisions as you go,” explains Walla. “Tape Loops feels like such an exploded diagram of a tiny piece of some other record, a little bit like it’s a tide pool or under a microscope or something. You’re taking just four or five notes, and you’re hyper-committing to them. You have to constantly re-evaluate; are these really the five notes? Is this really the thing I want to say? It becomes a real mental exercise, to be hung up on such a tiny harmonic, melodic and structural framework, but the beauty of it is that it means I was allowed to be really, really sure about these songs, in a way that I’m not about anything else, really. I don’t even know if the frozen pizza I just ate for dinner was the thing I really wanted until it’s gone, you know?”
The loops themselves are, by now, an antiquity; “I’ve used them on probably every album I’ve produced in the last seven or eight years, and there’s definitely this campy, parlour trick quality to it; whenever I’m in the studio making one, and the band are on the couch trying to write lyrics, they all start getting their phones out to video it, like I’m a mad scientist.” The format suits the sheer minimalism of the album perfectly - the lingering silences in between the flickers of guitar, piano or, on ‘I Believe in the Night’, a light fixture, are every bit as crucial a part of the makeup of these songs as the instrumentation itself - but the physically untaxing process of cutting and constructing the loops themselves had a more practical, and therapeutic, purpose too.
“I’ve been dealing with a shoulder injury these past few years, and I’ve been discovering that it’s down to many years of repetitive stress - years of playing guitar in a less-than-optimal way, and years sitting in front of a computer with a mouse. It’s pretty classic RSI, but there’s this feedback loop that seems to happen - when I get anxious or stressed about something, my shoulder gets worse, and then, naturally, when my shoulder gets worse, I become more anxious and tense. It was causing me a lot of worry that the kind of work that I do for a living contributes to this vicious cycle, so the few records I’ve been able to make recently on tape have been so rewarding and free. They break that feedback loop. It feels much less taxing.”
So often, the tape vs. digital divide is fuelled by self-styled purists who feel the former lends them some kind of authenticity; in actual fact, though, it’s an awkward and unfashionable medium by way of comparison to its digital cousin. There is, though, a long-standing suggestion that the restrictions that analogue recording places upon the artist are actually a good thing - the idea that the best art is born out of imperfect circumstances.
“You know what? There’s a couple of Alain de Botton quotes that nail that,” says Walla, as he flicks through a notebook in search of them. “Two quotes, here, from the same book - Religion for Atheists. The first is this: “we have grown sick from being left to do as we please, without sufficient wisdom to exploit our liberty.” And then there’s the next one: “secular society associates repetition with punitive shortage, presenting us with an incessant stream of new information - and therefore it prompts us to forget everything.”
“They both sort of point at the idea that there’s freedoms on both sides of the analog versus computer divide. One man’s freedom is another man’s prison, ultimately, and I like having a box to work inside of. It’s so easy to become overwhelmed by the world of modern production and recording; there’s so many options, so many places that could be satisfying. When the canvas is that big, and the screen is that blank, there becomes this infinite number of mouse clicks between here and something that sounds great coming out of the speakers. When you’ve got a blank piece of tape, you’re in the opposite situation, and it provides you with a different frame - a different perspective.”
Walla’s last solo album, Field Manual, stands worlds apart from Tape Loops; an indie rock effort far closer to the traditional Death Cab mould (and released shortly before Narrow Stairs), it presented him with the opportunity to bring his own voice to the forefront in more ways than one. The album’s lyrics were laced with Walla’s worldview; he has long been active politically, and was involved in local level campaigning for President Obama in 2008 and 2012. To swing from a record that examined the precarious state of the U.S. auto industry and his country’s military involvement overseas to one that’s totally devoid of the human voice is quite the leap; “terrifying,” as Walla puts it, because the titles of this album’s songs become the only written points of reference for the listener. “It’s the hardest part of the process, because the names you give to the tracks end up carrying so much weight, especially if the music itself carries some kind of emotional resonance. That was totally the case for me, because I got to be so friendly with the record. I felt like I built a robot and sort of hung out with it all the time. The songs were my friends, and titling them was daunting.”
Then, of course, there’s the fact that there’s likely to be a heavy intersection between the people who hear Tape Loops and people who are ardent followers of Walla’s work; they’ll know that he’s no longer in Death Cab for Cutie, and they’ll know that the circumstances of his departure have never totally been elucidated (“I think I long for the unknown”, he said himself with no little haziness on announcing the news.) Those fans, inevitably, will be looking to infer some reference to the split in the labels Walla chose to apply to these songs; given that ‘Flytoget’, for instance, takes its name from a high-speed rail link from Oslo airport, there is clearly some link to his own life in the titles. ‘Goodbye’, ambiguous as it is, might fit that trend, too.
“It came to be titled the way it is because I was finishing it up right around the time that I told my bandmates that I was going to leave, and I realised that when you say goodbye, it’s rarely clean, it’s not always satisfying, and there’s always regrets,” he explains. “You always wonder if things might have turned out differently, and as I was trying to figure out whether there would’ve been another way to say goodbye to the band in a way that emotionally better befitted what I was feeling, I realised there wasn’t one. There’s no other way to do it that would be cleaner or tidier, and leaving that track as this rough piece just seemed to befit that. There’s obviously some melancholy to it, because you have to dig through this gauze of noise to get to the harmonic meat of the statement.”
There’s plenty on the immediate agenda for Walla - he’s scoring a film, Matthew Ogens’ North, “and it’s taking up 110% of my time. It’s a very steep learning curve.” He’s just put the finishing touches to a new record from The Thermals, too, “which is awesome, because they’re kind of my favourite band.” Beyond that, though, he isn’t done with Tape Loops; whether it’s because of the crucial role it played in helping him to move past Death Cab, or that he retains designs on making it work live - “possibly as part of an installation of some kind” - it remains at the forefront of his thoughts.
“Most of my adult life was spent in Death Cab for Cutie,” he says. “I’m so proud of everything we did in that band, and the identity shift that comes with leaving it is difficult to describe. It must be like finally deciding that you’re going to retire from your baseball team, or stepping away from some other kind of public arena where you’re part of a thing that was part of you, and to be separated from it is really, really weird and really tough. This record helped me out in that process, and continues to do so. It just feels so alive to me right now; it’s visceral, and tangible. It’s living and breathing. And I’m in there too, living and breathing - I’m doing fine - but Tape Loops is like a mirror, and it’s one that’s different from any other kind I’ve ever looked into.”
Tape Loops is available now via Trans Records