It's Hard to Rhyme Anything with Atchafalaya: An Interview with Chris Walla
Chris Walla has finally made peace with Homeland Security, but that's not the only thing that the Death Cab for Cutie guitarist wants to set right. Walla talks to PopMatters.
Chris Walla is not going to punch you in the face.
In all honesty, this revelation surprised me. After all, Walla had been all over the news in the past few months, and he didn't come across as the nicest guy in the world. It all started with the Death Cab for Cutie guitarist/producer prepping his "very political" solo album, Field Manual, for a late 2007 release. While he was working in Canada, he requested that his label (Barsuk) send him his hard-drive so that he could finish mixing all the tracks together. Yet when the Barsuk-paid courier took Walla's computer up to the Canadian border, it was seized by the Department of Homeland Security for not having the "necessary paperwork". It should go without saying that it didn't take very long for the news media to pick up on this story, often with headlines reading "Homeland Security Seizes Musician's Music". One of Walla's comments ("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.") managed to irritate Mike Milne, a representative for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which itself is a bureau of the Department of Homeland Security. Milne publicly chastised both Walla and the media for drastically misinterpreting the events that happened. So, needless to say, terms like "very political", "is fighting Homeland Security", and "platinum rockstar" painted a picture in my mind of Walla as an outspoken activist who just might punch you in the face if you push one of his buttons the wrong way.
After speaking with him, I can honestly say that Chris Walla could very well be the nicest rock star on the planet.
With his voice pitched an octave higher than you'd imagine, Walla seemed more than eager to talk about Field Manual. It's a solo disc whose sound isn't too far removed from pre-Transatlanticism Death Cab, with moments of pristine pop-rock appearing amidst mid-tempo indie-guitar workouts. The album opens with Walla's voice overdubbed over itself so much that it makes its own choir ("Two Fifty"), and then is able to careen from songs that range from aggressive ("The Score") to contemplative ("St. Modesto"), all while coming off as a unified, genuine album. Such a strong, cohesive statement is something that one wouldn't expect from Chris Walla, Solo Artist. After all, he's released dozens-upon-dozens of free tracks both as himself and under the moniker Martin Youth Auxiliary on his website, but none of them came across as focused as Field Manual does. Chris got up early one morning to talk to PopMatters about his album, the Canadian border, and -- of course -- why he sends text messages to himself.
Well, first let me kindly thank you for getting up at this hour to speak to me.
Oh yeah yeah, you're very welcome.
'Cos I can imagine you being very busy right now …
[Laughs.] Yeah …
How's the Death Cab album going, while we're at it?
It's going really well, actually.
Now, of course, we're obviously here about Field Manual, which I have and … I think it's a fantastic little album you have here. I think it's all the more amazing considering everything you had to go through to get it back …
Right. It's been a little …
Well you did finally get the hard drive back, right?
Well, we did, yes, but one of the downsides of the of the fiasco at the border was that the version that went out to the press -- yourself included -- is not really close to the version that's actually being released.
Yeah [Laughs.] So that was one of the outcomes of the thing that happened at the border.
We can expect some more … loud guitars?
You can expect some better mixes. That's really the biggest [change, given] what happened.
Now did you wind up writing or changing songs after this [border incident] happened?
No, but I did wind up having a real super conversation with the guy who was cornered a couple of times in the press at the Department of Homeland Security: Mike Milne.
Yeah, I was just reading the little article about him.Yeah! And we had a really good conversation. I mean the whole … ultimately, the biggest thing that came from all of this is that I learned a whole lot about how that process works. [Laughs.]
At the very least.
At the very least, yeah. He's a really good guy. I mean the whole thing ended up being … it was ultimately not a positive experience -- the way this whole thing went down -- but I now have a better understanding of why it happened and sort of understand that it wasn't really anyone's fault necessarily; it was a lot of miscommunication.
It happens. Well, first I want to talk about this album, but specifically the musical aspects of it. Because for me, I went back and listened to the stuff on the Hall of Justice website, like Martin Youth Auxiliary and all that. But for me, those songs -- the ones made under the moniker Martin Youth Auxiliary -- seem to be made for you, specifically. And here [with Field Manual], it seems that you finally acknowledge that you could possibly reach a wider audience. I don't think there's anything on [your solo recordings] that would've predicted "Two Fifty", with the opening choir of voices that you have there. So I was wondering: at what point did you cross the line from "I'm making songs for myself" to "I'm making songs for everyone to hear"?
Um … I don't think it really changed necessarily. I think the thing that changed is that I've personally been very interested in the difference between something that people attach themselves to and something that people ignore. I mean, that's not to say that like I sat out to write …
Music to be ignored to.
Yeah 'cos that would be … a terrible thing I think for me to decide to do.
"Now you're Yanni: hold down the keyboard."
[Laughs.] Right, totally. I think more than anything, it's like [I'm] mining the pop music that I loved when I was growing up and when I was, ya know, a teenager. I totally understand what you're saying and I can't quite -- and I totally agree -- but I can't quite put my finger on how or why that change happened but I agree that it totally did.
Well I remember that there was an interview that you did awhile back -- and this is around the time that [fellow bandmate Ben] Gibbard's Postal Service record came out -- and I remember that one of the things that you said was that you enjoyed it, but in the songwriting there were some things that you would never let [Ben] get away with.
Now that brings up two questions: to what standards do you hold the artist that you are producing to in terms of songwriting and, conversely, what standards did you set for yourself with this record?
The standards that I set for myself were that I had to be were that I had to be 100% behind every word that was coming out of my mouth. In terms of performances and presentation with the co-producer [of Field Manual] Warne Livesey, [we] sort of tried to strike a balance between cared for but not careful -- if that makes any sense. Like, just to make sure that there was some level of intent to everything that went down. There was never anything, you know … that we didn't fall prey to the beast of Good-Enough, which is the thing that happens in the digital age, like where it used to be that you would work on a record and people would go, "Is it good enough?" and the answer would be "no" 'cos you're on tape and you can't move anything around and that's it. So, you do it again. It's so easy now to just go, "Yeah, that's good enough," 'cos somebody else can tweak it or fix it.
Or, as Ben Folds said: to have "some producer with computers fixin' all my shitty tracks".
Yeah, yeah. Exactly. It's something that I find more and more that I'm kind of expected to do. I really dislike that because … I don't know. There are occasions [that] I've done it, but not really fluently. So those are the standards that I hold myself to. Then when I'm working with other artists, I sort of … it's a version of that, but it ends up being … I mean the records that I've been dissatisfied with that I've worked on are the records where I don't feel like everyone involved actually did the best that they knew how to do. Alternately, I'm not as concerned as what the result ends up being as long as everybody gave it everything that they have. As long as it's a document of, like, the document represents everyone's involvement at the best that they know how to give it, and that's [with] myself included. Like … I'm a human/engineer/producer-type and I like to think that I record some really good sounds every now and again, but I know I record some really shitty ones every now and again too.
It just goes with the territory.
Yeah! I mean it has to do with your blood sugar, the blood sugar of everyone involved …
Photo: Autumn de Wilde
You've of course read the press about all of the Homeland Security stuff [involving this record], and so when I got this record, I was going into it thinking it was going to be what it was advertised as: a "politically charged" record -- and it is, but for me, it was more like personal/political creed set to song, you know? It was "politically charged", but also "intensely personal" as well.
[As if] mixing these two together.
Yeah, and it's like the … [Pause.] … that's true, yeah. It's really personal. It's just … I don't know if you're a public radio guy in any way, [but] you know that show called On the Media?
Yeah, it's a weekly show and they just go through all [of] the headlines and whatever just based on how people reported on it; like, it's reporting on reporting. It's a really phenomenal show, like I learn more from that show, I feel like, then from anything else on the radio. But they did this show after the Virginia Tech shooting about the reporting and about the interviews and everyone's responses and [the show] took this really interesting approach to it: about how they're -- at this point in time, [and] though the terror in that situation was so great and so real … and though everybody's sorrow in the aftermath of it is so absolute -- there's now a script for that sort of event. Like, [the show] pointed out how everything from the reporting down to the interviews is something that we'd all heard before in terms of, like, all the comment about [how] "this will live with us forever" …
It's like a routine that they do.
Exactly. And -- again -- that's clearly not to diminish the magnitude of that disaster; but ever since that report, I've been really interested in the concept of "The Script" and how -- particularly with protest songs and, in fact, protest itself -- there's a script, and I think part of the reason that people don't get, like … part of the reason that people are afraid to write a protest song or go to a protest of any kind is that they are not so much afraid of "the Script" as they are [of] the players who have played out that script in the past. Like, the stigma of, you know, the protest singer of the '60s is pretty … I mean, that was new in 1969. Like, the Vietnam War era was, you know, the dawn of that template, that script. And I can understand how and why you wouldn't necessarily be associated with that sort of thing because it seems so arcane. It seems kind of naÏve in a way, like if you put it up against where we are in the world now; and I think that going into the writing for this record, that was something that I was really conscious of, and I wanted to make sure that if there were any of the songs that … at the very least, I was way behind them. I found that I had a lot more success in obscuring the writing to some degree and making it more personal and turning it inward and spitting out little bits of policy here and there.
Yeah, because I can't imagine you doing a song called "Fuck Bush!" or anything like that …
Right, yeah. Well it was really interesting: I bought the new John Fogerty record …
Revival, yeah yeah … and it's so awesome to hear somebody not think about it in those terms at all -- and he was there for Round One! "Fortunate Son": it's kind of as good as it gets as far as protest songs go. But it was really interesting: there's a couple of songs [on Revival] that are straight-up protest songs on that record that are just … I don't think it's gonna be a record that I reach for all the time, but it's really good! It's nice to hear somebody just not concerned about that part. I mean, I can only wish … I hope that … I only wish that somebody would do that for our generation and make that real, and I don't think that's gonna be me, but [Laughs.] I don't know.
Well, for me -- and as you just said -- war is a personal topic that keeps coming up for you, and -- especially with this record -- not just in [terms of] national aspects. I mean you're not writing "The Times They Are A-Changin'" for the MySpace Generation and no one's expecting you to. Truth be told, some of the most biting lines on this record come from some of the more personal aspects. There's the song "Our Plans, Collapsing" and the line "You lived with me / And now you live alone", and for me, that little couplet alone just speaks volumes as to one's state of mind. It's kind of the ultimate put-down, in a way. Again, it's war … but it's war with one's self.
Right. Yeah, I can see that. That makes sense. Yeah, I don't know, I just … yeah. Trying to make sense of it internally and trying to … yeah … it's just a …
Look carefully over that last response. Walla speaks with genuine honesty through-and-through, but sometimes he revises what he's saying in mid-sentence, switching tenses and topics at the drop of a hat. It's as if he's perpetually speaking in rough drafts, and he's willing to make revisions and corrections on the spot, right in front of you. Yet with that last response there -- filled with yeah's and slight-pauses -- I wound up suddenly interrupting Chris completely out of turn. I wasn't trying to be rude, but I just felt the urge to try and put the words in Chris' mouth that he was so desperately searching for. I was surprised by my own audacity (after all, I'm just a music critic -- what right is it of mine to find words for the artist?), but was even more surprised by his response …
Well I don't mean to interrupt, but it sounds like you don't necessarily know what you even created here. It's like one of those things where you write these songs just to discover something about yourself and it's hard to really put into words.
Well, it's true! I'm not a diary keeper. I mean, I send text-messages to myself … like when I have ideas for songs.
Oh, OK. I thought it was going to be like "Hi! How are you doing?"
[Laughs.] No … although I should just play that part for a while and see what happens: just not talk to anyone except myself by way of my cell phone. See how that plays out …
[Laughs.] But anyway, in a day [where] I don't keep a diary and I don't write letters or any of that sort of thing, these [songs] are all sort of letters, and I still don't know who they're addressed to or where they go or if they go anywhere or if they mean anything to anyone. But I do hope they make some sense to somebody. I figure that if … ya know, there's this thing -- and I certainly won't claim to have gotten to it at very many if any points on this record -- but when I'm recording a performance, like when somebody's singing for me, there's this thing that happens if the performer believes [in what they're doing], then there's this whole other thing that happens, and it's not something you can quantify in any way. It's not like they sing it better or they sing it with any more or less emotion … like it's this really bizarre thing, like it either has a halo around it or they don't believe it and it doesn't.
Well I did this feature once on a Canadian rock group called Klaatu, and one of the members described how the record-buying public is dumb, but there's one thing you can never get by them: they can always detect when you're not being honest.
Yes! Exactly! That's exactly, exactly it! And it's like a dog-sense -- in a way -- that everybody has. Like, there's this thing: this instant where it connects and you can never write it out, like you could never script it, ya know? So yeah, it's just such a bizarre thing and it's something that I've been fascinated with in trying to decode but I know I never will.
Well, there are two easy favorites of mine off of this record. One of which is just the sheer pop bliss of "Geometry &c", and the other one is the one that immediately follows it: "Everybody Needs a Home". Now I read an article about this in which you said that "Everybody Needs a Home" was a Katrina-related song, and for me -- in listening to it -- I didn't get that vibe at all. It came off more as just this sweet anthem about human necessity. "Every girl needs a roof and a bed and Lite-Bright light / That she can turn off at night / And fall asleep with the love of her life": It has just such incredible meaning to it.
Well, there [are] really only two things in the whole song that really put it in a time or a place.
Well there's the off-handed FEMA reference.
Yeah, and then I make reference to Sweet Louise, but that's really about it. I mean that's how and why it was written and it felt like trying to write [those references] out of it to make it [more] universal would be a mistake. So I think I sort of played around with some other stuff too, but, one, I'm not from Louisiana and, two, it's hard to rhyme anything with Atchafalaya. So anything else I tried to do with it seemed really dumb. The whole part of the song that is there felt right. Like, it didn't feel disingenuous, it didn't feel … like, I don't feel you have to be from New Orleans and have to have lived through that to be able to make that statement.
Given that there are deeper, darker, large-scale political meanings to these songs, do you hope that people really understand all these things or do you hope that they just get what they want out of it?
I would love it if this sparked anyone's political interests, but ultimately I hope that they get what they want out of it. That's all I ever hoped for in my music. I do get excited when I get the sense that I'm getting the thing out of a record that maybe the writer or former band intended … like when I feel like the thing I'm getting out of it is maybe the thing that they hoped I would get out of it, like if that makes any sense. Or in the case just like Living with War, the Neil Young record. Like, the motive is super-clear, and if you want to get something else out of it, you can try …
"That's a great romance song, Charlie!"
Exactly! Exactly. I mean it's such a tricky balance because I have so much to say and I feel like I've said it and I feel like I've said it articulately and I feel like I've said it well, but I also don't feel like I've said it hyper-clearly. But I feel like I'll get excited if people get far enough into it that they feel they wanna grab the lyric sheet and read through and go from there. Like, that would be exciting to me. I mean, there are a lot of things in the way of that happening, [and] one of them is my squeaky little voice. Like, I can sing, but I'm not a singer, you know what I mean?
Well the same can be said for Ben, too.
Well yeah, but after recording the Death Cab record for a couple months, like I think I … I used to ever-so-slightly malign his singing as I would talk about him. [Laughs.] Like, he's not a technical singer at all. Like he doesn't have that … whatever that thing is. Whatever that means, he doesn't have that. But he's a fucking great singer. Like some of the shit he's been doing on this record is just crazy. It's so awesome! I've thought that about him [for] a few years now, but this time -- this record -- it's really coming into focus. And I think a lot of that is [from] his solo tour and all that sort of thing. Like he's just been doing a lot more of singing for himself and by himself and that really makes a difference … and I don't do that, you know? I still have to figure out how to play these songs so [that] I can do some in-store performances and stuff. [Laughs.]
Given all of the hubbub surrounding this record, it's amazing how down-to-earth Walla has remained in light of it all. He's not hoping to change the world. Instead, he simply seems to have found his peace of mind, which in itself is worth more than any paycheck that Atlantic Records will ever hand him. However, he realized that he had to go -- a telephone interview with Japan was up next -- but I had time to fit in just one more question with the ever-prolific indie rocker …
What, so far in your career, has been your biggest regret and, conversely, what's been your proudest accomplishment?
[Long pause.] My biggest regret is probably -- I still haven't talked to him about this -- but my biggest regret is not recognizing Dan Gallucci at the Sasquatch Festival a couple years ago. He was the guitar player for Modest Mouse [on] the big record a couple years ago [Good News for People Who Love Bad News]. He's a guy I hung out with in dark bars [at] different points a few times. Like, really a lovely, fantastic guy, and I didn't recognize him at Sasquatch and I was in this phase where I was telling people exactly, "I'm sorry, I just don't remember you." I was just being honest with people, and instead of going "Oh yeah! It's great to see you again!", I think I really hurt his feelings and I still feel really bad about that. And that's actually my biggest regret. And then my greatest accomplishment, I feel like … [Long pause.] well they're kind of different from day to day.
Well what's it today, at least?
I don't know … I'm feeling pretty good about one of the songs on the new Death Cab record, I think. There's a song called "The Ice Is Getting Thinner" that I think I saved from certain punishment and death …
… and falling through the ice.
Exactly. Yeah, so that's it today.
If saving a Death Cab for Cutie song is what he considers his biggest accomplishment for the day, just imagine what he could do in a year. He could rile up new controversies, new feuds, or simply write and produce the song that will change your life. After all, it's all in a day's work for Chris Walla.