The Reverb Interview: Chris Walla of Death Cab For CutieBy Ricardo Baca | August 22nd, 2011 | No Comments »
It’s no secret to Death Cab for Cutie fans that frontman Ben Gibbard alternates between his muses: the guitar and piano.
And while sometimes it’s an unintentional switch, it has also been a conscious decision on the part of the indie-gone- major band, which plays Red Rocks on Tuesday.
A cursory listen to Death Cab’s latest, “Codes and Keys,” shows the band’s love of vintage keyboards and pianos. It was an intentional jump away from the guitars of previous records.
“I didn’t want to start any of these songs with a guitar,” Chris Walla, the band’s lead guitarist and producer, said earlier this week. “I wanted to try and keep (the guitar) out of the initial building-block phase of making the record, and save it for seasoning or punctuation or whatever metaphor you want to use.”
It’s a curious tactic, especially when Gibbard, Walla, Nick Harmer and Jason McGerr have had such success when they started out with the guitar — as heard on “Transatlanticism” with “Sound of Settling,” “The New Year” and other jams.
But Walla has his reasons for the experiment.
“The last record, ‘Narrow Stairs,’ was committed so quickly and, I hesitate to say impulsively, but it was maybe a little bit impatient,” Walla continued. “It has this weird energy about it, and maybe that works in its favor. But in an effort to introduce more reflection to the process of the album and how it unfolded, I was keen on slowing down the process.”
That meant deeper explorations of arrangements — and, naturally, more keys. And as we’ve heard before — via “Summer Skin,” “Different Names for the Same Thing” and other songs on “Plans” — Death Cab sounds great when interpreted via piano.
The last time the band played Colorado (also at Red Rocks, in July 2009), the music thrived as Gibbard jumped back and forth between instruments.
“Gibbard remains one of rock’s most listenable frontmen,” The Post wrote of the 2009 show. “He sings to be heard, and it’s easy to take pleasure in his joy of clear enunciation.”
That hasn’t changed with “Codes and Keys.” What has changed since Death Cab’s last ride is the emotional tone of the songs.
Whereas 2008’s “Narrow Stairs” was filled with dour lyrics and matching song titles such as “No Sunlight,” “You Can Do Better Than Me,” “Pity and Fear” and “The Ice Is Getting Thinner,” things are looking brighter with “Codes and Keys.”
Was it Gibbard’s marriage to actress/musician Zooey Deschanel? Possibly. The latest batch of songs includes “Doors Unlocked and Open,” “Underneath the Sycamore” and even “Stay Young, Go Dancing.”
” ‘Narrow Stairs’ is pretty bleak, like hopeless-bleak,” said Walla. The new album “is not as happy as it is healthy and balanced and not morose. There are certainly moments of pure joy in the record, and I love this record as a celebration, as an invitation.
“But it’s not without its moments of darkness. And it’s that kind of balance that really makes a record work, and it really makes a record last. There are not a lot of records that are bleak that have stood the test of time.”
Gibbard’s improved mental state surely allowed the band to try some things its members hadn’t played with before. In fact, “Codes and Keys” has moments that are reminiscent of Wilco’s “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” and Radiohead’s “OK Computer.” It represents the band’s first real foray into experimental noises and the occasional ambient sound.
But as Walla points out, the strange sonics never overwhelm the melody.
That wouldn’t be a very Death Cab thing to do, now would it?
“Ben’s commitment to the song is so strong that I don’t think that we will end up anywhere as abstract as (the Wilco or Radiohead records),” Walla said. “All of my impulses take me that direction, but Ben’s sense of song mercifully, thankfully keeps us in range of work where we can actually make a living, which is kind of great.”