For Chris Walla, working as the producer of Death Cab for Cutie’s first seven records was a “fact-finding mission.” Initially tapped to produce the band’s debut record, Something About Airplanes, out of necessity and as a symptom of the Pacific Northwest’s music scene in the wake of the grunge explosion, Walla would go on to produce every Death Cab record through Codes and Keys before finally choosing to part ways with the band in August of 2014. Walla’s production efforts weren’t limited to his own band, though; he’s produced albums for The Decemberists, Tegan and Sara, The Thermals, Mates of State, Nada Surf, and many others.
If there is anything that unifies Walla’s adventures as a producer, it is his compassion and reverence for the music he is helping to shape. As he explains, “The root word of producer is ‘product.’ You’re there to make a product. In that sense, the term is very rooted in the embryonic phase of the music industry. George Martin was a fantastic record producer, but his goal and his role with The Beatles was to take their increasingly maddening esotericism and just get it out of a speaker off a record on the other end. Whatever the path is from here to there is the path we take.”
Asked to describe his style behind the console, Walla says he is fond of the adage “the first rule of record production is to do no harm.” He is quick to add that he doesn’t believe he always succeeds in adhering to this philosophy. “I think it’s really easy to miscalculate the route between where a band is and what a band wants. My style as a producer, inasmuch as I have one, is to try and find that path.” In some cases, that path has taken him into the studio with a band surging with energy, as he found during the recording sessions for The Decemberists’ Picaresque. In other cases, he enters the process with a band at a creative crossroads, as was the case with Tegan and Sara and The Con.
Walla has touched a lot of incredible music in nearly two decades of work behind the console. Ask him about his inspirations, and he offers up Brian Eno and Steve Albini, two men he concedes have very little in common other than their talent. “I think both professionally and creatively, they are people who have a ton of respect for the artist they work with and respect their respective corners of the craft,” he says. “They are both really creative in very different ways. Each of them have a really interesting sort of moral political center and approach to their work, like a kind of underlying philosophy that I really react to and that I really enjoy, and that really comes out in their respective records, even though they couldn’t be less like one another as two people who ostensibly have the same job.”
Walla just put out a record of his own, the six-song Tape Loops — his first instrumental offering. “Tape Loops started almost exactly at the moment I told Death Cab for Cutie after three weeks of recording that I probably shouldn’t be the person producing [Kintsugi] and that it was finally time to find an outside producer after seven albums,” he explains. “That was long before I had decided to leave the band. I guess that was November 2013, almost two years ago. It was kind of a crisis of confidence, because the stuff we were working on at that point, I think some of it was working pretty well, but it didn’t feel like that was a unanimous feeling in the band. I think there was a lot of skepticism about where we were headed, so Tape Loops, I think I actually started it that same day. We already had the time booked, and everybody kind of was like, ‘Oh well, alright, well we’ll figure out how to move on from here’. Everybody kind of grabbed their stuff and moved out over the course of a couple of hours, and then I was still at the studio, and I was pretty bummed out, and I had this feeling that was something like, ‘Am I any good at this? What do I do? What do I do?’”
The answer is six instrumental, ethereal tracks, meditative and calming, music Walla describes as a mix of “razor blades, tape loops, acoustic instruments, and state-of-the-art 1974 music making.” Walla says Tape Loops is “a purer expression of self than anything I’ve been a part of.” An album begun in the immediate wake of his departure from Death Cab, its release marks an excellent moment to wander backwards down the path Walla’s taken and explore exactly what it is to be a producer in music’s modern age.
Death Cab for Cutie – Something About Airplanes (1998)
In describing how he came to serve as the producer on Death Cab’s first album, Walla describes it as a role he landed in naturally. He recalls the moment he knew that music was going to be a priority in his life and that he subsequently went out and maxed out his credit card not on a guitar or a drum set or an amp, but a tape machine, a mixing board, and a microphone. “That was my toolbox,” he explains. “I’m a bass player first and a guitar player timidly and secondarily.”
While he agrees that it was easier (and cheaper) to use an in-house producer rather than outsourcing the job, Walla makes it very clear that the atmosphere surrounding the Pacific Northwest at the time Death Cab was recording Something About Airplanes was as important, if not more so, than concerns of finance or vision.
“You need to consider that this is just a few years after the grunge explosion and after Kurt Cobain’s death. One of the things that happened in Seattle is everybody got so swept up in that scene in the early ’90s that when Kurt died in 1994, everybody went silent and tip-toed away from the scene. Four years later, as we were recording our own album, the scene was very cautious and kind of fractured. Nobody totally trusted anyone. Bands trusted each other — it wasn’t like nobody had any friends — but everyone was very skeptical about producers getting involved or money coming in or anything like that. I think that the rise of so much of the indie rock that followed the grunge years is, certainly in Seattle and Olympia and Portland, very, very tied to that kind of skepticism and this idea that not only can you do it yourself, but you probably should do it yourself so nobody fucks it up. There was definitely an insular, ‘nobody gets anywhere near this’ kind of feeling about it.”
As far as the record’s sound is concerned, Walla mentions Sebadoh, later Guided By Voices, and Liz Phair’s first album as influential works on Something About Airplanes. “Everybody that we admired the most was really self-contained.” Walla sees his role as a producer for Death Cab as “a matter of evaluating where we were and where we were starting from and trying to determine if where we were starting from was where we wanted to end up.” Walla’s work would help launch Death Cab’s career, and introduce his talents in that field to a plethora of other artists.
The Decemberists – Picaresque (2005)
Fresh off the dual successes of Castaways and Cutouts and Her Majesty the Decemberists, Colin Meloy and his cohorts brought Walla in to help produce their 2004 EP, The Tain. Walla recalls “blowing through” the recording process for The Tain, which took a total of two and a half days to complete. When The Decemberists returned to the studio to start in on their third full-length, they again turned to Walla to serve as producer.
“I feel like [Picaresque is] a great example of me doing my best to meet a band where they’re at. I don’t feel like there was any stated goal to try and do something that was dramatically different or bigger or smaller than where they had already been. They wanted to do something a little different, and there was this idea — what if we found a church and rented it for a month and recorded there?”
The church in question was Prescott Church in northeast Portland. He attributes the atmosphere of the space as a defining aspect of Picaresque’s character. “That was sort of the big thing about that record, that we moved into this really bizarre, pretty big church in northeast Portland and camped out there for a month.”
Overall, Walla found the process to be “pretty straight-ahead,” but noted that Chris Funk had a lot of instruments and that “they all made the final cut.” It was The Decemberists’ chemistry as a band that impressed him the most. “They’re such fun people, and they’re such a cool group. Their chemistry is so cool when they’re firing on all cylinders. They’re very powerful, a very commanding presence in the studio.”
Walla would go on to produce The Crane Wife for The Decemberists in 2006.
Tegan and Sara – The Con (2007)
While one might assume identical twin sisters would be on the same page when it came to the vision for their next record, Walla says the opposite was true.
“At that point in time, there couldn’t have been much less of a unified vision between Tegan and Sara. They were in really, really different places, I think — emotionally, musically, lyrically, in every way.”
Walla recalls that The Con had a very specific goal going in. Tegan and Sara had spent their past four albums in traditional recording situations. Walla defines the “traditional” process as: “You record the drums first, and then you work on the drums and the bass for six days, and then you fit whatever the rest of the song is into that. Or it’s all rehearsed together as a band or whatever.”
For The Con, Walla and the band decided to highlight the demos that Tegan and Sara brought into the studio. He decided to find out what would happen if they did the recording process “totally upside down.”
“We did guitars and vocals and established all of the songs first, and we did a lot of the candy and the weird production stuff, just played around with textures and ideas — all the weird stuff first. After that all felt good, we started to get to the sticking point where it was like, ‘All right, it’s time to find someone else to blow this up or finish it.’ It was at that point that bass and drums and programming and whatever else went into it.”
Walla sees the finished process as “really cool,” noting “there are places where it sounds really weird because of the way we approached it, but the soul and the center of that record is just so awesome, and I don’t know that we could’ve gotten there any other way. It’s such a wingnut of a record, but it’s so cool.”
Walla would later co-produce Tegan and Sara’s Sainthood in 2009.