Random Rules: Chris Walla
The shuffler: Chris Walla, best known as guitarist and frequent producer of Death Cab For Cutie. Walla spun his iPod for The A.V. Club a few days before the release of his ingratiating solo debut, Field Manual, a meticulously recorded set of political-minded pop songs. It also happened to be the day he began mixing the upcoming Death Cab album, which he described ominously as "different" and "dark."
Air, "Universal Traveler"
Chris Walla: Talkie Walkie is an album that I've been listening to incessantly for the last year. I'd always enjoyed Air, but never had any conscious appreciation for what they were doing. But my girlfriend is really, really into them. It's the sort of thing that, after a while, was always on, and I started to internalize it. This record was the one that really hit me.
The A.V. Club: Moon Safari is the one people usually freak out about. What about this one speaks to you?
CW: A lot of it, I think, is the Nigel Godrich factor. It seems like he meets them in a perfect, perfect way. He's really good at the rock 'n' roll thing, and he's really good at the Sea Change end of what he does. But Air is so refined and so deliberate about everything that I think it gives him a chance to do the same. I think they need a little Nigel Godrich.
AVC: Is he somebody you'd want to work with ever?
CW: I would love to.
AVC: Do you think that would make more sense for your own stuff, or for Death Cab's stuff?
CW: I don't even know. Maybe a Death Cab record. That would actually be pretty cool.
CW: It's from Featuring Birds, and it's the second to last song on the record, and I must confess, I don't usually get to the end of this record. This is the toward-the-end-of-the-record epic. It's a big, slow sea-shanty kind of thing. This is still my favorite Quasi record. I think it's a little bit of first-love syndrome—this is the first record of theirs that I heard, and it will always be my favorite.
Oliver North, "Testimony at the Iran-Contra Hearings"
CW: I got this box set called Great Speeches Of The 20th Century, and I put the whole thing into my computer, thinking that at some point I would want to listen to all of the stuff. It hasn't really happened yet. This is 10 minutes of Oliver North. I've never listened to it.
AVC: Is there anything on that box set that you have listened to?
CW: There are a couple of really short things that are really interesting, like there's the broadcast of when the Hindenburg went up in flames in New Jersey. And there are great speeches, like Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech. It's just huge, iconic stuff that you want to reference now and again. And there is a lot of stuff that is as historically important, but certainly not as iconic.
AVC: How much of the news informs your songwriting?
CW: More than I probably realize. It's just starting to become clear to me whether I despise being entertained. I don't despise it, but so rare is the time that I feel compelled to put in a movie. If I am in a hotel, I'm pretty much always watching CSPAN. And if there's no CSPAN, then CNN. Or I'm poking through political blogs. Especially right now, election season. I think most of my record was distilled from news reports.
AVC: Are you planning on being active this year? Are you going to stump for anybody? Do you have a favorite Democrat at the moment?
CW: I do. I am so excited about what has happened with Barack Obama. But I should point out that I am the real candidate for change. [Laughs.]
AVC: Is the record cover going to have you in front of the stars-and-stripes?
CW: Yes, absolutely. There's a good thing happening, and nobody knows how it will play out. But I found it very interesting, at least in Iowa, that two candidates outside the old guard of their parties [won]. I'm really curious to see what happens to the Republicans moving forward, because it seems, at this point, that we are potentially headed for a hung jury at the convention. Can you imagine a real, horse-trading convention? It would be so bizarre to watch the political system actually have to work. It would be amazing.
AVC: I don't have any faith it will get that far.
CW: Well, there are a number of wild-card factors. McCain and Romney are a clear pair who are going to have to duke it out. Huckabee is going to continue to do well in the evangelical South. But I'm thinking Giuliani is going to take Florida. [Nope. —ed.] And the reason I think he's going to take Florida is that he's been targeting retirees, and he's been targeting absentee military voters super-heavy. And Florida has had their absentee ballots since, I think, December 20—definitely before Iowa, and certainly before it became clear that Huckabee actually had a chance. I'm thinking that there were a lot of people who have already voted, and would have voted before Huckabee's campaign really kicked into gear, and before he was a huge factor on TV. This is all I have been thinking about lately.
AVC: Are you going to run for office at some point, when the rock life is in the past?
CW: No. I don't think my record would hold up.
The Tragically Hip, "Pretend"
CW: There's only a few songs on this record [World Container] that I have fallen in love with, and this isn't one of them. The lyrics are the same as the song before it, but it's a completely different song—different melody, different setup. It's kind of weird. But I think it really works. It feels like a slow, 6/8, Long Winters kind of thing. Again, not my favorite song on this record.
AVC: Are you a big fan of theirs? They never crossed over in America the way they did in Canada.
CW: There's kind of a hipster firewall between The Tragically Hip and the rest of the world. I always get looked at cross-eyed when I tell someone that I absolutely, unabashedly love The Tragically Hip.
AVC: I wouldn't look at you cross-eyed, but if you played me one of their songs, I wouldn't know who it was.
CW: They're a band with a pretty specific appeal. They are a bar-rock band at the core, but really political. I always thought that [singer] Gordon [Downie] was a really interesting writer. And I think he can get a little heavy, or a little goofy sometimes. A little didactic. But when he nails it, he is as good a writer as anyone out there. And particularly for the political stuff, he can nail it. When he is not playing his hand too heavy, he is a super-good writer. There was Pearl Jam in the States and there was Midnight Oil in Australia, and The Tragically Hip were that band in Canada.
CW: The year after I was working college radio, I ended up with a cassette of Long Division at some point—I think it had something to do with college radio. It was a giveaway, which meant they were getting rid of all of the stuff that nobody wanted. I don't know how or why it made it into my brain, but it really did. To this day, I have never seen Low play. But I absolutely love them.
AVC: It's markedly different every tour.
CW: I can see that. It's been markedly different every record now, for three records. I'm sort of missing the Low of this era, though, the three records after Long Division, like this one and Secret Name, and Things We Lost In The Fire. I think The Curtain Hits The Cast is my favorite. It was recorded at John and Stu's, which is the place that turned into [Walla's recording studio] Hall Of Justice. When I moved in, it took a long time for a lot of the tapes that were in there to get moved out. In fact, a bunch of them are still there. The first two Harvey Danger albums are still on the wall. But when I moved in, that Low album was still there. That was already, at that point, my favorite Low record. John Goodmanson had recorded it in a particularly dark, cold February. That studio is right on a busy, busy street, and it always amazed me that there was no traffic noise on the record. I did a couple of quiet records, and I always had problems with, "Uh, sorry, the garbage truck went by. Can we do that again?" It wasn't the cool "police siren at the perfect point in the song" kind of thing—it was just junk. And then [Low's] Alan [Sparhawk] showed up, just knocked on the studio door one day. I didn't recognize who he was or what was going on. He just knocked on the door, and I opened it up, and he said, "Hey. I'm in a band and we recorded here a couple years ago and I was wondering if I could pick up the tape." I was really dubious, but then I put it together. He was really nice.
AVC: Did you make him show some ID?
CW: No, but I should have. I think I will the next time I see him.