A star is on the rise for Death Cab for Cutie. The Seattle-based indie band’s last record, Transatlanticism (Barsuk), has sold just over 184,000 copies. They’re on the cusp of closing their first major-label deal. They’ve been name-checked on The OC. And they’ve just wrapped up a stint on the Vote for Change tour, opening for Pearl Jam. All four members of Death Cab are devoted to getting Bush out of office on November 2. Chris Walla, the group’s guitarist and producer, took a few minutes to talk to The Nation–about the importance of voting, postelection fallout, the writer and radio personality Sarah Vowell, American flag shopping bags and seeing yourself on TV at Target.
You’ve just finished the Vote for Change tour with Pearl Jam. What made the band decide to get involved with that?
We, like many people in our fair nation, have been grousing about the direction the country has been taking in the last three years, four years. And everybody chooses to get involved or not involved with democracy in different degrees. When this whole thing came together it just seemed like there were a whole bunch of bands who were thinking the same thing, and it became clear that we all wanted to try to do something sort of massive and organized and further-reaching than what we could do on our own.
Each of us had been doing things on our own–Death Cab has had Music for America at all the shows on our last tour registering people to vote–but the Vote for Change tour just seemed like such a unified statement that we couldn’t possibly not do it.
So you were approached to join the tour?
It happened a couple of different ways. It was us relaying to our manager, who’s very politically inclined, “we wish there was something we could do.” And then we were asked by the Pearl Jam camp that if we could do shows in the fall that were designed to try and help people register to vote and had a left-leaning bent, would we be interested, and we said, “yes, of course.” And that was one of the things that kicked off this whole tour, was them asking questions. More than anything, we just made ourselves excited and willing and available. We’re certainly not one of the powerhouse bands on the tour, but it’s just great to be involved.
Did you think two years ago that you would be on tour with Pearl Jam?
It never occurred to us. Nor did anyone think a few years ago that Bright Eyes would be playing shows with Springsteen and R.E.M. It’s pretty wild!
What have the crowds been like at the shows? How politically charged have they been?
The crowds know what’s going on. They’ve been very receptive and very warm. It feels really good. The whole atmosphere at each of the shows has been a lot homier than I would have expected. Really encouraging and really cool.
You recently started writing a column for Under the Radar. In your first column you talk about your own political evolution. I was hoping that you would say more about that. How has this election cycle energized you, and what in the last four years has really pushed you to want to do something?
Most of it for me, and I think everyone in the band, is spawned from the arrogance of the Bush Administration and the way that our President has carried himself in our relationships with the rest of the world. And we, just as a rock band, we want to make sure that the Administration is representing us the way we would represent ourselves. I don’t like feeling like our President is making my life more difficult when I want to travel overseas. I mean, that’s reason 10,000 on the list, but it’s one of the things.
There’s also this feeling of sudden pride and enlightenment and everything that’s happening, and it really brings it down to the local level–realizing that your local officials are powerful and important. And all of the things that affect me in my town are things that I have a voice in changing. I can call my city councilman, and I have the power to elect or remove city council people from power. And all of these things: This part of the neighborhood is scary at night, or there’s a crack in the sidewalk, or why do the buses smell like exhaust, or this is a beautiful park–why aren’t there more of these parks, and why can’t we have them? Why is there lead in the drinking water in our public school system? It seems like people have been calling on the wrong people. They’ve been calling talk-radio for the last ten years and everybody has lost the point. Your elected officials are the people whom you need to be calling, and those are the people who are accountable for what’s happening.
For me it’s been kind of a revelation. I feel like if more people could believe this to be true, we would be in a better place.
Do you feel optimistic about the election? And, if Kerry wins, what do you think will happen with people’s newfound enthusiasm? Will the tide of good feeling carry through if we manage to achieve our short-term goal of unseating Bush?
I am optimistic about the election. Though I think that, after, the amount of public involvement will fade, as it always does. But I would be surprised if it fades out entirely, because so many of the things we are facing are such long-term concerns. Healthcare is going to be a huge project regardless of who is President. It’s going to take a lot of public energy and public debate to get something through. And certainly Iraq is a mess; certainly North Korea is an impending mess; certainly Iran is an impending mess. And certainly we need to make sure that if Kerry wins that he is accountable to what he says he is going to do, which is restore our standing in the world to where it was before Bush took office.
You also mention Sarah Vowell’s book, The Partly Cloudy Patriot, in your column for Under the Radar, and “heartily recommend” it to your fans. What about it got to you, and did you actually read the Declaration of Independence?
In fact, I did read the Declaration of Independence! You must read Sarah Vowell’s book. I can’t think of a book I’ve bought for more people; I just keep giving my copy away, and I keep asking for it back. She just has all of the cultural touchstones that make sense to people. She’s a total pop-music nerd, and she’s a very Middle American person. It’s the way she has come to be a fan of our country and how it works that is really interesting and a model for people like me, who have maybe just taken how our country works for granted.
There’s an essay in the book called “Rosa Parks, C’est Moi” that’s about how people in our country can’t stop comparing themselves to Rosa Parks, which is, of course, ludicrous and nothing short of an offensive thing to do unless you happen to be Rosa Parks. It’s really amazing. In the title essay she begins by talking about the Mel Gibson movie The Patriot and she twists and turns her way through American politics and The Patriot and back and forth while talking about September 11 and how she so desperately wanted to put the American flag in her window like everyone else in our country, and why she couldn’t bring herself to do it. It’s really moving, and pretty amazing, because I struggled with all that same stuff, and I think a lot of other people did too. The style of patriotism that seemed to have infected the country is weird and not right and it doesn’t feel right…to put up the stickers and “These Colors Don’t Run” sweatshirts–that has nothing to do with being involved in our country and speaking up and actually having a voice. It’s just consumerism. In the couple weeks after September 11 we had all of the “America’s open for business” signs and American flag shopping bags…. It made me want to cry. It was awful. I feel like [Vowell’s book] is an antidote to all that in a way.
Let me switch gears. Death Cab for Cutie recently contributed a song, “This Temporary Life,” to the MoveOn.org compilation, Future Soundtrack for America. How did you choose which song to include?
That song was one of the early outtakes from Transatlanticism. It was a song that everybody wanted to have a real, meaningful home. The original plan was to put out an EP, like a little “Sound of Settling” single, with that, two covers and “This Temporary Life.” But one of the covers was snatched up by someone else, and that was a little disappointing. It didn’t seem like “This Temporary Life” plus one of the other covers was enough to merit its own release. So it was just sort of waiting around, waiting for the right home, and the right home came along. We were more than happy to contribute a finished, exclusive, full-on Death Cab for Cutie song to something like this. So it worked out perfectly, actually.
I think the whole compilation came out really well.
I think it did too! I’m kind of blown away. It doesn’t listen as much like a comp disc as so many other comp discs do.
After you finish touring, are you guys going back into the studio? Or do you have other projects you’re working on?
Ben [Gibbard, Death Cab’s singer and songwriter] has been doing some demo-ing, so we’re sort of pulling those apart and sticking them back together like we always do. I think we’ll be doing a lot of tooling out of those songs in sound checks and stuff on this tour. Then we’re taking January off, and rehearsing and doing pre-production in January, and I think we’re going to start tracking in March.
A friend of mine was in Target the other day and heard “The Sound of Settling” on the audio system there.
The Target Video Network!
Yeah–the TVN! How does that feel for you?
I actually didn’t see the video until I was in Target myself. I was trying to figure out where they had put the CD-Rs and I heard “The Sound of Settling,” so I had the exact same experience as your friend did. And it was a little strange, but…I felt really conspicuous too, because I was wearing a red shirt with a collar on that particular day and I felt like an employee at the store. I was afraid somebody was going to ask me who that was on the screen and where they could find the record.
Last thing: If you had one message about the election and voting and all these things–one message to pass on to your young fans–what would it be?
Pay attention. If something seems unclear, try to find the source, try to find the answer. The sheer quantity of information that is available to any person on any given day by way of a seemingly infinite number of cable channels and websites and blogs is a little bit staggering and a little bit terrifying. But there are sources for all of those things, and I think that finding the source is really the answer.