So I had breakfast with Death Cab's guitarist/keyboardist Chris Walla, who talked about his role as producer, and generously dissected the new album in an effort to bring Stranger readers the inside scoop.
How did you record this album?
We borrowed a machine from Sunset Valley. It's kind of a strange machine -- a 16-track, half-inch tape machine; and most of those are from state of the art, home basement studios, circa 1983. And most of them run at 15 inches a second. But this one was modified and runs at 30 inches a second, which means that you burn through tape. You get 12 minutes on a reel of tape. The other thing that means is that the top end sounds really, really clean, but there is just no bottom on the machine. Cymbals, sparkle, shimmer, vocal sibilance, that sort of thing? That's top. When you go to a show, that thing you feel in your chest every time the bass player goes boom? That's the bottom. So, with this machine you have none of that. And that's unfortunate.
Do you feel that there's a right answer when you record?
I do. I feel like there are three songs in the middle of the record -- "405," "Little Fury Bugs," and "Company Calls" -- that I got almost dead-on. I feel like those songs are doing what they should be doing, and doing it well. The epilogue came out really well, too.
"Company Calls Epilogue" is the sleeper hit.
It is probably one of the strongest things Ben [Gibbard] has ever written, and it stands on its own really well. To do too much, to draw away from the song, would be not productive. It's kind of Steve Albini theory, as far as recording goes. I just put mics up and hit "Record."
Let's talk about choices. Especially the first song, "We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes" At 1:40, the recording changes. It starts out like a little indie rock record, and then you open it up with this big sound that's like a statement of intent: "We want to do something great." It was a really ballsy move.
I didn't realize how ballsy it was until we got to mastering and I went, "Oh my god, what have I done?" But my theory as a recording engineer/producer is, if a song is written to create some sort of emotional response, which most pop songs are, my job should be to make it tug on the heart strings. My intent with this record was to make the perfect rock and roll record, and [opening the record that way] it's like, "Yes, I can do it. I can do it!"
So what are you happy with, and what are you unhappy with?
I'm unhappy with the technical shortcomings. Ultimately, this record got made for the cost of tape. We rented some microphones, but pretty much it's a really cheap record. I know what I am envisioning, and I can hear it in my head. And sometimes it works out; like, "405" turned out exactly the way that I heard it. That song was looking like it was going to go in one of two directions, and I didn't want it to go in either one. So I started brainstorming, and before I knew it, I had demoed a whole version of the song. And then there's the five-dollar cymbal, which is my favorite thing. I got it at an antique store in Bellingham. I think it serves the song well.
What's radio-ready on your album?
Did you think about that?
Yes. I would've liked "Lowell, MA" to sound a little bit clearer than it does. I'm not sure. "For What Reason" had the opportunity to be radio-ready, but it didn't get there. I mean, it's a dance track; the whole idea of that song was to make it sound like New Order. We totally missed -- it doesn't sound anything like New Order!
But you're not bummed.
No, not really. The only thing that I'm really sick of is the technical shortcomings. Because, to this day I've never been in a recording situation where I've had both the time and the tools at my disposal to be able to do exactly what I want to do. I say this to people all the time: "Every time I put a microphone in front of something, I learn something." And that's great, that's a really cool feeling.