Pining away (get it?). Steven Dewall

Death Cab for Cutie guitarist and producer Chris Walla has a new job—he is now the proud head of a new imprint of Atlantic Records called Trans. The first band he's signed to the sublabel is Anacortes's piano-laced, guitar-­driven pop-rock band the Lonely Forest.

Like many others, Walla first heard the Lonely Forest after the band released its second full-length record, We Sing the Body Electric! last year on the Seattle-based indie label Burning Building.

With the help of some positive buzz from local media (including The Stranger), the Lonely Forest sold out their CD-release show at the Vera Project. A few months later, they played Bumbershoot, packing the Sky Church to capacity and leaving hundreds of fans out in the rain. They wrapped up the year by playing the biggest headlining show of their career to a nearly full house at the Showbox at the Market over Thanksgiving weekend.

Walla initially approached the band members about producing them, but soon decided to create the Trans imprint with Atlantic to release their records as well.

"I've been lucky enough to make records with tons of phenomenal bands, and I've considered [starting a label] a number of different times," he says. "I don't know—is it oversimplified to say it's them and it just makes sense? This wouldn't be happening if it weren't for the Lonely Forest. They're a phenomenal band. I've been following my nose for so many years, doing the things that felt like the right thing to do. And this time the answer was yes."

Walla may have no experience running a label, but that doesn't mean he's unprepared. After all, he's been where the Lonely Forest are heading. After releasing five records on indie label Barsuk, Death Cab for Cutie signed to Atlantic in 2004. And he claims—in the age when record labels are struggling—Atlantic is still going strong.

"Death Cab has been [with Atlantic] moving in on six years now, and everybody who was in the building when we signed is still there," he says. "Atlantic has stayed pretty stable, and all indications are it's continuing to stay stable. It is one of the only labels anywhere that's in the black. It's a healthy situation to have an imprint under at the moment."

Atlantic is also the first major label to prove successful in the digital age—in October 2008, the New York Times reported that over half of Atlantic's music sales came from "digital products," something no other major label could claim. It has also managed to avoid major layoffs in recent years.

"I wouldn't have made the offer if I didn't feel like it was something that could work," Walla says. "It's a little bit of a leap of faith for all parties, but [the Lonely Forest] know I'm really committed to this, and I trust they are going to continue to work and write songs."

Last month, Walla and the Lonely Forest spent four days in a North Seattle studio recording a five-song EP, which will be the band's first release for Trans, due out this spring. Shortly thereafter, they'll go back in the studio with Walla again to work on their full-length, which they hope to release in August.

Lonely Forest singer John Van Deusen thinks fans will be pleased with what's coming out of their collaboration with Walla, who has also produced records by Tegan and Sara, the Decemberists, and the Long Winters.

"Sonically, We Sing the Body Electric! is a rock record, but we layered a ton of instruments on it," says Van Deusen. "That came from recording it in the garage and having all the time in the world. The cool thing about this EP is that it was all tracked live. It has good energy, and people will notice it's a bit more organic."

The Lonely Forest, who have never toured beyond the West Coast, are also gearing up to spend much of 2010 on the road. Their first national excursion is a four-week tour with Scotland's (unfortunately named) We Were Promised Jetpacks, which comes to Neumos on March 2. They're also scheduled to play Sasquatch! in May.

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The signing is a good move for the Lonely Forest, whose success here in 2009 suggests that they could benefit from the wider distribution and bigger touring budgets that major-label backing could provide. And with Trans, they'll have Walla on their side rather than just some impersonal corporation.

As for Walla's plans with Trans, he says that right now he's more focused on the imprint's present rather than its future. "The plan is to focus on making a record with this band and get it out into the world," he says. "There's really no all-reaching, overarching aesthetic. I hope the label can be as diverse as my record collection, but I don't have any idea at this point. I'll know what happens next when it hits me over the head." recommended