Life After Death Cab: Chris Walla starts over

Chris Walla
photo: Dianna Walla

With one platinum record (2005’s Plans) and two gold records (2003’s Transatlanticism and 2008’s Narrow Stairs) to their name, Death Cab For Cutie is widely regarded as one of the biggest bands in indie rock (even though they’re on a major label). It’s tough to walk away from a critically acclaimed, commercially successful band, but that’s just what guitarist/producer Chris Walla did, leaving the group in 2014 after playing on their latest album, Kintsugi. Now, Walla has returned with Tape Loops, a solo album that is completely instrumental and heavily influenced by ambient electronic music. Although Walla doesn’t sing on Tape Loops, his creations speak volumes on his behalf.

What’s it like to try and rebrand yourself after being in a band like Death Cab For Cutie for 17 years?
CHRIS WALLA: I wouldn’t say I’ve done much rebranding, and if I have done any rebranding, I think I’ve done a pretty poor job. [Laughs.] It’s not so much a matter of rebranding as it is a matter of personal identity and a shift in how I think about myself. I mean, I spent 17 years—literally my entire adult life—in a rock ’n’ roll band with three other guys who are like my brothers and then all of a sudden I’m not in that band anymore. It’s a little weird. We’re basically on good terms but I don’t talk to them, really. It’s weird, it’s challenging, it’s quite a mindfuck.

You say you’re “basically” on good terms with the other members of Death Cab For Cutie, so does that mean that there was a falling-out?
I wouldn’t say that there was a falling-out but I would say that despite everyone’s best intentions, when something falls apart, whether it’s a relationship or a business venture or band or whatever it is, it’s never perfect. It’s never the way that you want it to go in your dreams. There’s just pieces of it that are challenging and sloppy and difficult. You know, that’s the stuff that time takes care of. It’s fine, time is going to make it better.

Why did you choose not to sing on your new solo album Tape Loops?
Well, the record was never intended to be a record of songs. It was just something that I started working on right at the moment that I decided that I was not going to produce the Death Cab For Cutie record after a few weeks, before we hired Rich Costey. We got up at three weeks into it and it just felt like it wasn’t working. I felt like we needed to make a change and I felt like we should hire a producer and it would be better for the record and everything, really. Everybody was a little shellshocked but ultimately agreed with me and we started the search. This was well before I had decided to leave the band. The immediate fallout of that, when I told the band that I wasn’t going to produce the record and everyone packed up and went home, you know, we still had the studio time booked, it was like, “Shit, well now what? What do I do? What would make me really happy?” This record is the answer to that question. This is a record whose stories are not literal, it’s wordless. It’s not a record about singing or songs, it’s a record about being where you are and being who you are, I guess.

What the heck happened to your moniker Martin Youth Auxiliary and why not release the new record under that name?
When Death Cab For Cutie got together in the late ’90s in Bellingham [Washington], you just didn’t record music under your own name. That was just something that wasn’t accepted. I think the thing that was accepted were these ridiculously cumbersome names, like Death Cab For Cutie, the Somewhat Legend, Magnetic Bicycle Craft and the Martin Youth Auxiliary. There were a bunch of these bands who had these sort-of Guided By Voices non-sequitur names, so Martin Youth Auxiliary was just one of those.

Aside from it being instrumental, how is your new album different from your 2008 solo debut, Field Manual?
Well, it’s completely unrelated. It’s literally a record of tape loops. It’s 39 minutes of tape bits, occasionally strapped together with a few musical notes. It’s very minimal, and the whole idea was that I pretended like it was 1977 and there’s definitely no computers, it’s all tape. It’s very much inspired by the work of the forefathers of that genre, I guess. It’s got a lot more to do with [German ambient group] Cluster than it does with Death Cab, at least that’s my hope. I tend to like machines much more than I like computers. I’m much more of a tactful person, I like to move around and be invested in it and involved in it. I mean, the computer does a job and that’s fine, I’m not mad at the computer, but that’s just not what this one was about.

What’s next for Chris Walla?
I have a handful of records that I’m producing that are in my future. I’m scoring a film right now called North, I think it’s going to be really good. I also just moved to Norway. I got a lot going on. S

A version of this piece was published in Substream #49.