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Chris Walla on Moving to Norway and Life After Death Cab For Cutie

Dark Night of the Soul

Feb 02, 2016 Photography by Dianna Walla Issue #55 - November/December 2015 - EL VY
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He’s only been back in Seattle for a little over a week, but Chris Walla says he’s already homesick for Norway. Barely a year has passed since he and his wife relocated to Tromsøa town of over 70,000 residents in the Arctic Circle where winters turn into months of darkness. Back in the fall of 2013, Walla was going through a dark night of a different kind, torturing himself with the decision to end his 17-year run as guitarist and producer for Death Cab for Cutie. He was bored with the tracks that would become Death Cab’s Kintsugi, doubting his songwriting instincts, and unsure of what, if anything, he had to offer the band. But who would he be if he was no longer Death Cab’s guitarist? If only to reconnect with his creativity, Walla began a series of ambient tape loop experiments that sounded nothing like anything he or his former band had ever released. It was the sound of an artist starting over.

Today, Walla sounds like he has made peace with his decision. His second solo album, Tape Loops, is a fitting soundtrack for the last two years of his life, with five tracks of ambient atmospheres that are as immediate as they are disorienting. Though there are no words or melodies in the mix, the spliced-together arrangements capture a rich inner landscape, moving through layers of reflective and despondent textures that allow listeners to find themselves in the empty spaces. Here, Walla discusses the origin of Tape Loops, the reasons he left Death Cab for Cutie, and how making experimental analog music is actually a return to his roots. [Note: These are extra portions of our interview with Walla, quotes that didn’t make it into our main print article on him].

Matt Fink (Under the Radar): Do you remember what you were thinking when you started working on this project?

Chris Walla: Yeah. I started working on this in the week after I decided that I didn’t want to produce the Death Cab record. I started it the week after I essentially fired myself from the producer role for the record that became Kintsugi. At that point in time, I certainly hadn’t decided that I was going to leave the band in any way. That wasn’t even on the radar yet. But I had decided that something really needed to change to move forward and be able to do something different creatively. And that was the point that we started searching for an outside producer. That was a really big shift. In the moment I knew it was the right thing to do, but that doesn’t mean it was easy to do. So the thing that I did was I just went back to basics, and I went back to the kind of curiosity and wonder and interest that got me into music in the first place, which was essentially just mucking around with machines and hoping something cool happens. The difference was that I wasn’t looking to make a record when I started.

At what point did you realize you were making a solo record?

It took months between that in November of 2013 and when we actually started working with Rich Costey in March of 2014. So that whole five months was this bizarre holding pattern for everybody. It sort of felt like George Martin might call at any moment, and we had to be ready to jump on a plane! I didn’t take much other work in that time. I did a lot of the legwork that ended with the band hiring Rich Costey. We talked to a half dozen different people, and I didn’t feel like I wanted to get super deep into anything. I didn’t want to totally give myself away to a record in case George Martin called. There’s a ton of detail in [Tape Loops], but so much of it is not the sort of detail that you choose or even can affect manually. It was such a different kind of record-making. There was so much less actual making of something. So much of it was like, “I made this thing one time, and that’s the loop.” Then I listened to it for a couple days before I decided, “Yeah, we’re friends. We can hang out for a while.” Then I would put it on the multitrack machine. I had a few of them that got to that point and then withered and didn’t make the cut. It was such an interesting process, and it was really fun to dig into something that let it tell me when it was done rather than the other way around.

Was there a specific mood you were hoping to capture in these loops?

I don’t think there was a specific mood I was after. Maybe that’s not quite true. I feel like sadness from afar is such a singular state. It’s such a binary thing. But when you’re inside it, there are so many colors and textures. It’s rough around the edges and sometimes there’s little shards of anger in it, and sometimes it’s very bleak and very despairing. And sometimes in the depth of sadness, there’s a real hope in there. As I was headed towards the place where I realized I was going to have to tell the band that I was leavingbecause that’s what I wanted to dorecognizing that was incredibly sad and difficult. I read lots of different stuff and watched lots of different films. It was just an absorbing of the art and world around me that was different from what I’d done in previous years. There were lots of things that got into that record. “Kanta’s Theme”[Kanta is] the little boy in My Neighbor Totoro, the Miyazaki film.

What was the first track you started working on for this album?

The first track I started working on was the last track [“Flytoget”] on the record. It started as a really literal attempt to reverse engineer the processnot of the piece itself, but the processbehind “1/1” from Music for Airports, the Brian Eno record. Like countless others, I’ve been really captivated by that piece of music for a lot of years. It has this power to stop a room if it comes on. I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but if you put it on everybody just relaxes a little bit. And I was trying to figure out what that was, and what I came up with is that there is something about playing a piano back at half speed that is very powerful and very interesting. Because the attack of the piano is in a slightly different place, but you still recognize it as a piano. But it feels otherworldly. So I started playing around with different piano recordings, and it very much started as an exercise. Then it actually turned into something that I really grew to love on its own merits.

Was there a moment when you started to realize that this was moving from being an experiment to something that could actually be an album?

I don’t think I remember the moment, but I know there were moments during the making of it. Usually they were in the morning. You spend 10 hours staring at a piece of black fabric, and it gets confusing and disorienting and you lose track of where you are and what’s going on. Sometimes it takes that long to realize you can handle it for that long, like, “There’s really something here, because I just listened to it for eight hours. Sometimes I was totally clued into it, and sometimes I was vacuuming or something. I had a couple phone conversations, and I checked my emails. I ate lunch. I listened to it. I cried.” You have the entire experience of a day with this little chunk of music, and the moments when I would realize that something was working and felt good was when I would come back in the morning after a night of sleep and breakfast, and I’d press play and be like, ‘Wow. This is awesome. This is working.” And then you work on it over the course of the day, and that gets ground down again into doubt and everything else. [Laughs] But the mornings were very important.

Do you think you would have been drawn to making this kind of music if you hadn’t been going through a period of upheaval and uncertainty?

The only other times that I have committed to this kind of music and work has been in moments of similarly crazy transition. Twenty years ago, about the time that I first met Ben [Gibbard], I was still living with my parents and I was doing a lot of this really long-form experimental, weird, pretty meditative work on my four-track and eight-track. But I didn’t know what to do with it then, and I wasn’t really thinking about it in the same way. I was just exploring sound for the sake of sound. And the only other time I gave this much heavy duty thought to this kind of work was when I was in a place…I guess 2010 or 2011, when I moved back to Seattle from Portland. I had a moment of relative calm and stability and peace and clarity in which I dove into this stuff a little bit. It’s hard to say. It feels a little like a chicken-and-egg question to ask what leads to what.

The way you made these tracks forced you to surrender control and embrace a certain amount of chance. Do you think you were drawn to that sort of process because you were so overwhelmed by all of the decisions you had to make at that time?

Yeah, and I think emotionally I was a little overwhelmed. But part of where this came from was that creatively I was underwhelmed. [The new Death Cab material] felt flat. It felt like something else needed to happen. We needed some other kind of input. The ideas I was presenting weren’t sticking, and it wasn’t working with that group of people with that group of songs in that moment. Three weeks is not a long time, but it’s certainly enough time to start to find the process and figure out what’s going to stick. So I think that feeling creatively underwhelmed is part of where this started. That was like “What do I do? What am I good at? Is anything I do any good?” It definitely didn’t start like, “Dude, I’m going to take over the world! I’m going to make something beautiful!” It started from a place of great instability and uncertainty. There is something about making something very slowly and with a great amount of care and really listeningnot just listening to it as music but listening to it almost like a sentient thing. Elizabeth GilbertI can’t remember if it was Radiolab or This American Lifebut she goes on this amazing little tear about how Tom Waits taught her to negotiate with her work as if it was another person. I have carried that little radio moment around with me for the last three or four years since I first heard it, and I felt like this was the record where that was really in play.

Sometimes it happens kind of literally. After a loop has been up for four hours, it’s not crazy to say aloud, “What are you? What do you want? What the fuck? What’s going on?” [Laughs] Some of that happened and then you cool down and you just talk it out and you figure it out and say, “Here’s what I need,” and it says, “Here’s what I need.” And you figure out whether or not that works. If you’re not meant to be working together, you part ways and it’s fine. And if you are, you come to some kind of resolution.

What kind of entity do you think this album is? Is it a malevolent presence or a benign one?

I think I experience it as a friend. Certainly, right now, it’s not a friend I put on and listen to all the time. But I’m so happy to see it and hear it when it shows up. It’s really cool that way. It’s really interesting. There are pieces of music at different points in my musical life that I think are a little bit like that, because they happened at a certain emotional moment or because there is some actual magic that got dusted on them or on me. A little bit of that feeling is like, “Fuck! I got really lucky.” Just knowing that there’s some element of it that just landed on me makes it really easy and fun to revisit it the way you revisit great memories of all kinds, I guess. But this record, by and large, has more of that quality than anything I’ve ever worked on. I think it’s the only record that I’ve ever gotten done with that I’m still just totally happy to put on and listen to. It doesn’t really feel like I made it; it feels like I found it somewhere.

Every time I listen to this album it never quite sounds the same to me. Because there’s not one singular focal point, every layer takes on its own personality.

I think that one of the things that it points out is how habitual we can be as conscious entities and thinking beings. We have so much capacity for so many things-for love and fear and stupidity and sadness and the whole gamut of emotions and logical interpretation and reactions and whatever else. Everybody has got different habits and things they do unconsciously, and I feel like there’s something about a record of repeating and looping something over and over again that helps us to point that stuff out. There’s that Gavin Bryars record, The Sinking of the Titanic, and the A side has never been my favorite thing in the world, but the second side of that record is a piece called “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet,” and I’m so fascinated by it. As that guy’s voice goes by over and over and over again, you check out after six minutes and check back in at minute 11, like, “Oh, my God. It’s still going on. He’s still doing it,” and you hear something different and you recognize that that’s a different thing from what you heard six minutes ago, and you feel differently about it and you start to wonder if it’s you or if it’s him. That change in the frame of reference I found as I was working on my record was so intoxicating and freeing.

Do you think you have different expectations for how this album will be received?

I don’t think so. My hope is that it will find people as they need it or are ready for it. It means so many different things to so many different people. It took me years to figure out that I just wasn’t a Dylan fan in my 20s. I just didn’t get it; I didn’t care. Certainly, I had some respect for him, but it wasn’t reverence. I wasn’t ready. Then, all of a sudden, one day I was ready and I didn’t even know I was ready until I was bawling. I think those are the kinds of experiences that are the biggest part of musical listening and why I still do it and why I still consume and devour music voraciously, in the hopes that there’s another one of those moments. If I have a couple of those every year, I’m really happy. But I think that however anyone comes to it is fine with me. It’s probably not going to be super killer workout record for anybody. I don’t knowmaybe it will be!

So what’s next for you?

There’s a few things in the hopper, and I don’t totally know what they are yet. They might come out and they might not. I’ve been doing some writing with a few people, a little bit of production here and there, but so much of my energy of late has gone into the move to Norway, which is such a back and forth experience at the moment. But that’s been really cool, too. There’s not as many billboards. I like that.

Do you expect that living in Norway will eventually come out in your music somewhere?

It already has and it already is. It’s such a different cultural environment. It’s a nation that puts so much focus on quality of life, and what that means as it filters down to the cities and communes is so interesting and really different. They’re building theaters and recording studiosthe government! They want to encourage people, and there’s such a premium placed on art and what it does for a society. They are so good at prioritizing that in such a way that if that’s what you’re doing, you still have to work your ass off to do it, but there’s a path for it. It’s very achievable.

I think that sort of isolation can’t be bad for an artist.

Yeah, I think so. The town that we’re living in is Tromsø, and it’s far north, up above the Arctic Circle. And there’s this studio being built there right now, and it’s going to be awesome by the time it’s done. It’s such a cool, obvious, logical place for anybody who just needs a bit of perspective from wherever they are, be it London or Tokyo or Seattle. It’s a small town, but it’s big enough. The thing that happens there in the winter, where it’s dark for 22 and a half hours a day, is kind of amazing. It’s really a challenge to parachute into it and be fighting through jetlag when there’s only an hour and a half of daylight a day is tricky, but it’s so fun to create in as an environment.

[Note: This article first appeared in the digital version (for tablets and smart phones) of Under the Radar’s November/December Issue. This is its debut online.]


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July 13th 2016

Tape loops is great, very calming and peaceful. But I do look forward to another Walla album with his vocals!