November 9-15, 2005

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Death Cab for Cutie

Photograph by Andrew Paynter
Mischa, My Belle: Seth Cohen of 'The O.C.' often name-drops Death Cab for Cutie in the show.

Cab Fare For Cutie

DCFC's Christopher Walla dishes about touring, arranging and life before Fox teen dramas

By Peter Koht

EVEN FOR a seasoned road warrior like Death Cab for Cutie's guitarist and producer, Christopher Walla, tours hold certain perils. Over the course of our two phone interviews, he faced two equally daunting engagements: Morrisville, N.C.'s Waffle House and Gruhn's Guitars in Nashville. The former is digestively challenging, but Walla refers to Gruhn's, the famous vintage guitar shop on Broadway in Nashville, as "always dangerous and beautiful."

Now in the middle of a long fall push behind its Atlantic Records debut, Plans, Seattle's Death Cab for Cutie seems to be omnipresent. The band receives regular plugs from shows such as Six Feet Under and The O.C. (where hipster character Seth Cohen is an avowed fan), the music press falls over itself trying to come up with new syllogisms to describe the group's densely textured indie output and its band name adorns many hand-stitched patches on black zip-up hoodies across this fine land.

All this attention might drive lesser musicians to wallow in self-pity and heroin addiction, but Walla and his cohorts are taking the whole ride in stride. "I can gauge our success by how many times that my mom calls us a week to tell me she saw us somewhere where we didn't used to be," Walla chuckles. "It's great that people are buying our records and that we are making a living at this, but ultimately, this [fame, money, Mischa Barton's digits] is all gravy."

If anything, Death Cab should be commended for keeping all the hype around the group in perspective. Walla and company seem remarkably well adjusted, reserving their praise for writers like Sarah Vowell and magazines like Harper's instead of sucking up to the fame machine.

In Walla's estimation, "It would be disingenuous to deny or dismiss or to be thankless or sad about what has happened with The O.C., but it's complicating and confounding. The O.C. didn't make us. We have no control over who buys our records or whatever cultural zeitgiest is happening at any moment."

In fact, long before the Fox teen drama rang, the band had already been converting fans for six years by releasing a series of critically acclaimed albums culminating with the 2003 release of its magnum opus, Transatlanticism.

Like all Death Cab records, Transatlanticism was built around the songs of singer and guitarist Ben Gibbard. But his unassuming and articulate songs were turned into a latter-day OK Computer through Walla's production efforts. "With my role of producer," Walla explains, "my job is to kind of guide arrangements and to make sure that the performances are there. I really want some blood when I am working on a record. I like things put together well, but I don't want it to sound canned." The only problem was that it was a bear to tour behind.

"With Transatlanticism, pretty much most of the songs are unplayable live," Walla admits. "It leans on a grand piano and, like, 15 guitars with a big choir at the end. How do you do that? You have to figure out a way to present the song in a way that is compelling onstage."

Ultimately, that requires a monumental rearrangement, which results in Walla and Gibbard balancing out keyboard and guitar duties. "There is a lot of volleyball onstage and a lot of back and forth between the piano and the guitar."

Death Cab is finding that its tour itinerary is more packed than ever before. ("There was one run in there with about 27 shows in a row without a day off.") While staying true to the band's strict no-whining policy, Walla was living through one disappointment during his midmorning walk through downtown Nashville. "I just discovered today that we have a radio thing and that I will not be able to get to go to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, which is what I want to do. It's the best music museum in the country." Maybe Walla will just have to settle for a new guitar.

Death Cab for Cutie plays at Santa Clara University's Leavey Center on Tuesday (Nov. 15). Tickets are $25 and the show begins at 8pm.

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