AUTEUR “It was really nice to be the person who gets to fill up all the space.”
Chris Walla knows he’s never going to make a Steely Dan album. But that doesn’t mean that the Death Cab for Cutie guitarist isn’t plenty confident in his abilities as a producer, a job he’s performed on recent albums by Tegan and Sara, the Decemberists, and Travis Morrison of the Dismemberment Plan. “I certainly don’t have to prove to the world that I can make a particular brand of mid-fi indie record,” he says with a laugh over the phone from his home in Portland, Oregon. “I know I can do that until the end of time.”
So when Walla decided to make Field Manual (Barsuk), his just-released debut as a solo artist, it wasn’t his production skills he wanted to showcase but his songwriting. The dozen tunes on Field Manual won’t come as a shock to fans of Walla’s day job; for the most part, they alternate between hushed, pretty acoustic laments and brisk jangle-pop strummers, both of which are overlaid with the sort of sensitive-dude vocals Death Cab frontman Ben Gibbard has practically patented. Yet in his lyrics Walla flexes a set of writerly muscles he hasn’t had the opportunity to work before. (Before the eyes and ears of an audience, that is — though FieldManual is Walla’s first official solo record, he has recorded material on his own and issued limited-edition cassettes.)
The songs here home in on the intersection between the personal and the political. He assays the perpetual chaos of post-Katrina New Orleans in “Everyone Needs a Home,” senatorial hypocrisy in “Archer v. Light,” and the necessity of ground-level activism in “Sing Again,” the latter of which comes accompanied by a music video in which a cast of pals pose as Walla.
“I’m definitely really happy with the way the writing came together,” he says of the Field Manual material, adding that he’s never found it difficult to begin a song. “What’s hung me up in the past was trying to finish them.” That still didn’t happen easily this time. “There aren’t a lot of places on this record that feel breezy and effortless to me. ‘Sing Again,’ ‘St. Modesto,’ and ‘It’s Unsustainable’ just spilled out of me. But the rest of it was concentrated and careful work.”
With the exception of the drums — for which he solicited the services of Death Cab’s Jason McGerr and the New Pornographers’ Kurt Dahle — Walla plays everything on Field Manual himself. That provided a refreshing change of pace from his production work, he says, in that “there weren’t any specific player strengths or hurdles to deal with other than my own. I knew the guitar player wasn’t gonna be pissed off because he only had two notes in a song.” Another difference: “I spend my entire waking life playing with and listening to other musicians, sculpting and honing what they do. And when I end up playing on the records I produce, it always ends up little sparkles or frosting. It was really nice to be the person who gets to fill up all the space.”
Walla is now at work mixing the new Death Cab album, which is titled Narrow Stairs and due out this spring, and that’s put a limit on the time he’s had to promote Field Manual. “That’s all right,” he says. “I’m enormously proud of it, but it’s not my solo record that’s paying my rent. That sounds kind of cavalier to say, but we have an agreement among all of us in Death Cab that you can do whatever else you want as long as it doesn’t collide with the band. And I’m perfectly at peace with that.”