In the romanticism of the album-era rock-and-roll myth, the Band play the role of a group of neanderthals who must be tamed in the sterile confines of a recording studio by the Producer, an unusual figure who has one foot in the world of the Business and the other in the countercultural milieu that the group themselves inhabit. Of course, this sort of Big Biz arrangement fell out of favor in the history-erasing cultural cleansing that was the '90s alterna-revolt. And one aftershock of the indie overthrow of rock culture has been the phenomenon of bands who produce themselves.
DEATH CAB FOR ALL “It has become clear to us all,” says Chris Walla (second from right) that there is a chemistry that the four of us have that would be crazy not to tap into.”
Chris Walla, guitarist of Washington State underdogs-turned-arena-fillers Death Cab for Cutie, knows all about this predicament: whereas his peers in the pop and hip-hop worlds can, in theory, go to a superproducer with nothing but some bar-napkin scribblings and a hummable hook, he has turned his initial will to tinker with the knobs into an impressive production career that has seen him man the boards for not only such indie luminaries as Tegan and Sara and the Decemberists, but every Death Cab long-player as well.
Which is no small feat, especially when, 15 years and seven albums later, you have to devise ways to keep things interesting and not allow the band to do what comes easy and natural. When I phone Walla, who's in Minneapolis with Death Cab on a tour that will bring them to the cozy Paradise a week from Sunday, he's in a reflective mood, what with the May release of the band's latest, Codes and Keys (Atlantic), a dense yet æthereal work that's an about-face from the spartan and glum sound of its predecessor, 2008's Narrow Stairs. The new record, like everything Death Cab have released, is pinned to the clarion call of singer-songwriter Ben Gibbard. But its sheen of warped sounds and strange atmospheric mood shifts is light-years from the straight-up motorik throb of dark Stairs anthems like the nearly nine-minute lead single, "I Will Possess Your Heart."
"It's really important to define the intent of any artistic project, no matter what it is, to ask 'Why?' " Walla explains. "For Codes and Keys, we wanted to try to find a way to present these songs harmonically without obscuring the song or doing anything particularly tricky. And what that meant was that the guitar was not the primary instrument. Downplaying the guitar's impulsiveness forced us to plan the shaping of sound in different ways." The result is shimmering and at times jarring, with the indie-bounce reverie of "You Are a Tourist," the title track, and the almost Steve Reich–esque album centerpiece, "Unobstructed Views," broken by oddly delayed vocals, chopped-up orchestras, and cascading piano hammerings.