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How To Make A Death Cab For Cutie Album: All The Secrets

An exciting, technical chat with Chris Walla and Nick Harmer hours before the band’s performance at San Miguel Primavera Sound

Taking advantage of their visit to Primavera Sound, we spoke to the band about the gestation of “Codes And Keys”, alongside Chris Walla’s work as a producer and his relationship with the leader of the band, Ben Gibbard.

Death Cab For Cutie have reached that point in their career when they prefer to take things more calmly and leave more space between one album and the next. They have over a decade of solid career behind them, although some might say that their switch from Barsuk to Atlantic hasn’t sat entirely well with them. And, well, there’s no denying reality: the quality of their work has dropped noticeably since “Plans”. However, they insist that their modus operandi hasn’t changed from one label to the other and that even though they are working for a major label, they have the same creative freedom as always. It may be due to age, but it is clear that the songs on their last album, “Codes And Keys”, don’t have the same punch as the ones from their masterpiece, “Transatlanticism”. But overall, it would be unfair to say that they have sold out. Their new songs aren’t weak, not at all. If you spend enough time and you don’t just listen superficially, you find really stimulating pieces, which are even daring to a certain extent, such as “Home Is A Fire” and, especially, “Doors Unlocked And Open”.

Last May they were in Barcelona, where they were headliners at San Miguel Primavera Sound 2012, and they gave an excellent concert. On the occasion of that concert, we were able to talk to Chris Walla, guitarist and producer, and Nick Harmer, who plays several instruments, in the hotel where they were staying, just a few hours before they jumped onto the Mini stage. During the fifteen minutes that they gave us, we were able to chat openly about the gestation of “Codes And Keys”, Walla’s work as a producer and his relationship with the leader of the band, Ben Gibbard, among other things.

You started recording “Codes And Keys” with about 40 songs. How did you manage to narrow it down to eleven?

Nick Harmer: No, we started with way more than that! Well, we got 40 demos from Ben that were all in various stages of completion. Some were fully realized, some were simply snippets of ideas; to some things we immediately reacted pretty strongly and knew that that was the song that we were going to try and record, there was definitely some excitement and energy that mandated us to develop it into a song. We didn’t really sit down and say: ‘There are going to be the eleven songs on the album’. I think we just picked from that group of songs the ones we all really liked and were really excited about. We started recording them in the studio and with that kind of process we went eliminating some songs until we ended up with, maybe, thirteen that we finished. Then we cut a couple and then we got to eleven and had a real core of an album. We were kind of like archaeologists in that way, looking through the songs to decide which ones would make it to the album.

"We consider the album as a listening experience, even though we live in a time where who knows how people listen to music anymore, you know, downloading songs…"

The first part of the album is quite experimental, with several songs that are radically different from your previous productions, but the last few songs follow the path of previous records. Do you thoroughly think out the order of the tracklist?

N: We do. That’s something that has always been important for us. Once we identified the group of songs that we liked and were excited about, we spent a long time, maybe days, with songs all written down on pieces of paper spread out on the floor, moving them around, thinking about them, and then making playlists and listening to them. I don’t know… I think you as a producer know kind of early on what songs start the record, what songs end the record; you know certain moments will happen in the flow of the album and that is something that we build around with some structure. The rest of it, we kind of figure out.

So it was kind of a conscious decision to have these two different parts?

Chris Walla: Not really, no… I mean… even with twelve or thirteen songs you can make a thousand different records. You know, the way you start a record says so much about how we feel about the record and how we hope you feel about the record. I feel like the first few songs especially are a really important statement about how and where it is heading. So, I don’t know… it wasn’t conscious to do that.

N: It has also been very important to the band to make very cohesive albums that have an experience from start to finish. When you sit down and listen to the first tracks straight through to the end there has to be some kind of experience, some kind of journey you’re on sonically and thematically. We consider the album as a listening experience, even though we live in a time where who knows how people listen to music anymore, you know, downloading songs… It’s important for us still because we grew up appreciating albums and listening to albums as a complete thought. We want to do them for people who listen to music in the same way. You can always cut the record into its songs and listen to it the way you want, but if you want to hear how the band wanted you to hear it, then that’s also important to us, to preserve that kind of integrity. Some of that is a conscious decision in accordance with how we feel and listen to music.

How do all the new electronic instruments that we hear in “Codes And Keys” come into play in the studio?

N: It probably sounds a lot more complicated than it is. [Both laugh] There are just a few keyboards and there were lots of textural stuff that we brought in. But I really think that a lot of familiar instruments also hang around as well, pianos, bass guitars, drums, guitars… we still manage to translate all this material live without too much effort, and that just speaks to the simplicity of it. But certainly there’re more textures and sounds, but you know, we didn’t bring a roomful of synths.

C: Yeah, it leans on just three keyboards. And the thing about all the electronic stuff and audio equipment I’ve been going to is that it’s all the simplest and oldest possible. I mean, it’s all stuff that can only do one job at a time, so in that way a Minimoog or something like that is just like a guitar. It doesn’t actually do that much stuff. And if you want it to do something specific you have to fiddle around with it for a while. But it’s not doing a thousand different things at the same time. And that is sort of why I like all this stuff. You react to it in the same way you react to a guitar, drums or any physical instrument. It’s not like menus and screens… it’s all very much at the surface.

You said some years ago, with the release of “Plans”, that you had finally figured out how to record albums. Do you feel as if you are still learning?

C: No, I feel as if though if have sort of forgotten how to record! [Both laugh enthusiastically]

C: I took a break from recording after we finished “Codes And Keys” because the thing about “Plans” and “Narrow Stairs” is that I felt as if I had learned how to record an album. You know if you give me a tape, a mixing board and a bunch of microphones, I’m totally set; I’m so comfortable. And then moving into the world, like, we did “Codes And Keys” in Logic, and I did a few other records in Logic, like the records of Tegan And Sara and The Lonely Forest. It’s such a different experience emotionally, practically and creatively. I’m really thrilled with how “Codes And Keys” turned out, but as an emotional and creative experience it was really difficult for reasons that are largely because I’m not used to managing and organising data that way. It’s not how I think about music. I think about it in a very linear and time-based scale, and when it gets all fragmented like that I get really confused and anxious. So I decided I was going to take a year off from recording and it’s been really good. I’m at a point where I’m excited to go back again.

"It’s important to us to only make records when we feel it’s correct to do the record. We don’t want to force ourselves into the studio"

Why did you decide to have Alan Moulder mix the album?

C: I was hoping that Alan would go for it pretty early on in the process. Some of the first recording decisions I was making were made a little bit with him in mind. It was with the hopes that he would agree, but we didn’t know at that point if he would. But it was a conscious decision.

You usually record your albums in one place, but this time around you’ve done it in a bunch of different ones. What have each of these studios provided you with?

C: The idea initially came because when we first started talking about recording “Codes And Keys” we were living in four different cities. I was living in Portland, Ben was living in L.A., Nick was living in Providence (Rhode Island) and Jason was living en Bellingham. As all of the songs that we were writing were about home and different ideas of being at home, my first idea for the record was ‘let’s spend two weeks in each of those four cities so each of us has the chance to go to sleep at home in our beds’. But then during the process, after six or eight months of work, Nick returned to the West Coast, so we ended up doing it there.

Ben has said you had a key role in the composition of some of the songs on this record. How does this work? Do you have complete power over that particular song or does he give you feedback that you use later?

C: I’m addicted! [Both laugh] No, it’s always an open conversation. It’s pretty obvious when somebody has a vision about how something should go. In the case of “Stay Young, Go Dancing” Ben had a real sort of thing about how he wanted it to feel. And in a case like that, my job as a producer is to just try and paint that picture. But then “Monday Morning” was something I really wanted to chase and try to figure out how to make it and fit it together. In that case, I was in charge of that song. You know, people step forward when they have ideas and that’s how good records get made.

The space between album releases has gotten longer as your career has gone on. Do you feel as if now you prefer to spend more time with each album and you don’t want to rush things?

N: Yeah, you know, it all basically depends on the tour cycles. Since “Transatlanticism” they have been pretty long. I think we are trying to tour a little bit less these days with the hopes that maybe we can record a little bit more and release albums a little bit sooner. It really hasn’t been much of a conscious thing. We make a record, then we go on the road and we get to this point when at the end of touring we need to take a break from thinking about music and life on the road and kind of allow the world to input back into us so we can refill our creative wells. Then we make another record. I guess we have never been too concerned with rushing and having a time schedule. Overall, I don’t know if it’s a good or a bad thing, but we have maintained a pretty steady pace over the years. I certainly don’t feel like we are being lazy about it, but I do know it’s nice and important to us to only make records when we feel it’s correct to do the record. We don’t want to force ourselves into the studio. I feel pretty comfortable with our pace.

C: Yeah, me also.

N: Each kind of phase of the band, whether it’s touring or recording, has its own time to shine and for us to be invested and focused on that expression of the band. We talk to bands and musicians that are able to record albums while they’re touring, you know, even if they are playing Primavera today, they are at a studio recording in Barcelona. We just never work that way, it would feel like too much.

Now that you have recorded three albums with a major label, what are the main differences you find between working with them and with Barsuk?

N: Other than some sort of benefit of having access to some studios and resources that we wouldn’t probably have on Barsuk, there’s nothing that has changed. We are still the four of us in the studio. We still record in studios where we had been prior to signing with a major. Chris is still producing all of our records. We are a pretty isolated group; we’ve never had anybody else in the studio giving us notes on songs. We just close the door, make the record and either Barsuk puts it out or Atlantic puts it out. It feels simple, but it is true. That’s the contract that we sort of forged with Atlantic. We were able to negotiate a very high level of creative freedom and I think there’s a lot of mutual respect. They understand that it’s their job to promote and market the record, and it’s our job to record and write the record. We don’t want to get involved in the promoting and marketing of the record any more than they want to get involved in the recording. It’s pretty straightforward.

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