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Death Cab for Cutie open up about 'Kintsugi' and conscious uncoupling with Chris Walla

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We Are The Rhoads

“There’s a part of quitting a band like Death Cab for Cutie where people look at you like you’re totally crazy,” says the band’s former guitarist and producer, Chris Walla. “They can’t comprehend why you would do a thing like that. It’s the coolest job in the world. What the hell are you doing?”

Last year, after 17 years with Death Cab for Cutie, Walla did quit the coolest job in the world—but not before finishing the indie rock quartet’s eighth record, Kintsugi, which is released on Atlantic Records March 31.

It wasn’t like he planned to leave. But a month after starting on the follow-up to 2011’s Codes and Keys, Walla—who had helmed all the band’s records—announced he was “not the right guy to produce this record,” as singer and guitarist Ben Gibbard puts it. Rich Costey, a seasoned producer and mixer who’s worked with Foo Fighters, Interpol, and Muse, was soon installed instead. Another month into recording, Walla told his bandmates—besides Walla and Gibbard, Death Cab includes bassist Nick Harmer and drummer Jason McGerr—that once the record was completed, he would be leaving. 

“I wouldn’t call it a shock,” Gibbard says thoughtfully, speaking by phone from his house in Seattle. “It’s not like it was something we didn’t see coming. It was one of those things when you’re bracing for something like this for a period of time. It’s as if, at least in the back of your mind, you’re prepared for it. It is bittersweet, but when Chris told us he was leaving we didn’t sit around crying. We started thinking about what we were going to do.

“That’s not to diminish his contribution,” Gibbard adds. “We were just all prepared, with his blessing, to move in a new direction.”

“It was never a shock or a surprise for us,” agrees Harmer, speaking separately from his Seattle home. “But it probably was for Rich Costey,” he laughs. “We didn’t tell him Chris was leaving until we were done. After he got over the surprise, I think he understood why.”

Leaving the proverbial elephant out of the room meant more of a normal work focus, “especially as we weren’t fighting and there weren’t any obvious problems,” says Harmer. “There was no communication breakdown, there was nothing like that. We all showed up to work on time. We acknowledged it internally and got on with making the album. It’s a testament to Chris’s professionalism and our friendship.”

“There weren’t any blowups in the studio, there was no drama,” confirms Gibbard. “It was just like, let’s fulfill our obligations. Let’s give Chris credit: he did a really good job with his contribution to the record. He put his game face on and made it happen.”

Walla can’t quite put his finger on the decisions that led to his departure. “I just thought we needed somebody else to steer the ship, and I wasn’t thinking at all I’d leave the band,” he says. “But it became clear a month after working with Rich, some of the stuff that was really getting to me wasn’t resolved.”

Death Cab for Cutie formed in Bellingham, Washington in 1997. By its fifth studio album, Plans, the band was signed to Atlantic Records. In 2008, the follow-up Narrow Stairs debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 album chart. In 2013, Gibbard, who was divorced from actor and singer Zooey Deschanel in 2012, busied himself with cult indie duo The Postal Service’s 10-year anniversary reunion tour. But Death Cab expected to be promoting its next album in 2014, and booked last year’s summer tour in readiness. Instead, it became Walla’s farewell jaunt.

“The last handful of shows, a couple were really spectacular, really fun,” Walla recalls. “The show we did in Calgary was just magic for some reason. The tour was a lot of things: It was very strange; very bittersweet, as the ends of things tend to be.” 

It’s not surprising that Kintsugi, for all its moody melodic drone and poignant big picture vision, landed on the contemplative side. It takes its name from the Japanese art of mending pottery with cement laced with precious metals, elevating a break as part of the piece’s beauty and history. It was Harmer who suggested the title. “It resonated with me on so many levels,” he says. “We knew Chris was leaving and it fits. But it’s a reflection of where we all are. The older you get, the more cracks appear; it’s how it goes in life. You can obscure those cracks or edit them out of your life, or you can embrace them and make it part of your history.”

The glittering cement in this case was, firstly, Costey: “Seeing what an outside influence can bring to this band for the first time ever was really inspiring for all of us,” says Gibbard “It would have made this transition so much more difficult if Chris had been producing, because we wouldn’t have known what it was like to work with someone new, and eventually we would have been staring at all these new people in the studio.”

After a hometown show and an appearance on Late Show with David Letterman, tour guitarist Dave Depper (Ray LaMontagne, Menomena, Corin Tucker Band) and keyboard player Zac Rae (My Brightest Diamond, Fiona Apple, Lana Del Rey) are proving fit to take on Walla’s parts—some of which were often left out when the four-piece played live.

“We’ve often toyed with bringing in a fifth member for the live shows,” says Harmer. “A lot of our songs are harmonically and melodically dense. Sometimes, something had to be left out. Chris was a multi-instrumentalist and would move effortlessly between guitar and keyboards. We thought, let’s split the role into two. There are all these missing parts coming out live now.”

Death Cab is proving that if something is mended, it isn’t broken. But while Gibbard, Harmer, and McGerr are mending together, Walla is left with the uneasy task of settling into the solo life. “It was a big decision and it continues to be a big decision. It’s been a big issue of purpose and personal trajectory and identity. The band’s been the work of my adult life; I grew up with those guys and they are very, very dear to me,” he says. “A lot of what we did, I’m so proud of that.”

“Probably the record that comes after this will be different,” thinks Gibbard. “But I’d argue every record we made over the last ten years has been different and that’s how we have evolved. Obviously, I’m not cocky about any of this. I feel I have a healthy amount of trepidation for the future, but at the same time I know how good this band is, and I know how good we can be. With the right kind of people, I think we can do amazing things.”

As for Walla, he’s already worked on a couple of records and has more musical projects ongoing. “I’ve had moments of panic and freak-out,” he says, “but there’s never been a moment of ‘holy shit, I made a huge mistake’. I know I’ve done the right thing. As I think about where the band is at right now, I don’t miss it at all. I hope they’re happy doing that; I suspect they are. I’ve just got other stuff to do.”

DEATH CAB FOR CUTIE

NORTH AMERICAN TOUR 2015

APRIL

10           Meza, AZ                                FestivALTAZ @ Quail Run Park

23           Kansas City, MO                    Arvest Bank Theatre at The Midland * – SOLD OUT

24           Tulsa, OK                                Brady Theatre (KMYZ Birthday Party)

25           Frisco, TX                               Edgefest

27           Atlanta, GA                            The Fox Theatre †

29           Nashville, TN                         Ryman Auditorium † – SOLD OUT

30           Chicago, IL                             The Chicago Theatre † – SOLD OUT

 

MAY

1              Chicago, IL                             The Chicago Theatre † – SOLD OUT

2              Minneapolis, MN                 Carlson Family Stage at Northrop † – SOLD OUT

4              Milwaukee, WI                     Riverside Theater †

5              Detroit, MI                             Fox Theatre

7              Toronto, ON                          Sony Centre For the Performing Arts † – SOLD OUT

8              Montreal, QC                        Metropolis Theatre †

9              Portland, ME                         State Theatre † – SOLD OUT

10           Camden, NJ                           Susquehanna Bank Center – SOLD OUT

12           Louisville, KY                         Iroquois Amphitheater †

13           St Louis, MO                          The Pageant † – SOLD OUT

 

JULY

8              Portland, OR                         McMenamins Edgefield ‡ – SOLD OUT

9              Bend, OR                               Les Schwab Amphitheatre ‡

11           Berkeley, CA                         The Greek Theatre Berkeley ‡

12           Los Angeles, CA                    Hollywood Bowl §

15           Morrison, CO                        Red Rocks Amphitheatre §

 

SEPTEMBER

11           Boston, MA                           Blue Hills Bank Pavilion ¶

12           New York, NY                        Madison Square Garden ¶

13           Columbia, MD                       Merriweather Post Pavilion ¶

 

OCTOBER

3              Seattle, WA                           Paramount Theatre –SOLD OUT

4              Seattle, WA                           Paramount Theatre –SOLD OUT

5              Seattle, WA                           Paramount Theatre

 

w/Say Hi *

w/The Antlers †

w/Built To Spill ‡

w/TUnE-YArDs §

w/Explosions In The Sky ¶

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