Chris Walla of Death Cab for Cutie talks So Many Dynamos
In brief: So Many Dynamos returned nearly a month ago from recording at Tiny Telephone (the studio owned by John Vanderslice) and at the house of Chris Walla, guitarist/keyboardist of Death Cab for Cutie -- and a big studio geek who's worked with the Decemberists, Tegan and Sara and the Thermals, among others.
Walla had plenty of good things to say about the Dynamos, so here are some other choice quotes of his about the band. While you're reading, please enjoy some old-school Death Cab for Cutie songs, courtesy of Barsuk Records.
On drummer Norm Kunstel:
He’s such a force of nature. It’s so much fun to record him. Physically he’s the best drumer I’ve ever recorded. It’s incredible the way that his brain is tied with his body. The stuff that he can pull off is so insane.
"Title and Registration," from Transatlanticism:
On being in the studio with the band:
In the process of trying to write a song, they would just discard -- without a second thought -- half an album’s worth of material. The kind of shit that most bands would give their right pinky finger to write. [laughs] Every single idea that got thrown out was something fantastic, something that really had a good, gooey candy center to it, that could have been developed into something. They screw around with it for a second and somebody goes, ‘No, I’m not into it’ and they throw it out -- without thinking twice about it, it’s gone. [laughs] It was kind of infuriating a couple of times, just, ‘Fuck, you guys! This is awesome, I like this, I want to listen to this! Please make this so I can liste to it!’ It was this completely selfish sort of thing.”
"A Movie Script Ending," from The Photo Album:
On what he likes about Flashlights:
I had the same reaction to the EP that a lot of people had: ‘Wow, this sounds a lot like the Dismemberment Plan.’ Then [with] When I Explode, I had that reaction, but to a lesser degree. And I was intrigued, but I wasn’t yet totally roped in. But with Flashlights…that touchstone is still there, but it’s a record. It’s an album in the way that nobody makes albums anymore. It’s cohesive and the writing is really good. All the throughlines both melodically and lyrically are really strong.
“And the presentation of the record is so…it’s so engaging. There are so many technically minded bands that are so obtuse and anti-social. The records they make don’t want to be your friend, necessarily. But the Dynamos are really exceptional at making technical, bizarre music that’s still somehow really inviting. I love prog-rock, I grew up on that stuff. Death Cab flirted with that for some period of time -- and then we realized we weren’t good enough players to pull it off. It’s such the rare occasion that a band can marry something that’s so technically proficient, with songs that just make you want to sing along with them.
"For What Reason," from We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes:
On the Dynamos’ throwback studio techniques:
They’ve never done any ProTools stuff. They’ve never done any editing. I record so many bands now where it’s like, it’s expected that when you’re working on their music, it’s part of your job description as a producer and engineer, to fix all the performances. In the days of Fleetwood Mac and Queen, you’d get into a performance and it would be like, ‘Is that good enough?’ And the answer is, ‘No, it’s not good enough. Do it again. Let’s get it right.’ Whereas these days, it’s like, ‘Is that good enough? Yeah that’s good enough.’ Because we can fix it, we can change it.
It’s the rare occasion that you run across a band who’s so comitted to getting performances right. I talked with them about this…you listen to those Queen records, those guys, they sang that stuff, and they played that stuff. “Bohemian Rhapsody”? That’s all real. There’s nobody fucking around in that song. The Dynamos, they can do that stuff. Nobody can do that stuff anymore. It’s really cool that they grew up recording on tape, just making it a point that everything they do is a real thing and it’s a real sound and a real performance. It’s totally unusual.
"Song for Kelly Huckaby," from The Forbidden Love EP:
I feel like them finding a relationship with a booking agent that will make friends for them is really critical to how well they do moving forward. They’re so good onstage, it’s just dumb. It’s so stupid. We talked about this the other night -- like, Death Cab for Cutie could take out So Many Dynamos, and they could open for us, but I don’t know if it would do them any good, in a way, for the place that our band is at. We did four weeks of shows with Ted Leo last year, and it ws really tough, it was kind of heartberaking to find out, that it’s not like…it’s not the same kind of party that it is when you’re playing six and seven hundred capacity clubs where it’s like, ‘Hey, you like our band, you came to our show, here’s a band we like. Hope you guys will dig, buy the merch.’ Its just not like that. When there’s four, five, six thousand kids filtering in and scratching their heads while Ted Leo is on stage? We were totally baffled by that. Because Ted Leo is awesome – he plays these incredible punk rock songs, he’s a great writer, he’s totally charismatic onstage. And it was blank stares for a month. It was totally, totally weird.
"Champagne from a Paper Cup," from Something about Airplanes:
On whether he feels like a role model to the band:
I don’t. But I do feel more like a producer on this record than I have …on a lot of things that I’ve done. They know exactly what they want to do, but then they don’t have any idea what they want to do. They want to experiment, but they want results. And they know how to do the experiment part, and sometimes they know how to get results, and sometimes they don’t, it seems like. I don’t know. I was concerned going into this, because I had sort of just signed on as a fan, knowing that I wanted to do a record with them, really not knowing much about their operating status or operating philosophy.
We’ve clicked really well. If they don’t need direction, I’m not there, I’m just hitting the record button. But as soon as they need it, I can tell that they need it, and I can step up and help. When I help, they recognize that I’m helping, and they listen. They want the help.
They only want to learn. They soak up so much shit, it’s just incredible. They don’t miss anything. It’s so, so good. It’s really fun. I’m learning a ton from them, too. I’m learning just what a good band they are. There are lots of good bands, but it seems like there are so few of them who really know how to play together, where everybody in the band can really hold their own. Where they’re all really necessary to one another and the process. I can’t imagine any one of these four guys not being in this band. They contribute prety evenly, they totally check one another – if something’s not working, somebody will say so. There’s a little bit of sad panda every now and again when that happens, but that’s always the case.