Death Cab for Cutie Grow Up On 'Codes and Keys'

Guitarist Chris Walla tells Rolling Stone that the band was 'struggling with the idea of home' when they wrote it

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In the three years since Death Cab for Cutie released their last album, the Washington-based rockers have been busy – and not just working on their seventh LP, Codes and Keys. Since 2008, every Death Cab member has undergone a Major Life Change: frontman Ben Gibbard and bassist Nick Harmer got married (Gibbard to actress Zooey Deschanel); drummer Jason McGerr had a kid; and guitarist Chris Walla relocated from Portland to Seattle.

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So it makes sense that the band’s new album (out May 31st) wrestles with the idea of belonging. “We’re struggling with the idea of home,” Walla tells Rolling Stone, adding that the new tracks – like first single “You Are A Tourist,” a sprawling, echo-y ode to feeling displaced – are more hopeful than the tunes on 2008’s Narrow Stairs. “Stairs was a pretty bleak offering, but this record is inviting in a way we haven’t touched on,” he says. “It continued to be fun to work on all the way to the end, which is seldom the case with any record. That has a lot to do with what the songs are about.”

Recorded in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and Vancouver – the band switched studios every six weeks, with two-week breaks for family time between moves – Codes highlights another big change: Death Cab ditched their trademark folk-rock strums for analog synths and a string section. “It feels very Seventies electronic,” says Walla, who cribbed “drone noises and non-traditionally musical junk” from Brian Eno (one of his teenage heroes) and LCD Soundsystem. “We wanted to explore how bands were using machines in the pre-computer era.”

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The band also snagged producer Alan Moulder (My Bloody Valentine, Jesus and Mary Chain, Smashing Pumpkins) to mix the album, a collaboration that came together after Walla cold-called Moulder to ask if he could send over a couple tracks. ““His sounds are really weird and all over the map, but they’re so signature,” says the guitarist, who dug Moulder’s recent work with Arctic Monkeys and Nine Inch Nails.

The resulting tunes are big on rippling, kinetic riffs (“Home Is A Fire”), spare drums (“Doors Unlocked and Open”) and even falsetto “ooh-oohs” (“Some Boys”). Despite lonely sounding lyrics – “Doors” repeats the word “isolation” and the narrator on the Eighties-inspired “Underneath the Sycamore” confesses to being a “wretched man searching everywhere for a homeland” – Walla says the songs are positive. “Even good transition is stressful, because it causes a change in your identity,” he says. “But there’s no trauma in any of it.”

From The Archives Issue 1127: March 31, 2011