Death Cab for Cutie guitarist Chris Walla first got involved in politics as a teenager trying to repeal Seattle’s Teen Dance Ordinance in the early Nineties, and he has remained active ever since. At this week’s Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, you could have found him in the stands cheering along to the big-name speeches, and he expects to be involved with the 2012 Obama campaign both as a performer and as a concerned citizen.
In Charlotte, he talked to Rolling Stone about his ongoing political activism and the surprising electronic direction of his new solo project, which he hopes to finish before beginning work on a new Death Cab album next year.
How did you get involved with politics?
I’m a firm believer that politics is a thing that you start in your town by way of going to city council meetings and trying to change policy on a local level. I spent a bunch of time as a teenager in trying to repeal the Teen Dance Ordinance in Seattle. In 1990-92, I was underage while the biggest scene of a generation was happening in my town, and I wasn’t even able to see it.
Wasn’t that a famous battle?
It was, and it finally got repealed, and the all-ages situation is much better all over the state of Washington. That’s kind of exploded into interest into what can actually happen on the federal level. Federal politics feel really remote and distant, but in another sense, whatever happens on the Supreme Court has real implications for all of us every day. And whoever the president is, he is obviously in charge of who ends up on the Supreme Court. That’s why this is a particularly critical election.
Did you come to the Democratic Nation Convention as an observer?
I’m not here in any official capacity. I’m sort of here more to figure out how to get the president reelected, and how it is I can help in any way I can.
As an artist in a band or a concerned citizen?
I’m like a J-list celebrity. I’m not even the singer in my band. I’m doing what I can in whatever way that I can. I am often amazed at how the littlest stuff actually ends up feeling really much more monumental than it seems like it should. Like having a [campaign] field office visit on tour is kind of a moving, life-changing experience for me. I’ve done a few of them this year.
Is the band active right now?
We just got done with a year and a half album cycle. We’re probably going to do some fundraisers for the campaign. Ben is doing a solo tour in October and November.
In 2008, there was a lot of involvement from musicians and artists in the Obama campaign. Will that happen this time around?
It seems like there is a lot less of it. Four years ago was a once-in-a-generation moment. It was so iconic and so different from what anyone had ever seen, regardless of generation or perspective. It was just a very different thing. While I understand that there is not as much obvious enthusiasm this time, I do hope that people can recognize that any perceived lack of progress has so much more to do with what has happened with the abuse of Senate rules than with the actual policy of the president.
It’s also important to point out that while the president’s achievements are pretty notable and impressive, getting out in front of something like “don’t ask, don’t tell” is leadership. Just telling the country that you feel that a marriage should be between any two people that want to get married – that to me is a leader.
When a band gets involved in politics, how much are you able to bring your audience along?
In a perfect world, that is the reason for doing it, but in a lot of cases just having it be a part of the conversation is an opening. Even if we are not changing anybody’s politics, perhaps we are bringing the concept of what politics means and how government can affect our lives. If we don’t open ourselves up to that conversation, that’s where the disconnect happens.
Does it matter that Obama is aware of pop culture and knows who Jay-Z is?
I think it does. When the level of awareness of pop culture that the opponent has is limited to “grits y’all,” the choice is pretty clear.
Aside from politics, what are you working during the Death Cab break?
I’m rebuilding my old studio in Seattle. I was in there from 2000 to 2005, Death Cab until 2008 – as a practice space. When we moved out, the Fleet Foxes moved in. Robin [Pecknold, of the Foxes] was moving to Portland at the same time I was moving back to Seattle, and he was like “Hey, do you want the studio back? Ha ha.”
It was either going to fall over or somebody was going to commit to making it a safe place for drums and guitars. It’s kind of a historical building. [Nirvana’s] Bleach was done in there. The first Pearl Jam demos were done in there. Sleater-Kinney, Blonde Redhead, Modest Mouse. That is my big cause of the moment. I’m going to be a guinea pig and try to finish a solo record.
What kind of solo record?
I figured out that all the electronic music that I’m super-into is pre-Midi, pre-screen stuff – all those old sequencers and drum machines. It’s all a totally linear process. Early Eighties: The Chaka Kahn records, Chaz Jankle of the Blockheads, the Yellow Magic Orchestra records – the stuff that starts here and just goes someplace else. It’s something that James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem did really well, but he’s one of the only modern dudes who’s done much with that philosophy.
Will fans of your Death Cab work recognize you in that?
I don’t have any idea, and for the first time, I really don’t care. My first solo record was such a “I-have-to-make-a-solo-record” kind of experience. I’m really proud of the writing on a lot of that record, but I feel really weird about the presentation of a lot of it. I had my blinders on. This is just super fun. I kind of don’t give a shit if ever gets done or if it ever gets out. I’m just really enjoying it and it feels awesome.