There’s almost a full minute of silence after I ask Chris Walla my first question. It’s the kind of silence usually reserved for bad phone connections, an accidentally activated mute button or one person delivering an oblivious line of Michael Scott proportions. So after a few beats I ask Chris Walla if he’s still on the other line, and he is. He’s thinking.
His connection’s fine, and he’s not offended. Rather, after I ask what’s got him most energized these days, he a lot to think about. Walla left Death Cab for Cutie in 2014 with more than a decade of history in tow. As if that wasn’t jarring enough, he relocated to Norway with his wife, recorded a gorgeous LP of looping tunes titled Tape Loops, and then began scoring Matthew Ogens’ forthcoming film North. When he finally starts speaking, I get the same feeling described by musicians who’ve worked with the producer and former Death Cab for Cutie multi-instrumentalist: when you’re talking to Chris Walla, his attention is yours.
That sentiment extends to music in Tape Loops. The sprawling, beautiful LP sees Walla taking a defiant step away from anything that might resemble any over-glossed track on pop or indie-radio alike. Part of that is thanks to Walla’s process: The songs we hear on Tape Loops are, expectedly, born from the analog format. Born out of meditative studio sessions, the loops you hear on this album were hand-cut by Walla himself—a process that requires a creative mind, a razor blade and one very steady hand. The tunes themselves patiently unfold over track-lengths as long as 11 minutes—not unlike Brian Eno’s Ambient albums or Trent Reznor’s Ghosts. They’re gorgeous from a surface-level listen, but headphone-clad listeners will be rewarded with the delicate loops that shift along with their landscape. To put it more simply, you’re probably not going to hear much like it this year.
Paste: You’ve had a ton of massive changes recently. Creatively or otherwise, what has you most excited in life right now?
Walla: I think continuing to focus more on just exploration right now. I mean, I’m just having a lot of fun. Rather than seeking out records that move me, I’m kind of having fun trying to make that music myself and sometimes finding people to make that music with.
Paste: What has that exploration looked like for you, specifically?
Walla: The thing about the process that’s important to me is that it was a physical experience. I like working with my hands and I like tactile stuff. I like playing the guitar and the feeling of the hammer hitting the piano string and cutting tape with razor blades. I think continuing to find ways that I can stay connected to music through that as I make my way in a world that is increasingly interested in touch screens. That’s kind of the challenge, I guess.
Paste: Is it disturbing to you that those things are becoming less and less a part of the process in the mainstream?
Walla: It doesn’t bother me that that’s where people are at. That’s fine. There are lots of truly great records being made [right now]. Music still moves people and it doesn’t matter if it gets made on an iPhone. That doesn’t matter. When I’m able to zoom out and be honest with myself about what I do best—the computer’s not it, but I have to work there. That’s something that I need to do, but it’s not something that I choose. I also don’t want to take that away from anybody, a lot of people are so good there.
Paste: With that being a big part of recording, had you felt conflicted in your production work?
Walla: It’s a sliding scale. It’s that some sort of external influence is always there in any of the work. But how loud it is and how invasive it is changes from band to band and song to song. Sometimes it’s minute to minute in the studio, it’s a really fluid thing. I’m finding more and more that the moments that are the most moving and the most successful—the things people ask me about the most are the moments when I was the most focused on my own personal experience. And I think that’s important. It’s a really important thing to keep in front of me, moving forward.
Paste: You’ve described making Tape Loops as a therapeutic process. What did you learn about yourself?
Walla: I think that music for me started as a really private experience. It started as an escape as a kid and a teenager, but as you get into creative relationships, that private experience becomes more and more open to criticism and interpretation and everything else. I think that’s really good. It’s healthy. But finding the balance between that and where you come from is healthy. Figuring that out is kind of a journey. Everybody at some point has an epiphany, I think it’s the definition of a mid-life crisis, that they’ve lost touch with some piece of themselves that was very important for them at some stage in their lives. I think for me, in this case, just reconnecting with the private, small inner intimacy of music and what it means are what I get most excited about and is most pleasing. Chasing that exclusively, knowing that the next project that I do is more collaborative and less like that. Knowing that I get to take that experience into my next record, and the next record I make will be the better for it.
Paste: Was that part of the inspiration to get out of the country? Not having musical connections surrounding you?
Walla: No, not at all. My wife got into a University program in Norway. The thing that’s really cool is, we’re discovering a really interesting musical community out there. It’s really cool, and there’s a lot going on up there. It’s really interesting culturally and socially. There’s a musician community up there, there’s a studio community up there. That’s not why I ended up there, but it is kind of work.
Paste: Did you bring a studio set-up with you?
Walla: There’s a cart-load of stuff that went over. It’s kind of half-set up at the moment. The process of furnishing the apartment was primary, but when I head up at the end of the month, the studio will be the focus for myself.
Paste: I guess that’s sort of a real-life desert island scenario. What were your must-haves?
Walla: There’s a pair of speakers that I particularly adore—it’s like, I suppose it was all the really practical stuff, but maybe not the stuff that’s the very most inspiring. I guess because the stuff that’s the most inspiring is also the largest and the most cumbersome [laughs]. We’re getting there.
Paste: With loop-based music like we see on Tape Loops, what stirs you as a listener?
Walla: I get excited about humanity. I get really bored when I sense that there might not be a person around. Like, if it’s something that could just go without any sort of input while the artist gets a cup of coffee or checks his email, that’s when I check out. There are a couple of automated, non-input type processes that I like. I love it when there are two non-coincident loops that are on top of each other, and you never end up in the same place twice. It’s always different because the loops are different—that’s really interesting to me. But I can watch paint dry. I like that sort of thing. But I do get most excited when I can feel engagement through the speakers when I can see when someone is there.
Paste: Over the years, we’ve seen the rise of drummers or other band members triggering looping samples on stage—how does that fit into that engagement?
Walla: That’s just a part of the kit in that place. There might be a loop in there somewhere, but it’s a piece of a very very human puzzle in a way that. It’s like, just because you’re wearing a wristwatch doesn’t mean that you’re a robot. I haven’t really thought about it that way. I really don’t mind computers, and I’m not mad at them [Laughs]. Aiding, facilitating making music is good. I get bored when it seems like someone just pushed a button. That feels perilously close to something dangerous that I can’t articulate, but I don’t think that’s the thing that’s happening the most. That seems far in the back.
Paste: You were limited in using analog equipment in making the loops for this album. Instrumentally, were there any lines you drew? Were there things you wanted to rule out?
Walla: Not really. I played around with a lot of stuff, like drums and percussion. I didn’t rule anything out, not even computers. But as I moved forward, it just felt like a screen would screw up the flow as I got into it. I found a process that really made sense to me. All of the decisions I made instrumentally, I tried to stay focused on the music and tried to pay attention to what the pieces wanted.
Paste: I read that a lot of the writing and recording sessions went on for up to 10, 12 hours in a day, just focusing on the material in those pieces. Did you feel like you were allowed time to allow the music to express itself fully?
Walla: No, not at all. It’s all been important for me, whatever record I’m working on. There are moments during the record when I’ll ask the band or artist, however it seems most appropriate, that I need some time to make it work—to get my head wrapped around it, to have it make sense to me, to find a connection to it. That’s reasonably common, to me. But the motivations are very different in production situations with an artist. Like, the motivations are like, if I’m working on a record, my desire to spend a 10-hour day on something comes from me not being able to reconcile what I’m hearing when I press play on the track with what I’m hearing the band tell me what they’d like it to sound like or what their hopes and dreams are for the track or where it’s at. I feel like it’s my job to bridge that gap, to bring those things closer. With a record like Tape Loops, I’m literally just cutting a path out of the brush. Sometimes with a butterknife, sometimes with a machete. I really don’t know where I’m going until I’m there. So much of it is like you’re carving a path through the weeds, and there’s more weeds, and then all of a sudden there’s a path and I’m done. Part of the fun of it is not understanding how you get there. I guess that’s the big difference between making a record like this that’s very personal versus making something that’s definitely a capital P product, because you do know when it’s done because someone says it’s coming out. It doesn’t matter if I feel like the Grand Canyon might just be another couple dozen hacks of the machete away—we are where we are.
Paste: You mentioned earlier that mid-life crisis definition. Did having forces tell you when a product was done—to not get to reach that Grand Canyon feeling—have an effect on you?
Walla: To be clear, I wouldn’t term this record as a mid-life crisis record. There was a lot of discovery. I think I understand what you’re asking: Like I said earlier, that external influence is such a grey scale. I think in some ways, this record was an exercise in trying to figure out how far to the no-influence side of that scale I could get. It’s on that side of the scale that I think I can really get in touch with myself. There’s that question that people ask themselves: There’s that feeling that you get to a transition point or a question mark at the creative process. The question becomes, well, what do I do? And then the question becomes, well, what would I do? And then it becomes silly, because I am me, so what would I do? But it’s crazy how hard that question can be to answer, and you have to make decisions. By nature, I’m an indecisive person, and that’s just part of my spirit. So, fighting my way through that is part of the fun. I think having that experience in private, I think it’s really good for all the other stuff that happens on the other side of the spectrum. It’s really good to keep in touch with myself while I am fighting through—I shouldn’t say fighting, but navigating—that project with other people.
Paste: Can you tell me a little bit about working on North? What’s that process been like for you?
Walla: It’s so different from any kind of creative relationship that I’ve ever had. When you’re producing a record, there’s a kind of “in charge” that the producer is over a project. It’s so fun to be kind of in charge of my own little corner of it, but being a much smaller part of a much bigger thing. It’s so interesting. It changes my motivations and desires about how I want my music to sound and how it sits against the picture. And it’s cool to feel like all of that is lined up with the director, and to feel like the director and editor and producers are all on the same page. It’s so different and so interesting to be in such a different place in someone else’s creative process. It’s fun.
Tape Loops is set for an Oct. 16 release via Trans Records.