When Death Cab for Cutie takes the Bumbershoot Mainstage for its Sunday-night headlining performance, the band will be playing old material, revisiting its decade-old indie classic Transatlanticism. But there’s something new about this concert as well. Death Cab has never before played an album in order, from top to bottom. Chris Walla, the band’s guitarist and a noted producer, talks about what makes Transatlanticism different from the band’s earlier efforts, and why it’s the perfect album to play in its entirety.
What was the biggest decision you made when recording Transatlanticism ?
I think that album marked the moment that we knew we were really a band and that we wanted to keep doing it. So much of that had to do with the change in chemistry when [drummer Jason McGerr] joined the band. After having a half-dozen drummers in the band for the first, like, four or five years of our existence, Jason provided a gravity and a grounding for us. Ben and Nick and I all love one another and we always have, but man, trio dynamics are so weird. I think they’re weird for anybody. We’re all strong personalities and we’re all very vocal and we all have different perspectives, and I think that’s part of what makes us a decent rock-’n’-roll band, but Jason’s confidence and his experience and his sort of Zen fly-fisherman outlook on everything was absolutely necessary for us at that moment.
Is there any point on the album that really shows Jason’s influence?
I think the arrangement for “The New Year” is a good example of that. It was kind of like, “All right, fuckers, here’s what we’re doing.”
What I think is remarkable about the album is its sequencing. It feels perfect. How do you decide the order of the songs?
I’ve always liked found objects. I’ve always enjoyed putting together bits of paper and string and paper clips and bailing wire and nuts and bolts and whatever else is around to try and make something beautiful. Likewise, rather than force round songs into a square hole song by song as you make a record, and compromise how those songs feel and what they’re doing individually, it’s fun to let the songs be what they are, and then take stock in the end and go, “OK, where’s the album?”
With 11 songs, there are a lot of different combinations you can come up with. It’s pretty easy to find the bookends, though. Like we always knew that “A Lack of Color” was going to be the closer, and it became clear pretty quickly that “The New Year” would be the opener. But for everything in between, we wrote all the song titles on a piece of notebook paper, cut them out, and put them in a little envelope in the control room. Whenever someone was bored, they would pull them out and make a new running order. And eventually you get attached to little blocks of songs. Like the “Tiny Vessels”/“Transatlanti-cism”/“Passenger Seat” grouping felt really great as a unit pretty early on. But it’s a lot of shuffling the pieces around, literally.
Have you ever played this album in order live before?
No, we’ve never done that before for any album. As close as we ever got was a few years ago when we played the first five songs from Something About Airplanes in a row, and people were super-confused. I’m really excited to play this album from top to bottom. I feel like it’s the only one of our albums that really would work like that.
Death Cab for Cutie plays Sunday at 9:45 p.m. on the Mainstage.