In this week's paper, I talked to Chris Walla of Death Cab for Cutie about politics. You can read that article here, but below are some outtakes of us discussing political bands and the protest song and its function in the age of mass media and the Internet. Don't forget, Death Cab is at the Fabulous Fox Theatre on Monday night with Fleet Foxes opening! Tickets are still available.
Annie Zaleski: There’s such a long tradition of protest songs. Ted Leo just did his EP against the RNC violence. Does the protest song have less importance now than it maybe did in the ‘60s and ‘70s? Is it more important to go on CNN now than to write a song?
Chris Walla: I’ve thought so much about this, and I talked about this a bunch when my solo record came out in January. My favorite show ever – and it’s one of the only shows I podcast regularly every week and that I listen to without fail – is On the Media. It’s produced out of WNYC, it’s an NPR show, it’s a weekly look at what the media’s doing and how things are being covered and not covered, and what’s being missed or not missed. They’re really edgy. But they’re definitely not partisan. They don’t take any prisoners.
"Title and Registration"
They ran a story after the Virginia Tech shooting last year, that totally blew my mind. It was all about this concept of the Script, with a capital S, and how in terms of modern media and media coverage…seemingly everything that we deal with from day-to-day has a Script, now that we are a good, solid fifty years into the TV age, and in the age of mass media. There’s been one of just about everything. People know how to respond to different kinds of things. There was this whole thing about Virginia Tech – and certainly never to diminish the weight of that tragedy, but the [On the Media] story was about all of the things that people were saying and how the media was covering it.
They approached the show from this, “Haven’t we seen this before?” sort of perspective, all the way down to the shooter -- about how he was obsessed with the Columbine killers, he was obsessed with film, he presented himself in these videos like a mercenary he had seen at some point. All the interviews sort of touched on things you hear now pretty regularly whenever there’s a massive tragedy, and how there’s a default that we all sort of get to when you don’t really know how to respond to something, or when something clearly needs a response that maybe is out of the norm, and requires some sort of organizing.
This is all the long way of saying that I think that’s really true for lots of other corners of what we do. I was so fascinated with the idea then of the protest song. I had really been hung up on how I wanted to write a political record, but I definitely didn’t want it to be a protest record. I didn’t want it to feel like a Billy Bragg record… I didn’t want it to be a Midnight Oil record, or a Ted Leo record even. I was having the hardest time figuring out why that is.
I think that it has to do with this idea of the Script. And because people know that Script so well, and remember that Script – if even as a hand-me-down script, even anecdotally from Vietnam, this idea that—the way that the media covers protests now. It’s the editor and the producer and director’s job to find the wing-nuttiest people in the protest and single them out. It’s such a simple and easy talking point, that as soon as you say that word, that’s all that you end up talking about with your music. I think that that’s a lot of what deters people from doing it.
"Soul Meets Body":
And also, it’s the fear of just being wrong, and just not having your facts straight. I think that’s why guys like Ted Leo are so amazing at it, because…I don’t think he’s an encyclopedia of policy, but he’s certainly an encyclopedia of history and of social issues and all of our activist traditions. He’s just got a sense of timing that nobody else I know seems to have. So yeah…it’s a really convoluted thing.
People are afraid of being seen as, like, the Freed Weed guy…people are afraid of being seen as “bongheads for Jesus” with whatever issue they might raise in a song and however they might raise it. It has everything to do with mostly lazy media and the fact that we sort of feel the need to have everything boiled down to the simplest of talking points. Nobody wants to be pigeonholed like that. That’s my terribly long answer to your very simple questions.
It’s not a simple question, though. The same mailing list I was on, they were almost attacking bands for not being so active, “Why isn’t anyone being bold enough?” to do this stuff. Look at R.E.M. -- they did all of that political stuff in the mid- to late-‘80s, and they were known as the hippie political band. It overshadowed the music. Ted Leo can get away with it, because he’s so intelligent. If you said something, he would say, “X, Y and Z.” It’s in his DNA, it’s just part of who he is. It’s sort of becoming part of my DNA. I think I’ll be totally comfortable with it and probably writing protest songs by the time I’m 50, which will make me completely obsolete and useless as a protest singer.”
Grow a ponytail… In 2004, when Living With War came out, the Neil Young record, it was like…that was the greatest protest record that came out in or around that period of time. And how sad that the greatest protest record that came out around that election was written and performed by a 60-something. Dude is a genius, he’s totally amazing. And I love that record, I love it completely and absolutely. But it was really disheartening when that was pointed out to me. Thank God that Living With the Living came out when it did. That record has really stuck me, that last Ted Leo record.
"I Will Possess Your Heart":
Who else do you see carrying on the torch? Ted’s touring with Against Me!, and at first I was like, “That’s kind of weird.” But then I’m like, “That makes total sense.” That Against Me! has gotten so big has really been interesting to me. They’ve toiled for years and years and all of a sudden it’s like, they’re everywhere. I don’t know who’s next. That’s really hard to say. Even all of these bands that we’re talking about, they’re well into their 30s. I can’t think of a band that is full of …the bands that are full of 21-year-old kids. Okay, here’s something I’m just formulating right now, hear me out. If you were 21 in 1963 -- sort of the middle of the “there’s power in a union” folk movement, at the cusp of moving, I guess from Newport Folk of old into Newport Folk of the Dylan era -- the most radical, powerful thing you could do at that point was doing what Dylan did at Newport Folk in 1965.
Is plug in his guitar. Yeah, exactly. But the most radical, angry 21-year-old thing you can do now, is completely unlistenable. And absolutely acceptable. Part of the reason why it doesn’t end up registering until much later with the public conscious…I don’t doubt there are a lot of kids writing songs who are really politically active, but I sort of wonder…it’s like, clearly I’m not hearing them. [laughs] I don’t know where they are. I just have this feeling that they are the angriest of hardcore bands, and that there’s not a real vehicle for the public at large to get to them. I could be sounding like a total old fuddy-duddy right now, I’m not sure.”
Oh I don’t know either. I’m almost 30. What are kids relating to? I don’t know. This is coming from somebody too…my favorite band of five years ago was the Blood Brothers. I’m not shy, I’m not afraid. I just don’t know where to look. The only writers that I know who are really boiling this down in any sort of succinct way…they’re all adults. They’re all people who have been doing this for awhile. Billie Joe Armstrong is still absolutely a punk rocker, but he’s writing some really political songs. But he’s also an Adult, with a capital A. He’s a dad. He’s not…if he is the voice of American youth, then I really want to hire whoever is doing their marketing.
When I was in junior high, they were talking about what, masturbation? Yeah, yeah right! I just heard that song the other day and I was struck by how far Green Day has come. [laughs] It’s amazing.