In May, Death Cab for Cutie released its sixth album, Narrow Stairs, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard album charts. Accordingly, the Seattle quartet's musical star has risen, to the tune of upcoming tour dates with Neil Young and an appearance at his annual Bridge School Benefit Concert.
But in recent months, the band's name has been closely linked with politics: Guitarist Chris Walla and vocalist Ben Gibbard appeared at the Democratic National Convention in Denver, and the band is participating in the Ultimate College Bowl, a contest where the school that registers the most voters will get a free Death Cab show.
Walla — who produced local band So Many Dynamos' upcoming, February-released album The Loud Wars — personally blogged for Rolling Stone from the DNC and appeared on the cover of Under the Radar magazine's protest issue. In late September, he also took some time to talk politics and what many are calling the most important election of our time.
Annie Zaleski: I'm 29, and I've voted in several presidential elections, but I don't think I've had an election that I'm this passionate about and galvanized about.
Chris Walla: You're not alone!
Death Cab for Cutie was on the "Vote for Change" tour four years ago — and you're touring now. What's the biggest difference you've seen in people's mood or attitude between the two elections?
I think that has everything to do with the weight and the gravity of the Democratic candidate. I really, really liked John Kerry. I was really pro-John Kerry — and I was happy to cast my ballot for John Kerry, and not necessarily against George W. But I was, I think, in the minority on that. There just wasn't much passion around John Kerry. I think that his speaking style and the way that he was connecting — or not connecting — with people just made it really difficult for him to break through in any real way. It felt like two old politicians.
I've found it really funny that one of John McCain's talking points in the last couple of weeks has involved getting the old boys' club out of Washington. [Laughs] No punch line necessary. It's just silly. I think that Barack Obama doesn't just represent a change in the way that we approach or think about politics. Just in the election season, he's completely changed what it means to be involved in presidential politics at all.
It's strange, for a band like us, who was so necessary for Kerry's campaign in 2004 — like, I think that he needed as much creative class buoying as he could get. Barack Obama is his own rock star, and he doesn't need us necessarily to sort of energize the youth vote. That campaign needs us to make sure that all of the voter registration that everyone is doing turns into actual picks and actual ballots in November. But it's a completely different vibe, it's such a different thing.
I actually noted that Obama is a rock star, but in a different way that Bill Clinton was. Obama seems more like a relatable human figure — Bill was kind of like, "I'm an arena dude!" Barack's like, "I could be onstage at a little club."
He's an indie rocker, but he blew up. he got signed. [Laughs]
Parallels [to Death Cab's career]...
Just seeing the different kinds of people that are drawn to [Obama]. Like all legitimate phenomena, you can't necessarily draw lines between who is into it and who's not. It's like Harry Potter, it's like the Beatles. It crosses class and racial lines, and his appeal — just as a person, before you even get to policy — is grand enough that everyone gives him at least a second look.
Much has been made by the McCain campaign of [Obama's] words being empty words, it's all empty rhetoric, it's all bullshit — but [Obama's] got a really specific, brilliant legal mind. And when you start reading the way that he has worded the legislation that he's sponsored, and the way that his health care plan is actually laid out, it's amazing. He knows what he's doing. He's not super-good at translating that to the stump...I think actually just this last week, he's gotten a lot better at that.
Just looking at a bunch of different websites that spell things out... [the specificity] definitely struck me. I mean, health care? I'm a twentysomething, I have health insurance, and I feel lucky for that. So many of my friends don't, so many of my friends have been in jobs just for health care. It's scary.
It was really funny, Ben [Gibbard] and I played an SEIU [Service Employees International Union] health care rally when we were in Denver. When we first got asked to do it, I was really not quite sure if it was something that we were actually connected enough to, to really feel comfortable doing. But then as soon as we got there and started talking with them about how they're approaching the election, and sort of getting their talking points, it's like, "Oh wait, this is being in a band on tour." That's all it is.
All these people you talk about who are at risk of losing what little shirt they have at the end of every day should the tiniest thing go wrong, that's totally us. That was me until I think three-and-a-half years ago, four years ago. There's nothing remarkable about that. That's my girlfriend, it's the Dynamos, it's so many people that we know.
People on a mailing list I'm on were lamenting that even though everyone is very inspired by Obama, the musical movements are on a smaller scale than they were four years ago, it's a grassroots thing. Have you noticed that? Why do you think that is?
Again, it has everything to do with energizing the vote. In 2004, on the Vote for Change tour, our job was just to get press around the campaign and, like, try and get people excited about the campaign. Like "Everybody, come on, come on! We can't do this again, people, wake up!" There's no real need for that this time. Being on tour and watching the way that Obama's ground campaign works from city to city and state to state is unbelievable. There's so much presence on the ground, it's really fantastic.
And that's not the kind of help this campaign needs. A lot more of what you're seeing is bands playing at local rallies, I think that you're seeing bands doing things for local offices here and there. There are lots of side rallies — issue-type rallies, like the SEIU thing we did, unions and lobbyist organizations and that sort of thing, who are trying to push whatever their agenda is forward.
In a way, there's just not space, there's not room in the middle of the campaign for a rock band to take center stage. And I think that any rock band short of maybe Bruce Springsteen — and maybe nobody else — runs the risk of actually doing more damage to the campaign than good, given how well the campaign is doing on its own. In 2004, nobody could possibly have done any damage to John Kerry's campaign. It was all help.
The Decemberists got a bunch of heat, got a bunch of buzz on the conservative talk-radio circuit when they played that rally in Portland for 75,000 people over the summer. There was a lot of, like, "Well, of course Obama drew 75,000 people, because the Decemberists are the biggest band in Portland and they can draw 35,000 people on their own — and did you know they're Communists, because their name comes from the Russian Revolution of 1917, and they also advocate genocide?" It's crazy.
As I discovered when I was at the convention, any self-respecting politician who is protective of his or her career is going to do a double take and have their chief of staff do a little bit of research when they meet somebody from a band who has "death" in their name. In an election like this, we can't really do anything specifically with the Obama campaign for that reason alone. We're a pretty big little rock band, we might be one of the biggest little rock bands out there, but that doesn't mean that it's going to register with the public at large, if there's a "death" band on Obama's team.