On tour for Narrow Stairs, Chris Walla and Death Cab for Cutie bring musical gems and political smarts to the Fabulous Fox

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.

Death Cab For Cutie: Nick Harmer, Ben Gibbard, Chris Walla, Jason McGerr.
Ryan Russell
Death Cab For Cutie: Nick Harmer, Ben Gibbard, Chris Walla, Jason McGerr.

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.

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