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Originally published Tuesday, January 29, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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The Death Cab for Cutie guitarist releases his solo CD, "Field Manual"

The Beatles, in their last years, grew tired of their hysterical fans and stopped doing live shows. The Texas singer-songwriter known as...

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Chris Walla's new music online:

http://myspace.com/ chriswalla

http://myspace.com/ barsukrecords

The Beatles, in their last years, grew tired of their hysterical fans and stopped doing live shows. The Texas singer-songwriter known as Jandek and a few other reclusive artists have released albums without touring.

While Chris Walla is neither a hysteria-producing sex symbol nor a mysterious recluse, he is staying home and not giving tour support to his new solo album, "Field Manual" being released by Seattle's Barsuk Records today. He's simply too busy.

Walla, a charter member of indie-rock heavyweights Death Cab for Cutie, has been immersed in the new Death Cab album. So rather than getting out on the road with his new record, the Death Cab guitarist-producer is promoting "Field Manual" with a few phone interviews, like the one he did last week with this newspaper, while he tinkers away at the final mix from a basement studio in his Portland home. That's where he settled last year, fleeing his longtime home of Seattle.

You might say that, like death, taxes and spam, solo albums are inevitable. The 32-year-old Walla, after a string of increasingly successful Death Cab albums, decided he needed to get bits of songs that had been floating around in his head written and recorded.

"More than any specific direction for the record, what was more important for me was to finish the record by any means necessary," said Walla, who is also a highly in-demand producer, working with bands like the Decemberists, Tegan & Sara and Nada Surf.

He describes his "Field Manual" lyrics as "political but still really personal. With the exception of 'The Score' they're mostly not protest songs, [but] observations of stuff at the forefront of what's on my brain." He sings all the leads on the dozen songs, and played most of the instruments himself.

The solo album, he said, is "a little schizophrenic, all over the map. The Death Cab record feels much less like that. I was trying to explore all those places that I'm interested in, all sorts of different things Death Cab never gets near. That's the biggest thing. I think it's a really sort of scatterbrained variety of stuff. Sometimes it works to its advantage, sometimes it's more like a mix tape."

Asked what song on "Field Manual" is the most removed from Death Cab, Walla picks "The Score." His reasoning: "In part topically, in part presentation. That's one for sure — I sort of had this idea, like how a hook turns around on itself."

And what song on the new Death Cab album is least like his solo record? The stream-of-consciousness-inclined Walla mulls it over out loud: "There's a couple songs on the Death Cab record I don't think I would be inclined to approach the way they were approached. ... " He decides the one most different from his solo work is an untitled "really super Beach Boys-like 'Pet Sounds' kind of thing ... sort of an orchestral presentation."

Walla describes the Death Cab-in-progress — it's scheduled to be released in May on Atlantic Records — as "a heavy, dark record." It includes "a 10-minute single ... with 5 minutes of no vocals at the top."

Over the last six months, he has returned to Seattle often, as Death Cab recorded at drummer Jason McGerr's new studio and Robert Lang Studios.

His homecomings are bittersweet: "I miss [Seattle], then I go back there and I don't miss it any more. I just don't understand it — I stayed in a hotel on Eastlake, South Lake Union, and the way that the growth is happening in that neighborhood is so bizarre to me. ... The mix of businesses is so weird. I like a vibrant, high-population urban core — but is it industrial? Is it biotech? Residential? Is there entertainment? Is there no entertainment? It's really confusing to me.

"Honestly, I thought I was going to miss Seattle a lot more. I grew up between Seattle and Bothell, and even when I was in Bothell I was on the bus to Seattle every day. ... It's a beautiful town, I love it, but I don't miss it. My life is — I don't know, my quality of life is actually better in Portland, in a measurable way."

He admits that, when he first started talking about moving from Seattle to Portland, "Everyone was a little worried about how it would work out logistically with the band — a lot of times [a band member moving] is the precursor to 'the bad record.' But it has worked out really well.

"We're all in our 30s, and the part where the band has to live in the same house and argue over who does the dishes is definitely over. And we live on top of each other in a bus for as long as we're on tour — and it's great. We give each other space, and it's a really good, good feeling thing."

Now that Walla shows he can sing on his solo album, and considering he's been doing backup vocals for years, will he be taking any leads on Death Cab songs?

"That will never happen," he answered with an uncharacteristic firm tone. "I'm not the singer in the band. That's just a straight-up job description. ... I don't write the words, and I don't sing. I do a lot of other things, and that's perfectly great. I love the relationship our band has, and I don't have a desire to be the singer in the band — I think we would have broken up if that was the case."

Lightening up, he laughed, and concluded: "That's what solo records are for."

Tom Scanlon: tscanlon@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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