On Every Rock Band’s Eventual Urge to Go Electronic

02/15/2011 1:47 PM |

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News comes this morning that after three years of near silence, Death Cab for Cutie are set to release their seventh full-length, Codes and Keys, in May. The album is being mixed by famed My Bloody Valentine producer Alan Moulder, and it’s said to be a departure from the guitar-heavy indie rock they’ve long been known for, with a more pronounced focus on, you guessed it, synths and reverb.

This many albums into their career, it’s not difficult to understand why they’d want to shake things up a bit—somewhat more perplexing, though, is why, at this point in time, long since electronic music has established itself as a cultural force and a huge influence on many different styles, it’s still the first place artists look when they want to try something new. Even more perplexing than that? Why do none of them seem to realize that the move to electro-centric stuff is every bit a cliche as just going ahead and being a straightforward guitar band? And more specifically, why do artists in this position, even the really smart and talented ones, always seem to talk about what they’re doing as if they’re the first ones to do it?

The answer to the first part of that—why do they do it?—is pretty simple: going electronic is the quickest, probably the cheapest, and easily the most widely accepted way to alter your sound, either slightly or completely. For the past decade-plus, there’s generally been one electro-minded scene or another playing a prominent role in the larger conversation about music, from the early-00s electro-rock of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs et al, to the chillwave stuff that’s still so popular today, so it also always seems like a smart, sort of timely decision, and one that, for bonus points, you can say was inspired by a love of super-cool 1970s Brian Eno records and not, like, Toro y Moi or whatever. Or you can try, anyway.

But I still can’t quite wrap my head around why, exactly, the artists who make the move toward electronics seem genuinely unaware that what they’re doing, these things they’re discovering, are only new to them, and thus continue talking about them like they unearthed some great musical secret. In a recent interview with the BBC (which Pitchfork linked to this morning, and which I have included for you below), Chris Walla speaks excitedly and eloquently about the new Death Cab album, explaining some of the changes they’ve implemented.

“We’ve tried to keep the space really sort of empty,” he says. “I don’t think there’s a single guitar on the whole record that just strums through. We’re filling up spaces with synths and reverbs.” For me, this sounds not unlike someone saying “We’re doing this thing where we play really quietly during the verses, and then when it comes time for the chorus, I step on my overdrive pedal, and it gets really loud. And then we repeat that three or four times.”

My favorite part of the interview, though, is when he says, “I grabbed a piece of shortwave static from something and tuned it, and it sits in the back of the song. It’s this weird glue, and you’d never pick it out.” The shortwave radio thing in particular jumps out at me: like, it seems safe to assume Chris Walla has probably heard Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, right? And that he’s probably even seen I Am Trying to Break Your Heart?

Now, to be clear, I’m not suggesting they should unplug their synths or throw out their reverb units altogether—artists should obviously make whatever type of art they’re compelled to make, at whatever point in their career they’re compelled to make it. But I do think bands should spend more time considering how capable they are of speaking about a different type of music without reverting to clichés. One can only assume it will have a direct impact on their ability to write and and play it without doing the same.

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