Band business is hard on the wallet

Guitarist Chris Walla of Death Cab for Cutie during his interview with Kai Ryssdal in Marketplace's Frank Stanton Studios.

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Kai Ryssdal: The sequel to the hit teen vampire movie "Twilight" opens a week from tomorrow. "New Moon" will be in theaters November 20th. It's got the familiar cast of characters and a soundtrack, actually, that's not so bad. It's loaded with songs from a bunch of indie bands including a track from Death Cab for Cutie.

Soundtracks on movies or TV have become a great way for bands kind of on the margins to hit the mainstream. Death Cab's guitarist and producer, Chris Walla, is here to talk about doing business as a band.

Good to have you with us.

CHRIS WALLA: It's nice to be here.

Ryssdal: Did you ever think back in the early days of indie rockdom when you were starting this band that you guys would be on a teen/tween movie like this new "Twilight" film that's coming out.

WALLA: Are we in that movie?

Ryssdal: Well, you guys not, but the music, right? You know.

WALLA: Yeah, I never thought we would be part of anything like this. It's pretty strange to be part of something that such a massive, cultural juggernaut.

Ryssdal: Do you capitalize on that? Or are you just going to ride it and see what happens?

WALLA: In terms of where we are as a band, it sort of more for us I think really just cool to be involved in something that is such a huge thing. It's just an exciting thing to be able to do 11 years into our career.

Ryssdal: Not the first time down this particular pike. I mean, you guys were on "The O.C." for a while. And that was huge.

WALLA: "The O.C." was really interesting because we got that request before the pilot for that show had even aired.

Ryssdal: Oh really.

WALLA: Yeah, we didn't know anything about "The O.C." And nobody knew anything about "The O.C." when that request came through. That was just an opportunity to be part of something that was new, and seemed like it might be OK and at least not damaging to our career.

Ryssdal: You are also the producer of this band. And this is something I have always wondered, and I didn't really understand it until I got into radio. But how do you produce a record album? I mean what's involved in that?

WALLA: Being a record producer is, it's a lot of different things. Like I sort of feel like I'm a yes man, and I'm an enabler, and then I'm the bad cop. And then I'm the dealer. And sometimes I'm the, I mean it just goes on and on. It's like I'm a babysitter, I'm a psychologist. It's anything to get a performance that makes my heart jump.

Ryssdal: How does that work though in a group of four people who have been together for 10 years who when you guys are on tour you're living, eating and sleeping. And that whole deal.

WALLA: It's insane. It's a terrible thing to do. I could never recommend it.

Ryssdal: But you do it actually on the side, too. You do a bunch of smaller indie labels, and indie bands and all of that.

WALLA: I got into this band by way of recording. Like when I maxed out my first credit card, I didn't buy a guitar, I bought a tape machine, and I bought a microphone and a couple of mike pre. And I sort of went that route. That was always the thing I was really interested in.

Ryssdal: Yeah, you know, it's actually interesting that you bring that up, this whole credit card maxing out thing because you were up in Portland, Ore., this past Monday doing a live event with our personal financial Marketplace Money. They're doing a special program on personal finances for kids. But I have to imagine that being in a successful rock band is about the best thing that ever happened to your personal finances.

WALLA: It is the best thing that ever happened to my personal finances, that's true. But the process of getting to that point is the worst thing that you could possibly do to your finances.

Ryssdal: How so?

WALLA: Because you have to max out a bunch of credit cards with the hope that someday those credit cards will...I mean, it's layers upon layers of risk.

Ryssdal: Yeah, when you mentor and produce these younger bands, do you give them the personal finance shpiel and say, listen this is a bad way to do this. Do it another way. Find a better way to get yourself up and running.

WALLA: The thing that I always try and impart on bands who are just getting started is that your band is a business, and you have to treat it like a business. Even if you're playing for 10 people, and tickets are $5, and you lose money on the show. If you are making T-shirts and you're selling t-shirts to people, your band is a business. And there is a lot you can do in cash just under the table, but it gets to a point really quickly where that gets to be tricky.

Ryssdal: Chris Walla. He's the guitarist and the producer for Death Cab For Cutie. We're going to go out on your new single off that Twilight album. "Meet Me On The Equinox," it's called. Chris, thanks a lot.

WALLA: Thanks a lot, Kai.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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