The Swarm

October 18, 2007

Death Cab for Cutie guitarist Chris Walla's Field Manual on how to generate hype for a new CD...

TDS Editors

The Daily Swarm collaborated with The Playlist on this piece.

You’ve all heard about this story concerning Death Cab For Cutie guitarist Chris Walla, his upcoming solo album Field Manual, his confiscated hard drive of songs and Homeland Security, yes?

If not, the gist is this: Walla was in Vancouver recording his solo album (that’s been in the works for about 4 years now) and his label Barsuk hired a courier to retrieve the mostly-finished effort and bring it back to Seattle (something they’d done many times previous).

[According to the AP, “Barsuk needed the music to meet its production schedule, and a Hipposonic Studios employee volunteered to drive the mixed songs, on tape, and the original master tracks, on a computer hard drive.”]

Well, when their courier got to the Canadian border to enter the U.S., legit paperwork in hand like usual, U.S. Homeland Security confiscated the hard drive that stored his master files for “reasons not abundantly clear, and sent [then] to the department’s computer-forensics division for further inspection,” according to MTV News.

Walla was understandably upset and pissed off; no one likes their harmless non-terroristy materials confiscated by an overzealous government. “I couldn’t even venture a guess as to where [the hard drive is], or what it’s doing there. I mean, I can’t just call their customer-service center and ask about my drive. There’s nothing I can do. I don’t know if we can hire an attorney… is there a black-hole attorney? You can’t take a black hole to court,” Walla said.

Late yesterday, Mike Milne, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection said the forensics experts had examined the hard drive and it was free to go. “We have attempted to make two notifications to the importer to pick it up, that it’s free to go, but we haven’t heard back from him,” they said.

Ok, all well and good, right? But something else appears rotten in Seattle and this seems to be Walla’s label Barsuk (and in some cases Walla himself) using this Homeland Security issue to plug his upcoming record.

The confiscation was naturally random, you think any U.S. border guard knows or even gives a shit about Chris Walla’s solo record, let alone know who Death Cab For Cutie is? Walla even himself in the aforementioned AP said he believed the confiscation was random.

But on the Barsuk page for Walla, the label implies that the government may have known what they were doing, or perhaps provactively suggests a conspiracy of sorts?

“Interestingly, a strong political thread runs through the record’s lyrics; Walla takes more than a few shots at US policy, both at home and abroad, and challenges at least one senator to find the exit door….” they write, ellipsis left trailing off for you to come to… your own conclusions?

But, ok we’re not naive, of course they’re not suggesting a conspiracy, more like they’re using this issue to promote Walla’s album and that’s pretty lame.

The same U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesperson brushed off any sort of these implications. “These guys don’t even know who Death Cab for Cutie is, let alone that he’s doing political music,” Milne said of the border guards.

According a more robust version of the AP story at Seattle PI Milne did offer some explanations as to why the album might have been confiscated, noting that child pornography is sometimes shipped across the border in hard drives.

And – perhaps a more likely explanation – commercial items may not be imported through the Peace Arch crossing, but must go through the nearby Pacific Highway border point. Such commercial merchandise typically requires formal importing procedures.”

“Recorded music is commercial material,” Milne said. “Chris Walla is a commercial entity in a multibillion-dollar industry.”

This hasn’t stopped Walla from continuing to talk to the press about it though. In fact, by the time he gave interviews to MTV news and the AP about it this week – including choice quotes like “Luckily, the tapes are Plan B, so while I’m bummed about the whole thing, it could be a whole lot worse,” he laughed. “I still get to play music. I mean, I’m not at Guantánamo or anything like that. I mean, my drive might be. They could be water-boarding my drive for all I know.” – the entire incident had passed into history. Deadlines had been missed, but no intellectual property was lost (Walla had a backup drive at the ready anyway.) And according the US Customs, phone messages had been left for Walla and Barsuk to pick up the drive between Sept. 19 and Oct. 1 (the confiscation incident took place on September 19). So why is this whole hubub news this week?

Was this him throwing salt on a healed wound?

Wired is going out on a limb positing the hard drive may have been nabbed because it might have contained imagery involving instructions on how to create an improvised explosive device (this feels really weak and a stretch to us).

They use this MTV quote to further their case. “I’m calling it Field Manual because myself and the guy who designed the packaging were looking through all these Army field guides from World War II. And there was one that he found that was really terrifying, actually. It was basically a manual issued by the Army in the late ‘30s, early ‘40s, about how to build what we now call an [improvised explosive device] in Iraq or Afghanistan. Like how to hide a bomb in a bed or in a tube of toothpaste. Just terrible stuff, and I started having this feeling of, like, ‘Well, we need a new field manual.’”

But is this packaging actually on the hard drive? Wouldn’t it just be master files of music as Walla implied earlier in the MTV interview?

Meanwhile, the clumsy media is all over this story in some cases twisting it with stupid and irresponsible headlines that imply or even outwardly state that the U.S. Government stole his album because of the politically-charged content (let’s lump Wired into that crowd; that’s kind of retarded). Pop Death Cab For Cutie Guitarist into Google search and 131 related articles on this story come up.

Pretty good press for his album, no? Some cynics are seeing this as an active marketing campaign, and while we wouldn’t go that far, we do think Barsuk’s implications here are a little sketchy.

UPDATE: Chris Walla responded in an email to The Daily Swarm:

You guys should work over at ‘On The Media’ – good post.

There is, of course, a publicity element to this story – it’s a ridiculous and true one. The you’re-not-gonna-believe-this-but factor, as the thing was going down, was as high as any I can remember being involved in. The seizure of said drive did, in fact, affect the production for the album in a dramatic way; the window of time I was able to mix songs to meet the schedule was very small, and said event made it impossible to work in that window; the comprehensive safety was difficult to compile because of format challenges between the recording systems Warne Livesey (co-producer) and myself choose to work in (I’m the black sheep in file format terms, in that case).

The drive was just, and only, a drive, as I understand it – unmarked and unremarkable in every way. I’ve never seen it, I don’t know; but I very much doubt the drive had a ‘fuck Bush’ sticker affixed to the top, or even so much as a jpeg rendering of that sticker stored inside. It’s most likely that the the drive was seized because the courier went to a sub-optimal crossing point for commercial goods, and seemingly impossible that it was confiscated for any reason that would resemble a first amendment violation.

The curious bit, to all of us, was that the drive was confiscated but that the tapes (13 – 10” reels of 1/2” tape; clearly for professional use) were returned to Canada with the courier. This says to me that you can conduct any kind of cross-border business you’d like, as long as the border agent doesn’t understand or can’t imagine how or why an item would be related to any kind of commerce. It also says to me that I need to be more careful when I take my laptop across the border, apparently, because the working (formative, unmixable) version of the record was contained on it both going into and leaving Canada, and it could just as easily have been that. My Mac has a 120 GB hard drive in it, fully a third larger than the one in limbo, and my ‘personal’ and ‘professional’ lives are hopelessly intertwined on that machine.

I have not been in contact with US Border Security in any form regarding this issue – in a way, I’m a third party; my name may never have been uttered during this whole fiasco for all I know. Barsuk assures me unequivocally that US Border Security has not made an effort to get in touch with them, and I have no reason to disbelieve them; we have a pretty awesome working relationship of ten years now.

I do now have the files I need to complete the record. That much is true, and is very important. Barsuk, Warne and Zeitgeist Management have done everything they can do to ensure that much happened, but the drive is still in a black hole, and US Customs and Border Security is still an unnavigable swamp.

The incredible irony of this whole thing is that a border crossing wasn’t actually necessary (though it did seem convenient) for the transmission of these files from Canada to the States. Record producers use FTP servers all the time to upload tracks to one another – I mean, for fuck’s sake, Warne could theoretically have AIMed the entire record to me. From a Starbucks in Tokyo, if he wanted. The world doesn’t do all its business on physical drives, and you can bet that the next time I need to get a record into, or back from Canada, no portable hard drive will be involved.

Please send along an e-mail if you have any further questions or comments – readers, site, whoever. Clarity is important.

MTV News follows-up with US Customs and Barsuk:

Mike Milne, a representative for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, a bureau that operates under the Department of Homeland Security:

“I want to point out very emphatically that the U.S. government, this administration, the Department of Homeland Security and specifically [USCBP] does not censor musical content coming into the United States. Period. That’s not the reason this hard drive was kept,” he told MTV News. “We followed standard operating procedure… and when you start talking about… Guantánamo Bay, you get my ire up. I go on Google News, and I see 125 different news stories out there with the headline ‘Homeland Security Seizes Musician’s Music,’ and it strikes me as unfair. And I will be spending the rest of the day trying to contact those people — The Associated Press, the record company [Barsuk Records] and Mr. Walla — to ask them if they can set the record straight.”

Barsuk co-founder Josh Rosenfeld:

“I don’t buy the whole ‘politically motivated’ thing. They had no means of listening to the music on the drive at the time they confiscated it. In some ways, I think that whole side of things is a bit of a red herring. It seems like a funny coincidence,” he laughed. “I mean, a hard drive containing data, and if it was confiscated for commercial reasons, why would they let him leave with the tapes? There’s something that doesn’t make sense about the whole concept of it being confiscated for commercial reasons.

“The whole thing ranks somewhere on the continuum between questionable and clueless to me. And so I think that’s hilarious. It’s frustrating, sure — we’re behind schedule, but fine. But that isn’t going to affect the quality of the final product. And now at least everyone knows Chris Walla has a solo record coming out.”

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