Interview with Nathan Willett from Cold War Kids: Taking Risks

If you’ve ever had that feeling that “something’s missing,” you know how Cold War Kids singer Nathan Willett felt writing songs for the band’s new album, Mine Is Yours, via Downtown Records. Willett and band mates, Jonnie Russell (guitar), Matt Maust (bass) and Matt Aveiro (drums), had worked hard on previous their records, Robbers & Cowards (2006) and Loyalty To Loyalty (2008), but Willett realized there was something more he had to do on Mine Is Yours. It was time to get personal. Willett talks about taking risks.

Your new album deals a lot with personal relationships.

I didn’t feel as connected to the lyrics for the second record as I wanted. Even though I worked hard, I just felt like I didn’t know where to go from there. So it took a while writing this record until I realized that something more revealing and more personal was what I needed to do to shake things up and give me that feeling of risking something.

What discoveries did you make once you put relationships under a microscope?

One thing I learned, as far as things being more personal, is it’s one thing to tell a story and not have to take responsibility for how it actually connects to your own life and another to try to go out and say it. While someone in my life could hear it and know that something is maybe about them, it also has to take place in a moment. And in a way, a moment is always an embellishment of the grand scheme of the relationship. You have to trust that the way you feel in a moment is a thing worth telling and while it may not be as true tomorrow, it still was telling in the moment. That’s definitely a big lesson, I think, for me. It made things fun for me to realize there’s definitely a risk involved in singing these songs a year from now on tour or beyond and feeling like, “Man, why did I say that?” You just have to deal with it.

How is Mine Is Yours different musically from the last album?

Well, on the first two albums we put a real emphasis on recording them live and having a real spontaneous aspect. We would write the song in our little rehearsal space and go record it. We’d spend a week or two on those records and do them quickly. We don’t love to be in the studio for long stretches of time and didn’t want to over think things for the first two records. For this one, we went in with no finished songs. We just went in with ideas and it was musically a lot different. Jonnie did a lot more layering of guitar and I did a lot more singing things over and over to get them right. Just everything as far as the production of it, spending a lot of time with piano sounds, guitar sounds, drum sounds. It was a very different experience. We wanted things to be just right.

Name some favorite songs on the album.

“Skip the Charades” is one of my favorites. We were watching a lot of movies at the time. Cassavetes and Woody Allen movies, like Husbands And Wives. A lot of movies about things like infidelity and commitment and growing older that became themes on the record. That’s why “Skip The Charades” seems to represent a lot of those things well.

The song “Mine Is Yours,” is in ways, a really different one for us. I think fans of our first two records are either going to really love it or hate it because it has a more straightforward feel. It doesn’t have the looseness of previous ones, but in ways it embodies the themes of the record, the joys of sharing a relationship and the challenges.

“Cold Toes On The Cold Floor” is another one of my favorites. Playing that song live has been a lot of fun because it is the most like our previous albums, where it is kind of loose and we can improvise a lot.

You worked with producer Jacquire King (Tom Waits, Kings of Leon, Nora Jones, Modest Mouse). What’s one thing he contributed that was different?

It was interesting going in with him because of the different artists that he’s worked with. Just from Tom Waits’ Mule Variations alone, I have this respect for the kind of sound that he has. I think he puts a lot of faith in artists to really come up with the answer that they know is in there. The secret to a good producer is really hard to pin down. I think they know how to make an artist confident in their choices. It’s like when you have a teacher in the room, students feel much more comfortable.

You were an English teacher. Name a book that got you excited?

So many. Reading J.D. Salinger books, I mean especially as far as the teaching side of things go, because I actually did do Catcher In The Rye with high school juniors. To read that book in school on my own, then to actually try to teach it to high schoolers, who find it harder to relate to the language, gave me a whole different appreciation for Salinger. I really loved him a lot. And then David Foster Wallace was a guy that I always like. Discovering him in college was one of the most exciting writer experiences.

What’s a memory you have from teaching? Anything rewarding?

Yeah, so rewarding. So many funny memories. Let’s see. There was a kid who was a junior who I ended up exchanging a bunch of emails with later on, once our band was touring. I didn’t even know that he played music when he was a student. He was writing because I think I pulled him aside once and said, “Hey I know you’re a much better writer than what you’re doing and I know you’re treating this like you’re bored with it and you don’t really care about it, but you should really work at this.”

It was just that kind of stuff that I didn’t think a lot of at the time. I was doing student teaching and wasn’t a fulltime teacher, but I would take risks doing stuff like that. I think it was because I felt so close in age to the students. He ended up writing me about how that was really important to him and challenged him and that now he was trying to make it in music. That was really cool.

What’s one of your earliest music memories?

I remember the Stand By Me soundtrack when I was really young, being in the car with my dad listening to it. It’s a song that has a very emotional vocal performance, and to just sing along to it, having no background in music or anything like that, I remember having this feeling of like a smirk and also a little shyness about really belting it out. And the feeling of what if my dad was like, “Whoa, what is he doing?” The shyness it made me feel is something I always remember, which I guess in a way is a metaphor for how music was to me for a very long time. It was something extremely special, but also really private.

Cold War Kids perform at Radio City Music Hall on March 24. Their new album, Mine Is Yours, is available now. More info at