Cold War Kids recently celebrated a decade of existence, no small feat in an industry that often eats indie bands alive.
Unsurprisingly, those 10 years have been marked by soaring highs as well as substantial speed bumps.
The Southern California band burst onto the scene in 2006 with Robbers & Cowards, a stunningly mature debut record buoyed by Nathan Willett’s powerful vocals and song-story lyrics, along with a quirky, soulful rock sound.
However, the group’s next few releases—Loyalty To Loyalty (2008) and Mine Is Yours (2011)—saw a change in style that left some critics and fans scratching their heads. For the 2012 record Dear Miss Lonelyhearts, Cold War Kids got their mojo back, inching closer back to the style that made their debut so arresting.
And the band’s fifth studio album, Hold My Home, released last October, is a full-out return to form—upbeat, anthemic tracks such as “All This Could Be Yours” and “First” are among the group’s finest work, signaling that Cold War Kids are again at ease in their own skin. Revisiting their roots has brought a new sense of confidence and comfort, as Willett sings on the title track, “I’d like to hold my home where the seasons never, ever change.”
The band weathered some lineup changes in recent years, losing two original members. Guitarist Dann Gallucci (formerly of Modest Mouse and Murder City Devils) and drummer Joe Plummer (ex-Modest Mouse and The Shins) jumped onboard, and touring keyboardist/vocalist Matthew Schwartz was named an official member.
Gallucci worked for Cold War Kids doing live sound prior to becoming their guitarist, and has also produced the group’s last two records, giving him intimate knowledge of what makes the band’s sonic engine go.
Willett has stated that this lineup transition included some internal handwringing over the direction of the band, but one listen to the confidence displayed on Hold My Home should reassure fans that everyone is currently on the same page.
I recently chatted with singer Willett as Cold War Kids prepared to hit the road for the latest leg of the Hold My Home tour, which sees the band hitting Terminal 5 on March 20. Willett discussed the mindset behind the new album, his handling of self-doubt and creative pressures, as well as his recent side project, French Style Furs.
Hi, Nathan—how’s the tour going so far?
It’s been going really good. There are always those moments of doubt before we go on tour where we’re thinking, “Are people going to come see us again for the tenth time?” (Laughs) But that’s a lot of our fans—they’re multiple-show kind of people. We’re playing at Terminal 5, which is a big room in New York, and it’s sold out again. We were like, “Damn!”
Have the crowds on this tour mostly been the Cold War Kids veterans, so to speak, who have been there since day one?
Yeah, there’s a lot of those, but there’s also been a lot of people who have discovered us at different points in our career. So, it’s cool.
Hold My Home has been out for a few months already. Now that you’ve lived with the newer songs for a while on the road, do they take on a different meaning for you?
Yeah, definitely. I think that always happens when you finish a record and you have maybe 11 different songs, you have an idea of which ones you’ll want to play every night. But it always kind of shifts, and after a few months you can tell the ones that you still look forward to playing. And it’s cool when they’re songs that aren’t the single. “Hot Coals” is one of those songs that people sing along with immediately. The instant that the song starts, there’s a reaction that happens and you’re like, “Whoa!” You don’t know that’s coming when you’re in the studio working on it.
I sense some parallels between the material on Hold My Home and your debut record—in many ways Hold My Home seems to be your most direct batch of songs since that first album.
I agree with you, but when doing press a lot of people are saying the opposite, that there’s been a huge change since the beginning. But I think this record, sonically and arrangement-wise, it’s sparse and minimal and immediate. And definitely the first record is the only other one that’s also been that way. So I think they’re very connected. I think it was a deliberate choice, us saying this [style] is something that fits us very well, so let’s keep growing within those boundaries that we started with.
Was going back to basics related in any way to the lineup changes you’ve had in recent years?
I guess it wasn’t done consciously, but in hindsight I do see how maybe that was going on. We had two new members come in, and also our touring keyboard player officially joined. So essentially having three new guys, in some ways it’s like a new band. It had a huge effect.
I think that for the experience that all these guys are bringing from all of their bands over the years, there’s a sense of purpose and really wanting to do the best work we can do. As opposed to when we started, the original four guys wanted to do the best we could, but it seemed like there were lots of questions concerning, is it OK to want success as an indie rock band? And not knowing if we’re really in it for the long haul, or if success was something that was OK to want. I think now, there’s much more of a sense that we know why we’re doing what we’re doing, and we’re really comfortable with this moving forward.
It must have helped a lot with the transition that Dann had a big connection to Cold War Kids before becoming your guitarist. Him knowing your band so well must have helped the chemistry.
Definitely. I don’t think we would have survived as Cold War Kids without that transition. Dann had really big shoes to fill as a guitar player, and as producer. We had done records with different producers, and put a lot of trust in them, since none of us had an engineering or production background. So, we really needed somebody who knew our strengths and who knew how to move forward from where we were at. Around the time he came in, after the third record, there was a lot of doubt about who we were and what kind of songs we should write.
With the Cold War Kids sound, your vocals are very prominent in the mix, and since listeners can hear everything that you’re singing, the lyrics become very important. What kind of pressure does that put on you as a songwriter?
I’ve always been a lyrics person. I’ve always loved Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen and my attachment to a lot of music starts with that. It’s a strange thing—at the beginning of writing a song, they are very much for me, and when you’re playing live you wonder, are fans really deciphering them?
The first record reached a lot of people, but the ways people interpreted the lyrics, we were under a lot of scrutiny for there being religious themes. There was one album review that had an enormous effect on people’s interpretations of the lyrics. After that, I think I got a little gun-shy about the storytelling aspect of it and the narrative and how much of that to put forward, because I was aware of how much it could be misinterpreted. But I feel like I’m finding that place between wanting to inject all this narrative and meaning, and not wanting to be too heavy-handed about it, so the song can breathe.
One track that really stands out on the latest record is “Harold Bloom.” It’s a very melancholy and sparse song. Could you talk about your inspiration for that?
I think I’ve always wrestled with a lot of self-doubt and been aware of criticism. I also was a literature student in school, and I had all these critical theory classes. And I just got to a point where I started hating criticism, because it can suck the joy out of a beautiful piece of art. So that song was about trying to overcome that analytical side and just let yourself be. And Harold Bloom has been the most famous literary critic, so he became the symbol of that song.
I always wonder what an artist’s thought process is in the studio. I presume that they’re creating art for themselves first and foremost, but how much do they let those outside influences seep in—thinking, “Are my fans, or critics, going to like this song?” It seems like that can really mess with your head if you let it.
Definitely, and I think it’s one of the inevitable things about doing what we do. There isn’t anybody who’s not aware of what people think of their music. I don’t know if you read the Bob Dylan speech that he did at the Grammys—one of the things he said is, he’s totally been paying attention all along to what people have been saying about him. It matters to him that he puts a record out and people appreciate it in the way he hoped they would. And that’s not always going to be the case. But I think the artist’s relationship to the audience is a fascinating thing. I think a lot of the songs I’ve written have dealt with the topic of trying to create something and get an idea out, and the amount of doubt that you have to overcome.
Can you talk about your side project, French Style Furs, which features your Cold War Kids bandmate Matt Maust, along with Nathan Warkentin of We Barbarians?
When we did the Dear Miss Lonelyhearts record, we were on tour a lot, and Matt and I have an old friend who lives in New York City, with a studio in Greenpoint. We were always in New York for shows, so we started this recording project that was just fun, and for Maust and I, it opened up a lot of doors for Cold War Kids in terms of being creative together, and not being worried about where it was going to lead or why.
There are a lot of weird elements to it. I was using the poetry of this guy Thomas Merton—a monk in Kentucky, who was a very famous Catholic writer. We finished the record and had Nick Launay mix it, who’s done Grinderman and Arcade Fire, and we always wanted to work with him. And we just decided to put it out really quickly, and then instantly moved on to the next Cold War Kids record. It’s really hard as an indie rock band to try to turn people on to your side project. It’s a lot of work. And I think in some ways we didn’t get to do as much with it as we’d like to, but I hope that people are able to discover it.
Cold War Kids will perform at Terminal 5 in New York City on Friday, March 20. For more information, go to coldwarkids.com.