To a certain sub-sect of their fans, Cold War Kids are a dyed-in-the-wool indie rock band, all piano stomping and shouted, soulful hooks, To another, they’re a pop-rock hybrid commodity, blending production sheen with big-business choruses and pristine guitar shimmer. There’s no wrong answers here, but there’s a lot to be said about the kind of changes that Cold War Kids have made since their humble beginnings in the upstairs of an apartment block in Fullerton, California back in 2004.
The last few years have seen three new members of the band have entered the fold – Matthew Schultz and Dann Galluci taking on guitar and keyboard duties; former Modest Mouse drummer Joe Plummer now behind the kit – and have also seen their style incorporate a poppier, more accessible turn. It’s resulted in their first-ever number-one on any sort of chart – last February’s “First,” from their fifth album, Hold My Home – and also a wider exposure to an entirely-new audience. Ahead of completing work on album number six, the Kids will return to Australia for the first time in three years this March; heading up some of their own shows as well as performing at the truly-gargantuan Bluesfest.
Taking a quick break from a newly-busy schedule, we spoke with Nathan Willett – lead singer, guitarist, pianist, songwriter, lyricist and one of two founding members still in the fold – about the progression the band has made since its debut, being veteran newcomers and a certain black messiah that Cold War Kids are sharing a bill with next month…
Music Feeds: The last two Cold War Kids albums – Dear Miss Lonelyhearts and Hold My Home – came within pretty quick succession of one another; but they’re coming up to three and two years removed, respectively. Has the band been working on new material in the interim?
Nathan Willett: Absolutely, we have. We’ve actually spent the last month in the studio, getting our shit together and laying some new stuff down. With any luck, we’re going to have something out before this year is over. It’s sounding really good, what we’ve got at the moment.
MF: Have you been playing any new stuff live recently, just to try it out? Or have you been more focused on preparing these songs in the studio?
NW: We haven’t played any songs at all. It’s actually been kinda nice, because we haven’t been touring as of late, so we’ve just been focused on writing and making these songs. It’s been good to have a bit of respectable distance from everything else. It’s allowed us to really flesh out our ideas.
MF: What brought on the relatively-quick follow-up to Dear Miss Lonelyhearts in the form of Hold My Home? It was an unprecedented thing for you guys to work so quickly – was it simply a matter of striking while the iron was hot? Was it opportunistic?
NW: In a way, I guess it was. I think Dear Miss Lonelyhearts had a new energy to it for us – it was our first record with Dann as a part of the band, and I think we had a new attitude and energy. In that time, Matt [Maust, bass] and I had released a record with a friend of ours under the name French Style Furs. It was a really fun, really spontaneous kind of thing. I think it really cracked a lot of how we work open and helped us to say yes more. We don’t have to slave over everything for ages and ages.
There are other ways that we can work. Pop music is pretty simple, in a way – if the energy is hard, it takes a long time. If the energy is great, then you’re probably going to create something great. We’ve been doing this for a really long time now, and we’re learning a lot about what it takes for us to find that positive energy. It ebbs and flows, but as long as we have some semblance of it there, then we can make it work.
MF: “First,” from the Hold My Home record, has ended up being one of your most successful songs to date: A #1 position on the Billboard alternative charts, 4.5 million views on YouTube and use in movies and television. Has it been an interesting experience for you to have this kind of success at a relatively-late period of the band’s career? You’ve been performing as Cold War Kids for over a decade now, and there are still people that are discovering you guys for the first time…
NW: Yeah, it’s a trip! [laughs] It’s very interesting to us. “First” has done so well for us, and it’s totally blown us away. Even now, I think we’re one of those bands that people don’t quite know how to categorise. I mean, the music that we’re making isn’t all that complicated, but we’re kind of diverse and versatile enough that we can be seen as a pop band, as a rock band, as an indie band… I think, for that reason, we can often slip through the cracks. We have kids coming up to us after shows or writing to us online being like, “Why hadn’t I ever heard you before?!?”
I’m starting to think it might be because of that reason. Some people who’ve been listening to us for a long time seem to think that we’re underrated. I think it’s a compliment? [laughs] I dunno, man. The world’s just such a big place. There’s so much music out there. I think sometimes we have been passed by or ignored by some circles. To have people still discovering us? That’s exciting.
MF: On the note of having been around for such a long time – this year will mark a decade since the release of Cold War Kids’ debut album, Robbers & Cowards. There are a lot of songs from that record that still hold up today as some of the best singles of the era – “We Used to Vacation,” “Hospital Beds” and “Hang Me Up to Dry.” What are your reflections on that record now, with a comfortable distance and a clearer perspective on that time in your life?
NW: I guess, in some ways, making that record will always be the most special experience. I mean, we were so green. We had no idea what we were doing. It’s a record that is passionate, that is in the moment and really puts it all out there. We were making music like it was going to be the only album we ever made. It was definitely a great time in our lives – I think we’ve spent the rest of our career trying to chase the feeling we had when we were making that record. The energy is so fresh and it’s so special.
MF: Personally, do you have difficulty connecting with songs from that era when you sing them now? How much of yourself do you see in the man you are now that’s left from who you were when you wrote Robbers & Cowards?
NW: It’s not so much difficult… it’s definitely different, though. We have so many songs. We have so much music that we’ve written… at a certain point, it all kind of goes into a blender. You start to genuinely wonder what you were going through and what you were thinking when you wrote a certain older song… you don’t so much lose touch with your past as you do genuinely forget where you were coming from or what you were trying to say.
After ten years of singing a song, you tend to step outside of it. You start to gain a different perspective on it. You have a different relationship with those songs. You start to wonder about the issues you were working out – all these little thoughts and narratives – and you learn more about the song. You learn more about yourself, too.
Those early days were especially interesting from a live perspective – you and Jonnie would both swap between guitar and piano, often in the same song; and it was quite busy and frantic to watch. Jonnie’s not in the band anymore, but you have Dann and now also Matt Schwartz on guitar and keyboards. Has the live show been tidied up somewhat since you converted from a quartet to a quintet?
NW: Oh, man, absolutely. [laughs] We just didn’t think! We’d work on songs at the time and just add in organ parts or whatever, not even realising that someone would have to figure out how to run over and play it when we were doing it live. Those early days, on our first two records, the shows were really busy and bustling. I think, with this line-up, I’m a lot more focused on primarily being a singer. I still play guitar and I still play piano for certain songs, but a lot of the time I’m just singing without an instrument. It’s actually really kind of assisted me in becoming a better frontman.
MF: What constitutes a Cold War Kids show these days? Do you find it at all difficult to try and mix-and-match as much as you can between each of the five albums – not to mention the handful of EPs in the mix, too?
NW: Definitely. I think you learn, over the years, what songs tend to work well; but you also figure out what songs you enjoy the most. Sometimes, they’re songs that no-one remembers – including your band-mates – so you have to rehearse and play it to a mass of mostly-confused faces just for your own satisfaction! [laughs] I love it, though. It makes me think about being in a band like Pearl Jam, who can play two completely different sets – not have one song crossing over – and them both be two-and-a-half hours long. That, to me, is as cool as it gets. We don’t quite have that range, but we do try and mix it up as often as we can.
MF: That leads us into Bluesfest, where you will be performing this coming Easter long weekend on what is possibly the biggest-ever line-up assembled for the festival. You’ve been out to Australia a few times, both as headliners and as a part of festivals. One can imagine you’ve developed quite the bond with the place…
NW: We have, yeah. We’ve been so lucky with all the times we’ve gotten to visit. The first time we came over, we found out that we’d been played on the radio and we had this massive following. We were honestly shocked. Every time since has been such a pleasure – we’ve played some really cool little clubs and we’ve also played these big, beautiful theatres. We love all of it.
MF: Is there anyone at Bluesfest that you’re hoping to check out while you’re on ground?
NW: Oh my God… D’Angelo. We couldn’t believe that we were on the same poster as him. I’m so, so thrilled to get to see him play. I listen to [his most recent album, 2014’s] Black Messiah so, so often. I adore it. I think it’s so incredible. Honestly, if we weren’t on the bill I’d probably be coming to see him, anyway!
Cold War Kids play Bluesfest 2016 as well as a string of their own headline shows, grab all the dates and deets here.