When Cold War Kids released its debut album Robbers & Cowards in 2006, the California-bred band was met with praise. The record was gritty and bluesy, a deviation from the pop-punk bands that were overrunning California's musical landscape. That deviation was purposeful for guitarist/singer Nathan Willett and his bandmates, who were inspired to make rock music like bands from New York and England -- drawing inspiration from the Velvet Underground and the Smiths -- but with a modern approach.
Because the group broke that tradition of pop, it has been lauded as a band without a genre. Though Cold War Kids eschewed upbeat tempos for the first three albums -- Robbers & Cowards, Loyalty to Loyalty (2008) and Mine Is Yours (2011) -- its members realized that in order to grow musically, they had to take risks. And they had to make a ton of music.
With the energy of making music for music's sake, the band released Dear Miss Lonelyhearts (2013) and its latest, Hold My Home (2014), within a year and a half of each other. Those two albums presented another deviation for the group: a conscious effort to return to its roots, to blend the old with the new and to fuse rock and pop.
Cold War Kids' music has become a portmanteau of the upbeat tempos associated with pop and the heavier feel associated with rock. And while the group has gravitated toward a cheerier aesthetic, its brand of pop is still its own.
In advance of the band's show tonight at the Ready Room, RFT Music spoke with Willett about the ins and outs of Hold My Home and the ethos of the Cold War Kids.
Tara Mahadevan: How do you think Cold War Kids has progressed musically since your first album Robbers & Cowards?
Nathan Willett: That's a hard question. I guess I don't think about it in terms of progression, more in terms of exploration. I just think we write songs and it would be silly for me to say that we're musically more complicated or that there's a clear line of progression. We branched out and have taken a risk, but I don't know how to describe how we've changed.
Would you say, as a band, you've pushed yourself musically over the years?
We've always wanted to be a rock & roll band. I think what it means to push yourself -- it means a lot of different things for different people. We don't want to complicate things too much. It's about surviving and being able to make that next record and what happens when you're there -- you build on what you had the last time. I don't think you necessarily want to make it more complicated and you don't want to make it harder to understand. We love the kinds of songs that we write. For [Hold My Home], we somewhat tried to edit ourselves more and tried to simplify more and tried to make songs that are somewhat more like pop songs.
[Hold My Home] has this song called "First," which is a pretty good example. The thing with Hold My Home is the first few songs say what we're trying to do; like "All This Could Be Yours" and "Hot Coals" are a little bit heavier and darker songs. And then a song like "First" is much more of a pop song that is uplifting and direct -- I think we're going to keep both of those types of songs and keep doing them better as we keep going.
I noticed your last two albums overall are a little more upbeat than your previous albums.
We don't want to repeat ourselves, and we're proud of every song we put out and what we do. We want to grow but not depart from what we've done.
What would you say are the concepts behind your last two albums? Are they related?
I always like to let people be the judge of that, but the title of Dear Miss Lonelyhearts came from a book that I read that had a lot of concepts, places, images and a lot of religious stuff -- spiritual stuff, love and dark stuff -- stuff that's always been in the music, but that I felt with that book. [Dear Miss Lonelyhearts] was what that was about.
Hold My Home, I think, does not have literary ties to it. It's more personal, more something that came from inside.
I read that for you, your third album Mine Is Yours was also personal. Did you pull from similar places with that album and Hold My Home?
It's hard to say. Our records have fiction and nonfiction in them. I don't think Hold My Home is as personal as Mine Is Yours -- there's probably more fiction in Hold My Home, and more abstraction in it as well.
There was only a year and a half between your last two albums. That's a lot of momentum.
Matt [Maust, bassist] and I had a side project called French Style Furs that we did in between, too. We put out a lot of music over the course of that year and a half -- we had Dear Miss Lonelyhearts, the French Style Furs record Is Exotic Bait and Hold My Home.
There's something about, even the nature of what we're doing here, doing an interview, trying to think beneath the surface about the concepts -- I think there was a point for me, just realizing I'm in a tailspin of trying to inject meaning into things, because a lot of times you have to write the song and the meaning comes after. You don't always bring to it a big overarching story. I realized, let's just keep working and not sit back so much and ask what it all means. But you're working and seeing what comes out. That's always the most interesting part: Some songs aren't going to be as effective or profound as others, but you have to keep working. That's how we got so much done in the last year and a half.
Continue to page two for more.
Is that something you're newly embracing now, to just put out as much music as humanly possible?
Yeah definitely. We all were touring constantly for the first many years, and it was a necessary side to that. I also think there's a side of it that completely grinds down your creative drive. It took you forever to get home and get back into some kind of pattern where you feel inspired again, versus touring a little bit more reasonably and always being able to keep your head on, and always being into something that's inspiring you, and always keeping your writing going.
That's what we figured out. If you're Radiohead and you're doing OK Computer and you need four years to do it, then that's great, but I think that's also about knowing who you are and knowing that we are not that. We are guys who are ready to go in and do our best and have fun.
Part of Cold War Kids' appeal in the beginning was that you weren't part of a particular scene, especially coming out of California where pop-punk was prominent. Do you see yourself as part of something now?
I don't really see us as being part of a scene. When we started the band, we started going on tour right away. We toured with Dr. Dog a lot, Elvis Perkins -- I felt like we learned more and had more in common with these bands that we weren't geographically anywhere near. We learned a lot the first few years spending time with those bands. For where we were and what we were doing and how we thought about ourselves, we really didn't have any common ground. I think it probably made it a lot harder on us, not having other bands around to stimulate and push us to think different and be better. It is what it is.
We did have a specific vision for what we are doing. As far as what brought us together, the fact that we didn't like any of the music, what we've grown up with -- "Hotel California" and all that, it was the most popular music in the world. We wanted to downplay our having been from there and instead listen to New York bands and London bands, not really wanting to be a "sunny" type of band.
Even though Cold War Kids has been on the same label for years, you remain pretty independent and record all your own music. How does that independence play into the mindset of the band?
We always were incredibly lucky to be on the label that we were on, because we could take care of ourselves in terms of just getting it done and finding where we wanted to work, and who we wanted to work with -- we were particular about all that. We've always been very self-sufficient, always did our own stuff before we had a label to depend on.
A lot of bands get a certain energy from reacting from their labels, feeling imprisoned by them, and we've never had that. We've never really had a reason to hate the music industry at all, so that is pretty unique. I will always say we've had an enormous amount of luck that comes with the hard work. But ultimately, a young band that's driven and can figure out its own thing -- you won't be so mad at a label because you won't be leaning on them so hard, and you'll be able to do what you need to do.
Cold War Kids 8 p.m. Thursday, January 29. The Ready Room, 4195 Manchester Avenue. $22. 314-833-3929.
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