Growing Up With Cold War Kids

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Published April 1, 2011

COLD WAR KIDS DURING A SOUND CHECK AND BACKSTAGE AT A RECENT SHOW. PHOTOS BY AARON STERN

The Cold War Kids have never quite fit in. The Long Beach-based band doesn’t have that trademarked Cali pop-punk sound defined by their regional peers. (In fact, they’ve crafted their sound as a direct rejection of the groups that came out of the OC.) And the band very famously met at Biola University, an evangelical college, but refuse to call themselves a Christian band (“We are Christian the same way that Johnny Cash is Christian,” says bassist Matt Maust). And though the newest edition of their Southern-tinged oeuvre, this year’s Mine Is Yours, was produced by Jacquire King, the quartet actively rebukes any comparison between them and King’s other project, Kings of Leon.

But playing gospel rock that refuses to preach gospel or garage rock that doesn’t stay lo-fi doesn’t make the Cold War Kids directionless drifters: in fact, after nearly six years of hitting the road and blog buzz, the boys have returned with their most personal album. Intimate and emotional, Mine Is Yours demonstrates that crooners are perfectly paired with an electric guitar or the boys with the humble beginnings can still rock out when given a fancy bus (more on that later). We spoke to Maust and lead singer Nathan Willett to find out why fitting in has never been the Cold War Kids’ modus operandi.

LEILA BRILLSON: So you are a huge touring band. You are noted for going on the road for long stretches of time. Is there anything that is really different for you, as opposed to six or seven years ago, when you were a burgeoning band?

MATT MAUST: This bus is different now. The first three, four, or five US tours were in a van. Now we have this bus, which is very different.

NATHAN WILLETT: There is a lot that is different! Jonnie [Russell, their guitarist] and I are married now, which makes it easier in ways and harder in others. I really enjoy touring a lot of the time, but other times it is quite hard. BRILLSON: So, since you’ve graduated from van to huge bus, do you have any bus-riding tips?

MAUST: Don’t slam the door because everyone wakes up. If you actually get to get to sleep, you’ll wake up so easily.

WILLETT: We actually had a pretty wild dance party about a week ago when we had our first day off about a week ago… you can strobe in here!

MAUST: Don’t tell the driver that we spilled beer all over the seats.

 

 

BRILLSON: I won’t, I promise. Speaking of wild parties, Nathan, what is it like being a rocker who is married? What has changed for you?

WILLETT: On the positive side, it makes you more serious about what you are doing, and getting stuff done. This is a dorky reference, but I was reading the Spin with The Strokes on it, and it was Albert Hammond, Jr.—who we just saw the night before—and he was saying it was a lot more cool to get a lot of work done than it is to have a bunch of fucked-up stories. I thought, “Yeah, that’s true.” There are things you can’t “indulge” in, but you have a vision for the big picture of what you are doing. Fun is a part of it, but you learn to put your “rock mask” on for the show at night, but you learn to control this big monster you’ve created.

BRILLSON: So do you like headlining?

WILLETT: It’s cool to take two years off from recording and still be able to play the same, or larger, sized rooms just on the release of this record.

MAUST: We’ve always done a good job of being both acts. We’ve done support stuff—like opening for Death Cab or Clap Your Hands—and then going to headline our own shows. We are certainly not either/or.

BRILLSON: LA is becoming a place that has a really sustainable, underground music community. Both of your opening acts, Battles and No Age, are from LA. What has changed about the area for you?

WILLETT: We definitely didn’t come up in any scene. And that was something we were very aware of, and we learned what not to do from friends’ bands. We didn’t really have a group of bands we “came up with” or were inspired by. Once we started touring, we accompanied bands like Dr. Dog, Elvis Perkins, or Clap Your Hands—all of these people we didn’t have a ton of common with musically, but they were real artists, but not really a scene. Having toured so much for six years, we aren’t super-connected to LA, but I feel like an organic scene is emerging more and more.

BRILLSON: Would you have benefited from a scene or are you glad that you had to blaze your own path?

MAUST: A lot of bands we have toured with in the past, without naming names, have been lead by one songwriter and a bunch of players. We are not that way. We are a proper garage band…almost a punk band. In the spirit of Joy Division and The Clash. I think that not having a particular scene made us focus inward.

There is a very stereotypical type of band that comes from Southern California, and I think most of us grew up not wanting to sound like that stereotype. We wanted to sound like bands from New York, London, or Chicago. I remember when I was in junior high and I thought Seattle grunge was so cool, but we didn’t hear anything like that in California.

WILLETT: The music that was coming from California—like punk bands—there was a cool time of Black Flag and what not. But then there was a lot of emo and hardcore, and we didn’t want to be a part of that, so we looked elsewhere.

BRILLSON: So, a few years ago, the story of you meeting at a Christian school emerged and it became a bit of a myth. Can you just clarify the “Christian Band” story?

WILLETT: Ha! It’s come full circle. There were articles talking about us wearing Christianity on our sleeves, and people were very interested in it. We were kind of shy and forcefully rejected that as being any sort of statement about our music. But now, I think it isn’t as negative. There is a spiritual side of all music, and the music that we love has gospel roots, religious themes, and Americana bases. We are more inspired by Nina Simone, Nick Cave and Bob Dylan—all people who have “religious language.” And it’s where we came from, so it is a part of us.

BRILLSON: So there is a difference between music with its roots in spirituality, and Christian music?

WILLETT: Yes, enormously.

BRILLSON: Mine Is Yours sounds very different from Robbers & Cowards and Loyalty to Loyalty. How do you feel like you evolved?

WILLETT: Between the first and second album, I don’t think we made a big leap, but did a good job writing songs in the same style and vein. But I think we are the kind of band that wants to do something different each time to stay excited. There are a lot of different things this time around. We recorded the first two albums relatively quickly, in a week or two each. Very live, getting spontaneous takes. But the third record—we went into the studio with no completed songs, we wrote in the studio, we kept working through things.

MAUST: We took our time. Actually, Nathan said this morning it was hard for him to listen to the first two records and enjoy them because they were just recorded so quickly, and we didn’t really have time to think about the process. This time around we wanted to let the songs grow.

WILLETT: For us, it was really about trying different instruments, plugging in different amps, getting different sounds. Then we’d be almost done with it, and then refine some more.

MAUST: And adding drum loops! We’ve never had drum loops before, and it really added a different element.

BRILLSON: Why did you take such a different approach to this album?

WILLETT: Though we have insane fans and people that are devoted followers, there is a feeling that everything we do is hanging by the thread. When you disappear to write and record a record, you have to treat it like it is your last shot, so it should be something really different. It should be something that makes you uncomfortable. You might as well do something that scares you and shakes you up a bit. I took that approach with the lyrics. The last two albums are much more narrative and fictional. This one is much more personal, and about me or friends of mine. I opened the door and tried to write about myself… while still keeping it interesting and lyrical.

BRILLSON: So, what songs or moments on this album were scary for you?

WILLETT: I think the song “Sensitive Kid” is the most autobiographical. I wanted it to be an uncomfortable thing to sing in front of people, and have to go to that place every single night. You always develop a certain distance from something you sing all the time, and it does become kind of fictional in a way. Everything becomes an embellishment—it is interesting to take more “true” stories and watch them grow larger.

MAUST: All along the way, we thought that there was no way that song would be on the record. We would work on it a bit, and Nathan especially was like, “I don’t know how that could even appear.” And then when we were finished, we thought about making it the first single.

The whole process of going to a different state for two months, and be inside for six days a week is quite scary. We devoted our time to this album with no songs finished. The first month of recording was pretty tough. Then, all of the sudden, we stepped back and listened to the 20+ ideas we recorded and felt, “Wow, this is the skeleton of a real record.” The whole different, backward process of recording was quite uncomfortable.

COLD WAR KIDS PLAY COACHELLA TODAY AND CONTINUE TO TOUR IN EUROPE AND THE STATES THROUGHOUT THE SPRING. FOR MORE INFORMATION, VISIT THEIR MYSPACE.