Interview: Cold War Kids

Cold War Kids

Recently I was able to schedule a Zoom call with lead vocalist Nathan Willett, of Cold War Kids, to discuss the band’s latest self-titled album that dropped today. In this interview, I asked Nathan about how the band goes about crafting a setlist at this point in their career, the key upcoming album anniversary plans, and Nathan offered some great nuggets of information about the band’s songwriting approach. Cold War Kids self-titled album can be purchased/streamed here.

First of all for your time today, Nathan. Cold War Kids will be releasing a new self-titled record this November. Usually when a band self-titles an album mid-career, it signifies a remarkable artistic statement. Does this ring true for your latest record? And if not, can you explain why?

Yeah, that’s a good question. We have released so much music…we put out these New Age Norms trilogy, that we kind of weren’t even sure if they’re full lengths or EPs. And we were moving pretty fast and loose. So depending on how you measure it, this is technically our 10th full-length. Which is pretty insane! I think that was part of the reason behind the self-titled, because it felt like kind of an anniversary number. And also, the cover of it being…before we play, we always or go on stage and always do like a little French style kind of kiss the cheek with all our band guys. And so [the album cover] is a photo of Maust and I, and I think it was just kind of an interesting time to take stock of the fact that we’re the two original band members. Our lineup has changed a lot over the years and our sound too, in some ways, has changed and in other ways it hasn’t. And I felt like it  was a good time to kind of make that self-titled statement, that could mean a lot of different things. It felt right.

That’s great. And I love the album cover too… It shows the nice camaraderie that you have with your bandmates. Cold War Kids are truly road veterans, as you all are well aware. And your new tour will kick off next year in San Francisco, I believe. Which of the new songs are you most excited to play live?

Yeah, the song, “Run Away With Me,” is doing its thing on the radio and all that right now. I just know that’s going to be a really fun one, because it’s definitely in the spirit of some other songs that just take on their own life live. Really excited about that one. We played this six-week tour, where we opened for Tears for Fears, and we got to play “Double Life” on that tour. That was really cool. The song “Stray” I’m really excited about playing and the song “Blame.” We’re still in that phase where we haven’t even rehearsed a lot of the new songs yet. So it’s kind of cool. It feels like they’re still in that mysterious zone where they’re coming out on a record, but that we haven’t brought them to the stage yet. So it’s always a weird feeling, but it’s exciting.

So what was the reaction like playing with a band of a massive stature like Tears For Fears?

We were excited about the tour and really optimistic. I was so pleasantly surprised by just how much we were embraced by their audience and just how fun the tour was. And even them, as people, they were so warm and great to us. And then, their music — how many genres it gets into and how influential they’ve been, I just really liked watching their show so many nights of that tour, and I just appreciated it more and more. I was really inspired by it… like damn, <they’ve> been doing this a long ass time! I want what they have too, to be at their place, their age, and all they have accomplished to be playing these arenas, it was just beautiful. It was incredible.

That’s nice, and I’m glad you guys were well-received by that audience! A couple years back your band recorded and released the direct-to-vinyl of Live At Third Man Records. What did you find most challenging about this recording? And how proud was your band of the final result?

Wow, yeah. That was I think in the middle of a tour, and sometimes you just kind of walk into something…and the room where you perform live at Third Man studios is really cool. And yeah, Jack White was there, Elvira was there, and there was a lot to it. And we got Jack White who took us back into his office and just kind of showed us all these weird, but awesome things that he collects. And he was really great to us. It was super, super fun and we all love live records. We love the idea of really curated live performances. Just so much of it can be some of the most inspiring stuff to listen to. Maust and I, especially I think, love to find that single best live record of an artist that we love. There’s The Clash, From Here to Eternity live record that we had growing up, that had a huge impact on me. <Playing live> is a place where you can stretch out the songs more from when they are on the record. Yeah, that was a fun one.

That’s awesome. I’ve caught you guys at the 9:30 Club a couple times too. As you go forward in your band’s career, what do you do with your back catalog with making the songs sound fresh and new when you play them live?

It is kind of an ongoing question! Having so much music and wanting to dig up the deep cuts, and also really giving people a show of the songs that people are coming for, maybe for the first time. And yeah, here we are with another record. It really does get harder and harder honestly.

Yeah, just to craft that setlist and everything, I’m sure.

There’s definitely some that, when you bring in the new <songs>, you gotta kick some old ones off, and it’s really fun and weird to see that happen. Really, one of the most fun things is when old songs that we’ve played for years, every single night when we only had one record…when those come back around, it can also be one of the funnest things to just rediscover stuff that were staples and that you kind of forgot about for years and years. Songs like “Something’s Not Right With Me” and “St. John” and the first couple record’s songs have become more live staples for us, and just kind of jams. Also, the song “Mexican Dogs” on our live record actually, became one of those extended jams that has a long middle that it becomes one you’re playing every night. When you’re playing every night, you look forward to those moments where you can kind of break out of the song as it is on the record. 

Definitely. And your debut, Robbers & Cowards, is considered an indie rock classic in a lot of different music circles. Are there any plans for an extensive celebration of that album when it turns 20 in three years time?

Wow, yeah, I would love to do something with that. It’s so funny, one of the things that we never released was this…I think it’s actually on YouTube… but Mos Def did this feature on “St. John” that was so cool and we never officially put it out. I would love to release some “nuggets” from back then. There’s a lot of songs that didn’t make it onto records that were on EP’s that we sold at shows. I don’t even know how many of them exist online or what, but I think we have to do some kind of digging around to find the status of certain recordings. But that would be really fun.

That’d be exciting. And especially if you put some type of package of vinyl or something like that, because it’s definitely an expensive record to track down right now…

Last week, I went to see some friends and went to see The Walkmen at The Fonda in LA and it was so cool. And I had a guy pull me aside, who was a fan, and his kids were there and he was telling me about how he loves this song called “Expensive Tastes.” That was one from one of those EP’s. I was just like, whoa, “How’d you even find that?” I remember us not putting it on our first record, but I remember thinking like, I don’t even know if it was even online anywhere. Maybe we need to revisit some of that stuff and and think about maybe packaging it with Robbers & Cowards reissue, that would be cool.

Cool, that’s good to hear. How has your band’s approach to songwriting evolved over time?

I think with this record, finding the cross section between a kind of looseness in the performance and the overall vibe…it’s always hard to describe that. When you hit it, you just know that it’s right and I think that with this record, we wanted to push things forward with what we’ve done with <our> songwriting— the storytelling aspects of it, the more personal aspects, and the narrative stuff — but delivered in a way that I think is unique to Cold War Kids. And, I love this music. So much of my life has been given to it, and I’m just so happy that we get to continue putting it out. In a lot of ways, I just think what I’ve learned as an artist, is that I just hope that people can dig into it and find their meaning for it and their interpretation of it, because obviously I’ve lived with it, and I know what it is, but I get so excited about people who get to live with it, too. I feel like as the years passed, we listen to so much music, from indie rock, to old rock n’ roll, to modern pop and all this stuff. And I feel like a lot of it’s in there. But the older you get, your fan base becomes so diverse that you don’t always know exactly how it’s going to be understood. So that’s kind of the fun part of it is just to see <how people will react>.

Yeah, I’m really connecting with the new singles. I think it’s a great transition from what you guys have done before, with that trilogy that you had previously talked about, and also kind of just the exciting part about what the future could hold for you guys. At this stage of your band’s career, what are you most proud of? And also, what do you feel Cold War Kids still need to accomplish in your eyes?

Those are really good questions. I feel just really proud of being so consistent. A lot of our peers that we toured with, and people that had really hot moments coming up, burned out or weren’t able to sustain it. We were so fortunate to have this buzz and excitement but also, the danger of when you get all that hype, and it doesn’t keep going up, up, up…sustaining it is its own kind of a tremendous achievement. I think that is really hard for a lot of people, because you don’t really know where you stand. You just kind of are doing what you do. And I think for us just to have sustained this band, and keep putting new music out was an achievement. In the early days, if the music doesn’t resonate with an audience, you don’t get to do it anymore. You’re not thinking about your career, you’re just thinking about trying to make something great. And so I think getting past that, and into a place where we’re just really proud of this catalog and all we’ve got to make, and just kind of rolling with it. I don’t think we’ve peaked, and that’s kind of exciting. 

Being on that Tears for Fears tour who, even for those guys, they’ve had these peaks and valleys. And when you are on this side of it, after this very long career that has highs and lows, it kind of gives you that pause to say, “Wow, just enjoy the ride!” I have all these kinds of wild hopes and expectations— I would love for a record of ours to explode and to be playing bigger places, have a bigger audience, and all that stuff is great. But I also know that at the end of the day, staying true to what it is that we do, that everything will happen as it’s supposed to. And I think there’s a sweet spot that any artist has where they want to be ambitious in the artwork that you’re making, but you don’t want to reach too much beyond what happens organically for you. And that’s really always been true for us. We try to be ambitious but not get too far from who we are from the start. And I feel like that’s been kind of a secret for us.

I think you got your head screwed on the right way because you can measure success in that type of way, and you can kind of see that the fans are still into the material. They’re keeping along with you, and I don’t think your band has made a bad record yet. So kudos to you!

Thank you!

With so much interest going into your new album, what will you remember most fondly about the writing and recording of this self-titled effort?

This one is entirely unique. The way that we’ve written records together has really been a long evolution since day one. It was very much a band collaborating, writing together, and writing music, me writing lyrics, and it’s a very open thing. Now for this record, a lot of it was finding new collaborators. I got to work with so many different producers that I admire so much. This guy, Malay, who’s done everything from Lorde to Frank Ocean, to so much cool stuff, he brought so much to these songs. “Another Name” is a song I did with Ethan Gruska, who has an incredible talent for writing and producing, and also finding those kinds of young people. Casey Lagos, we wrote so many songs together, and then more that will come out after this record. That, to me, is what it’s all about. Working with different producers that bring in something and understand Cold War Kids, and what we’re doing, and want to push it forward and find some new space. I feel like we got to work with some really, really, great people. What I’ve seen with artists that have a long career is that it’s so easy. And I had my time of wanting to work with the same people, and do the same thing, because it’s comfortable. And this was a big sign of getting out of my comfort zone and meeting new people, working with new people and being exposed in a way that was actually very uncomfortable for me, thinking about it now in hindsight. But now these people are my friends and my collaborators. So, it’s so cool how that happens, because it’s scary going into a studio with somebody and just kind of meeting them for the first time. Carlos de la Garza, a producer that did our song, “Run Away With Me,” we work together a lot. And we wrote a lot of songs together, and it seemed for a while that we weren’t sure where it was all going. And then the song that we ended up being on this record was the song. It’s the single that’s kicking it off. So it’s exciting when something comes from it that you didn’t even really know at the time and you’re just kind of like suspending your disbelief.

That’s great that you took those kinds of creative “leaps of faith” to work with some outside producers and stuff like that. I think it’s gonna bear fruit when the record comes out, and people enjoy it, and hear it with fresh ears and everything like that. 

Thank you! Thanks so much for your great questions.

Sure thing. Great talking to you.