Just five years ago, the soul- and roots- influenced howl of Nathan Willett and his band Cold War Kids was a sound only heard by a tiny group of LA thrift-store in-kids. But in the rapidly-moving world of indie-rock, that half-decade’s a near-eternity, with the Cold War Kids’ story reading like a near-saga: the band’s full length debut, Robbers and Cowards was lauded by bloggers and scored two modern rock hits (“Hang Me Up To Dry” and “Hospital Beds”). It’s follow-up, 2008′s Loyalty To Loyalty suffered sophomore slumpiness, a hodgepodge of ideas that didn’t capitalize on the debuts’ angular, hooky appeal. Today marks the release of their third record, the decidedly bigger, poppier, more anthemic Mine Is Yours—an album whose mainstream sound (realized in part by Kings of Leon producer Jacquire King) may have some crying sellout while others turn their volume knobs to eleven.
We caught up with Willett last week, and spoke with him about self promotion, the realization that it was time to talk with his band about their new largeness — and why he’s embarrassed around Win Butler.
JM: Doing press can always be stressful for some artists, but for others it’s almost theraputic, talking about yourself all day. How are you feeling about it right now?
NW: The bizarre, theraputic side of press is that I learn why things are the way they are by talking them out. When you’re working, you don’t really think about why things happen exactly, but when you talk about them—the veil is lifted in a way. There are so many [ways to look at] the place that we’re in, and this record is evidence of a lot of change and growth. [Pause]. So many good things.
JM: Was it a new revelation to you that the record was a departure from the last two, or was that something you knew as you were recording it?
NW: My role definitely changed for this record. I stepped up and was was more the band leader. I think it helped everybody be less afraid to be critical of each other, and opened some lines of communication. Also, just the style and the approach of working on a record where we were in the studio for a few months, and actually working things over, really for the first time, and surrendering ourselves to not knowing how it was gonna go—we didn’t come in with done songs, so everyone had a lot of trust in me as far as working on lyrics, and allowing me to guide things. Sometimes we didn’t come up with good things. We allowed for the whole process, as opposed to the previous two records where we wrote songs at our rehearsal space and recorded them in a couple weeks.
JM: It sounds like you had to acknowledge that you’re becoming a much larger, more popular band.
NW: Yeah—I think that had a lot to do with it. I think coming from the second record where we never had the conversation of, “How do we think differently holistically?”—we never had that conversation. It’s because we didn’t have that conversation then that that record (Loyalty to Loyalty) is more flawed and has less of a cohesive direction. I put that on my shoulders: after that record was done, I needed to be more vocal about where we needed to go, and needed the trust of the guys with how to go there. Having that conversation was about lets artistically do something that goes a different direction, but also, let’s be more ambitious—let’s play to bigger rooms, let’s play songs that take us in a different direction.
JM: Your aesthetic’s always been so identifiable that I’m surprised you’ve never had that conversation before…
NW: That is part of what is bizarre about it. So many things about what we did came so naturally. We didn’t want to tinker with it because it worked so well.
JM: There’s a line in one of the songs on the new album that really hit me: “hold the fire alarm and block the exit” – I love that...
NW: There’s a Cassavetes quote in the artwork from [his film] A Woman Under the Influence. It’s a movie about relationships, and misunderstandings, and communications. That line seems like a Cassavetes movie to me—about the need for clear communications, but the bizarre disfunction that happens when trying to attempt that.
JM: You and your new-ish wife recently moved to LA from Orange County. Is there anything that travels with you as a reminder of your bachelor days?
NW: Since college I’ve moved so many times, and lived with so many people. Through touring, I am the worst. I lose everything. Because of it I am precious with so few things.
JM: As you’ve gotten bigger, you must have come across some insanely devoted fans…
NW: There was a time when we were in Manchester, England and this girl wrote us a note — she was talking about the song “Dreams Old Men Dream.” She was taking care of her sick father on his deathbed, and she had heard that song, and related it to her life. I feel extremely grateful for those kind of things happening. It’s that weird thing that people interpret things so many ways you could never anticipate. In many ways you’re not really responsible for the thing this person is telling you that are. On a more literal level, people are talking about “Hospital Beds:, and having a brother in Iraq that loves the song— real emotional situations that people want to talk about. It’s endearing and cool, and, “Whoa, man—you got that from that?” Most of the time I like that—I like to hear people’s interpretations.
JM: As you’ve gotten bigger you must have had similar experiences with your idols…
NW: We went to go see Arcade Fire at a tiny show in Big Sur. It actually was the most insane thing, where it was a small town, and they were just hanging out there. Everywhere we went—We’d go to a restaurant and see them. We’d go to a beach, and they’d be walking around. I started talking to Win, and he knew who we were. I was really on the border of seriously wanting to fan out on him and say some weird stuff. I can’t think of the song title, but the line is, “Working for the church when your family dies”. For my experience in my life, my dad worked in churches at times, my parents split up, I felt like that line was written for me, or it came from my mind. I wanted to ask Win, “What does that mean to you?” But when you have those extreme things, it does get weird. I know there are things that I’ve written that people might feel that strongly about. I wanted to ask him about that, but I withheld. He was really cool, and I talked to him for a long tim—but I didn’t ask him that.
JM: You’re playing a bunch of festivals with Arcade Fire this summer —you’ll have another chance.
NW: Yeah, but— finding the right time where it’s not creepy and strange and inappropriate? We’ll see if that happens.
Check out Cold War Kids’ upcoming shows here.