An identity is something that any band strives to form.
An identity is something that any band strives to form. Every band works to reach that certain sound that will clearly separate them from their contemporaries and come across whether the band is furiously jamming or quietly strumming. By their own admission, Cold War Kids hasn’t settled on one yet. While some bands would be completely lost without that four albums in, Cold War Kids seem to almost wear that distinction as a badge of honor.
As the band proclaims in the first moments of their new record Dear Miss Lonelyhearts, “I was supposed to do great things.” With the changes the band has gone through in the lead-up to this album, it comes across more of a promise to do more than a lament over the band’s past miscues. That promise seems to be coming true as the “soul-punk” group’s fourth album is doing more for the group than any of their past albums. Critical praise is coming back to the album after 2011’s Mine Is Yours which seemed to alienate the musical press. Crowds are getting bigger with fans loving the addition of extra instrumentation which adds a very subtle boost to their sound. Things are looking extremely bright for a band that will quickly see themselves celebrating ten years a band, something that didn’t seem probable for many bands that came out the same time as them.
Ahead of their show at The National this Saturday night, singer Nathan Willett talked to us about the band’s transition in sound, new recording plans, taking criticism, and more.
So let’s talk about your new album from this year, Dear Miss Lonelyhearts. What’s the story on its inspiration, the novel Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West? Would you call it a concept album or was it just loosely inspired?
Concept album, no. I do think it was really inspired by the book. I mean, lyrically, the songs were very inspired by the characters and events of that book. It gave me a setting for what was happening in each song really. I think it was unintentional for the most part. It was one of those things where I wasn’t writing specifically for that, but reading that book, it gave me a sense of where to go. You get inspired and you do your creative business; later you look back and it ends up falling in line with that character or this idea. You know, certain things you really wouldn’t have thought of at the time.
So what’s new with this record in terms of your style?
It’s a big transitional record for us. Our new guitarist Dann [Gallucci, formerly of Modest Mouse] brought in a new guitar sound and helped produce the record so I think there’s the sense of wanting to do something new, but also wanting to bridge the gap between the older aspects of the band. In some ways, I think we went into making the album really loose. You know, just writing songs and seeing what came out of it without a fixed idea or anything. We’re a band that kind of likes what they do, but also wants to find a new space to explore. We wanted to use some synths and keyboards and some less-than-organic sounds. I think we have a reputation from the first couple of records to have more of a blues-y aspect with a bar-room vibe so we wanted to move away from that into something that was more interesting and more modern. You know, using synths and drum machines and less organic sounds. Trying to find out how we can be our old selves and also find something new within that.
That’s strange that you’re going away from an organic sound when most bands are going back in that direction.
I think people really wanted that from us. I think people wanted us to do what we were doing from the beginning which was blues-y and raw. There is something about that which I think is cool, but that’s also something I thought would dangerously put us in a certain lump of bands that we may not have been able to get out of. That’s okay for them, but for us, we’re trying to do something here that I hope is bigger than what we started with. The important thing for us is that we have not totally arrived on who we are at and that is really a gift for us. If we had had a bigger single at a certain point from the first few records or were lumped with certain other bands, I think we’d be more bound to a certain style. Thankfully though, we haven’t been genre-fied which is a really nice thing to have four records in.
Sounds like you were afraid of being pigeonholed into a set sound.
Yes, very much. I think probably most acts that get to four records are probably really happy with what they’re doing and want to kind of do the same thing but better. For us though, I think we were more looking to do something different. I don’t know exactly.
So how did Dann Gallucci come into the band?
He had been playing guitar for a lot of different bands over the years and at some point, he started doing live sound for us. He worked for us over a couple of years and was a friend we had so much in common musically. He’s a true artist and also just really ambitious about the music that he wanted to make. It just kind of happened that he came on at the time Jonnie [Russell] left.
So what’s the story on your new EP, Tuxedo?
We recorded a lot of songs during the Dear Miss Lonelyhearts sessions. I think we did know that we wanted to use them in some way, just not what. I mean, as we were recording, we pretty much knew what was going to be the record, but you just keep recording for whatever reason. A couple are alternate takes and we did a bunch of covers. “Aeon” by Antony and The Johnsons and The Band’s “You Don’t Come Through” are on the EP. Oh, and there’s one song that was kind of a mismatch version of things called “Romance Languages #2” that’s on it. It’s just a bunch songs from all over the place that we were excited about so we wanted to release them.
An album and an EP this year, what’s next?
We really want to start a new record as soon as possible. We’re going to be recording at our home studio that we recorded this record at kind of through December, January, and February. We’d like to put something out around April or May of next year.
Yeah, that’s really quick turnaround. We have a bunch of song ideas going. There’s kind of no end to it. We have so many ideas. It’s just a matter of getting it organized. Like the songs themselves, they’re always around and as long as everything else falls into place, we can make the best record we can. The ship is feeling very focused; more than it ever has been. Good times.
You have to be pretty comfortable in the studio to be able to turn around a record that quick though. What would you say has changed in your studio approach?
I guess much in the same line of retro vs. modern. We were very live sounding and analog centric in the beginning. I think learning how to do things differently is important. For example, forcing ourselves to do something a different way so we don’t get burned out on doing the same thing on everything. Song writing, playing instrument, sonically approaching a piece of music; all of it. I think we’re in the process of using a lot of different things like even an iPad for different synth sounds. We’re just trying to break out of the drum and guitar mold.
We’ve talked a lot about your sound then versus now. What about the musical scene from when you first broke out in 2004 and now?
Well, when we first started, it was definitely a time where so much was changing. Like MySpace was big and for us, it was very normal for us to just use it to get our music across. We’d put demos on our MySpace page or different recordings that weren’t available anywhere else. We really didn’t think too much about it; we just thought it was cool because people could have access to stuff without having the CD. It was also the time when so much stuff crashed for people. Everyone was talking about how the industry was going to die. Major apocalyptic talking.
I think we were extremely fortunate in that we had a ton of label interest so we were able to land with a great label in Downtown Records. We had great relationships with all the people we worked with so it was nice to have all these people in our corner before our first record even came out. That was really big for us. Otherwise, yeah, records don’t sell as much as they used to and the music business is just extremely different now. You have to do a lot more to get your songs places and you definitely used to be able to make money off your records. We’ve managed to stay afloat though which I do think in itself is an enormous accomplishment for any band. I mean, it’s pretty difficult to figure out how to make enough money to continue to tour, pay your bills, and keep putting records out with some kind of urgency. The urgency is really important too so that you’re a part of the narrative of what’s happening in the larger scheme of music. I think that it’s definitely harder and harder for bands to do that these days. I consider us very lucky to be able to get past that.
Final question, I just wanted to know about your mindset on criticism. Specifically, how critics have stated that you’re rebounding from your “mis-step” in 2011’s Mine Is Yours. Is this something that affects you in any way?
It’s something we’re aware of it, but something we try not to read too much into. Like our last record wasn’t that well received, but the shows were selling out for the tour and people loved & knew all the songs from that record. It’s not like we were making money off record sales so we had to gauge it on what the crowd’s vibe was like at the show and the vibe after that record was incredible. It was pretty confusing and I think an important learning process for us.
Even now touring behind this record, a lot of the crowd might only know the past two records, which is funny considering our third album’s critical reception. I think that’s kind of the hope though after touring this long. You get people who kind of jump in at different times and you getting new fans with each record. The criticism can affect morale a little bit, but I think especially more than ever with this record, we’re going to do what we do. The more that you’re aware of what people are saying about you, it kind of becomes detrimental to the energy of what you’re doing, especially if you go out looking for it. It can be kind of scary and a bad road to go down.