Cold War Kids Discuss New Album, R&B Influences, the ‘Blog Band’ Stigma + More
Cold War Kids deliver their fourth album, ‘Dear Miss Lonleyhearts,’ on April 2, and to most listeners, the band likely seems a thriving success story, existing outside of both the inner sanctum of critically acclaimed indie acts and the modern-rock radio crowd. Between those classes, you usually find a desert of talent, but Cold War Kids have outpaced the likes of Bombay Bicycle Club, Portugal. The Man and Two Door Cinema Club, becoming trailblazers in this, a realm where bands don’t need to have defined sounds that relate to their peers — just something that resonates with enough of a core audience to maintain a career.
That said, frontman Nathan Willett isn’t remotely satisfied with this status and what the band has already achieved. Willett wants more, admits to being “confused” when people misunderstand his music and finds himself asking “tough questions” between albums. This hunger has pushed Cold War Kids to make their best album yet, and though it’s still a long shot to break through to bigger audiences, Willett and co. are doing their part to improve and take risks, leaving the rest to listeners.
Diffuser.fm caught up with Willett to discuss his disappointments and successes, as well as Frank Ocean, what it means to be a “blog band,” and why Cold War Kids still have a “new band” feeling after nearly a decade together.
You didn’t have much downtime between albums, as it’s been two years since the release of your last record, ‘Mine Is Yours.’ Did it seem quick? Were you feeding off of inspiration from the last album?
Well, a lot of changes happened in between, and compared to our typical touring schedule, we didn’t go so crazy, like we did the record before that. We were a little disappointed by the reaction to the last record, and we ended up having Jonnie [Russell] leave the band and Dann [Gallucci] replace him on guitar, so it was just a time for change and asking ourselves some hard questions about what we are doing and why? From the time we stopped touring the last album, right away, Dann stepped in, and we recorded the single with my friend Richard Swift. After that, we decided we wanted to have Dann produce and do everything for the record, along with Lars, and do it in our space in San Pedro. It was like a very new band, and we were going through some big transitions.
In interviews before ‘Mine Is Yours,’ you seemed to have high expectations for the release. At the very least, you seemed hopeful. From an outsiders perspective, it’s hard to see a reception the same way a band does. You were still selling out shows and playing on the big stage at festivals in the late afternoon. Do you think the expectations were too high?
I think it was a number of things. In some ways, yeah, it was our own sense of trying to bridge through something, and it’s always hard to describe what that is, what exactly you want to happen. Internally, there was some conflict about where this is all going.
And sure, on the surface, everything was really good. The shows and the reaction that we got from our audience was great. But, there’s always the sense, being in the band, that you want to be understood, that you want the record to be appreciated and understood in a very particular way. When the art is misunderstood, everything else can be spectacular, but it still feels confusing. It’s confusing when you work really hard, and it’s the main thing that you do, and the touring and the band and our relationships are great, but you want to find a way to have an urgent message. So, I guess we were at a crossroads at that time.
Cold War Kids haven’t fallen into a particular scene or sound, which has both good and bad implications. You’ve been a band with its own voice, but you’ve missed out on the fans that seek certain fashionable characteristics. When you think about where you band stands, does that come into play?
This album was kind of about us having a new member and being in our home space, being closer to the record-making and making something that seemed a little weird, that hopefully was not like another band that we’ve heard, a step forward to something that is bold. But that’s a great complement, to not really have a scene or other bands or a sound that we are associated with, and the time that we grew up with, it was the same as well. You could listen to a lot of bands that might have seemed like they were part of the same scene, but they really sounded nothing alike. And we came up at this time that was the origin of the “blog band,” and we never had a lot in common with the sound of those bands, but I think we needed to embrace that even more, and figure out how to make ourselves even weirder.
There’s been a popular and creative resurgence of R&B over the last couple of years. On ‘Dear Miss Lonelyhearts,’ on songs with that soul element you’ve always had, specifically the last two songs on the record, it seems like you’re tapping into melodies that Frank Ocean or even Autre Ne Veut might sing. Do you pay much attention to that scene or draw inspiration from it?
I love the Frank Ocean record, more than any of the other modern R&B. I’m really picky about it, but I do love some of what I have been hearing. And, I think what we do isn’t that easy to categorize. I think that ‘Bitter Poem,’ the last song on the record, you hear it and maybe think that it’s to ballad-y, but when you give into it and make choices like that, you just have to go for it. What we’re doing, it doesn’t feel false, so we just do it.
That courage, though, it’s still something new, and we’re still growing. On that song, where it’s maybe a little more sweet and tender, those are some of my favorite moments on the record.
That song is my favorite, too. It is a risky song, but it feels sincere. That might explain some of R&B’s appeal right now. There’s a lot of honesty in the music. I get that out of your record, too.
Again, like what Frank Ocean does with its beautiful and sweet melodies, there has always been that quality to our music, that it is earnest and a little serious.
Looking past the album release, how does your touring look? Do you have the year fully planned?
We have a good amount of time planned out, but we also want to reserve time to continue making music, writing, and recording. Like I mentioned, we have this studio now, and it’s like we are growing into something.
It’s hard. On the first couple albums, at least, where you realize you have this opportunity and audience to do something, but we’ve never had the opportunity the ask these questions, and we can now have a more objective view of the band, and we can really push ourselves to figure out what would be cool to do next.
And how does the album rest with you? Is it a good representation of where you are with your sound?
Yeah, for us, I can remember what we have been described as, and it’s true we are a number of different things, and we are just starting to try new things. I think a lot of bands have relatively short shelf lives, so to be releasing our fourth album is a big deal to us, because so few make it that far. I think I’ve always had this sense when early on we had this ridiculous blog hype, and all this stuff happening, and people saying, “You are the next Arcade Fire.” You don’t want to close that door, but at the same time, you can’t tell people, “I think we are going to need a little time to grow,” or “We’re going to need a few records to really do good work.” I think we are just kind of hitting our stride. I think it’s great that we still have so many fans and people that stuck with us.
Yeah, of those bands you hint at, few are still around, and those that are aren’t playing to the audiences you are. And that is something in and of itself. Even if you’re not Arcade Fire, to do that is to be pretty successful.
And we’ve always been in a weird position like that. The bands that we toured with a lot, like Tapes ‘n Tapes and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, were really good bands that maybe didn’t strive to get to the next level, but we’re also not at that next level of big indie bands either. It’s nice, though, that we’ve been able to have a slow sustenance.