Back in 2006, Cold War Kids set the blogosphere alight with the stripped-back blues-indie numbers “Hang Me Up to Dry” and “We Used to Vacation,” sparking a fierce record label bidding war in the process. In the run-up to the release of their debut album, Robbers and Cowards, the California quartet was hailed as “the new Radiohead.” The hype eventually died down, as hype does, but their fanbase has grown steadily.
A former English teacher and literature graduate, singer Nathan Willett’s lyrics tend toward storytelling; his past songs have been populated by all measure of protagonists, from the recovering alcoholic father to the Saint on death row. But with 30th birthdays and a couple of marriages down the line, with Mine is Yours, Cold War Kids have made their growing up record.
eMusic’s Elisa Bray talked to singer and lyricist Nathan Willett about taking new steps.
The lyrics on this new album are personal as opposed to the way older songs were based around fictional characters. Why is that?
We finished the second record and realized we were moderately happy with it, but didn’t quite know what next step to make. I knew, lyrically, I wanted to do something more visceral, something that reflected my personal life more. We were home for a year after finishing touring for Loyalty to Loyalty, so during that time I got to reconnect with friends from college, people who were turning 30 and getting in deep — whether it’s marriage or divorce or bad break-ups. In the past, you could come in and out of relationships and it wasn’t a big deal. I wanted to dedicate the record to that.
You’ve always talked about the arts influencing your music. Were you inspired anything else?
We were watching a lot of Woody Allen movies and John Cassavetes, and the album kind of reminds me of a Cassavetes movie — about a relationship struggling.
There’s a quote in a Cassavetes documentary where he basically says forget about politics and religion and every big subject, there is nothing more interesting than a relationship between a man and a woman and what happens between them, and that was a really powerful statement to me.
You’re a Woody Allen fan?
Very much. I love the funny and serious ones. I love Husbands and Wives, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Match Point and Deconstructing Harry.
How did your last album shape Mine is Yours?
We realized we had the spontaneity, but we didn’t have the craft of the songs. We always had a live approach and we’d had a fear of losing our spontaneous magic if we were in the studio too long. We’ve always been this live band that has been really frenetic and jerky and we wanted to have a balance. So there are more anthems and less of the whiplash on this record.
Did your producer Jacquire King help expand your sound?
I think so, yeah. That was part of what we’d hoped he’d be able to do. It’s very much our style — it’s very minimal but it has a higher ceiling. Part of what was special in the chemistry that we had with him was that he knew how to stretch us. Not to make us sound like a band that we weren’t, but make us grow and evolve.
Was spending more time on the lyrics a good thing for you?
It was such a joy for me. Being a literature student it always pained me to rush into writing something and then having it be set in stone forever, so I worked to really edit myself to come through with something I’d love in the future.
It must have been a big step for you to expose more personal lyrics to the rest of the band.
Definitely. It was hard. Especially because we had finished a lot of the music and we had all this time when Jacquire was recording most of the Kings of Leon album and I got to spend all this time writing, and by the time we were able to finish the album, I had all these finished songs, so I was revealing it all at once without them knowing what I had been up to.
One of those experiences for me was the song “Sensitive Kid.” It’s one of my favorites and the most autobiographical — it’s about me when my parents split up. It’s a very specific story that hopefully comes across as universal — a feeling of being stranded.
You used to have a quotation from the writer David Foster Wallace on your website front page. Is his writing still significant to the band’s ethos?
Very much so. I love David Foster Wallace and he’s somebody that has always inspired me to dig deep.
He was a very moral writer and to be moral is unsexy; in entertainment you want to be attractive and elusive. To be moral means to be very upfront, no smoke and mirrors. I see it in other bands: Fugazi in their stance and lyrics are a moral band, and early U2. It’s a tough place to be in because you’re trying to create an artistic project to entertain and yet you’re trying to say something and be about truth and honesty, so he represented a contradiction. I think he really struggled with that contradiction and we do too.
Have morals been a disadvantage to the band?
I definitely struggled with it as to whether it was a disadvantage. On the surface the masses in general like a band that are about sex, drugs and rock ‘n ‘roll because the rock star should be living the life that they can’t. But the different way of looking at it is it’s the musician’s job not to be excessive, but to actually try to challenge and stir something up. It’s a bit ambitious for a band.
What are you reading at the moment?
I’m re-reading the Jonathan Franzen book The Discomfort Zone. He has another book called Freedom that he just put out and I actually went to see him speak in LA — I like him a lot — he’s a David Foster Wallace [contemporary]. This book in many ways inspired me with the writing of this record because it’s a memoir and there’s a lot of stuff about his childhood and his parents. I’m sure it was very risky and emotional for him to talk about all this stuff and I related to it. I’d forgotten how it opened the doors for me in inspiring me to write this way.