.Cold War Kids

Alt-rock with shades of Blues

These days, Nathan Willett values the autonomy he and his band, Cold War Kids, have gained over a career that now stretches 20 years and spans 10 albums.

That sense of freedom has shown up in tangible ways, first on the band’s “New Age Norms” trilogy of releases and now on a self-titled album released in October. Cold War Kids embarked on these projects after their contract with Capitol Records expired and the band in 2018 released a greatest hits collection, “This Will All Blow Over In Time,” and a live album, “Audience.”

In a sense, those two releases marked the end of a chapter in the Cold War Kids story, and Willett, in a late-January phone interview, said he wanted to cast aside some of the usual considerations that come with making new music.

The format itself for “New Age Norms” was a bit of a rebellious statement. Each eight-song installment was a little long to be marketed as an EP, but a bit short of being a full album and was recorded with a different producer. The first installment arrived in November 2019, followed by “New Age Norms 2” in August of 2020 and the final chapter in September 2021. 

 “I think it represented a sort of, a lot of things,” Willett said of ‘New Age Norms. “I think it represented a certain type of freedom and a certain type of like totally not really caring about how it’s all going to land. For me a lot of it is breaking the constraint of the album or the single and just kind of being somewhere in between and being sort of in a way maximal, a maximalism in ways it was this huge exercise in writing and production and trying things and spreading our wings and working with different people, working in different ways, finding different sounds, asking us what can a Cold War Kids song be like?

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 “I think it came at a time also when we had this sort of contractually obligated best-of collection we had to put out and the we did our live record, which both ended up being great, but it was just so much backward looking that I wanted to just open the floodgates of like, I just want to write a lot,” he said. “And yeah, I really needed it. It was a really healthy thing.”

The three “New Age Norms” releases were well received, with some critics praising Cold War Kids for broadening their musical horizons, while delivering hook-filled songs that retained the band’s signature mix of alt-rock with shadings of R&B and blues, yet also being a bit more concise and a little less chaotic than early hits like “Hang Me Up To Dry” or “Something Is Not Right With Me.”

The self-titled album is back to a more conventional format of 12 songs, but it also reflects Willett’s willingness to challenge himself and continue being open to new collaborations and creative approaches. He worked with several new producer/songwriters, including Militarie Gun’s Max Epstein, Casey Lagos (Kesha, Wrabel), Ethan Gruska (Phoebe Bridgers, Weezer), Jenn Decliveo (Miley Cyrus, Hozier) and Malay (Frank Ocean, Lorde). And he continued to explore the question of what can a new Cold War Kids song be like these days.

One notable shift came with the lyrics, which found Willett getting more introspective and personal, although not in the spill-my-guts style that’s popular these days. Musically, “Cold War Kids” offers a compelling mix of rockers (the catchy “Double Life”), upbeat soul-inflected pop (“Blame,” “Run Away With Me”) bouncy alt-pop (“Empty Inside”) and rich balladry (“Another Name” and “Starring Role.”)

Much of the musical growth Cold War Kids have made and will make in the future can be traced back to a fundamental change that happened ahead of the group’s third album, 2011’s “Mine Is Yours.” Up to then the band had been a democracy, with the four original members (singer/keyboardist/guitarist Willett, guitarist Jonnie Russell, bassist Matt Maust and drummer Matt Aveiro) seeking to contribute equally to the songwriting.

Willett and his bandmates realized democracy wasn’t working, communicating was tricky and the songs themselves sometimes suffered. The better approach was to have one songwriter steering the ship, and Willett took on that role.

The band’s lineup has evolved since, with Willett, Maust, David Quon (guitar), Matthew Schwartz (keyboards, guitar, percussion) and Joe Plummer (drums) intact since 2016, while Willett has remained the songwriter and leader in Cold War Kids.

He’s still, however, learning how to navigate the process of writing, bringing songs to his bandmates and keeping things moving forward right through recording so the songs become the best they can be.

“On one level, it would be easy to think ‘Yes, now I get to do exactly what I want. I don’t have to jump through all of these hoops, going back channel or try to have petty conversations just to take a step forward,” Willett said. “Then on the other hand, it’s a little bit be careful what you wish for. You really have to pay the cost to be the boss. You really have to work so much harder and do so much more and really you have to investigate

your soul so much more.”

That learning process continued on the self-titled album as Willett took the necessary time to live with the songs to identify any flaws and find the right tweaks. He also decided that it’s OK to be firm about an idea and insist on carrying it through to its fruition, something that doesn’t come naturally to Willett.

“I have to not always be apologizing for pushing it further, for knowing what I need and (not worry) because it inconveniences someone or because it totally flips out what somebody this thing was going to be,” Willett said.

“My personality is generally I want to please people and I want things to go well and to have a good time,” Willett said. “I think you don’t really get that when you’re in my position. And I think this record is a lot was me trying to step into some of that, some of the sort of ‘No, I need to set myself up to get it right, not to just have the best time and work with the people I like and have a blast and have a great time. But it’s the music (that matters) at the end of the day. It’s all that remains of that work.”

With the self-titled album released and Willett and his bandmates feeling proud of their work, new songs will be a large presence in the band’s current live shows. Willett appreciates the band’s fans, but he said playing the new songs will help ensure he’s enjoying the show Cold War Kids present each night.

 “Always kind of the ambition is to want to lean heavily on the new (songs),” Willett said. “And this one we’re really doing it because the hard part is always really rehearsing them a lot so that you can work as many in, knowing that people don’t want to necessarily hear 12 or however many new songs. But we’re playing a bunch. We’re actually probably playing seven every night off of the new record. I’m really excited about that. I feel like more than ever, I kind of need it for my own sake.”

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