Posted January 19, 2015 by Jeff in Tunes

Cold War Kids: Stay Scrappy

Cold War Kids credit Michelle Mosqueda
Cold War Kids credit Michelle Mosqueda

Released last year, the Cold War KidsHold My Home is a collection of jittery tunes that are driven by singer/multi-instrumentalist Nathan Willett, whose very distinctive, high-pitched voice alternates between enthusiastic yelps and soulful croons. Willett spoke via phone from his Los Angeles home about the band’s roots in Orange County, California and explained how the group’s scrappy approach has been the key to success over the course of a decade-long career.

Talk about the band’s formation. It came together in Long Beach . . . or was it Fullerton?
We were all kind of from surrounding areas. I guess Fullerton is where we first started rehearsing and everything.

Did you feel like you were operating in the shadow of Los Angeles while you were living in Orange County?
We mostly grew up around Orange County, but we grew up in the shadow of Sublime- and No Doubt-types of bands. I think that gave us a sense of disassociation. We were looking at gloomy New York, London, Velvet Underground-type bands. They were the ones really turning us on.

How did that happen?
I think without being worldly wise and living other places, there’s an internal sense that we know that’s where we’re from but we don’t want that to represent who we are. It was never explicit. We never had a conversation about it. For whatever reason, we had a tight group of friends. I want to say it was a bit of a tipping point time that had to do with the internet and accessibility to stuff. Everyone dressed a little British. We were talking about Captain Beefheart records. Everything that I loathed about Orange Country and couldn’t wait to get away from was what made our group of friends come together. Orange County now is actually cool. It’s much more open-minded and cultural. Now when I go to a show or play a show there, I always think surfers are not just bros; they’re artists who are painters. It’s a different feel. It’s a strange place that has evolved.

At what point did you start playing piano?
We bought a piano a year into the band. I guess in hindsight, it sounds so audacious but I just wanted to get one and then figure out how to play it. Our friend Richard Swift had a portable grand piano. We thought it looked great and sounded great. It was a real piano. We’re into real stuff. Our bass player’s mom lent me the money and I found a guy on Craig’s List who ended up being the keyboard player for Green Day. His name is Jason Freese. I had known of [his older brother] Josh Freese, who is a famous drummer. I went there and bought it and his dad was a musical director at Disneyland and they had a room full of these Yamahas. That’s where he learned to play piano. That was an interesting bonus.

There’s an element of class that came with the piano.

When you first started putting out albums and reviews said your vocals were ostentatious, did you think about dialing things back?
I don’t think it ever crossed my mind. Even in making the first album, we didn’t think that many people would hear it and have any opinion. Everything was so fast. We did everything ourselves. We were so busy. There were questions we never asked ourselves. We just wanted to do it. I barely remember recording the vocals. It was more like, “What does it sound like when we do it live?”

“Miracle Mile” is one of my favorite songs. What’s the inspiration for it?
I think it’s an L.A. story. The first line, “I was supposed to do great things/I know the road was long/but I wasn’t raised to shoot for fame/I had the safety on” is a sentiment that’s personal to me but also universal. People come to L.A. and want their dreams to come true. We are strange because we grew up in the shadow and now live in L.A. There’s always been that strong disassociation.

We’re not trying to make it. We’re just doing what we do. You get older and wonder where you fit.

Talk about your most recent album. What did you set out to accomplish as you were writing the songs?
We felt like we were tapping into something new. We wanted to get busy right away. We wanted to stay creative and keep busy with life. Hold My Home as a captures [the fact that] we’ve lived this life for a long time. We’ve been gone a lot and living together for years. Home isn’t something we can hold. Home is something that’s intangible. That’s a theme of the songs.

Where did you record?
This is the second one we did at our home studio in San Pedro.

What did Lars Stalfors and Dann Gallucci bring to the recording?
We call them fire and ice. Dann is very opinionated and Lars is very sweet and more technical and pretty reserved. There’s a balance there that they bring. It’s fun working with two producers instead of one. There’s a different kind of relationship that we thrive on. Dann being a member of the band is a good thing since he’s invested as a performer. I think it’s healthy for the outcome.

How did the lineup change affect the music?
We have always been the kind of band that has a lot of nuance to it. Anybody comes or goes and the performance will have a different flavor. At the same time, what we do has become more defined. A Cold War Kids song is going to be a Cold War Kids song. We’re still playing with that and with our identity and who we are.

“Drive Desperate” centers on a narrative. Talk about the story that it revolves around.
It does have a bit of a narrative and it’s a little abstract as well. There’s a town called Pomona that’s out toward the desert. I pictured being in a high school. There’s a line about how “in parking lots you learned and boredom made you small.” It’s about hanging out with nothing to do. It’s about that kind of desire where you don’t know what you’re supposed to be. I like the title a lot. It captures that feeling.

The band has stuck together for about ten years now. What’s been the key?
It’s a boring answer, but it’s just hard work. There are two ways you can go. People still do this thing where they’re waiting either on a label or to get a little more attention before they’re going to release something. I think we played that game a little bit around the time of album three. I quickly realized what a mistake it was and I’m so glad we got out of it and into the notion of where we are now. We found friends to record us and put out EPs. You put out a six-song EP and you’re playing all the songs and maybe three stick to the set list and the other three you forget about for a couple of years. It’s about existing as a band. Nothing we have ever done has fallen on any one thing. No single release’s success or failure can break us or make us. We’ve been lucky because of that. Anytime someone says, “We’re waiting to put this out,” I think that’s not the right move. We’re not making masterpieces. If someone is making their OK Computer, then they should wait and make sure it comes out in a way that gets all the attention it deserves. For what we’re doing, we have to stay scrappy.

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Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at [email protected]