Cold War Kids' Nathan Willett: We're not Radiohead. We're not going to make a record every three years of 11 perfect songs.
Photo By Stacy Schwartz
Cold War Kids broke onto the national music scene in a major way with their rousing 2006 debut full-length, Robbers & Cowards, and have spent the better part of their career trying to not only live up to those lofty standards, but to build on it. And while 2011's Mine Is Yours was somewhat of an artistic misstep by the band, as they broadly aimed for an arena-sized sound and breakout commercial success but came up short on all accounts, the group quickly got back to basics on their refined and refocused new album, Dear Miss Lonelyhearts, which was inspired in part by the Nathanael West novel Miss Lonelyhearts.
The Long Beach, California quartet are coming back to Minneapolis tonight for a sold-out show at First Avenue, and Gimme Noise was able to catch up with frontman Nathan Willett before the band's show at the Slowdown in Omaha, Nebraska, only the second gig on their current U.S. tour with the ethereal Chicago duo, Houses. Willett shared some insight into the recording process for the new album, how playing cover songs helps the band push their own sound further, and his thoughts on the connection Cold War Kids have made with audiences here in Minneapolis.
Cold War Kids at First Avenue, 3/10/2011
Gimme Noise: So, Dear Miss Lonelyhearts was finally released this week. What's it like for you to have an album finished, but to have to wait patiently to officially share it with your fans and the music world?
Nathan Willett: This one, we were hoping that we could have gotten it out sooner, but we wanted to make sure it was perfect. But yeah, I'm a little used to the feeling now of having to wait, and the ramp up time before the album comes out, and playing shows before it's released and introducing the songs to people -- all that stuff, I'm kind of used to it now. There's still a lot of anticipation and excitement, especially for this one given all the changes we've gone through this year. I think we all really want to get a lot of momentum going with this record.
Was the album really inspired by the Nathanael West novel, and if so, how did you take that book to heart and turn it into music?
I read that book before working on the record, and in the lyric writing time for the record I found something in that book that gave me a foundation to stand on. The place that I was in, whether writing about characters or myself, the voice of that main character in that story -- an advice columnist who is trying to give other people advice while being in need of some advice himself -- he's in this kind of crisis, and I just like that picture a lot. In songwriting, you write songs to analyze yourself or encourage yourself. And that image of the advice columnist has just stuck with me and came through in a lot of these songs.
You guys have used the immediacy of the EP to great effect over the course of your career. How do EP's help your thoughts and ideas coalesce when you eventually approach a full-length album?
You said it well. We started off with a few EP's filled with songs which ended up making their way onto the first record, and we've done a few more since. And I think it's an important part of keeping the band alive. It just keeps us active and thinking and creative. We're not Radiohead, we're not going to make a record every three years of 11 perfect songs. We're still kind of still finding out who we are and we need to remain active to do that. For us, it's proven that when we have a lot of irons in the fire it's just more fun for all of us.
Who did the cover art for the new record? It's kind of a mix between a childish sketch and a more restrained artistic elegance.
Yeah, well put. Our bass player Matt Maust did it. He's done all of the artwork for all of our records. And this is probably everyone's favorite cover art that he's done for us yet.
I've noticed that you've been posting some cover songs that you've recorded as of late -- by the Band and Nick Cave, and some others. How do those musicians and songs inspire you, and what aspects of their songwriting do you try and make your own when composing yourself?
We chose those -- there's also a Depeche Mode cover and an Antony & the Johnsons one -- in a way because they each came from a different era. You've got the jangly, raw '60's vibe of the Band all the way up to the Antony song, which is a lot more modern and just a few years old. We've also been listening to a lot of Depeche Mode lately too, which came through on some of the keyboard stuff that we ended up using on this record.
And, it was kind of unspoken, but we wanted to do a bunch of songs that kind of reminded us who we are influenced by and what we're doing. It helps take the edge off of doing your own songwriting when you can just play someone else's songs and it's easy and you're not focusing on the choices they've made. And, in the same way, you can learn something from it as well.
You've also posted a succession of videos sharing studio insights and snippets from new songs leading up to the album's release. Is that a way for you to personally connect with your fans and keep them involved in the what you're up to during the recording process?
Yeah, definitely. Our friend Vern has done these teasers and video for us for a while. I think it's so important to just have a lot of content to share with fans -- some of it might be seen a lot, some of it might not be seen as much -- but it's cool to share it with the hardcore fans who follow everything that we do and are really watching what we do closely. It's really nice to give them more.
How instrumental have you found social media to be as far as connecting further with your audience and dedicated fans?
In a sense, we've never known it any other way. We became a band and had a MySpace page immediately. And so, we were always able to use that to put up a demo of a song and get feedback on it right away, or put up artwork or lyrics or anything, and just be able to share that with people right away.
How's the tour going with Houses, and how did you hook up with them?
We did our first show of the tour with them last night in Denver, and it went great. They did a remix of our single, "Miracle Mile," and we really liked it. And thankfully it just worked out to tour together this time around.
You guys are returning to First Avenue on Friday, and the show is long sold-out. Can you talk about the connection you've made with music fans in Minneapolis, and how special it is for you to play First Avenue?
Yeah, I'm trying to think of the first time we played there -- it was a few years ago now. And yeah, fans of music in Minneapolis and people in the area, you get a sense really quickly that the core of that scene is really special -- people going to shows there and the appreciation they have for live music is really, really special. There's only a handful of clubs in the country that are like that, so yeah, it's a great place to play.
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