If there's a moody, dark and borderline sinister indie riff that you recognize from the mid-Aughts, and you can't quite put your finger on it, chances are it was a line from one of Cold War Kids' haunting singles. The Long Beach rock outfit dropped Robbers & Cowards in 2006, and while Interpol, the Strokes and a handful of other bands vie for the title of Quintessential Indie Band of the '00s, Cold War Kids remain one of the most underrated acts for their contributions to the genre at its peak. "Hang Me Up To Dry" and "Hospital Beds" still receive a significant amount of attention via alt and college radio airplay. Now with Hold My Own, their fifth full-length, they're demonstrating that it's possible to grow with your music instead of staying married to the hits of yesteryear, even when the music they make is so closely tied to indie's shining moment.
Hold My Home offers up optimistic, soaring chords ("First"), rousing rock bursts Bono would be jealous of ("Hotel Anywhere") and grand declarations of beat-loving rock ("All This Could Be Yours," "Flower Drum Song") that shirk the coils of the tortured Cold War Kids we've come to know and sulk along to in our gloomiest moments. Before their intimate record release show in Brooklyn, Cold War Kids' Nathan Willett opened up about Hold My Home and how it represents all of the grit, growth and gusto that they've poured into the pursuit of staying power, and where exactly Cold War Kids stand a decade after they began.
You've gone to the drawing board and come back with a new record within a year of dropping Hold My Home's predecessor, Dear Miss Lonelyhearts. There's no slowing you down from the sounds of it! How have you figured out how to capitalize on momentum when you're five albums into your career?
Yeah! Hold My Home feels like a continuation of Dear Miss Lonelyhearts, in that it's the second one that Dann (Gallucci, guitarist and newest CWK member) produced, and the second one we made at our home studio in San Pedro. We just had all this momentum. There was experimenting on Dear Miss Lonelyhearts; Dan was trying different things with producing. We liked a lot of things, but "Miracle Mile" was one of the last songs that we wrote for the last record. It was just, like, fun and upbeat and strong, and I feel like something clicked with that that let us into this record as well. For lack of a more articulate way of saying it, we were having fun while realizing what we want. We've always tried moodier, slower songs, but something about being really straightforward really worked for this record.
And yet the songs from your older, drastically different beginnings still fit in the set list, and alongside the happier new stuff. Thinking about the older songs and these euphoric, anthemic tracks, it's great that you can make them all work together.
Totally. I think that's something that's really cool and weird about having five records, especially with our Mine Is Yours songs. When we were touring those songs, it was like, "Oh, they do blend in with everything else." I think spending a really long time and having a little bit of a different approach makes you wonder, "How is this all going to fit in?" But it's kind of a relief that it all makes sense together.
Can you hear the shift in your music from when you guys went from an indie band playing smaller clubs to a major touring rock band headlining arenas and festivals?
Even with the first record, we got such a big platform and were playing festivals and bigger rooms, and we've kind of maintained that over five records, which in and of itself was kind of amazing. I do think that if you're playing an enormous, outdoor place to a huge amount of people you learn what works and what doesn't, and I think that affects the way that you're going to record. Even just writing music, you have a bigger sense of who the song is for and what it sounds like in a room. We have really small songs as well that work really well in really intimate settings and small clubs. I always feel like the push-and-pull of the band is to have both of those things. A song like "Golden Gate Jumpers," for example: When you have a really small club and everyone can hear everything and everyone's very attentive, that's such a rad song that's very moving and nuanced, but that we'd never play at a festival. It just doesn't work at all. We've always had these two sides, I think.
Is that a hurdle for you guys or something you've had difficulty with figuring out or trying to balance?
It's kind of a struggle. In some ways, writing "All This Could Be Yours," that flows out of us I think, that type of energy, and it's also what people want from us. But trying other things is important.
How does "All This Could Be Yours" represent where Cold War Kids are at right now? The song is a bold statement, and it feels like a deliberate taste of your current musical mindset.
It came out really fast from this piano progression. I think I've always been a little bit aware of songs like "Hospital Beds" and "We Used To Vacation," songs that have a very piano-stomper kind of style. After the first record, I was trying to not do too much of that. I've said "That's okay!" more, and I love that. That's what we do really well. I was just really direct. Even ["All This Could Be Yours"], I think we were done with the record, and we were at Sasquatch! this year, and somebody had just asked what we thought the first single should be. We were throwing out ideas and we played that song for the first time. People loved it, and it just had a great energy. The response was immediate.
I'm intrigued by what you said about avoiding your "piano-stomping" songwriting style. I get that there's an element of a personal challenge there, but why wouldn't you want to gravitate towards that when it's what your fans are into? Why not give the people what they want, especially when it comes naturally to you?
We were talking about this recently: When we were recording Loyalty to Loyalty, somebody could've been listening to the Clash, and it'd be like, "It'd be cool to try something like that!" I remember "On the Night My Love Broke Through" from Loyalty we were talking about this moody Cat Power song with tons of space. We were just trying to not do the automatic thing, but take the thing that's automatic out of the equation and see what else we can come up with. There's also this side of taking your strength out of the picture and replacing it with something else, and I just want to play to my strengths here. With the last record, we started having Matt Schwartz play a lot of the key parts from it on tour, and then he played keys on this record and is now touring, so for me, having him play piano on songs that I was playing piano on before, it was also a kind of self-awareness. Because we're such a live band, and because that's where we start, I didn't want to be sitting at a piano for every song for the rest of my life. There's something that feels a little trapped in that space for me. I know I like to be at the microphone and playing guitar. I do want a little bit of everything for myself, too. The energy that we work from is kind of a nervous energy. I feel self-aware if it gets boring. You've gotta start goin'.
It's been a great but strange year for the music industry, with publicity stunts, partnerships and branding deals popping up all over the headlines. Where's Cold War Kids' place in all this craziness?
A few years ago, we made a lot of very long-term choices, with Dan entering the band and us making the record in our own studio and not putting money into a more expensive place. Our fifth record is on the same label that our first record was on [Downtown Records, which counts Major Lazer, Cyndi Lauper and Marilyn Manson on its roster], so we are doing that in the traditional way. The choice to put music out, there's a lot of ways to do it. You can spend a few years—a year and a half touring a record, waiting around, starting the next one, etc. We're a band that has a lot of songs. We might have a hundred recorded songs, and we have both the enormous benefit of having a few songs people know us for most and just having a ton of material that's out there. I think that makes you a certain kind of band. Ideally, it makes you have fans that love the ephemera, that have the 7" that only got released here and there, and certain songs that were harder to find. What we love to do is write and record music and release it. Touring it, when we can do it in a way that is important, all of that adds up to being able to put out music in creative ways. You have to have a strong identity. The U2s and Radioheads and NINs are so large that they can make certain choices based on already having such a big fan base. I feel like we're solidifying a lot of things about who we are. It'll be interesting to see how we'll get to release music after this.
How did Hold My Home bring out the best in Cold War Kids?
There are things I want to learn every time we make a record, and things I don't need to spend time on. It's about serving the song and serving the finished product. It's become much less emotional over the years, in the sense that old friends who have so much baggage with each other, we're making a record, and the record is the point, and it's obvious that we have these relationships and we're taking stuff into it. I guess we're more objective about it all. And that's what makes us able to keep doing it. The idea of Hold My Home, that image of home, not as a place but something you're carrying with you—that's in line with that idea.