By Brian Ives
Cold War Kids’ frontman Nathan Willet is a deep thinker, the kind we rarely see in rock and roll anymore. He’s an outsider who still thinks about the artistic consequences of hitting the mainstream (which used to be common among underground acts, not so much anymore); and those aren’t even the biggest issues he takes on. He also has thoughts on spirituality and religion and where they fit into his life as a touring and recording musician.
And that life has gotten a bit more high-profile in recent years: “First,” from 2014’s ‘Hold My Home,’ helped to increase the band’s audience, and their new album, ‘L.A. Divine,’ will surely take them to the much-vaunted ‘next level.’ But Willet (who was accompanied by bassist Matt Maust, a man of few words) has a lot on his mind, and no deep questions have easy, or quick, answers. Except this one: the Sex Pistols or the Clash? Read on to find out who he chose, and why.
Did the success of “First” — which brought you to a much larger audience — influence L.A. Divine?
Nathan Willett: I definitely think that was happening. It was kind of like a storm of events. “First” was kind of taking off at the moment we were touring, and this [success] was all new for us. We wanted to start writing and start working on the record so that we weren’t in this place where we didn’t have anything [for the follow-up]. And then that pressure got scarier, and then in that process we did sign a new record deal with Capitol. And there’s a lot of reasons that could have all been very scary had we not had any material, but having a lot of stuff ready, that kind of beat the scarier moment of following that record.
We’ve always kind of operated in this way that is pretty free, not having to have meetings where label people tell us things that aren’t there, or that they wish were different, and we’ve always been very fortunate for that, so we wanted get ahead of the curve on this one.
It worked out really well. We got to work on this record during the week, and we had this run of weekend shows, festivals, college things, every weekend, so we would fly out and be able to work on the record at home during the week. It was really fun.
When you come from a musical background where you listen to outsiders, like the Smiths and Tom Waits. That can come with an almost inherent distrust of mainstream success. So when you talk about the “scary pressure,” is that what you’re referring to: the fear of getting too big and things get out of the band’s control?
NW: I think one of the things the success of the song “First” taught me was there’s a sound that Cold War Kids has and there’s a thing that we do with our songs that really wasn’t about sonically going in a really different direction or even in the writing, necessarily. It was about really taking what we’ve done since the beginning, the sound and the vibe of the band, and writing the best possible song within those boundaries. There’s a lot of detours you can go on, and we’ve spent a lot of time in studios and jamming and coming up with long pieces of music and chasing different ideas. This was really about just like condensing all of that.
So yeah, seeing how well “First” did, that was in many ways sort of an accidental success, which is that thing you always sort of hope for. But I think it freed me… I’m never gonna worry about getting too big because it’s not like we’re doing something that’s not true for us. We’ve never had somebody force us in any direction or anything, and that is something we have in common with the bands we have loved.
It’s such an interesting time, I think even in the last five years of music; the way that musicians put themselves out there is so much different. It’s funny because for us when we talk about the Clash or the Smiths or the Velvet Underground, those artists are so inspiring, but I have now learned there’s nothing at all that is the same about the world those bands came up in. It’s a totally different world, and so when you talk about what would those artists have done, there’s nothing that is the same about the world that they came up in and where we are. So yeah, you have to embrace that it’s kind of like the Wild West now. And also we’re in this place where, again, informed by “First” doing so well, you start to go, “Well, do we want this or not?”
And I think we want it. I think that we, from the very first record, had this taste of the bigger world and got to operate on our mode, but still kinda of want to be on that bigger stage, to reach more people, to be able to make the best records we can. And we’ve seen some of our peers kind of fall off. It’s normal and expected to not be able to go past having a couple of records. And you start to see that and understand that and go, “Okay, what risks are we taking? How are we gonna beat this inevitable demise?” which is kind of the dark way of looking at it, but yeah, that’s how it works. Bands break up, bands don’t last that many years. This is our sixth record. That’s a miracle.
So yeah, I think finding ways to understand the climate of what’s happening around us and make the most of it, you either sort of embrace the current world of music and social media and radio, everything about it [or you don’t]. I think it’s a cool thing to have as much music as we have and in many ways have one foot in this thing we started in and one foot in what’s very much the mainstream world of media and the radio and everything. It’s great, I think we’re having our cake and eating it too.
In the Pearl Jam Twenty documentary, Mike McCready was talking about Eddie Vedder touring in a van — as if he wanted to be in a smaller band — and McCready says, “We all love Fugazi. But we’re not that band.”
NW: Yeah, I saw that, and that taught me a lot.
But at another point, Stone Gossard admits that Kurt Cobain’s comments about them helped to keep them honest; like, the idea of his disapproval kept them on their best behavior.
NW: Yeah. That’s really, really interesting. And there’s another little Pearl Jam documentary that was at the time of Yield (1998’s Single Video Theory). And I remember watching it years ago and there was another totally profound moment… they’re talking about how they’ve sold millions of records, but they’re also just dudes, and they have their studio in Seattle where it’s filming them all showing up and clocking in. Have you seen that one? It’s a weird little 20-something minute documentary, and they’re interviewing them, and they’re very much in that place of… you can tell that they’re not comfortable, but that they wanna make the most of what they have, and it’s growing pains.
I think we’ve gone through that, and we’ve gone through changing members… I think, in a lot of ways, it’s like an education in life beyond any job I’ve ever had. And that’s one thing that’s unique about us too, is that we were both twenty-five when we started touring and then having had jobs, having had school and experience before starting this, it does kind of teach you about that weird balance between friendship and art and commerce and trying to make it all work. We’re tremendously lucky and we worked really hard.
Your fans seem to have faith in you, not unlike Pearl Jam’s connection to their fans; It’s easy to see you guys doing this for a long time.
NW: That is the total dream, yeah. There’s so few people who have been in bands and toured and really given everything to it, who come out of music and go, “Yeah, music was good to me.” Music is not fair.
Once you get that taste of how fun it is to perform and to be on tour and to have fans that love you and to make art, there is nothing like it, and to not be able to continue doing it, for whatever reason, it breaks people’s hearts. I’ve seen it: it’s such a cruel thing to get a taste of how great it is and then have to stop doing it. So I think you do have to always be a little bit grounded.
It’s funny, thinking about the Fugazi thing, growing up seeing punk bands and knowing there’s a short ceiling to the way that bands toured that we saw growing up, because it’s like you’re seeing a show, it’s ecstasy, it’s the most amazing thing, but at the same time there’s this implicit value that you can’t grow beyond what is. This is it. And when you look at it like: “What if this is not it? What if you could make a life around this and be able to have the things that you want to afford to live in Los Angeles, to be able to buy things that you want?”
Reading about the Springsteens and the Pearl Jams and the Fugazis and looking at how you can have ideals, but how the choices you really make are totally unique and totally your own thing, and you have to own it.
You can’t read a manual; you can’t go, “Well, Bruce Springsteen did this” or whatever. You have to make those choices yourself. And also you have to stand behind them when people might look at you and go, “That was dumb, that sucked, and you’re not real.” You have to go, “That’s fine. I’m not going to let that voice win.” And I think in a lot of ways we’re very lucky to have been laid into [by critics]. We’ve been told all the reasons we’re stupid to where now I care [about critics], but I don’t care that much. I know when we’re doing good work, I know that this record is really good, I know when our band is really happy and strong and has a great sense of purpose, and we have that right now.
When you spend 99 percent of your life on tour with the same band and crew, and everyone’s really happy and feels like they’re working hard, that’s the greatest feeling. And we have that right now, and things will change and things will get hard, but yeah, you have to appreciate it while you have it.
What’s the story behind the first single from the album, “Love is Mystical?”
NW: The message of “Love is Mystical” is grandiose and epic. I think it’s a message we need at a time like [this]… and even as it relates to L.A. Divine, I think it’s too easy to think love is something that’s material and physical and contractual. Really, music is all about that idea that love is mystical no matter how much we live in such a materialistic world.
It’s so hard to put your finger on what that thing is that inspires you about music. Our books, our music, our movies, hopefully they’re reflecting things that are authentically about our lives that are just more than what can be said by media. That’s a musician’s job, I think: to find poetry, but also point to the big, big thing, whether it’s God or this spiritual world or the transcendent feeling of love, the big things.
The video is striking too; all of these people kissing, regardless of race or sex.
NW: Yeah, it was funny because it seemed so obvious in a way I guess: it’s all kinds of people, all kinds of kissing. It’s part of the idea that they’re strangers and they’re gonna be kissing, and there’s an element of strangeness in kissing somebody that you never even really met before. But it is funny, I was even talking to a friend who was asking, “What do you think about that?” or “What was the idea behind that?”
And in this conversation it struck me… Maust and I met in college, it was a Christian college, and the values and a lot of the culture that we come from is a very… conservative culture. We know how it works and are very familiar with it, even a lot of my family [are like that]. It’s funny, everybody that I know, everybody seems to have that Trump-voting uncle. Whether it’s gay rights or issues of thinking and talking about race, I think this last year has woke people up to… it’s like, oh, man, we’re not nearly as far along as we thought we were, and the voice of that Trump-voting uncle has just got way more [loud].
So yeah, I realize that thing of like oh, that image in the video is still striking to people, and I was surprised by that. I was surprised that it was like, “Oh, are you making a statement with this?” “No.” So I guess in a way it was kind of cool because it made me think how important it is to keep reinforcing those images. It’s interesting because it’s not political. It’s not this overt statement [of] “These are our values.” But at the same time you go, oh, yeah, there’s certain images that are important, and that we’re all seeing this as a normal thing and not some [politically] charged thing.
If you’re progressive, it’s not political. But if you’re a conservative Cold War Kids fan, you might be saying, “You’re politicizing your music video and you’re making me look at something I’m not comfortable with.” So you said you guys went to a Christian college together; did you feel like you were rebelling against the institution?
NW: Yeah. The kind of weirdness of being at such a small school and having the handful of people and a good amount of them are still my closest friends. I think there’s something about that: when you’re in a small pond and you look at the people who are in that very small pond, you’re drawn to the people that are like you in this culture. The school’s ideas, the values they hold, are super conservative, but we’re not that.
I do think there’s a unique, weird bond there, meeting a bunch of people who are part of this institution but very much reacting against it through the art that we love. I think that had a huge impact on me.
Being a progressive Christian is one of the most radical things you can do in this country right now.
NW: Totally. It’s so weird. And from our first record, the website Pitchfork went for the jugular on that point, which was kind of fascinating because it was very much of the moment of the George W. Bush presidency, the Christian evangelical American. We were traveling all over in Europe and seeing people, and hearing how much they hated him… this is such a different, and now familiar again, time.
But yeah, it’s fascinating. That was a big wake-up call to me. I’ve always sort of kept my beliefs deep down knowing that my belief is entirely what inspires me in a thousand, ways but also in a way that’s not unique or different than Johnny Cash, Nina Simone, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Bruce Springsteen. It’s the same thing, it’s looking for the spiritual. I have this crew of friends that are in a similar place who would be reluctant to even wanna call themselves a Christian.
I was just listening to Rob Bell’s podcast, he had a writer named Pete Rollins, and they were talking about this same kind of stuff and the idea that a modern atheist has a lot more in common with the message of the Bible. That’s so great; that is exactly the thing that is so attractive to me, and I’m so glad I got to grow up with the faith that I did, but it’s also the exact opposite of the experience and the method, or what were the supposed values of that.
So yeah, there’s a lot of people having great conversations about where we are as a culture and where God fits into that, or your beliefs, I think there’s so much more really, really urgently necessary emphasis on the mystery surrounding the supernatural that is really exciting to me.
Have you been able to find a church that works within your set of morals?
NW: I guess I haven’t. I’ve probably been to church a few times in the last five years or something. And this is a really good question, I never talk about it.
I think doing what we do, and being an artist and also being on tour a good chunk of our lives is part of that. I think that there is something about being a writer and being “non-institutional, being a little bit afraid of losing some of my critical mind or outsider perspective or whatever, but I should.
The church in L.A. that I’ve gone to a handful of times is an Episcopalian church. That’s such a different thing from an evangelical church, and I think I learned a lot about… like one of the guys who’s a teacher there and who I got to talk to him a bunch about the fact that he went through seminary and the belief systems that he grew up with his whole life, there would be nothing in his experience that was contrary to gay marriage or contrary to just a lot of the hardline stuff that evangelicals are about.
When people on the left demonize religion, it’s one of the things that cost them elections.
NW: And I understand why they do. I understand. I read a book called When God Talks Back, it’s a book that was written by a woman who’s a Stanford anthropologist. That was basically a story from the ’60s of the way that evangelicals as a group of people that started with a bunch of hippie drug addicts in Southern California and in a matter of twenty, thirty years became a thing called the Moral Majority with the Jerry Falwells and Ronald Reagans. It’s an insane story. You could never make up such an insane thing.
I fully understand, and have no problems, with anybody that looks at that and goes, “I throw out everything about this,” because it’s a terrible misrepresentation of the origin of this thing, but so goes history.
With Rock and roll music you can have the same conversation about how pure something was when it started and how disgusting it’s become. Or fill in the blank: how a vegan feels the same way about the vegan scene right now. Everything has the arc of groups of people getting together and doing something so great and so pure with the greatest intentions and rarely ending well.
Let’s talk about your song “So Tied Up,” featuring Bishop Briggs who is presumably not actually a bishop.
NW: [Laughs] Right. So yeah, I was in LA driving and I heard her song on the radio, and I was totally floored, and I was able to get ahold of her on Twitter and asked her if she wanted to sing on something that, right at that moment, we were working for this record. And she was great, she was totally thrilled to sing on it. So we got to do that, and then we got to do another, kind of acoustic version where we finally got to meet and come in and sing it together and everything. It was great; she’s amazing.
Pick one: the Clash or the Sex Pistols.
NW: The Clash, easy.
MM: [He’s wearing a button of John Lydon’s post-Sex Pistols group, Public Image Ltd] Clash. I was gonna make a joke, but I’m a little brain dead.
NW: There was member of the Clash and the Sex Pistols in PiL [Keith Levene was an early member of both bands], so you can win with that.
Why choose the Clash?
NW: The Sex Pistols were incredibly cynical; I think the Clash was incredibly optimistic. And the Sex Pistols only made one record.
Nirvana is amazing but they could never have written Pearl Jam’s “Rearviewmirror.” Kurt Cobain didn’t seem to be able to write about transcending the terrible parts of life.
NW: Yeah, that’s interesting: that is the total divide of our youth, Nirvana or Pearl Jam. There’s so much to be drawn out of where you stand on that. I remember it being the same age-old thing of being a little more optimistic, embracing the same fans.
I hate the culture that has come from Nirvana. I hate that self-loathing. I understand it, but I think it’s done terrible things for kids. It’s because I grew up in it, and I saw that weird, indulgent, that rejecting of everything.
MM: The Cobain documentary [2015’s Montage of Heck] is the only rock doc I ever walked out of. I hated it.
NW: I f—ing hated it. Watching the Cobains be strung out on heroin…
MM: So depressing…
NW: It’s so f—ed up. It’s a hopeless story; he was brilliant and an amazing writer, musician, and everything. There’s a lot to love [about him] that I love also.
There was a sense during the end of that era that bands didn’t care… and it’s like, if you don’t care, at some point the fans won’t care either. That’s led rock music to where it is today, where big rock bands are the exception, not the rule. And then pop becomes a lot sexier, or country does, or hip-hop does because they have artists who want to get huge.
NW: Well, yeah, you gotta care about what you’re doing. Basically, you have to have a container big enough for where you are, and if you’re just like, “We don’t want this,” then it’s like, no one’s gonna want it for you. And if you’re falling upward, you keep succeeding no matter how much you’re hating everything about your success… I don’t think we live in that world anymore, at all. People don’t have a cynicism toward pop stars like they used to.
Even in the last few years it’s changed so much. Beyoncé’s changed that, Miley Cyrus has changed it, I think Justin Timberlake has changed it. A lot of these people have changed the way that young people, and even people our age, think about music. Today, years later, I just think people look at Beyonce or different pop stars and go, “This is my favorite music and it’s uplifting and it’s great.”
A band like us, I hope, bring a lot of nuance and thought and depth and everything, but not self-hatred. I don’t want people to be pissed off for pissed off’s sake. I want there to be a message of interacting with the world that you’re in and seeing bigger things outside of your own dark, deep hole.
There’s plenty of things to be pissed off about other than your parents.
NW: Yes, exactly. The sooner that you get over how bad your childhood was, the more that you’re gonna have a rich life, hopefully.