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Cold War Kids: Naked Ambition

Published in Relix Magazine

Cold War Kids want to be the biggest rock band around and they’re not afraid to admit it. In an indie-rock world of reservation, restraint and respectful art-making, the California quintet embraces ambition with a capital A—they want you to know it, then to sing along with them at the top of your lungs. And they’re willing to write the catchiest, funkiest, most irresistible songs possible to make that happen.

The band’s latest, New Age Norms 1, is pure soul-pop surrender. It taps into all the musical pleasure centers—pumping bass, cartwheeling guitars, heavenly background vocal “oohs” and “dos,” speaker-thumping drums and choruses designed with laser-precision to make a new home inside your brain. It’s the band’s seventh and most straightforward LP since they burst onto the indie-rock circuit in the mid-aughts. “We just played a massive show in Atlanta, the Midtown Music Festival, to a much younger crowd. Travis Scott and Billie Eilish were there. It was an insane vibe. And I know we were the old guys on the bill,” admits Kids frontman Nathan Willett. “But we’re moving and taking great steps right now. I definitely feel like we’re yet to have our biggest moment.” With New Age Norms 1, Cold War Kids are—at the very least— entering a new phase of an already successful rock-and-roll career. The eight-song collection is actually the first installment in a trilogy. Each volume is being guided by different inspirations, a different producer and even different band members, reflecting Cold War Kids at their most creative and prolific. At the center of the gambit, though, are role models who carved out unmistakable places in the rock canon by driving their sound into the collective consciousness: U2, Depeche Mode, The Black Keys. “Rock bands are still trying to break through on the radio. But once you’re The Black Keys and you have those five songs on constant rotation, you reach a point where the radio needs a new Black Keys song,” says Willett. “And that’s where I wanna be.”The sentiment isn’t far from an urgent, fan-favorite lyric from Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks”: “So here go my single, dog, radio needs this.” And, indeed, it’s with West that the story of the New Age Norms series begins. But it took Cold War Kids a dozen years to get there. Cold War Kids met when the future band members were actual kids—students at the Bible Institute of Los Angeles. By 2006, they’d signed to an indie label and their debut, Robbers & Cowards, was making the rounds online. The record was filled with tunes always on the verge of chaos, boasting piano chords that seemed to be played with fists and tempos that sprinted then collapsed. Throughout, Willett’s elastic vocals—the band’s true sonic calling card—hurled across the songs like Jackson Pollock playing with paint. Fans ate up the band’s musical abandon; critics were split. It was the heyday of “blog rock,” where regional music websites held the power to knight freshman indie-rock bands as the new purveyors of cool. “Our first tours were with Tapes ‘n Tapes and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. That was one hot ticket,” laughs Willett. But even during those early club tours, Willett was looking to the rock gods of his youth for inspiration, not to the ever-more crowded field of indie-rock. “It was easy to look at ourselves and think, ‘How rad,’ but I was thinking of the music I listened to in high school: Green Day and Rancid and Offspring. They were selling millions of records; so relative to that, I knew we were very low on the totem pole,” says Willett. What’s more, the attitude of the mid-aughts music scene dictated art over ambition. Blogs battled to break the next esoteric rock act—but the bands themselves were expected to keep it cool, and keep it weird. “Being musically difficult was a badge of honor. And it just didn’t feel authentic for me to make music that was deliberately difficult. I always wanted to write the best song that the most people liked; there was nothing false about that to me,” says Willett. “You needed to be an artist first and not care where that led you. You had to keep it a secret if you had ambition.” With Cold War Kids’ follow-up, 2008’s Loyalty to Loyalty, the band doubled down on their duality—extremely catchy, soulful R&B songs dressed up as jittery, piano-led indie-rock. There was nothing subtle about it; the single “Something Is Not Right With Me” pulses and pounds so hard that even the tambourine seems to be shouting, with Willett calling out, “Something is not right with me/ How was I supposed to know?/ Tryin’ not to let it show.” But that, of course, wasn’t quite true. As other blog-rock peers began to fade from the hipster lexicon or experiment themselves into obscurity, with each album, the Cold War Kids embraced the art of crafting a wholly relatable, perfect and powerful pop song in more overt ways. Bassist Matt Maust saw his band growing apart from their festival peers and former blog darlings in very real ways. “I often feel like an outsider hanging around bands backstage because you can see from a mile away when artists are being too precious about their art,” he says. “The era of Dirty Projectors, Grizzly Bear, Animal Collective— where bands could just let the music do the talking and be cool, far away from a public presence—[is over]. Those artists had the rug swept out from under them,” says Willett. “They were the Brooklyn illuminati of greatness, and now it’s over. We’ve been an anomaly and have been lucky. We were early peers with bands [from that scene] and saw a lot of great art come from it, but are also a little less attached to it. Today, you just have to have more naked ambition.” That ambition finally found its footing in 2015 when “First” hit the radio. The second single from Cold War Kids’ fifth LP, Hold My Home, “First” evicted the band from their modest blog-rock dwellings and dropped their bags off on the stoop of a mainstream-radio palace. The blasted percussion was still there, as well as the heavy-handed, echoing piano and cascading, twinkling guitars. Maybe it was Willett’s eminently relatable lyrics, packed with nerves and anxiety: “First you get close; then you get worried.” Maybe it was the dare-you-not-to-hum melody; maybe it was the handclaps. Whatever it was, it worked: “First” spent seven weeks at No. 1 on Billboard’s Alternative Songs chart and sold over 500,000 copies. It was inescapable on modern-rock radio. Maust, who doubles as the band’s resident graphic designer and album cover artist, remembers a distinct shift in how people saw his band after “First.” “We were always known as this indie-rock band; people knew our band name, but didn’t know what we sang. When ‘First’ came out, it was the other way around. After years and years of being in a band, it was refreshing to finally be at the point where everyone knew the song, but didn’t know the band name,” says Maust. The song actualized what Cold War Kids had been trying to do all along—straddle, as Maust puts it, “high-brow and low-brow art.” The bassist has created all of the band’s album covers with the same mentality; each is a wild whirlwind of typography, photography and distortion. To Maust, the band’s art and music have always had the same holy inspiration: U2’s Achtung Baby, which balanced a colorful, photo-collage cover and some series sonic experimentation with some of the best and most straightforward pop songs ever written. “It’s the most high-brow/low-brow record ever made,” he says. “Look at ‘Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses.’ It’s the biggest, stadium-sounding song, but also sounds like ‘Heroin’ by Velvet Underground—just a mess of distortion and tambourine.” They did it again three years later with “Love Is Mystical” off L.A. Divine—a midtempo stomper that quakes with Holy Spiritlike energy, as Willett howls that love will “give you the power to believe again!” The song peaked at No. 2, but Cold War Kids knew they’d cracked the code: Nothing on rock radio sounded quite like it, and yet they finally fit into the rock landscape. Willett knew there was power in tapping their full pop potential, but also danger if they became stagnant. “You hit that point where you crack the code of your own sound. And you can do anything within that formula, but that can also be a curse,” he says. “When you look at Weezer and Fall Out Boy, they cracked the code but, at the same time, they’re not producing their most interesting music anymore.” Flash-forward to 2018 and the summer of Kanye. That year Kanye West produced a famed run of eight-song albums for Nas, Pusha T and Teyana Taylor, as well as his solo release ye and his collaboration with Kid Cudi, Kids See Ghosts. The albums dropped weekly—fast and furious. On tour behind L.A. Divine, Cold War Kids set up a makeshift gym outside their tour bus and exercised together, bumping a new Kanye-created record each week. The rapid-fire releases appealed to the band, like they were hearing what was on West’s mind in real-time, and that direct connection planted a seed for Willett. His band had already put out six full-length albums, always two to three years apart. He started to wonder, “What if we don’t wait and just jump in when inspiration strikes?” If he has truly cracked the code to create Cold War Kids’ biggest songs, then why not avoid overthinking and put pure faith in his own intuition? Willett wanted to cut the fat and create his best work ever— skipping the songs that “were great in the studio but, on a festival stage, just didn’t translate,” he says.“[West’s] creative output transcended the idea of records and all the lead up and story around them. Albums often have this creation story that we need to drive home over months of touring and retelling,” he says. “But creating and putting out so much music, connecting to the vibe of what’s happening right now—that’s its own story.” In late 2018, Willett entered the studio with longtime producer Lars Stalfors, who’d helmed Hold My Home and L.A. Divine, and worked with Foster the People, St. Vincent and Local Natives. The two men would go to breakfast in Los Angeles and talk music, analyzing what was at the heart of Cold War Kids’ songs. When they actually got to work, the music came quickly. “The way Nate worked on this record—his brain was working overtime. These songs poured out of him in a different way. We’ve made records where everyone’s in the room working together; we’ve made them where two people do it and we all fill in the blanks. If you gotta do something, you gotta do it now,” says Maust. Willett and Stalfors co-created and knocked out New Age Norms 1 at lightning speed, without workshopping the songs live. “Nate is definitely one of the faster writers I’ve worked with,” says Stalfors. “Most of the time, the first day an idea happens, we have 90% of what the song will become. Sometimes a song can really just start with a cool-sounding drum loop and we go from there. Sometimes it’s an iPhone recording of Nate playing piano at home. We just took great ideas from wherever they came and ran with them.” The eight songs of New Age Norms 1 are easily among the most exciting, most soulful in Cold War Kids’ catalog, complete with two full-on, goosebump-inducing piano ballads. First single “Complainer” finds Willett grinning about armchair activism over a prowling bassline, with the piano rumbling. “You say you want to change this world/ Well do you really believe in magic?” Willett sings. “But you can only change yourself/ Don’t sit around and complain about it.” Will “Complainer” ignite like “First”? It’s hard to tell, but the spark is lit. Across tunes like the smooth, heavy-grooving “Waiting for Your Love” and the darkly mesmerizing, falsetto sing-along “Dirt in My Eyes,” Cold War Kids present deliciously addictive music. Every piece of these songs is a hook—the guitar licks, the background vocals, the foregrounded bass. “We can’t get enough of Emotional Rescue and Tattoo You by the Stones, all the early-‘80s music, and we channeled some of that on this one,” says Maust. “It’s obvious.”As of September, New Age Norms 2 was just about wrapped— with Shawn Everett in the producer’s seat. Volume two was created with the whole band and has, Maust says, a Roxy Music vibe. Volume three is already in the works. Cold War Kids are gunning for rock-and-roll ubiquity. There isn’t anything precious about it. “Using certain gear, recording in certain ways—that’s what we thought was important,” says Willett. “But, no. It’s not about how you get there. It’s about the song—the thing you hear in the end.”