Interview – Cold War Kids Nathan Willet and Matt Maus on Hold My Home
– by Ria Nevada
A whole decade has passed since the Cold War Kids first started rehearsing together above the Mulberry Street restaurant they named their very first EP after. Somewhere in that timespan, what started as a fun diversion for a group of college friends turned into a full-fledged career, although founding members Nathan Willet and Matt Maus aren’t quite sure when that exactly happened. All they know is, spending the better part of their adult years amassing musical ideas and relentlessly performing for audiences all over the globe has led them to this point – five records deep into the SoCal indie outfit’s story, playing a sold out show Feb 21 at the Commodore Ballroom.
I entered the venue to meet with Willet and Maus just as they were wrapping up their sound check – a preview of the bluesy, DIY sound fans immediately clinged to on CWK’s 2005 record Robbers and Cowards. Their latest effort Hold My Home revisits their aforementioned debut stylistically, but years spent on the road and branching out artistically has added confidence and conviction to their compositions. Throughout our conversation, I learnt how their side projects, instrumental experimentations and some harsh media criticism about their “faith agenda” has impacted the growth of the Cold War Kids.
Ria Nevada: I was alternating between listening to Robbers and Cowards and Hold My Home last night and I had to remind myself that 10 years had passed between the two releases – that fresh excitement, even hunger, from the first record rings loud and clear in the latest LP. Was it the new lineup or a sense of nostalgia perhaps that led you back to these roots?
Nathan Willet: Yeah I think of those contributed to that feeling. I think you go through phases; I think this is probably the first backward looking one? I know Dann Gallucci, who produced this record, was listening to Robbers and Cowards.
One thing that was funny about that record was, it was a very tight and clean type of mix. It was really punchy and in a lot of ways, we weren’t sure how much we liked it as it came out, because live, we sounded super drenched in reverb and much roomier. It was only a long time later that we all came to realize what was so special about the way that record sounded. So Dann, I know, was looking at that and playing with some of those sounds on this record. So in a way, it was a return to a certain style.
RN: Similarly to how Behave Yourself evolved from songs that didn’t make it into Loyalty, did you find yourself revisiting some earlier tracks or ideas for Hold My Home?
NW: We did! Yeah, and we have an EP that’s gonna come out for Record Store Day [April 18]. And those are a bunch of songs that were not left over, but songs that didn’t quite fit on the record but are very strong on their own. So we’re very excited about that. But actually the song “Hold My Home” was one of the oldest ideas we ever had – it was a pre- first album idea that we had been kicking around for a while.
RN: The theme of being withdrawn and far from home is something you revisit throughout your discography, evident on a more recent track like “Drive Desperate”. Has the urge to explore this idea intensified over the years?
Matt Maust: We always spend just as much time away it seems, as we do at home. For me, I think it’s intensified.
RN: Typically how often are you guys on the road?
NW: I feel like the first couple of records, we were on tour for three or four years for most of that time. I’m really glad that we were because it really planted the seeds for this band. But in a way, I don’t think anybody could sustain how much we did that – I know certain bands do. So we tour a little bit less than we did when we started. But being away, inevitably affects the lyrics, the band as a whole and how you operate.
Between our last record Dear Miss Lonelyhearts and Hold My Home, Maust and I did this other side project that’s called French Style Furs with a friend of ours in New York. And that was a very liberating experience because, in being gone so much to promote Dear Miss Lonelyhearts, we were able to have this different project with a different friend and come fresh into the new Cold War Kids record. So yeah, I think being gone so much, you have to balance when to strike creatively and we’re learning how to take more opportunities.
RN: I read about how that first EP that you put out, Mulberry Street, marked those initial creative gatherings you guys had in an apartment above the restaurant of the same name.
MM: Some of us lived around there – that was one of our first rehearsal spots, above that restaurant. But I don’t think we ever ate at the restaurant, maybe we had a couple of drinks?
NW: I think it was too expensive for us at the time!
NW: It was a strange and awesome time for a big group of friends that were just hanging out all the time. It all seeped into our band, and the artwork and the shows. And there was always around 50 to 100 people at all of our first shows because we just had this built in little community, so that was nice.
RN: Do you remember specific conversations or moments from those days where you could see that things with the band were going to take off?
NW: I feel like we toured for way over a year before we even had a sense of how big what we were doing was. We’ve always been a little insular and disconnected in that way. It’s been a very long process getting to the point where it’s like, “this is what we’re doing with our lives, this is who we are, we’re musicians.” I don’t know when exactly that point was.
MM: Well one of our first headlining tours was four or five weeks in the States, we didn’t go home, we went directly to Europe for another four or five weeks. Right after that, we flew to Japan for three or four shows, and then Australia. And by the time we were in Australia, we were playing larger venues than we were playing back home in LA.
We were gone for so long – it was about two and a half months and it was ridiculous. But I’m really happy we did that because, when we got home, it was like, “Woah, we were here three months ago and this feels a lot different.” It was really cool, and that’s the time when I realized we had a career on our hands.
RN: One of the neatest things I’ve ever seen from you guys is the Chalice Symphony project with Stella Artois from early last year. How did that collaboration come about?
NW: They were looking for a band to perform on these instruments that this guy had made. They’re beautiful, incredible instruments and we got to go sample them and write a song with them.
RN: What happened to the instruments and that whole set up? Is it still there?
NW: I don’t think it’s a permanent thing.
MM: It should be in a museum somewhere, they were really cool.
RN: Did that set you up with free Stella for life?
NW: Nope, no free Stella. (laughs)
MM: I’m more of a Guinness guy anyway.
RN: Over the years, you guys have had to deflect some harsh criticism about the supposed “religious agenda” in your music. Why do you think there’s such a strong kneejerk reaction when faith comes into the picture for indie music in particular? Religious references seem to just fly under the radar when it comes to folk, country, R&B, etc.
MM: I think in general, having any kind of agenda in indie music, people probably think it’s cheesy? But I don’t really know why. It’s a bit of a mystery.
NW: The story was, Pitchfork reviewed our first record and injected all this meaning into it that really wasn’t there. The songs themselves have religious imagery, which is really important, but you want to allow people to experience and interpret them in their own way. So it became hard to talk about because, it was about art. It wasn’t a message. At least for me, I was really stung by the whole thing because it made me think twice about writing lyrics and how they might be perceived. It took a while before I realized that it doesn’t matter, it’s not something that you could steer differently. You just kind of have to do it, in whatever way you do it.
But that will always be something that I will be a little hurt by. I will always remember when we were on tour for the first record and that Pitchfork review came out and we were doing press all day, I’d be on the phone doing three hours of interviews and that was always the first question, “Did you read this review?”
But that shook me up a little bit. In a way, it’s good that the review brought that part of our band to the surface. But if told the right way, it’s a great part of what we do. I think it will always be something that sticks with us and that people can identify with.