Frontman Nathan Willett talks about getting loose and chaotic again on latest record Hold My Home, not overthinking during the writing process, what’s he’s learned from side project French Style Furs, and how a high work ethic has kept the band going strong for 10 years.
So the last time I saw you was last summer when you were opening up for Jack White. That seemed like a really fun time.
Yeah, that was super fun. We actually were supposed to open the very last White Stripes tour, but it got canceled right before the first show at the Forum, and then they broke up. It was rad to bring it full circle.
He still remembered who you were and everything?
We actually have the same management company and everything, so yeah.
This latest record comes 18 months after Dear Miss Lonelyhearts, which is the shortest turnaround that you’ve had before. Were you reenergized coming off that last one, which allowed you to put this out so quickly?
There’s a bunch of reasons. On the last one, Dann Gallucci was brand new to the band. He produced the record and we did it in our home space. At the end of the last one, we felt like we had gotten really comfortable doing what we were doing. Pretty soon after we started touring it, we said, “Let’s do another one.”
Then also in that space of time Maust and I put out a record under the name French Style Furs, which was a whole other story. It was the first thing we’ve done musically not under the name Cold War Kids and was a really fun project.
How did that band get started? I didn’t really know anything about it until a month before it came out, and I was like, “Oh, wow. That’s cool.”
It was just something we did while we were touring the last Cold War Kids record. We’ve been in this band for all these years and realized how to make the most of our time, especially while we’re on tour.
We were in New York a bunch. Our old friend, Nathan Warkentin, had moved there. He’s in a band called We Barbarians that we had toured with when we were starting out. It started out as a thing with friends, and it became something really unique.
We used the poetry of this guy Thomas Merton. The approach that we took on it was very fast and messy. We just kind of went for it and ended up really digging it. From the start, we wanted to do it all ourselves, and then we got this guy, Nick Launay, to mix it, who’s done the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Arcade Fire and all this stuff.
We were like, “Let’s get this guy to mix it. He would completely nail this kind of sound that we’re going for.” It ended up working out that he did it, so it was just a really cool process.
That one you did all in-house and this record you also did all in-house. How do you like working in that self-contained environment versus what you did on the first couple of records?
We’ve always kind of like a self-contained environment. Our first few EPs we made with our friends, and they’re all home studios. The first record we ended up rerecording a bunch of songs. Really only the third record, Mine Is Yours, was the one we thought going into it as the most proper and what people most typically think of as a long time to make a record.
We wrote in the studio and really took our time. That was really the only record that we did that with. We learned a lot from it, but definitely one of the biggest themes about the band is we do have a lot of fun when everything is in-house.
Now our studio in San Pedro is kind of growing. Other bands are producing and doing records there, which is such a rad thing. We want more bands to go in there. It’s a cool thing to make that space and really have that as an identity. Then to have other bands get in there, it would be cool to see it grow.
Is it just local bands or have you been getting bands from all over to go in there?
It’s only been a handful because we’ve been gone so much. It’s not really local, more like people that we meet on tour.
This record seems to be overall your most upbeat and up-tempo record, especially the first half. Your songs that tend to go over live the best are usually the more energetic ones as well. Did that play a part in the direction you went with this one?
Yeah, I think so. In the past, I think maybe we resisted that more. We had a bunch of songs, even from the first record, that were real anthemic ones that go over great. I think we were just set for a while on doing songs that were more subdued with more sway to them.
Then when it came around, with the mood and the time we’re at in the band, we wanted to have more rockers and be more upbeat. It just kind of came out that way.
You’ve also had a few lineup changes in recent years, but it seems at least musically you’ve been able to have a pretty seamless integration with them. What’s the process been like working the new guys in?
It’s funny. You start a band with no real idea of what you’re working towards, other than just to perform and have fun, which I think is most bands. I think for us after the last few years of having Dann and Joe, our new guitar player and drummer, in the band, those guys are a few years older than us and been in a lot more bands than us. Them coming in gave us a sense that this is who we are. We’re here to do the work and do it as best as we can.
From the start of the band, there’s almost been a sense of is this really what we’re doing? Is this really our life, our career? What is it? I think it’s what every band does. Now it’s been 10 years and we’ve gotten to this point where everybody’s all in. All you know is the present tense and everybody’s really happy.
You have two former Modest Mouse members in the band now. Was that band something you were a big fan of growing up, or is it just coincidental how that’s worked out?
It’s really a coincidence, but I do love Modest Mouse. It wasn’t like we planned it, though.
You also have a keyboard player now. Does that allow you to focus more on the guitar and change things up some?
Yeah, it does. Matt Schwartz toured the last record with us when we had a lot of stuff I just couldn’t play, and then he played a lot on this record, which was a huge contribution. I think it gave me the role of writing the melodies and lyrics, and not try to also be thinking sonically about the keyboards and everything. It rounded things out and helped me to do what I do a lot better.
There’s a few moments on this record where you kind of do some different stuff that you haven’t really done before, like on “Hotel Anywhere.” That bass line doesn’t sound like anything you’ve put out before. Can you talk about what was new that you wanted to explore?
It’s a funny thing. You never totally say out loud what it is that you’re going for, but when you’re touring together you notice what everybody’s listening to. There was a sense of some of the looseness and chaos of the earlier recordings. On “Hotel Anywhere,” for example, the working title for that song was “Manchester Forever,” because it seemed either like some kind of ‘80s Manchester, dancy record thing or like an Oasis rock thing.
It was something that was really consistent and steady that had a great groove. It wasn’t trying to do anything weird or crazy. It was just a really fun rocker. I remember we were in the van, listening to an Oasis song, and everybody was really vibing it and singing at the top of their lungs. We had this moment of, “We should write a song like this.” That’s definitely one that came out like that.
Especially live, percussion plays such a huge role in your sound. During the songwriting process, how does that get integrated? How did Joe help out on this one?
Joe’s an amazing drummer. With both guys, there’s a similar thing where you know you’re stepping into a role to do many things. One of them is to perform live, basically to perform parts that you didn’t write or record, and at the same time you want to either add to it or do it with your style.
I think Joe has a great ability to adapt to the style that was already there and also really add a lot to it. I don’t know how else to say it.
In the past you’ve always written from these varying perspectives, whether it’s fictional or relational, storytelling or abstract. Where do you think this record falls on that spectrum for you?
That’s a good way to put it. I think there’s a decent amount of narrative and more abstract poetic stuff, which there always has been. With the rest of the records, there’s pretty much been an even amount of songs that are more influenced by a narrative or story, and then songs that are a little more abstract. I never want to put out a record that’s just one story after another. I think it would get a little hokey or predictable.
It’s funny because that’s something people really want from us. With certain songs that don’t have a more explicit story on them, like a character or a conscious place, I’m always excited because we get to do them both. We get to do the Leonard Cohen, more narrative type songs, and then also songs with a lot of ambiguity as well. I guess this record is typical with the rest of them and that ratio.
You mentioned for the French Style Furs record you adapted the words of Thomas Merton as the lyrics. What did you learn from that process? Did that apply to anything on this one?
I think it did a lot. When we were making the Mine Is Yours record, I spent an enormous amount of time working on lyrics, to the extent that I think it wasn’t really helpful at all. I kept editing myself, and changing and changing things. I think I lost my spontaneity there.
I tried to work on it during Dear Miss Lonelyhearts, but then doing the French Style Furs thing and not using my words, you have so much freedom, even more than if you’re doing a record of covers. These are words that have never been put to music, so you can phrase them and do whatever you want with them. You can give them whatever tone or meaning. You can make them angry, or make them contemplative or whatever.
The freedom to do that definitely spilled into writing lyrics for Hold My Home. I was just trying not to overthink stuff. If you want to catch a big fish, if you want to get something good, you have to know when to be happy with what you’ve got. That’s also something that Dann has helped us a lot with as a producer when he’s in there.
I might show him something and say, “What do you think about this? Would it be better if it was this?” Typically, it’s a fast interaction, where he’s like, “Work on that for 10 minutes,” or “No, it’s good.” It’s always very fast. It’s not this thing where you sit there and talk about it, and I love that.
I don’t want to sit there and talk about it with everybody. I just want to know if it’s dumb or if it’s good, and then move forward really quick. I like that. It’s a really personal thing to work with a producer, even in that kind of shallow way of lyrics, and I love how we do that together.
Lyrically, this record seems to be a little bit of a touring record, in that this idea of home comes into play on a few of the songs. That’s always a variable for you on the road, where you don’t have that fixed constant. How much was that idea in the back of your mind while you were working on these songs?
It wasn’t explicitly something I knew it was going to be about. I usually like to write a bunch of songs and let them take shape. Once I stepped back and saw that being a thread through a bunch of the songs, I saw it was about the context of where we’re at with five records and being a band for 10 years.
We spend a bunch of time on tour, and also three of the five guys in the band have kids now. It’s kind of a different thing. It feels much more familial. Like I said before, there was always a sense we didn’t know how long it was going to last, this whole journey.
I think now there’s some security to what we do. We have some control over it. We have our own studio. We could put out another record whenever we want, and a think a part of that is this sense of home.
You were a literary major in college, and I know you like to work in literary references on the albums. What pops up here?
The most explicit one is the song “Harold Bloom.” Harold Bloom is a literary critic and writer. He is really famous and a towering figure of the literary world. I was kind of using that as a metaphor for when as an artist you take in other art and hear people talk about other art in a critical way, it can make you second guess what you’re doing. It can make you overthink things to the point where you don’t even know if anything can be good, ever.
“Harold Bloom” is a symbol for that type of critic, looming over your shoulder and telling you all the reasons that what you’re doing isn’t good. Yeah, I like that one.
One of the reviews I read for the album said it seems like you are more at peace here than you have been in the past. Would you say that’s accurate at all?
Yeah, I think so. Again, like I was talking about, with the band and the five of us and where we stand with each other, everybody knows that they want to do their best work. I think we’re more kind of serving the whole. There’s a lot of positivity and security in that. I think when you have that kind of security, you can be a little more daring with what you’re doing.
There were times on previous records where we were hanging on the words, like how are the reviews? What’s going to become of us based on how this record is perceived? That is the case with a lot of bands. I think because we’ve made a lot of good choices about how we’re going to have our music come out, we don’t have to pull our hair out about how every new record is going to be received and if our whole fan base is going to disappear.
We’ve built this thing over a long period of time, and we have a consistent and diverse group of people that follow what we do. So there’s a lot of things that we don’t kind of have to worry about. It’s really an amazing position to be in.
As you’ve said, you’ve been around 10 years and five records, so you’re something of a veteran band now, which seems to maybe have led to you being a bit more under the radar the last couple years. Do you feel like you’re underdogs again in some sense?
Yeah, we’ve always been in that place. From the time we started putting out EPs ourselves and booking our own tours, into the time we had our video on MTV and radio play, it was a pretty short time. It would have been very easy to look at us and say, “Are these guys going to even stick around?”
It was a pretty quick bump up we had to be able to play with bigger bands in much bigger venues and all that, have a bigger audience, but we’ve really had a slow and steady maintenance since the first record. I think that’s a rare thing.
Around the time of our first record, everyone was saying we were a blog band, because that was the time when those dozen bands were coming up through that medium. I think we’re probably one of the only ones of those bands that’s still around, or at least active in a more visible level.
Again, I think we’re pretty surprised by it, because we didn’t totally plan on it. For me, it’s about desire. If we still really want to do it full on and write, record and tour, then we have to be totally committed. I don’t think we could take a year off. We’re not that kind of band where we could just take a year off and do other things. This is what we do.
That’s a good point. Usually in between album cycles bands will take these mini breaks and stuff, but it seems like you’re always either on the road or working on new music.
Yeah, part of it is maybe the work ethic that we come from. We could get home from a grueling tour and you always think, “Oh man, I want to get a little distance from this.” The reality is you want to get busy right away.
If the inspiration to keep working on new music is there, and all the relationships that you have with your band are there, then you can make it happen. We’ve had one or the other pretty much throughout the band. If you have both of those intact, you can keep putting stuff out.
It’s a cool time with the internet and the ways that people consume music, even if it is a little disjointed and hard to know what’s going to be effective. Maybe it would be more effective if we waited another year to put out a record, built it all up and gave it more time to create a story around it.
We always have operated with a DIY, kind of punkish mentality, so I don’t think we worry about it. We try to diminish the distance between your audience and yourself, and it’s still working.
Originally appeared on Absolute Punk