Chances are you’ve heard the Cold War Kids song “First” a few times by now. Probably even a lot more than that. The track was nearly inescapable the last two years, spending 64 weeks on Billboard’s Alternative chart, the second-longest run in its history, and appearing in several TV shows and commercials. It was also something of an industry anomaly for both the song, which had been out nearly a year before taking off, and the band itself, whose greatest breakthrough was a decade prior from their buzzworthy debut.
During those 10 years, though, Cold War Kids have been refining and reworking their sound, even if only to the ears of a smaller but dedicated fanbase. Following the success of “First,” the group signed to Capitol Records and chose to immediately harness the newfound momentum in the studio. The results are readily evident throughout its sixth album, LA DIVINE.
Opener and lead single “Love Is Mystical” is a classic raucous Cold War Kids anthem, “So Tied Up” is an instantly catchy dance tune with guest vocals from rising star Bishop Briggs, while “Restless” is a climbing ballad that showcases Nathan Willett’s own vocal prowess. As the album title suggests, the songs are very much about their hometown of Los Angeles, and Willett sets the city as a backdrop against both the complexities of long-term relationships and the recent political unrest that has engulfed the country.
Behind the Setlist talked with Willett about LA DIVINE’s themes, the hardship of writing about complicated relationships and sharing your beliefs, why it’s a songwriter’s job to show compassion, and the advantages to the pop approach of songwriting. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How’s all the album release stuff going? It seems like you’ve been pretty busy the last week and “Love Is Mystical” is doing well so far.
Yeah, it’s been crazy. We’re at the airport, flying from New York back to L.A. at the moment. It’s been a ton of press and shows and everything.
I went to Biola as well back in the day, so I’ve been following you since The Mulberry Street EP, and it’s been really cool to see how you’ve grown over the years.
Oh wow, thank you. Right on. Coming from the perspective of that school, it was so interesting to me being there. I feel like it’s such a big part of our story, where you’re hanging onto a lot of your core beliefs that came from it but also finding a group of friends that were kind of reacting against a lot of that more conservative stuff. And there were great teachers there and everything.
It is very interesting even now, like the “Love Is Mystical” video we did. There are guys kissing guys and girls kissing girls. It was something I didn’t think too hard about, but I’ve had people connected to Biola go, “Whoa.” They were really shocked and thought it was radical and all this stuff. I’m always reminded of coming from that place where people want to know the reason and whether there’s an agenda or a message that we have.
I’m torn to talk about it from the perspective of seeing it through the eyes of how somebody at that school would see it. It’s not something I can probably sum up for an interview. So if you ever want to write a book from the perspective of a Biola student trying to do something in the bigger world and how strange that is… It’s a funny thing, right?
The last time I talked with you was right after Hold My Home came out and I don’t remember “First” ever coming up in that conversation. Then 11 months later it goes to No. 1 on the Alternative chart and spends 64 weeks on there, the second-longest run in that chart’s history. What was it like on the inside to live through that? Was there a point where you realized that song was different than anything you had released before?
We had finished the record and had finished that song after the fact. There was one day before the record came out where I was listening to things and I listened to that. I remember I was also at an airport. It was five in the morning and I was by myself. I’ve never really had the experience of listening to our own music where I’ve gone like, wow, I think this might be a hit song.
And yet, of course, having had five records come out, I also very much temper any of those crazy dreams. It was insane and at the same time was a very quiet process leading up to it. It was No. 1 for weeks and weeks. We were so stoked and were like, “Oh, this will fall off in a minute.” And then it just stayed.
We transferred all of that goodness into the excitement of this record. The idea was rather than keep touring it and take another victory lap, let’s just get busy on this next record and take all that we’ve learned from “First.” This is like our band, part two. We didn’t ever think we’d exist in this radio world.
You told Billboard recently how you think we’re heading more in the direction where the best rock songs and the best pop songs are really not that different. “First” is a great example of that. When you were working on this record, how much did that realization play a role?
I think it played a big role. We approached everything trying not to reinvent the wheel, not trying to look sonically real far outside from what we’ve done, other than making it a little more modern and leaner with the arrangements themselves. It’s easy to keep adding things onto a song and call it more artistic or more interesting. It’s much harder to look at it and keep it sparse. You write a song, put everything into it, and if it doesn’t do anything, you’ve got to be willing to ditch it.
That’s a much harder approach, but in a way that’s the pop approach. It’s less precious about songs and more able to be self-effacing and go like, “You know what? This isn’t good enough.” Whereas before, we potentially would have put it on the record or let it live somewhere. I think there’s a new standard now.
You’ve been covering Rihanna’s “Love on the Brain” at recent shows. You dress it up to where it almost sounds like a Cold War Kids song, which shows the blur between rock and pop, too.
I love that song. The first time I heard that song on the radio last year I was moved by it like no other. It has that R&B/soulful sound and feels like what a Cold War Kids song wants to be. It felt so natural to cover that song.
You’ve also said how your own role in the writing of this record was the greatest it has ever been, which I thought was interesting because I always assumed you were the main driving force on most of the writing. What made this process different?
I’ve always been the main writer but we’ve always done it where we’ve had the band around and peripherally involved. This one really started with just Lars Stalfors and I, who’s produced the last couple records. We wanted to really focus on the songwriting.
When you have the band around, you are very interested sonically in a lot of what’s happening, like getting that great snare sound. You can spend so much time and focus on it where you lose a little bit of energy and the shape of the song. Again, that’s something that pop music gets right. It’s less precious about individual parts. I think we needed to do that a little bit and look at the bigger picture.
As the title LA DIVINE implies, this is your L.A. record. You went to college in La Mirada, which is 20 miles south of L.A. The band started in nearby Fullerton and Whittier. You have a lot of roots in Long Beach, while your studio is in San Pedro. So you’ve been able to live on the outskirts of L.A. proper, touring all over the world as well, and you’re not in the heart of the city every day. How did that then color your perspective and how you approached writing about some of the ideas and clichés usually associated with Los Angeles?
You really nailed it with all those locations. I love it [laughs]. All those places we’ve lived have given us a unique perspective on L.A. Like you said, being in it but not really in the center of it, kind of on the outside looking in. There’s a side of Los Angeles most people don’t see, which is the neighborhoods. Especially on the east side, which is where we are, it’s changing so much and a lot of music is going there.
There’s all the celebrity culture stuff, the changing of the city, and also it’s very spread out and disconnected. I wanted to try and capture all that as a backdrop for relationships. It’s a city where everything it’s known for is being shallow and plastic and all those things, but also at the same time it’s the place that creates stories for the rest of the world to believe in. That’s a great paradox, and I wanted to show that in a relationship as well.
You have that line from a song that didn’t make it on the record: “Los Angeles is divine and music is worship.” How did that idea play a part?
There’s two sides to it. People move from all over the world to L.A. to try and change their life and make it into something. In a way, that feels like heaven. It’s divine and is going to be a promised land for your future.
Then there’s another side to it, like when I think about cities that could be divine I think of London or Paris or Berlin. Something that has this amazing history and architecture, an investment in itself and an identity. Los Angeles is not those things. We don’t preserve our history. Everything is very disposable. So I think about both those sides when I think about the divine side of the city.
“[L.A.] is a city known for being shallow and plastic and all those things, but also at the same time it’s the place that creates stories for the rest of the world to believe in. That’s a great paradox.”
You mentioned framing this around relationships. How important was it to root the album in something that was personal and tangible? Because long-term relationships aren’t necessarily the most popular thing to write about in music.
Yeah, they’re not nearly as sexy. That’s a great point. You can have the best backdrop in the world, but if you don’t have any kind of likeable narrative or personal meaning, it’s not going to hit home in a visceral way.
There’s a lot of bands I love that make great sounds, and even write great words, but the writer’s inner life doesn’t seem to poke through at all. At the end of the day, that can leave me very unsatisfied. All of the cool stuff is there and the record sounds great, but to be vulnerable enough to put yourself out there is always a struggle.
It’s hard to write about complicated relationship stuff and not just new relationship stuff or breakup stuff, which I get. It is much more approachable and in a way fun. But for me, that’s not where I am. I’ve been touring for the last 12 years and been in a relationship for a good chunk of that. You’re tied in two different directions and it’s a very polarizing life, to be chasing your dreams and also bound to a relationship. That sacrifice is what makes life really interesting. It can make great art and it can make a deeper character. That’s what I’m about.
Another thing you’ve embraced ever since Cold War Kids started was this underdog identity, and you have an interesting twist about that on the song “Ordinary Idols.” Have your feelings shifted about that idea as you’ve grown more popular over the years?
Yes and no. We come from this really interesting place where we actually had a lot of attention on us from even before our first record. A lot of people were telling us that we were going to be the biggest thing in the world. We always took it with a grain of salt, but at the same time when that voice is around you always have to balance it.
I do think we’ve been working really hard and we want more, and there is a lot more space for us out there. But at the same time, everything we have I’m beyond thrilled for and is beyond my wildest expectations. We live in a world where you see both sides.
“It’s a songwriter’s job to show compassion. You know the people around you and their tragic stories. In a way, it’s not so political as it is observational.”
In addition to the L.A. and relationship songs, you also have songs that are some of the most explicitly political that you’ve written before. Something like “Wilshire Protest” or “Free to Breathe,” or even last year the song “Locker Room Talk.” What’s it been like to directly speak to these issues like you’ve been able to do?
The last year while writing this record, the biggest takeaway was you don’t get to not share your beliefs. There was a sense before this year that nobody needs to hear what I think, whether politically or not. But the personal and political is now wrapped up more than ever.
I think it’s a songwriter’s job to show compassion. You know the people around you and their tragic stories. In a way, it’s not so political as it is observational. Hopefully there’s a little bit of soul searching and a lot of compassion for the people that are lesser than where you’re at.
You chose to end the record with “Free to Breathe,” which is about wrestling with hope for the future, and ends on the line: “Can you feel the tension? If you’re not angry, you must not be listening.” What kind of message and outlook did you want to leave listeners with there?
The record starts off with “Love Is Mystical,” a real surefire, guns blazing opening, and ends with a more melancholy feeling of we don’t have all the answers. We’re definitely not in that great feeling place where everybody feels like, “Yeah! We’re making progress and life is getting better for everyone.” Ultimately, the hardest stuff to live with when you get to that place is, man, life’s not fair for a lot of people. Because of that, it can’t be as fun for all of us, really.
It’s important to be contemplative. It’s important to look at what’s happening all around you. For me as an artist, for me as a white male living in Los Angeles with enormous privilege, I’m more aware of wanting to choose my words carefully and wanting to be introspective but not indulgent. To point to things that matter but not from any kind of authority position. That’s harder to do than ever.
When you’ve been out on the road this last month touring the new songs, have you been able to talk with people and get their feedback on what’s going on around the country?
Yeah, always. That’s that nice thing about touring is you talk to so many different people. You almost have to try not to talk to so many people [laughs]. At the end of the day, you have to keep your own story. But yeah, of course. I’m always interested to hear every perspective.
For a band that started out in 2004 in a little apartment in downtown Fullerton, how do you describe what this journey has been like so far and what do you think lies ahead in the future?
We’ve always had this way of working that’s on to the next thing, on to the next thing. We haven’t necessarily waited for something to happen at any point. We’ve spent some time searching. We’ve spent other time, like with this record, really finding what it is we’re supposed to do.
It’s nice to be in that place where this record is brand new and we get to enjoy the experience of people getting to hear it, interpret it and see what it does for them. That’s really a fun time, when you feel proud of something and get to watch people soak it in. That’s what’s happening now and we have a lot more stuff coming up. I want to do a “So Tied Up” video with Bishop Briggs, who is on that song. She’s great. We have a bunch of things to do here real soon.
With the success of “First” and transitioning to Capitol Records, do you feel like you’re at the most ambitious part of your career now and maybe wiser about the kinds of things you want to pursue at this point?
Definitely. We want to do more meaningful stuff, stuff that will continue to open doors for us. We want to work with other artists and do good work. We want to promote ourselves and grow our audience, but also point to more important things that dare I say make the world a better place. Ultimately, we want to bring hope through the music.
Originally appeared on Behind the Setlist