Cold War Kids have a grown-up conversation with Lauren Murphy,
After being laid low by Difficult Second Album syndrome, Cold War Kids spent time catching up with friends who were ‘getting deep into commitment’. No surprise, then, that their new album deals with mature themes. But don’t worry: the music isn’t getting
IT’S EARLY 2006, and a little-known band from California is leading a rousing singalong in the cramped confines of Dublin’s Tripod. The refrain, admittedly, isn’t the cheeriest – “I promised to my wife and children I’d never touch another drink as long as I live / But even then, it sounds sound soothing to mix a gin and sink into oblivion” – but it’s delivered with a surprising level of gusto and soulful pomp. We Used to Vacation, a cut from the quartet’s debut Robbers & Cowards, remains their best-known song to date, even after another album (2008’s Loyalty to Loyalty) and a lot of touring. But Nathan Willett, lead singer of the Long Beach band, doesn’t feel that the song is a neck-encasing albatross of any sort, even four years on.
“I guess I don’t think about it too often,” he says down a crackly phone line from an unusually rainy California. “A lot of our songs that people like are the ones that we really like too, and I know that’s not always the case. Bands write songs that maybe they didn’t love, and it becomes their biggest hit. I don’t have any problems with people being attached to certain songs. But at the same time you always want people to have the same love for the newer material, and to feel like it’s evolving.”
And when it comes to the newer material, the thirtysomething singer is particularly buoyant. Loyalty to Loyalty may have gained a more respectable US chart placing than its predecessor, but on this side of the Atlantic its failure to launch meant that the Cold War Kids bubble was in real danger of being burst quicker than it had inflated.
The foursome intend to make amends with their third record. Mine Is Yours isn’t exactly a replication of their debut’s punchy indie, but it’s a layered, sonically mature record that rewards repeated listens. That was partially down to the fact that the band made sure not to rush the process this time around.
“With previous recordings we’d only spent a week or two in the studio each time – we’d written all the songs beforehand, and recorded them pretty much live. But we spent a few months on this one. We got to think much harder about it, and work through the parts a lot more. I got to spend a lot more time on lyrics, and had the time to make everybody wait for me to really be happy with what I was doing, which was important to me. It was different for a lot of reasons, but I don’t think it’s an enormous departure from our sound; I just think it’s a much clearer vision of it.”
The title is a dead giveaway, too. As with their previous material, much of the album deals with relationships – but this time it’s serious.
“Before this album, we got to take some time off to reconnect with our friends, and I think it had a big effect on all of us,” he says. “Seeing the places that people were at in their lives . . . a lot of our friends that we went to college with are now coming into this time of life – of being 30 and really getting deep into commitment. We’ve seen people get married, we’ve seen people get divorced, we’ve seen people experience the whole gamut of relationships and commitment. And I think that’s why I knew what I wanted the album to be about.”
Sure, lyrics such as “I’ll take out the garbage, I’ll squeeze your juice / So good to be making scrambled eggs with you” hint at domestic bliss, but does that mean that their fizz has been taken out of the music? Does it ’eck. Mine Is Yours displays enough variation between their trademark bluesy stomps ( Cold Toes), slow-building tunes with memorable choruses ( Bulldozer and Finally) and slinky soul numbers ( Goodnight Tennessee) to keep things ticking over. Although the band quickly recorded a stopgap EP, Behave Yourself with the man who produced their first two albums last year, their third record was overseen by Jacquire King, who has previously twiddled knobs for everyone from Tom Waits to Kings of Leon.
“I think Loyalty was kind of a darker album, and in many ways the cliche of the ‘difficult second album’,” Willett chuckles. “There wasn’t necessarily a clarity to it. In ways, I guess it kind of lacked vision. And y’know, for the first two albums, we didn’t really have any songwriting input in the studio. With Jacquire, I think we wanted to have somebody who had a greater vision for the sound, and where it could go. Somebody who could really sonically lift everything we do up a notch.
“A lot of it was trusting him, based on the albums he’s recorded. I think he’s really great at helping artists find their own sound, and I think he did that with us.”
King was also happy to place an emphasis on one of the band’s key features: Willett’s soulful warble. As comparatively distinct as all three of their albums are, the singer’s voice has been amainstay of their sound, andsomething that has set Cold War Kids apart from their peers, both past and present. Back in 2006, the band were part of a tidal wave of indie acts from the US and Canada that included Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Tapes ’n Tapes and The Spinto Band. Now that that wave has subsided somewhat, there’s no “scene” to float in on, no convenient foothold already wedged in the mountain.
“It’s hard,” he agrees. “We toured with a lot of those bands, and it wasn’t until after the second album that I realised how unlike a lot of them we are. I think we always kind of knew that we’d survive and grow through that phase, so yeah, it’s one reason amongst so many others that I think