In the first installment of our three-part Road Journals interview with Cold War Kids frontman Nathan Willett, the vocalist wrote from a smoky dressing room in Berlin to share his thoughts on the state of decline in the music industry, spirituality and the simple pleasures that make a musician’s vagabond life worth living.
Part two of our interview arrives from Munich, the next stop on the band’s European tour in support of their new album, Loyalty To Loyalty. This time around, Nathan shares his thoughts on author David Foster Wallace, the pitfalls of a musician re-recording their own songs and the emerging culture of isolation in America.
Antiquiet: Where are you now?
Nathan Willett: In Munich now. Normally I find it impossible to write when people are talking all around but this German chatter is steady background noise.
Antiquiet: Always interesting to get a glimpse of the other end of a world-traveling conversation. You said in the first part of our interview that you listen to dub on the road- I often hear dub referred to, but I’m not familiar with the intricacies of the art. What draws you to it?
Nathan Willett: Watch the movie Rockers as a fun start. “The intricacies of the art” is well put, I have always enjoyed the sound but known nothing about the history and had been timid to dive in. The simplicity of bass lines and delay uses from The Clash to Radiohead are all there, so I guess it’s this vast library that you have to enter into with timidity. I’m just beginning.
Antiquiet: Where does a song begin for you?
Nathan Willett: When it feels right.
Antiquiet: What phrase or word do you use entirely too much?
Nathan Willett: The word ‘Plans.’ I had to cut it out of songs on the new record. I think because I lived my life without plans until this band. Sort of ironic.
Antiquiet: What’s your biggest rock n roll indulgence?
Nathan Willett: Led Zeppelin!
Antiquiet: I dug your stripped cover of Electioneering (big Radiohead fans over here). I’ve seen you cover Tom Waits, Joni Mitchell, Fiona Apple, etc. Any songs you’ve heard lately you’d like to work over, CWK style?
Nathan Willett: I like covers. Those ones we did when we didn’t think anybody would actually hear them so they are pretty crappy. But I guess covers should reflect something about the artist that is more for them than for the audience. Immediate songs I would like to cover: The Smiths’ London. Talking Heads’ Mind. The Specials’ Stereotype.
Antiquiet: St. John never seems to lose its potency as a huge fan favorite. It seems to take on a different personality at your shows. I’ve heard a few different live versions you’ve done- do you have a favorite way to play it?
Nathan Willett: The guys in Elvis Perkins In Dearland play trombone sax and clarinet. We have toured with them all through Europe and US and every night the song became a totally different thing. The recorded song itself became a sketch for what it became on those tours. It was a joke how crazy it got.
Antiquiet: Also, you said the recorded version of St. John became a sketch of what it would develop into onstage. Any ideas on how you’d want to record the song if you were putting it down now? I ask this because I’m fascinated by the idea of a recording being a snapshot of a song as it’s in transition to becoming something else. Most often, when bands I love re-record their favorites, the end result is a terrible self-parody, so it’s a sticky subject to begin with.
Nathan Willett: You nailed it. It’s the crux of writing a song and recording it live and quickly. That’s what we have always done. Never over thought. So the obvious down side is not knowing what it will become with time but what it can never be recorded. A song from our first EP called Quiet Please is one of our favorite songs that we thought about re-recording for Loyalty but we didn’t do for the exact reason you said, which is the gross feeling of copying yourself. The recorded version of it is kinda boring and flat. But live, it is an epic with a 2 minute intro that evolved spontaneously. So that’s a perfect example of the tragedy of spontaneous recording mixed with an ethic of no re-recording.
Antiquiet: I was inspired by your words about David Wallace, and as I begin to discover a general sense of his philosophy, I’m hoping that his torch is carried. The concept of honest interaction, basic communication and a real human experience seems to become more and more saturated in complication with the advancement of technology that, ironically, is being designed to assist us in “social networking.” When we were kids, we played with other kids. We called home on our friends’ house phones, but phones sucked, and we wanted nothing to do with them. These days, however, kids have 700 facebook friends and the hottest new cellphones, but sit alone in their rooms each and every day. How does a parent balance that out, without shunning progress? It seems to me that one of our greatest obligations is to nurture the craving for human interaction, and not submit to the trappings of distraction and synthetics.
Nathan Willett: Agreed. I was on a plane and watched a documentary called Growing Up Online. I am 29. I think my age is the very last to not have grown up with the internet. Myspace culture was abhorrent to me. It was awesome for Cold War Kids’ exposure; it’s always strange as a musician to have people tell you they love you, but it’s a whole different level online. People express themselves in constant hyperbole.
I watched it when I was student teaching at South High in Torrance. Friendship was about quantity; quality was a mystery to these kids. It’s the culture of consumption that worked it’s way into (as you said) a previously sacred bond. I was just re-reading that book The Four Loves by C.S. Lewis. It’s incredible how far we are from the classic Greek idea of friendship. Wallace seemed to mourn this inevitable disconnect in his writing. He is smart enough to not blame technology itself, but to look at our weird human tendency towards competition and self-loathing. (Oblivion’s Good Old Neon explores that stuff in a terrifying way.)
I just got married and my wife was home schooled most of her life. Our upbringing is polar opposite. She was raised eclectic with close friends and family all around; performing in plays, traveling, expressing herself openly. Coming from divorced parents and being largely raised by my peers, I consider myself real lucky to have anything figured out. I was hurt by that.
When, I think about kids… It’s hard to not want to find a remote town in Washington and let ’em grow up playing with a couple of wood blocks, using their imagination.