Over the past few months, Antiquiet has developed an interesting relationship with the Cold War Kids. After reviewing their fantastic new album, Loyalty To Loyalty, when it was released back in September, we received a cease-and-desist letter from a third-party label representative because- well, because we were showering praise on one of our favorite bands, it seemed.
Our reaction to the fiasco caught the attention of the Cold War Kids themselves, specifically vocalist Nathan Willett- he wrote, explaining his regret about the situation (created by overzealous, label-hired “watchdogs” jumping guns) and encouraging us to do what we damn well pleased. He understood the value of genuine enthusiasm over hyperprotection of carefully controlled promotion schemes. It was refreshing and encouraging to see an artist get directly involved in protecting their own fans.
Two months later, we caught up with Nathan on a German stop of the Cold War Kids’ current European tour. We fired off a massive batch of questions, expecting no more than a casual selection of short answers; hell, the guy’s on tour. What we got instead was an in-depth look at the methods and mechanics of the frontman for one of the best indie rock bands on the circuit.
Nathan’s batch of responses came from “a ridiculously smoky and busy venue in Berlin,” where the Cold War Kids were playing a show that night. He invited follow-up questions, and our conversation continued as the band traveled onward to other countries, which will follow soon. Here’s part one.
Antiquiet: Where are you right this minute?
Nathan Willett: Berlin dressing room. Gray day. Just walked by the wall and saw those illustrations from the U2 One video.
Antiquiet: Having toured all over the world and had the benefit of a much broader cultural perspective in this high-intensity political and economic climate we’ve been living in, do you have any observations on the concept of a “new beginning” for the U.S. come January? The presidential election was based much more on a broad, unifying symbolism than any I’ve ever seen.
Nathan Willett: Yeah it’s good for morale. The only thing that gets scary is when people turn leaders into gods and I want people to be realistic about Obama, not so zealous.
Antiquiet: With regard to our conversation back in September about the review / label backlash and so on, how does a band deal with the need for increased third-party representation these days, especially with such a fast-growing audience?
Nathan Willett: I still don’t know. There is a book called Mansion On The Hill which is all about commerce creeping in and dominating contemporary rock music. It’s amazing. What comes to mind is those bands in the 60s that absolutely refused to talk business because it was taboo, they only jammed and created. It’s laughable how gone that time is. How an artist can never be the same. How if you are going to be competitive, you have to know about technology and marketing in a way that would have been absolutely taboo back in those days. It’s sad in a way. It would be nice to think that all we are doing is playing music. But we are salesmen.
Antiquiet: What do you do to survive in an industry that’s designed more and more specifically for hits?
Nathan Willett: I care about the people who are in the bands I listen to and I think certain types of people always will. There is more opportunity to provide tons of content for people than ever. Like the MySpace thing and the Documentary that came with the album, those are nice ways to give people more than just an album so that they can go deeper.
Antiquiet: How do you apply that philosophy to illegal downloading, knowing that piracy isn’t going to stop, and they can’t sustain the state of the empire?
Nathan Willett: Our label in the US, Downtown, seems to have a good formula of when to give away. They have a site called RCRD LBL where they put out tons of free music. And they still attract artists old and new to sign with them. Artists make money selling products more than they do from records and that’s tragic. What will be the next big move? I would quit songwriting and start a marketing department if I knew.
Antiquiet: The MySpace Transmissions sessions and other unique performances are a fan’s dream come true. Speaking of, it was the first time I heard Coffee Spoon- fantastic song. What’s the story behind it?
Nathan Willett: Yeah, the show was fun. On the first record we would get asked to do creative performances and we weren’t too prepared, so I would end up playing an acoustic version of the song and it was boring. So this time around we messed around with different arrangements of the songs for stuff like the MySpace thing. Coffee Spoon is kind of about how in relationships and internally there is something really great about being frugal but it is also easy to be chintzy. To give little and need little. I think the idea of being ascetic was always appealing to me, but than I had to learn how to shed some of that stuff… to “spend.”
So a coffee spoon in a china room was a metaphor for learning to value precious things. Here are the lyrics if you feel like getting crazy:
I can argue with the mime
I can argue with the mime
he is reading me the riot
act every line
every lawyer in his prime
every lawyer in his prime
gets nostalgic for the bar’s
naïveté to crime
ascetics wring their hands
this decadent misuse
inside my china room
you are my coffee spoon
my indulgence is a joke
while everybody laughs
I’m clipping coupons
saving my breath
I was celebrating Lent
with a candle in a tent
when you came and snatched me up
out of retirement
Now I’m buying finer clothes
in department store windows
throwing credit cards down
never raise my voice
Antiquiet: I enjoyed your poem/ode to David Wallace’s Kenyon Commencement Speech, and I’ve gotten into his world quite a bit since we last spoke (thanks for the starting point). Can you explain the impact Wallace has had on you?
Nathan Willett: Geez. I spent a summer reading Infinite Jest. My brother read it too and it brought us closer. I saw him do a reading at the Hammer Museum. I tried to meet him a couple times on campus at Pomona College but he wasn’t there. I left him a CD of ours. He speaks like people that I know in the most insane ways.
This is pretty extreme, but in a different country, he would’ve been our Dostoevsky. People in the street would know his name and that he shaped our morality and culture with his humor and his challenge of our materialism. I am just a fan who loves his books and this is hard for me to accept and maybe too impersonal to dwell on at this time, but losing him is frustrating for corporate reasons as well. For the we as well as the me. His influence could’ve reached past the literary world and into our parents’ and friends’ living rooms. He should’ve been our generation’s conscious, moralist and artist. And for many of us, he has been that big, that unrivaled. I think about his Kenyon Commencement Speech almost daily; being aware of who I am worshipping and why. As a songwriter, I have been more inspired by Wallace than any poet or lyricist.
Antiquiet: I’ve been consumed by Cormac McCarthy lately (especially The Road). Who else do you read?
Nathan Willett: There is a book by a guy named Arthur Bradford called Dogwalker. It is crazy funny. Four Loves by C.S. Lewis. Steinbeck’s East Of Eden.
Antiquiet: As a lyricist, how do you approach songwriting? You seem to tend to inhabit other characters in your songs.
Nathan Willett: It is one of the weirdest things in the world to me. I like to have music first and then think about the kinds of people and emotions that the music reminds me of. Then write something based on that. Usually with the approach of a subject that doesn’t remind me of anything else. Songs are such weird things. Joe Strummer wrote some of the weirdest lyrics, like Rock The Casbah and Straight To Hell are so strange. And Clampdown is so heavy handed. Or Jonathan Richman’s When We Refuse To Suffer. Fugazi’s smallpox champion.
We have been criticized for heavy handed lyrics. I guess heavy handed lyrics are always harder to like than shallow lyrics.
Antiquiet: What most inspires you?
Nathan Willett: Good conversations. Discovering how to put the things you learn into the practice of your life.
Antiquiet: Does spirituality play a role in your music? I ask because there’s a scripture-esque tone to some of your lyrics and phrasings.
Nathan Willett: Certainly. Probably half the reason people either love us or hate us. To me, it’s wrapped up in the same stuff as DFW to Leonard Cohen to J.D. Salinger. All those artists artists up above are spiritual and use images from scripture to find new ways to express themselves.
Antiquiet: Where do you find new music?
Nathan Willett: I think I find new music less than I did before the band. It’s hard to both write music and listen to new music. I feel like I’m getting more narrow minded about what I like. I have heard the new Richard Swift record and Elvis Perkins In Dearland record and both of those are phenomenal. I just got lots of Otis Redding and Toots And The Maytals from Maust on the iPod. You know, it’s obvious, but the whole thing of having such a ridiculous abundance of availability of music, the only downside is that it’s hard to be devoted to single albums, to listen to them over and over when you have so many choices…
Antiquiet: What do you listen to on the road?
Nathan Willett: Dub.
Antiquiet: If at all, how do you prepare your voice for touring / recording?
Nathan Willett: Not at all. I smoke inconsistently which confuses my vocal chords. I try to do a quick warm-up before the show. There have been whole months of touring where my voice has been stripped the whole time and it’s miserable and painful. So staying healthy makes my life way better.
Antiquiet: Where are you happiest?
Nathan Willett: In Long Beach, the four of us writing. With a Pacifico. Late at night.