Antiquiet’s history with the Cold War Kids is a long and storied one, a conflicted beginning blossoming into full-blown fandom that’s cultivated over the span of three albums and thrice that in EP releases. The Jan. 25 release of the band’s third LP Mine Is Yours will represent a new chapter in the Long Beach quartet’s metamorphosis, an evolutionary emphasis that found the band utilizing a more painstaking recording approach under the guidance of producer Jacquire King.
Back in December, Cold War Kids stopped by Jack White’s Third Man Records hotspot in Nashville to play an in-house live show that, as we learn here, will soon be available in album form. On Saturday afternoon, frontman Nathan Willett called us from the road to discuss Mine Is Yours (listen to the album) and the band’s experience at the Third Man compound, as well as the concepts & philosophies that keep the Cold War Kids on their continued path of evolution.
Nathan’s journey during our call was a bit different from his European exploits during our Road Journals interview series, but three days before the release of Cold War Kids’ most high-profile release yet, the frontman seemed genuinely at ease – even with a GPS yelling at him in the background on the way to pick up a record player he found on Craigslist.
A month or so ago you guys played Third Man Records down in Nashville – The show was recorded to analog tape and will be released as a live LP, yes?
Yes, it should be pretty soon, actually. They turn ’em over pretty quick over there, so I think it could be as soon as in the next month or so. It was a rad experience, they’ve actually got a place where they print the vinyl just down the street from the live venue and where they record everything. It’s like a compound that’s all-inclusive. It’s really fantastic.
Oh yes, we’re familiar. It’s such an ideal setup for what Jack’s trying to do down there. There’s no stopping the guy at this point.
We’re big fans, for sure. He’s definitely worthy of the word “icon” for what he’s got going on down there. He was so involved in everything we were doing with it, too, from setting everything up to socializing and hanging out – it was really cool.
People have been streaming your new album for a week, prior to release. Ten years ago that was a shocking concept. In the world that existed when we were kids, that first listen to an album you’ve been anticipating was a ritual, a sacred moment. The romanticism is gone when it’s a click off a Twitter feed.
There’s something that’s obviously a shame about not having the experience of a big release day or what have you, going to buy a record the day it comes out and all that. But in general I think it’s good that people are getting exposure to it. One way to look at it… I always kind of hobbled between not wanting to read much press or reviews and wanting to know what the temperature is. But this time around we’ve done a lot of press leading up to the album, and the time and place for us right now is really interesting. It’s definitely a transitional place.
One perspective, to kind of boil it down, I think is that with the last record, people were critically saying something along the lines of “I want these guys to grow up more” or something. But with this record, the little bit of reaction I’ve heard is “Oh, I miss the old band, they used to be kind of jangly and loose…” or lo-fi or something. So having all that unfold before the album is even released is really interesting. We’ve never been at this point in the digital release approach, so I guess in a way it’s the only thing we know right now. There seems to be a disconnect between the criticism and what fans are saying now…
There’s an interesting polarization happening this time around, and there’s equal passion in the love and criticism on both sides. Music press seems really eager to cram third and fourth-album bands into a box of going “back to their roots,” staying the same – which is apparently boring – or reinventing the wheel. Mine Is Yours doesn’t really lend itself to those options.
This being our third record, I have high hopes for it and I’m really proud of it. I’m kind of proud of it to the point where I want to do all the press that I can to support the record, but all of a sudden I care far less about that side of shaping the opinion. I feel like this one stands all on its own. We’re at a funny place where a lot of people like us, a lot of people don’t, and we’ve been able to communicate more with our fans directly through Twitter and other means, and bypass a lot of the hassle of critics on assignment shaping opinions.
As far as your personal influence in the architecture of the record, you’ve mentioned Woody Allen – Husbands and Wives and Jonathan Franzen – The Discomfort Zone – the latter is a pretty brutal self-examining and self-deprecating confessional. Is there a direct line between that approach and the more personal approach you took to the lyrics for Mine Is Yours?
There definitely is. The idea of shaking myself up and abandoning the fictitious safety of the characters in the way I approached things early on was kind of appealing to me. Having a sense in which I understood those characters on the first record, and also a sense in which I also didn’t, that’s what made me feel like we were doing something important at the time. Then on the second record I felt it a little bit less, I felt a little bit less like I knew what I was doing with it, and I wanted the second record to be more poetic. Once we finished it, I kind of had the sense that I wanted to do something that was closer to home for me. I wanted to say something that was more representative of my life, less abstract and character-driven.
So that book, among other things, that book definitely played a part. I would read it and just laugh aloud. There’s something so special about someone revealing something that is very much themselves in that you know it’s very uncomfortable for them to write, uncomfortable for the people they know, their family and so on. The vulnerability was definitely a big part of where they came from.
That brings R.E.M. to mind, that depth of vulnerability in expression. Speaking of, I’ve been telling people forever that as far as backup vocalists go, Jonnie’s right up there with Mike Mills from R.E.M. When building a song, are you cognizant of that extra support, and how that interplay will work out onstage?
Yeah, definitely. We’ve always been a live band before being a studio band. A lot of being in the studio for us is all about trying to capture the energy that we have live. That was definitely the biggest challenge we had on this record, in just spending so much more time on it but still trying to keep that energy. But that vocal translation is definitely something I keep in mind.
There’s a new element of ambition to parts of the record that don’t sound familiar to anything you’ve done. There’s a galloping sort of Freebird feeling to Flying Upside Down, and it’s a hell of a way to close the record. The optimism is inescapable.
Finishing Loyalty to Loyalty, I had this feeling that I loved what it was, but I wanted a new mood. In some ways it’s far easier to be dark than it is to have a sort of vulnerable joy on the record. I think it’s always been harder for us to write happier songs… more uplifting. I think that was part of what we wanted, going into this. Let’s show another side of us, so yeah, I’m glad that comes across.
You called Skip the Charades one of your early favorites, which you said was “as big as a White Stripes song, but as melodic and arranged as something that Coldplay wishes that they could write.” It struck me as oddly spot-on, especially when you’ve said that you see yourself somewhere between Arcade Fire and The National in terms of your artistic approach within the Cold War Kids.
It’s so hard to put your finger on sometimes. On one hand, those four bands aren’t really people that all of us rally around and get inspired by, but part of the ambition that those groups have is something that I’m just starting to learn about, I think. Having a point to your art and a direction. Knowing what you’re doing with it inwards, but also whittling it down so that it can be understood by people. I think that’s one of the things that bands like that are so good at, is having a message that’s just abstract enough but just concrete enough so that people get it. It’s immediate.
So there was definitely that ambition that we went in with for this record. “We’re gonna do it this way”. Part of it was having Jacquire (King), the producer, was that this guy has a lot of association with his name. We’re going to be ambitious about this record in terms of the songwriting and having a greater arc to it. And we acknowledged that with all these changes, from the time to the involvement to music as a whole and how we’re thinking about it to the recording itself, if we’re wrong about everything, we’ll make another one. And at least this’ll be a lot more risky than doing the same old thing again. So that was the mentality going in.
It really comes out in the sound. There are several great little head-scratcher surprises, such as the opening to Cold Toes, for instance…
That was one of my favorite studio moments. The role that Jacquire played as a producer was pretty unique. He wasn’t musically pushing us a lot of different ways. He would patiently make comments about arrangements, and with that song, we weren’t sure how to do it. It was a heavier, guitar-driven and busier version that we’d been playing all day long. It seems he would pull certain things from his experiences with people like Tom Waits, where he would just suggest a different context for something, a little tinkering with the arrangement. So I moved over to the organ instead of playing guitar, and he stripped everything down and did it all in one take. We didn’t know exactly what was going to happen at every point, and we were playing off of each other, and it was the most spontaneous thing on the record. Definitely one of our favorite moments.
As far as the song’s subject matter, it seems to be about infidelity, but somehow not entirely? Dream cheating?
there’s a bit of a dream element. It’s kind of about infidelity, but just through dreams. Being in a committed relationship, but dreaming about sex with other people (laughs). Something that is such a universal thing with everybody I talk to. In a newly committed relationship there’s a funny element to it, but you can experience that for the rest of your life, and there’s this weird displaced guilt that you really can’t take too seriously.
Jacquire King’s involvement was the first time you let somebody into your creative circle. You said he’s good at getting bands to be their best. How did he do that with you?
It’s hard to describe because you have this trust, and just by having another person around… I think he spent a month really just kind of watching us and getting to understand our language and the way we operate. And then he started to really interject his opinions…. it was really a matter of taste and approach. His opinions were respected right away, because he would only kind of speak to anybody when he had something that he wanted to try, as opposed to being such a heavy hand in everything. And we trusted him, he has great taste. And when you have four guys with a very strong vision for what they’re doing, having a fifth person come in after five years into what you’re doing, there’s something about it that changes. It can be hard, but we really liked that experience with him.
You’ve said that Bulldozer embodies the content of this record more than any other song. The struggle of relationships, crossing that threshold into larger life commitments after hitting 30 and such. Can you expand on that?
I guess part of it is kind of the marriage of the lyrics and the music in that song, how they work together and how we like to write these songs with a lot of buildup, then a release. The arc of music of the song is really interesting to us, and the imagery of the bulldozer crushing and breaking and starting over was something I kept circling. When I read about people that write lyrics really spontaneously, people who can just sit down and write with very little changes, I’m always amazed. I’ve always wanted to be able to spend time honing my lyrics and shaping the approach, and that’s kind of what I got to do with this record. What I want to do is get to a place where things are really direct and simple and the images and concepts are poetic but also very immediate. That song’s kind of what I felt was a good example of that.
The sentimentality of Broken Open is strong, and it seems like you’re crossing into something new. The architecture of the song alone is unique…
I think this is one of the first ones that I actually sang in front of the guys that was a done thing. I definitely had the most squeamishness about singing that song because I knew that it was in ways the most transparent, and in ways was risking the most sentimentality. For me it was a matter of steeping the aesthetic of what we do, but also risking some of that straight on with transparency. But as far as how the song went, it was an example of one that was tried so many different ways, and we just kept changing and changing until it seemed right.
Material that didn’t make the album? You guys sure love your EPs….
There is. This is one of those things we’ve talked about that we’re pretty serious about. I like to buy a physical copy of music, and any time there’s more songs on an iTunes release, you feel like it’s kind of a middle finger to you, who are the most important of music fans. You go to the store to buy it and you want to hold it in your hands, looking at it, and know you’re not being shorted somehow. There are four songs that didn’t make it on the record. One of the songs that I love is called Fashionable, we recorded it after everything else so it was a little too late to squeeze it on. We probably would’ve wanted to put this song on if it was possible. That one we’re actually making a 7″ of that we’ll be selling at our shows, and probably try to pass around to independent record stores and stuff.
Fantastic. That’s really great news. That conversation really isn’t being had right now, the incentive to go down and buy the record versus what sort of bonus might be available with a digital purchase.
Part of it is you’re playing the game with iTunes and you want them to sell your record, but there are ways around it. There’s always a way to get the songs into the hands of the people who want that physical relationship. There’s another song called Goodnight Tennessee, and another one called Don’t Look Down On Me. I absolutely love all those songs, too. Really one of the hardest parts about this record was choosing which ones would and wouldn’t be on it. So I think we’re going to make a CD single to sell in stores that aren’t iTunes tracks, so that we’re not screwing the people that mean the most to us.
Pick up Mine Is Yours at your local record shop, or ColdWarKids.com.