Reaching rock ‘n’ roll divinity

Cold War Kids on fame, fans, and the desire for something more

Photo: Cold War Kids, led by Nathan Willett

By Alan Sculley

Cold War Kids singer/guitarist Nathan Willett feels his group has occupied a rather rare and enviable niche in the music world so far during its career. The group is widely considered an indie band, yet has also been able to get a few tastes of mainstream pop success without losing the indie credibility it established early on.

Having been able to exist in both the indie and mainstream pop worlds is a situation Willett doesn’t take for granted.

“We’ve had that kind of unique and great problem that while we have never had an enormous breakout, we have also been real[ly] kind of [lucky], had an amazing ability to just maintain a certain level of popularity and sticking around,” Willett says. “In many ways, that’s such an amazing feat in itself.

“Of course, the stories of a young band that does have big, big success early and not knowing how, not being prepared for that (are all too common),” Willett says. “So we were very fortunate to grow on our own time, and that means musically writing and recording–wise as well as performing, I think just kind of the ideology of the band has gotten to grow at our own pace, which again I think is incredibly rare for anybody who is sort of, who has that kind of one foot in the, I guess, sort of mainstream success, success at radio and stuff like that, and then another foot in the kind of more cult audience or fans that just love us for being us. That’s kind of the dream. That’s the best thing you can have, really.”

But as Cold War Kids tour behind their latest studio album, L.A. Divine Willett sounds ready to see the scales of success tip more toward the mainstream pop world. And there are reasons to believe a breakthrough in mainstream pop might be more within reach than ever for Cold War Kids, which formed in 2004 in Fullerton, California; and with LA Divine [the band] will have six full-length studio albums to go with 10 EPs in their catalog. For one thing, as Willett noted, a number of indie acts (including Alabama Shakes, the Black Keys, and Arctic Monkeys) have scored mainstream breakthroughs in recent years without losing the qualities that made them unique in the first place.

And Cold War Kids’ previous album Hold My Home also gave the group their first No. 1 hit when the gold-certified single, “First,” topped “Billboard” magazine’s Alternative Rock singles chart.

And now, with LA Divine Willett feels the group has found ways to modernize its sound to fit pop radio without forsaking the vintage elements that have long been a part of the band’s musical identity.

In making LA Divine original band members Willett and bassist Matt Maust and more recent recruits Joe Plummer (drums), Matthew Schwartz (keyboards/guitar), and David Quon (guitar), have put a more modern pop sheen on this collection of 14 songs, while still weaving some piano, guitar, and drums into the sound.

Uptempo tunes like “So Tied Up,” “Open Up to The Heavens” and “Invincible” have the kind of sing-along vocal hooks, danceable beats, and pop melodies that fit current top 40 trends, but also retain the nervy edginess that has often characterized Cold War Kids music. There are also a few ballads, such as “Restless” and “Can WE Hang On,” which could cross into mainstream pop.

But there’s still an indie feel and attitude to several songs. “No Reason To Run” mixes a bit of gospel into its piano pop sound. “Love is Mystical” (which reached No. 2 “Billboard’s” Alternative Rock singles chart) and “Wilshire Protest,” with its pounding piano, jagged melodies, and Willett’s caffeinated vocals, echo signatures that first surfaced on the group’s 2006 debut album Robbers & Cowards and the 2008 follow-up, Loyalty to Loyalty.

“I think this record was just kind of in many ways building upon all that we’ve learned over the course of all these years,” Willett says. “I feel like it is a totally the best Cold War Kids record. It is the embodiment of all the stuff we’ve learned over all these years and the stuff we love.”

This summer, the group has a run of shows scheduled [including an] opening for Young The Giant, and will play an hour-long show in that slot. It’s the kind of tour that will give Cold War Kids a chance to perform in front of many fans that might not be familiar with the group – one key strategy designed to help expand the band’s following. 

“Of course, we always want to grow in whatever way,” Willett says. “In ways, it’s an interesting kind of problem to have because we’ve been so fortunate just to have started from our first record playing a certain size of a club that is in itself an amazing thing, playing to a thousand people or whatever. But after years of going back to the same places, you do start to say ‘OK, how can we do something a little different?’”

Cold War Kids plays September 7 at Riverbend Music Center, 6295 Kellogg Ave., Cincinnati. The show is $36. For more information, please call 513-232-6220 or visit riverbend.org.

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Alan Sculley
Reach DCP freelance writer Alan Sculley at AlanSculley@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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