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Cold War Kids’ Legacy

Cold War Kids’ Legacy

It’s never too late to try something new. At least, that’s what Cold War Kids told themselves on their latest record.

After taking a few years off to truly consider what a Cold War Kids album could (and should) sound like, frontman Nathan Willett decided that it was time to try something new.

He just hopes others will join them for the ride.

“I know that our hardcore fans will be with us through whatever music we release because they’ve been doing that since the beginning,” Willet said. “So to try something new and vulnerable at this point in our career is a bit risky. I like that we’re willing to take that risk.”

But the band is used to taking risks and trying new things. If they weren’t, they would never have gotten their start in the first place.

Formed in 2004, Willet and Matt Maust met in La Mirada, California on the campus of Biola University. The private Christian university wasn’t exactly what one would consider to be the birthplace of an influential rock band, but for Willet and Maust, it was the beginning of their musical journey.

“This group of friends met and were drawn to each other at a Christian college, and we started the band in a strange environment where we realized, what are we all doing here?” Willet said. “We came from a place of growing up, listening to music, and going to shows, and there’s a type of sweetness where we were sheltered from the music industry or wanting to be successful at any cost.”

Since their early days, Cold War Kids has known not only who they are but who they want to be. Even during the most recent process of reinventing themselves, Willet says he never strayed from that vision.

“The band started out with four guys who have very specific tastes and styles, and now it’s mostly me making the records in a way I love and have always envisioned,” Willett says. “The sound of Cold War Kids has always been there, and I wanted this record to be the ideal, best version of all those things we’ve always been.”

Enter Cold War Kids. The self-titled album is something the band has been inching toward for the past two decades. Willet says he pushed himself to a new creative minidset to ensure the band’s 10th album was their best one of their career.

“If I’ve got five songs done that I’ve worked on in a certain way, I tend to want to put them out as an EP and go do some shows around it,” Willett explained. “Continually as my brain would go to that place, I’d go, no, just wait, and really put together a full-length record. I needed to approach things very differently and work with some new people in a way that was a little uncomfortable. But this album is where I’ve most felt like I was the executive producer of everything.”

It’s surprising to hear an artist with Willet’s catalog talk about trying new things. Surely if the band has maintained success through an era of physical CDs, radio charts, streaming platforms and, as of lately, TikTok, they should feel confident creating another album. But that’s not how Willet sees his career.

“For so many years, we were white-knuckling it and feeling like we were imposters,” Willett admits. “I realized that I can’t think that way. If I’m not sure I can listen back to something and know that it’s great, then I shouldn’t be putting it out.”

A lot of that uncertainty is due to the time when Cold War Kids got its start. Willet explains it was a rather difficult time in music. As they were coming up, critics were looking at music in an “academic way,” nitpicking every note and lyric a band used, looking deep into context in ways no artist could properly prepare for.

“We kind of got beaten up around all that critique in the beginning,” Willet admits. “Eventually we realized we had to keep going, keep writing, recording and touring on our own terms.”

Now, Willet doesn’t look at what reviewers have to say about the band or their music. It doesn’t matter. They listen to their fans, but even more importantly, they listen to themselves. That’s a lesson that they have learned not only with age, but also from up-and-coming artists.

“They just don’t care what people think of them,” Willet says with a laugh. He enjoys the lack of cynicism that’s entered the music scene these days. Whereas Cold War Kids had to fight it’s way through a “rigid, holier than thou, ‘nothing is cool’” mentality, there’s more optimism and space to do whatever you want, however you want.

“We were really nervous about our music being perceived as silly, or something like that, because of how critical everyone was,” Willet said. “So it’s nice now that everyone’s just doing whatever they want and they’re finding their own lane.”

That doesn’t mean that Willet is any less intentional with the band’s music. If anything, he’s trying harder. But not to receive recognition from critics. Rather, he’s trying harder to enjoy his music and the whole process in general.

“I think you have to knock down the whole seriousness and studiousness of music in order to get something new,” he said.

That’s much easier said than done, and Willet knows it. Having grown up in an era of “pretentious music,” Willet struggled charting Cold War Kids path among some of their contemporaries.

“There was this moment where everyone was trying to be Ivy League-y in their music, “ Willet said. “And no offense to bands like Vampire Weekend or Dirty Projectors who that worked for, but I always felt outside of that.

“I was always kind of critical of that that and how into itself it was,” he continued. “There’s no easy way to say this, but spiritually, it didn’t ascend to something higher. It felt like very much the sum of its influences were the product. And that doesn’t do anything for me.”

Willet has always looked for something that inspired others, as opposed to creating something that was inspired by others. While other bands at the time were looking to “be the smartest people in the room,” Cold War Kids wanted to be the ones evoking the most emotion.

For Cold War Kids, they’ve always just wanted to be their own band, making music they’re proud to release. And if that means reinventing themselves from time to time and trying new things, they’re willing to do it.

“The biggest driving force for our music is, is it good?” Willet says. “Does it move you or not? And that is so intangible and so hard and so subjective that sometimes as the artist we don’t really know.”

Yet, despite the ever-evolving music industry, Willet is excited about where everything is headed.

“The whole culture around music has changed so much in the last 20 years, like stuff like reviews and fans drilling into the meaning and message and artist,” he said. “It’s very different. And I don’t think we sort of are put through a microscope in that way.”

Willet sees the freedom the music industry offers as both a curse and a blessing. After nearly 20 years of calculated music-making, he can step into a raw, vulnerable place he’s never allowed himself to creatively explore.

“Anytime you put out as much music as we have, you run the risk of people not having context for your story and knowing how to contextualize like this piece of music and what this means to the artist and that’s why it has a certain emotion or power. I feel like pop is really good at that. You have to know what that person is going through in their life in order to hear a new song through that lens. But for where we come from, I haven’t done that.

“I haven’t tried to really share my personal life and connect it to the music because that hasn’t really been the most interesting thing to me,” he continues. “To do that 10 albums in is funny because I don’t know if people will even notice or care. But that is what made me want to do it.”

Cold War Kids, in many ways, is an album 20 years in the making. Two decades ago, Willet sat around with his bandmates wondering who they could and should be as artists. Ten albums later, they’ve finally got their answer.

That is, until their next album.

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