Cold War Kids’ Second First Record (Relix Revisited)

Mike Greenhaus on February 1, 2011

The latest studio album from Cold War Kids, Mine Is Yours, came out last week. So we thought it fitting to revisit post this piece on the group from September 2008.

Cold War Kids emerged from the blogosphere’s ether in 2006 to become one of the most successful bands on the indie-rock circuit. Offering a mixture of dark themes and infectious hooks, the group jumped from club dates to arena support spots in a matter of months. The musicians – Nathan Willett, Jonnie Russell, Matt Maust and Matt Aveiro – also made waves in the jamband and art-rock circuits, thanks to marquee slots at festivals like Bonnaroo and the occasional nod to jazz vets like Billie Holiday. But all that didn’t stop the quartet from making its sophomore album, Loyalty to Loyalty, not only darker, but more experimental than 2006’s Robbers & Cowards.

Bassist and group visionary Matt Maust gives the scoop on Loyalty to Loyalty, Cold War Kids’ first arena dates and why this is really the band’s first album.

The songs on Loyalty to Loyalty feel like a continuation of the material you recorded for your first album. Did you start toying around with these ideas while touring in support of Robbers & Cowards?

Some of the songs we already had and had been playing live at shows. But we didn’t really turn the recorder on until around March 1st. We recorded the album pretty quickly, actually. We did it in four mouths and were done by June 15th, right before we played some of these songs at Prospect Park in Brooklyn. There are some songs like “Jumpers” and even “Relief,” which is probably the oldest song on there…[that we played] back on the first tour we booked for ourselves up to Washington and back for like two people [laughter]. “Relief” finally came out on this record, so it’s kind of all over the place.

After we finished everyone went to see Tom Waits and then went to London for a vacation. I went to see him in Atlanta and it was the best night I’ve had in the last few years, by far.

Given your recent success, did you try to either replicate and/or purposely shy away from any recording techniques this time around?

We really tried to create completely in a vacuum and, at the same time, completely not in a vacuum [laughter]. We’re in a band that really, really doesn’t like the idea of shutting out its audience. But at the same time you don’t want to create while thinking of your audience, so it’s a complete mind trick. You have to do both at the same time. So we wrote what we wanted to write and a lot of the songs are much darker than the first record. We’re four guys who really let our songs organically grow, and we never force stuff. If something is something, then it’s something, but if it’s not then we don’t put it out, so there were a lot of ideas that didn’t get used on this record that we have in our back pockets. Some made it on to the b-side section of things but yeah, there are a lot of leftovers. I’m excited about those leftovers. They’re still not humans yet; they’re little awkward babies [laughter], which is kind of the way our first record is in a lot of ways.

In retrospect, were you happy with your first album?

I don’t really consider our first record our first record. I consider this new record our first record because our first record was written when we had no idea what we were doing. The songs on that album are awkward little babies. They are not demos but they’re not far from being demos. We did the whole thing in seven or eight days with mixing, so it was kind of an experiment.

That album was written before we had any kind of audience. In terms of “replicating,” we recorded some of the same songs we did on our EPs, songs like “Hang Me Up to Dry” and those were written just a few days before we recorded them. So those songs, when we recorded them, were awesome. “Hospital Beds” and “Hang Me Up to Dry,” especially – the versions that are on the record and the versions that are on the EPs [are] just done a little differently but they were written in the spirit of writing them and recording them the next day. We wrote “Mexican Dogs” and 24 hours later we went into the studio and recorded it, so it’s brought on new character; there’s excitement in recording a song when it’s so brand new.

Though Loyalty to Loyalty feels like a continuation of Robbers & Cowards, it also feels a shade darker than its predecessor. What was the reason for the album’s dark tone?

There are two reasons – technical and artist reasons. As far as the technical reason, it was mixed by the same fellow that engineered it while the first record was not. The first record was much more beefed up and prepared for a radio type of thing and that’s one thing we didn’t like about it. For this record we had our engineer mix it as well, and we have a much closer relationship with him. So it came out much more to our liking, which happens to be darker with more low-end. That’s the sonic reason.

As far as our reasons, I’m not sure why. I think those long, dark winters in Europe that we spent touring had something to do with it. Who knows?

In addition to being a musician, you’re a designer and visual artist. In fact, you used the Cold War Kids motif before you even had a band. Do you still dabble in other artistic mediums?

I do still do graphic design, I still do artwork. I’m always doing that kind of thing. As far as doing it on a massive scale, that’s not something I’m trying to do. The band is a huge handful, so everything is kind of working towards that right now.

We just got back from playing a party at the DNC. It was an honor to be asked. It was a great experience and though we didn’t meet Obama, we went to his speech the next day. It was interesting. I saw more pictures of Obama’s face than I’ve ever seen [laughter]. It was great but it was a whirlwind with every kind of protestor you can imagine.

Given your band’s unique name, would you say Cold War Kids has a political slant?

It’s nothing political, our name – it’s more of a motif, a theme. Everyone in the last 50 years is a Cold War Kid. My dad is a Cold War kid. So Kids doesn’t mean “kids.” It’s a backdrop. We believe heavily in the character side of things – it’s an umbrella that any character can be found within.

I would say our lyrics are much more inspired by books and by film, but there are definitely some autobiographical ideas in our songs; our songs are just not weighted very heavily on that. I know that “We Used to Vacation” is about Nate’s grandpa or something, so it is autobiographical in that sense. It’s hard for me to answer because that’s Nate’s department. He’s the lyric writer, but I wouldn’t say it’s autobiographical.

What books and films personally inspire your music and art?

I read a lot of Vonnegut. I’m making a bold claim here, but the principles that Vonnegut writes with and the stuff that pops up in his books have really inspired me. There are a lot of small details about his life in his books and as a reader you kind of get sucked in like, “This is an autobiography on Vonnegut.” It isn’t that at all [but] are there small things about it? I think Nate does that at times; it kind of rings true at times.

Cold War Kids have also turned into quite the festival band. You’ve played pretty much all the major U.S. and European festivals by now. Does any festival stick out in particular?

Outside Lands in terms of just band lineup: Black Mountain, Radiohead, Beck, all those good guys. In terms of lineup, that was one of the better ones and in terms of location it doesn’t get any nicer than Golden Gate Park. It was a very unorganized festival, though.

We just played in St. Malo, France, which was great, this walled city. It was beautiful, kind of like playing in a castle. It was a massive crowd that really respected us and welcomed us warmly. The next day we played a festival in Belgium with probably 50,000 Metallica fans. I think it was us and Stereophonics and Metallica, and so we had 12-year-old kids and 50-year-old dads all wearing Metallica [shirts] in front of us. We’ve listened to Metallica our entire lives and it was actually a really good show. It was just a fun time playing in Belgium for all these Metallica fans who didn’t wanna hear us [laughter].

That was one thing that’s stuck out in recent days. There are always funny things about writing songs and joking that you’ll one day play in arenas and one year later you’re actually playing them. It’s like all of a sudden, wow, we’re here. We played Madison Square Garden with Muse. [The MSG show] was a really fun show. The guys in Elvis Perkins’ band are good friends of ours and came to play with us, and they really saved the day with that one. It was a good time with those guys.

It seems like Cold War Kids, Elvis Perkins, Bobby Bear Jr., Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Dr. Dog are part of a loose musical collective. You’ve all played with each other and shared big market bills.

We met Elvis and the Dearland guys in Chicago at the Metro one night. A friend of ours knew them and they were opening for some band. It was a super late show and they were like, “You gotta come see Elvis Perkins.” So we went and hung out with him that night and, a few weeks later, we booked some shows and, a few weeks later, we booked a five- or six-day tour up the coast with the Dog.

There’s also this guy Richard Swift we’re getting to know pretty well. We played a number of shows with him. He’s gonna be doing some shows with us in California. He actually just did a couple of remixes with us. He kind of dissed me with “Something Is Not Right With Me,” and put all of his own shit into it and kind of stomped on it and ruined it in a really good way [laughter]. We’re doing some 7-inches with remixes and stuff; they’re a free download on MySpace .

It sounds like you have a lot of leftover material. Do you plan to follow up this project with a b-side collection?

We were just working on the b-sides last night. We did vocals for a new song that we don’t have a title for yet, but that we wrote in Europe. I was hoping it would make the record but it didn’t. I’m pretty excited about that one.