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Better things for Cold War Kids


Cold War Kids come from the chest, not the head, Paul Maziar said—I asked why he liked them so much and he said because they didn't fake it. People would usually say things like that about the band, especially if they'd ever talked to them offstage. This was what Russell talked about when he said conviction was unfashionable and disinterested cynicism was where young bands started ("Too impassioned is bad now," he said) or what Willett smiled at as "wearing your heart on your sleeve." Or Maust when it turned out the Clash really were his favorite band, something he mentioned with sudden but colossal reverence, looking slightly left and down as he said it. Not far into their interview we were talking about the moral responsibility of an artist instead of influences or tour stories: "Not what it is to be a good person, but . . . it boils down to the same sort of questions," said Russell. You could tell they'd come from teachers' families: we feel like old men, Maust had said once, and old men were who they respected most. If you're not tapping into something that affects people older than 25, said Willett—"Then you need to think about better things!" finished Russell. Then there was one last question to ask—late at night on the phone with Willett because it felt too awkward any other time, more their business than mine. But then again no one had asked yet—they played the New Song and they had gone to Biola and they never cursed that I ever heard and their lyrics weren't shy about certain grand and dignified themes. And they didn't want to be a burden to their parents.

"No, no, we don't wanna be that," said Willett when I asked if he felt Cold War were a Christian band. "Definitely not at all. I'm realizing now that this could be a thing we talk about more and we kind of have to keep the perception of it at a good point—but it's almost beside the point. What I hope is that we present ourselves as storytelling—we're not trying to push an idea on you. I don't have an agenda for what I want you to believe. But I do want you to hear the story."

Stairway to heaven: (clockwise from lower left) Aveiro, Russell, Willett, Maust. Photo by John Gilhooley
Stairway to heaven: (clockwise from lower left) Aveiro, Russell, Willett, Maust. Photo by John Gilhooley
Maust / Photo by Vickie Chang
Maust / Photo by Vickie Chang

When ideas of faith came into their songs, they came in the same understated, ambiguous way as ideas of love or loneliness or death. The call for water that made "Hospital Beds"' memorable chorus could be a clear reference to baptism or a less overt symbol for repentance and redemption ("'Put out the fire, boys' is a way of saying, 'Hose me down, all this pain and ugliness—get rid of it, it's on us,'" Willett had said in another interview), particularly as it comes from two men waiting to die, but it was also a literal request just for immediate relief. And the final chorus of "Saint John" ("All us boys on death row/We're just waitin' for a pardon . . .") was another invitation for mercy before death; that was a sentiment about mortality that fit every human born. But there were also the buried Seinfeld references—Wignall said Maust had every episode on period VHS tape—about street toughs and back!-and-to-the-left. And the most apparent religious imagery on Robbers—in the hidden track "Sermons v. the Gospels"—was really Willett's direct quotation from Salinger's Frannie and Zooey. "Lord, have mercy on me" came from Frannie's infinitely repeated Jesus prayer (as learned from the Russian story of pilgrimage, the Philokalia) and although Willett's line "I believe the words can change the heart" sounded fiery, it was, in fact, a reaction to Frannie's boyfriend Lane, who asks her what happens if she keeps up her constant prayer: "What is the result that's supposed to follow? You get heart trouble?"

"People think religion and maybe they just think 'Bush,'" Willett said, or they think of religion as plastic or simplistic or archaic, but Cold War Kids thought of real and relevant imagery and blues musicians who'd actually been reverends, or thought of Nick Cave or Tom Waits, whose "Come On Up to the House" Willett admired: "'Come On Up to the House,' is that heaven? Is that God? Just simpler things? Just 'come back to me'? You can read that in such different ways—it's perfectly concrete with what he's talking about—'come up to the house, the moon is broken, the sky is cracked,' but you can feel things in those images. The way people write now is lyrically opposite—they tell you the emotion. 'I feel this, I feel sad, I'm feeling other things.' You can't put yourself in."

Those were what writer Alfred Bester called the one-man dreamers: "You dream you are the one man with a secret, the one man with a wrong, the one man with an injustice, with a girl, without a girl, with or without anything! God damn. You bore me, you one-man dreamers. Get lost!" But Cold War Kids made songs with space and suggestion that left private room for anyone who wanted it. Willett mentioned Raymond Carver many times; he had obviously studied Carver's precise technique for omission ("He writes a story and he never tells you how to feel," he said. "But the message comes across in a very universal way") and he populated his songs with meek and fallible characters and often left them unresolved. They weren't hopeless but they weren't happy either, like the alcoholic father in "We Used to Vacation" promising to stay dry for his family but admitting "at the meetings I felt so empty" and "it sounds so soothing to mix a gin/And sink into oblivion." But there was authority there anyway—the voices of the old men and the teachers Cold War Kids would become. Though they wrote about Russell's better things, they were gentle and humble about it. You could tell what they meant but you didn't have to; you could just listen to the story.

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