* This article was modified on Jan. 20.
Cold War Kids are hoping their next step is a big one. They've achieved midlevel stardom by plugging away for six years, touring with the likes of Death Cab for Cutie and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and churning out two albums and a slew of EPs before hooking up with a major producer (Jacquire King of the Kings of Leon's mammoth Only By the Night) to record their latest, Mine Is Yours. Just back from an Australian tour, the band have immediately taken to the TV and press circuit in advance of the album's release on Jan. 25.
In front of a live audience at Fuel TV on the Fox Studios lot in LA, they patiently play through two takes each of two of Mine Is Yours' strongest cuts, thumping blues-rock nugget/lead single "Louder Than Ever" and future CW Network-show tearjerker "Skip the Charades." The progression is clear from the band's earlier, more raucous days, with polished songs buoyed by more precise vocals by throaty singer Nathan Willett and lushness added by keyboards, plaintive backup vocals and glimmering, delayed guitar lines The Edge would envy, courtesy of guitarist Jonnie Russell. At one point, Willett actually has to ask a crowd of kids watching to not clap along, so the performance won't be muddied when it airs. "Less enthusiasm," he jokes.
"I feel like we've been working up to this one," Willett says, sitting at a table outside the studio after the taping. "I feel like you can't take yourself so seriously in terms of the 'arriving' record, but I think for us, it felt like, 'Okay, I can see us expanding here.'"
The band, which also includes the two Matts—Maust (bass) and Aveiro (drums)—started in Fullerton in 2004, living communally and touring on 2006's Robbers & Cowards and 2008's Loyalty to Loyalty, each release bringing them bigger success. Yet despite British enthusiasm, modern-rock hits such as "Hang Me Up to Dry" and "Something Is Not Right With Me," plus Loyalty to Loyalty entering the Billboard charts at No. 21, critics have been divided on the band, and Cold War Kids haven't achieved the kind of world-dominating success they so clearly could.
"If we had any expectations [early on], we kind of ignored them," Maust says. "I think we have them now. But I think that for the good first bit of the raw-dog-ness of starting a band, we just wanted to play music."
The band holed up for seven weeks (from February to March) last year in Nashville to record; then to finish the record, they headed to Los Angeles, where they've recently relocated after stays in Fullerton and Long Beach. "You either die or you homogenize," Willett says of what tends to happen to Orange County-based bands.
Willett and Maust say King brought to the table both patience and the ability to take their songwriting to a new level and eliminate their self-described "studiophobia."
"We always spend very minimal time in the studio and seem to focus more on our live show," Maust says, thumbing the band's 4-inch mascot, a stuffed animal named Lucky Taz. "This time, we went into the studio with just ideas, a lot of ideas—a lot of really good ideas and with no complete songs, which is a little intimidating for us. But we felt really comfortable with Jacquire."
Maust says they wrote songs for the album after lengthy jam sessions, adding things such as synths and congas where necessary. Flashes of newness for the band, such as the looping drums underpinning "Bulldozer" and the electro-blues of "Sensitive Kid," are matched by big vocal hooks and splashy drums in just about every song. Lyrically, Willett refocuses from the more narrative content of the darker Loyalty to Loyalty to relationship drama on Mine Is Yours. This, perhaps, is a result of the band's influences while recording.
"It seems to me with the other records, we always used other bands and music as common ground. This time, we watched so many movies," Willett says. The films of Robert Altman (Short Cuts), John Cassavetes (Husbands) and P.T. Anderson (Magnolia), in particular, informed Willett's storytelling—films that deal with people and how they relate to one another.
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"I think watching certain movies made me see things that were going on in my life and around me," Willett says. "A lot of it was relationally and having to do with commitment—people who were jumping into commitments very seriously, some of them successfully, some of them not so much."
Willett openly hopes for the new record to be a commercial and critical success—the kind that bands such as Arcade Fire and the National have recently enjoyed. He admits he now pays attention to criticism, after having largely ignored it in the past.
"I see how special those bands are and how they have gotten to do what they do on a wide-audience level, and I think we could be kind of in their company," he says. "We'll see how this record does, I guess. You kinda have to allow for it to connect organically."
This story appeared in print as "Coming In From the Cold."