The eerie ability to suck the noise out of a room has long been a specialty of the Cold War Kids. With four records, a handful of EPs and countless tours in their back pocket, their fans are well-trained to respect the silence of a strained, soulful ballad; a piano-plunking allegory; and Nathan Willett's brooding tales about drunk dads, loners, charlatans and cowards. The title track from their EP Tuxedos is par for the course—all the masked pain of showing up stag at a wedding wrapped in a pretty, sparsely adorned melody. It's the kind of song designed for drunk tears at 2 a.m. between the bitter end of the reception and the rush to pray at the porcelain altar of a hotel toilet.
"There's a loneliness that comes with being at a wedding when you don't have a mate," Willett says. "It's something I've experienced so many times, and I know it's a real deep hollowness that you feel that that song really embodies."
But even though it falls right in line with past records, including the haunting handful of studio outtakes and cover songs strung together to make the new EP, the track "Tuxedos" actually feels a little out of place in the context of their fourth full-length effort, Dear Miss Lonelyhearts. We're seeing a more upbeat Cold War Kids lately—a band that is willing to trade a bit of the bluesy, minimalist twang for swells of synthesizer, major key guitar strumming and proud, pop hooks, emphasizing strength over sorrow. It's a sure sign that for this band, maturity also means lightening up and cranking the music up a little louder.
"Normally, we finish a record, and we're like, 'Aww, man this is great,'" Willett says. "Then you go out and tour it for a year, and you're at more of a festival-type setting, and you're like, 'Where are the hard rockers? Where are the songs that really hit and drive?'"
It's a concern that Willett, bassist Matt Maust, drummer Matt Aveiro and new guitarist Dann Gallucci can't wait to address as they steam toward the end of a long tour. They plan to hole themselves up in their San Pedro studio to crank out a fifth album, but not before taking a final bow in front of a hometown crowd in Santa Ana at the Observatory on Friday. This gig smacks of an equally gratifying exchange: local-boys-done-good performing at a venue owned by Jon Reiser, the same guy who helped give Cold War Kids their start during the heyday of Detroit Bar in the mid-aughts.
"I remember our friend [producer] Matt Wignall told us at one point there's this moment in time when your friends come to every show and it feels like a movement, it feels like a scene, and everyone is in this thing together," Willett says. "It's awesome, but there's only a window of time for this, so you have to think about how to take it somewhere beyond this."
In those days, before the word hipster became such a loaded term, the band, originally based in Whittier and Fullerton, unintentionally became the poster children for a new movement in which bands tripped over themselves to play a specific brand of indie rock fueled by minimalism, scarves and skinny jeans. The culture that adored the Mulberry Street EP and especially their 2006 full-length debut, Robbers and Cowards, couldn't help but use the group's early releases as the standard by which the music scene and the band would continually be measured.
Along the way, Willett and company were bitten more than once by the same blog critics and fans who nurtured them. Lukewarm reviews of their past couple of records, Loyalty to Loyalty and Mine Is Yours, evolved into lambastes over Willett's heavy reliance on religious symbolism and various hallmarks of the band's sound. Though an audience turning on artists is nothing new, negative feedback definitely dogged Willett, who has admittedly paid too much attention to negative reviews in the past.
But part of eventually accepting the stardom they'd earned during the hard-charging OC/Long Beach days was learning to shake off the haters. The acclaim of Dear Miss Lonelyhearts—the name and concept were borrowed from a Nathanael West novel—proved the Kids still pack an emotional wallop, but in a way that doesn't feel like the same gut-punch over and over again.
Credit much of their progression to returning to their San Pedro studio to record. Connected to a dilapidated plumber's shop, it's a surprisingly vibey creative space—all high ceilings and wood floors. The den is littered with an arsenal of vintage gear. Since stumbling on the space years ago, it's now the compound where almost everything involving the band goes down. Maust, who does all the artwork and album covers for the band, has made it kind of like a little museum with all of his abstract paintings. It has even made a few cameos in their music videos for "Miracle Mile" and "The Audience."
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"The only regret I have is that we should've started making records there sooner," Willett says. The studio's sound board is managed by Gallucci, who has replaced Jonnie Russell as the band's guitarist and took on the role of aural translator. He quickly proved to be a talented engineer who could help transpose the band's new ideas without having to explain themselves to someone outside the band. The tattooed axeman was a key player (along with producer Lars Stalfors) in the construction of the more audacious sounds of Dear Miss Lonelyhearts. And despite it being somewhat of a transitional record for the group, the final product gave Willett plenty of confidence to chase the next one in the same way.
"We've been fortunate to record in some of the greatest studios around, and I don't regret that," Willett says. "But being able to make the last record totally digital with a limited budget, all in our own space is such a rad experience. It kinda feels like we went to doing things the way of the past, but a way that works for us."
No matter how long they've been on tour or how far away they've been, nostalgia and affection still abound when Cold War Kids' boots hit home soil. Even the drive over the bridge from San Pedro into Long Beach triggers the not-so-long-ago memories of lingering around Fingerprints, sweaty Solo cup house parties and an undeniable sense of excitement around them that stretched from OC to LA, pushing them to go bigger. Now that they have, all the traveling and endless work of being a well-oiled machine seems to pay off twice as much whenever they look into the faces of the first audience to lend them their ears, their cheers and, especially, their silence.
"When I think back to those people who did come see us at Detroit Bar seven years ago and knowing that a lot of newer fans are there, it's special," Willett says. "Whether it's hanging out and meeting people or hearing the audience banter, there's this home energy that makes things really cool onstage."