Cold War Kids Move Forward With Confidence and Camaraderie, Not Claustrophobia

All Growed Up
Cold War Kids discuss their (relatively) sunny new EP

Organic-veggie restaurant Zephyr is a Long Beach landmark—a comfy place where you’ll often spot local musicians and artists eating if not performing or showing. Since a healthy inside makes a healthy outside, there’s green-green-green everywhere. Avocado and evergreen and dark mesquite cheerfully tangle from wall to ceiling. There’s a celadon blur on the windows to soften the sunlight as it bounces from the asphalt through the glass. On Cold War Kids bassist Matt Maust’s salad, there are romaine, basil and cucumber, as green as the trimmings on the veggie burger for singer Nathan Willett. There’s even green on the matching covers of last week’s OCWeekly and LA Weekly, each positively furry with several hundred marijuana leaves. (One of Long Beach’s caregivers is just one door over if you require still more green in your life.) It’s the kind of place where you’d be forgiven if you accidentally started to photosynthesize a bit yourself, and it’s the perfect space to talk about how things grow, which is why (half of) Cold War Kids are here today.

Five years ago, they were just moving to Long Beach from points east—most notably Fullerton, where the Mulberry Street EP was recorded in 2005 above the downtown ristorante of the same name. That was also where they celebrated the imminent release (with plenty of wine) of the album that would launch them from much-loved locals to international indie-rock celebrity. Robbers and Cowards (2006, on Downtown, alongside Gnarls Barkley) was Mekons-style inspiration (no one in the band was any kind of expert at his instrument when they started; Willett bought a piano specifically to learn how to play it) and Warren Zevon (by dint of Raymond Carver) lyrics, and somehow from that admirable but esoteric combination, they made pop songs that absolutely roared. Phil Spector once said that a decent pop record had two hits and 10 pieces of junk; Cold War Kids doubled that ratio right out the gate.

When they released Loyalty to Loyalty in 2008, those big choruses didn’t pop so much as crack and shatter into strangely shaped pieces. The singles you could sing along with said, “How’s it gonna feel when summer ends?/Out of money, out of friends.” And, “Something is not right with me!” Willett had always populated his songs with characters on the edge or on the way to the bottom, but these songs felt nervously autobiographical in a way they hadn’t before. There was less distance from the dark on Loyalty. So as Cold War Kids prepare to release their first new studio recordings since—an EP called Behave Yourself, released Tuesday on Downtown—the question is: Will Cold War Kids move toward the light?

“Maybe,” says Willett, “[we’re] coming out of the dark. It’s the typical cliché. The second record and the touring and getting home and the craziness—we realized how dysfunctional we had become with each other. When you’re in a room with people for thousands of hours over the course of years, you realize . . . we had lost the ability to be really open with each other. We closed off everything, and it got so claustrophobic. So we made a record with that feeling.”

But now they have made a record with a very different feeling. Behave Yourself resurrects an ancient track (“Sermons v. the Gospel,” Willett’s musing on J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey) and connects it to three new rockers and a snippet of the improv jams the band use to brainstorm songs. (Another fresh development—Robbers-era material arrived fully formed.) The first piano chords of opener “Audience of One”—urgent, potent, even hopeful—set the tone for an EP that suggests a breakthrough. This time, it’s confidence and camaraderie, not claustrophobia.

“We did Behave Yourself totally different from [Loyalty],” says Maust. “We didn’t realize we were making an EP when we were making an EP. The actual recordings were very spontaneous—it’s like doing something in the middle of the night when you’re too old to do something in the middle of the night.”

Are they really too old? The last crazy thing Maust actually did in the middle of the night was kick off a private after-hours Twin Peaks marathon. But they know the feeling, the sense that everything is a question mark, says Willett, who remembers when Cold War Kids rolled up to the first-ever show of their first-ever tour and found the venue wrapped in barbed wire and a few helpful local thugs who told them the owner shut down and split. Serendipitous seconds later, some local kids waved them up a wilderness backroad to an out-of-place McMansion where Metal Mulisha members were jumping dirt bikes.

“Here we were,” recalls Willett, “playing, like, blues with a woman’s voice and trying to be something truly bizarre and realizing how much of what we do makes so little sense to people, but at the same time—we loved it!”

And now here they are—backlit by the noon sun in a little independent restaurant just a few days from the release of an EP that isn’t so much bizarre as happily familiar, made by a band remembering what they loved about first being a band. If that’s not specific enough to count as growth, they’re feeling stronger than ever, anyway, maintains Willett. And now, he says, “we’re gonna set out to have our message heard.”

Cold War Kids at the Wiltern, 3790 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 380-5005; Fri., 7:30 p.m. $19.50-$25. All ages.

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