Back in 2006, the California-based band Cold War Kids exploded into the indie-rock consciousness. Their debut album, Robbers and Cowards, sold close to 200,000 copies, blockbuster numbers by indie standards, and they graduated from playing house parties for their friends’ 21st birthdays just years prior to amphitheaters across the world.
“I realized that something great was happening when we went to Australia at the end of a 2-and-a-half month world tour,” says bassist Matt Maust. “We were playing 2,200-capacity venues in Australia. I remember stepping out and being like, ‘Wow.’”
Then came the inevitable backlash.
Despite the Cold War Kids’ rabid following and a solid critical reception, the taste-making indie music site Pitchfork slammed their debut LP with a 5/10 rating and took several potshots at the group for including what reviewer Marc Hogan called “heavy-handed” biblical symbolism that he said pushed some sort of Christian agenda; the band was painted, it seemed, as the indie rock version of Creed. The review’s final paragraph even compared a line in the song “Sermons vs. the Gospel” to a line uttered by President Bush.
“Willett yowls, ‘Lord, have mercy on me / I believe the words can change the heart,’” Hogan wrote. “‘When you accept Christ as the savior, it changes your heart,’ said George W. Bush in a 2000 presidential debate.
Robbers and Cowards is indeed rife with vaguely faith-based imagery, including a Les Misérables-esque tune about a thief who steals from a church (“Passing the Hat”); a person torn between a life of modesty and one of deceit (“God, Make Up Your Mind”); and an alcoholic who clashes with his family (“We Used to Vacation”). But the album never proselytizes. Instead it sketches an overarching narrative of a person at odds with his faith.
All the hullabaloo confused the neophyte rockers, who had only been a band for two years and were searching for their own voice.
“We were surprised because Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash—so many of our favorite musicians approach music from a spiritual standpoint,” says singer Nathan Willett. “And at the time we were just starting, so being asked about this review during every interview you did, it was just like, ‘Fuuuuck.’ And what do you do? Do you work to try to sway people away from this very listened-to authority here?” He pauses. “It sucked and it was completely out of our hands. And at the same time, it was kind of a lesson in disguise like, ‘Here’s entertainment! Hope you’re ready for shit that’s not true!’”
Willett, 33, is a handsome blond with a square jaw and arms covered in tattoos. He doesn’t look anything like the Christian indie rock prophet portrayed by his hipster detractors. He’s also armed with a unique gospel-tinged wail—one that registers even more strongly in a live setting.
The frontman was raised in a conservative Christian household in Southern California—his father led Bible study while his mother was a Christian marriage and family counselor. After their divorce, he went through a deeply philosophical period, questioning the edicts imposed on him during his strict upbringing and eventually attending Biola University, a Christian liberal arts college.
“I was really volatile toward church and faith for a long time, but way more so toward church than faith,” Willett told Relevant magazine. “The church to me wasn’t real at all. It was about doing the right things and keeping up appearances. From the time my parents split up, everything tied to church just vanished.”
At school, he met bassist Matt Maust, now 33, who was raised in a Mennonite community in rural Kansas, and ex-band member Jonnie Russell (guitar), a preacher’s son, as well as their future manager. The young men bonded over their love of music and after college, around 2004, began practicing in Russell’s dingy apartment in downtown Fullerton, Calif., above a restaurant called Mulberry Street. They soon moved to a “janky” $800-a-month apartment/practice space in Whittier, Calif., and released several demos, including their first EP, Mulberry Street.
“I can’t believe that when I think about it,” Willett recalls of the grimy space. He turns to Maust. “Your dad built us a lock at one point, right?” He pauses. “We had so much gear in there and we didn’t have a lock. Idiots! And we had record label people come in there and be like, ‘This is where you live…and play?’”
Their first paying gig was pretty “janky” as well. They were paid $50 to play a tiny Los Angeles speakeasy called The Lava Lounge—now The Woods. The ground switches weren’t plugged in correctly and Maust got a severe electric shock.
“I saw white for a second,” he says, with a chuckle.
The four-piece were eventually signed to Downtown Records. After Robbers and Cowards, the group released their follow-up in 2008, Loyalty to Loyalty. It was named after a quote from philosopher Josiah Royce and meant to signify embracing your community. But Pitchfork, as is its wont, continued to hammer the band, claiming the album was “about Republicans” largely because of a line in the album’s opening tune “Against Privacy”: “Forget ex-girlfriends / We want little governments.” This, however, had more to do with the album’s overall theme of embracing the loyal community, or what Royce called the “invisible church”—devotion to the highest ideals of goodness—than any sort of right-wing message.
“At the heart of it, there was no logic behind it,” Willett says of the Pitchfork barrage.
And the cliché image of the whiskey-swilling, heroin-shooting, groupie-banging rocker is mostly a thing of the past. Today arena rock bands are fronted by Mormons (Brandon Flowers, The Killers) and vegetarians who didn’t lose their virginity until they were 22 (Chris Martin, Coldplay).
“The idea of indulging in cocaine and women all night is so dorky that it’s not even interesting at all,” says Willett. “And we grew up listening to a lot of punk bands like Fugazi, The Clash, and bands that were about something that had nothing to do with decadence—almost the opposite, like a strict idea that they were following.”
Despite the body blows, the band has continued churning out album after album. Their fourth LP, Dear Miss Lonelyhearts, was released on April 2 and has been heralded by critics as their best effort since their high-selling debut.
Since their third record, Mine Is Yours, was not very well received by critics, the band decided to regroup. Guitarist Russell left and was replaced by former Modest Mouse guitarist Dann Gallucci, who also served as one of the album’s producers. The group’s sound has been rejiggered as well. Drum machines and synths are prevalent throughout—influenced, they say, by New Wave acts like Depeche Mode, New Order, and Bauhaus.
“We set out to make something that wasn’t so bluesy and minimal, and tried to go somewhere that wasn’t looking backwards but looking forwards,” says Willett, citing The White Stripes and The Black Keys as examples of other bands that tweaked their sound. “We wanted to allow for some evolution where we don’t necessarily know where we’re headed.”
They recorded the album over a period of eight to nine months at their rehearsal space in San Pedro, Calif., and named it after Nathanael West’s novel Miss Lonelyhearts. It was, according to Willett, in many ways a response to the negative criticism of their previous album.
“The idea of the character in that book as an advice columnist responding to people and having this crisis, I responded to that,” he says. “Everyone has different interpretations of songs, and I think to some extent artists should close themselves off from that, and to another extent feel the crisis of why you’re doing what you’re doing, and ask if it’s about something that’s bigger than you.” He pauses. “Ask yourself those questions.”