The evolution of Long Beach, California, indie rock giant Cold War Kids has been beyond the normal realm of musical ascent.
Their 2006 debut, Robbers & Cowards, saw them come on to the scene with a refreshing blend of blues rock, emphatic soul, and contemporary alternative. Over the years, there have been new musicians in the fold, with drummer Joe Plummer joining in 2013, multi-instrumentalist Matthew Schwartz joining in 2014, and guitarist David Quon joining in 2016, leaving bassist Matt Maust and frontman Nathan Willett as the only original members.
With those changes, the band’s sound has changed as well, with their latest project, New Age Norms 1, leaning towards funk and gospel. This new era for the band will emerge on stage when they headline the House of Blues this Saturday with NYC pop duo Overcoats opening.
Willett and I spoke ahead of the show about finding his voice through a film, the band starting its own label, learning how to handle a lot of responsibilities, and keeping the music fresh.
The way you sing definitely has this Motown vibe to it while having a soulful tone. What was the moment that made you realize that you could sing this way? Did you grow up with a lot of soul records in the house?
I wish—not at all. I think it was the Stand by Me film soundtrack. That song introduced me to that style and being a super young kid I was like, “Oh my God.” The soul and sweetness of that got me.
That’s an interesting way to get into soul music. Last November you guys released your seventh album, New Age Norms 1, and it was put out via your own label CWKTWO Corp. What made the band realize that this was the time to start self-releasing your own music?
It’s actually through the label AWAL, which stands for Artists Without A Label. They’re more of a licensing and distribution kind of thing than an actual label. They’re great and we’ve had the experience of putting out five records on Downtown and they ended up selling their entire catalog to Universal Music. We had a contractually obligated greatest hits record come out last year because of that happening. Then we put out L.A. Divine on Capitol in 2017, and the experience of working with a major label to me was fine but kind of not thrilling; it wasn’t terrible but it was in between.
During that time we also put out a live record with them. Now we’re trying to do something different and just hit the reset button for Cold War Kids. That’s the catalyst for the whole three-volume thing we’re doing. We wanted to get a fresh look on everything.
Obviously the “CWK” in the label name stands for Cold War Kids but does the “TWO” stand for anything?
Years ago we had a business thing where we had to change a title from Cold War Kids to CWKTWO for whatever reason.
I didn’t even know that it would become the name for the label. I guess in a way it’s weirdly appropriate because the intention for the record was to have it be a new second chapter for us.
What was the vision the band had while making the record?
We kind of did big, big things with songs such as “Love Is Mystical” and “Can We Hang On?” in the last record that had more reverb with it being more epic. The goal for this one was to keep it a little tighter and you can definitely notice it being a bit funkier in songs like “Complainer.” There are gospel singers and layered vocals in a lot of the record but we wanted to have it be a little drier and more of a ’70s soul vibe.
You can definitely notice that ’70s influence. Other than you and Matt being the only original members now, what do you think has changed the most about Cold War Kids since the band started out in 2004?
The inclusion of new band members has always had a big effect on the direction we’ve gone in. I’ve always done the songwriting as far as melodies, lyrics and everything go. It’s interesting how other people in the band bring in their influences and the stuff they’re listening to, that definitely has a big effect on me. From that it affects how we think and what we end up playing like. Probably four years ago or somewhere around there we realized that we’re going to keep doing this.
For 10 years this band was our whole life and all that we did, then we hit a certain point where we had to decide whether we were going to double-down and go all in or not. Everything settled in to learning how to narrow down the whole system. To put out this much music with seven records and to be touring constantly and writing is juggling a lot of things at the same time and you have to learn how to organize it all. You say, “Yes” to everything and then you try to pull it off. We’ve learned to compartmentalize it all.
You alluded to it earlier, but with New Age Norms 1 being the first part of a trilogy, when can we expect numbers two and three?
Kind of soon, actually. Literally leading up to this tour we began the month finishing up New Age Norms 2. That record is done and we’re honestly trying to put it out as quickly as we can, hopefully in April or May. It’s a quick turnaround, that’s kind of the whole goal. We want to be as nimble as we can with releasing music and have it be totally fresh.
The idea is to have three eight song records. New Age Norms two and three will definitely be out this year, for sure.
COLD WAR KIDS AT HOUSE OF BLUES, 15 LANSDOWNE ST, BOSTON. SAT, 2.1. HOUSEOFBLUES.COM
Rob Duguay is an arts & entertainment journalist based in Providence, RI who is originally from Shelton, CT. Outside of DigBoston, he also writes for The Providence Journal, The Connecticut Examiner, The Newport Daily News, Worcester Magazine, New Noise Magazine, Northern Transmissions and numerous other publications. While covering mostly music, he has also written about film, TV, comedy, theatre, visual art, food, drink, sports and cannabis.