When Nathan Willett calls ‘New Age Norms 2’ the best record Cold War Kids have ever made, you pay attention. There is no mistaking the pure passion and raw intensity that went into this work, as we learn firsthand in a conversation about songwriting, the hero’s journey, and keeping things fresh over a fifteen-year career.
Stream: ‘New Age Norms 2’ – Cold War Kids
When Nathan Willett calls New Age Norms 2 the best record Cold War Kids have ever made, you pay attention. The indie rock band’s frontman is almost always up for conversations about music, philosophy, politics – you name it – but when it comes to his own art, he is generally reticent about putting it on a pedestal.
“To want to say that this is our greatest record, and to know that I’ve been timid about records that we’ve put out in the past – there have been records where I’ve been like, “Man, I don’t know what people are gonna think of this, I don’t even totally know exactly if I think it’s exactly right” – but this one is just right,” Willett affirms on our recent call. “It’s just so… it’s what we set out to do. There’s a lot to be said about that.”
All those times when I imagined
What it’d be like to have my freedom
Not be so uptight, live my best life
Oh, what a fool, I was only dreamin’
I’m going down, down, down
I wonder who’s gonna love me now
I’m going down, down, down
Well, tell me who’s gonna love me now
Formed nearly two decades ago in California, Cold War Kids still epitomize the “underground indie rock band”: In spite of their world-renowned success and critical acclaim, their music continues to be driven by an insatiable hunger. This is as much a testament to the band’s electrifying performance as it is Willett’s feverish vocals and poetic, yet equally relatable lyricism – all of which coalesce into a mighty musical force on their eighth studio album.
Released August 21 via CWKTWO/AWAL, New Age Norms 2 (stylized in all capital letters) is the second installment of a three-album trilogy that began with 2019’s feisty New Age Norms 1 – Cold War Kids’ first album since parting ways with major label Capitol Records. Working for the first time with producer Sean Everett (Alabama Shakes, The War on Drugs), the band came into the recording process with the intention of being as organic as possible – of making a true group effort. Per Willett, the band have made music in several different ways over the fifteen years – as a unit, separately, through just Willett and a songwriter-for-hire, you name it – but this time around, they went back to basics.
“It does feel full circle, like letting the environment and the people and everything going on be that sort of chaotic amalgam that it was in the beginning, when nobody knew what anything was,” Willett reflects. “When you’re making your first record, you truly don’t… Like, things are working and you don’t know why and you just sort of run with it and there are things that, in hindsight, you wish you could go back and change, but really that’s the point. It’s not about perfection. It’s about doing something that is very true, and I think that’s harder over the years.”
Together with Everett, Cold War Kids – the quintet of Willett, Matt Maust, David Quon, Matthew Schwartz, and Joe Plummer – made a fresh album ripe with passion, hunger, and the hero’s journey. “They’re so alive,” Willett says of the songs, describing the overall album as “wild, loose, and deep.” In fact, few words better capture the energy and intensity that is New Age Norms 2: Opening with the power-anthem “Who’s Gonna Love Me Now,” Willett and co. set the scene with savage outbursts built off both the piano and guitar. Cold War Kids’ music has sounded increasingly soulful as Willett’s voice has matured, and that “soul” quality is more apparent than ever in such rollicking songs as “Obsession,” “You Already Know,” and “Regret Regret.”
Recent single “You Already Know” is of particular note on the album – a potent force of nature, it is a perfect balance of tension and release manifest as an unrelenting anthem preaching empowerment and self-determination:
Wake up to blinding light
This is how we start the day
When will it crystallize?
Confusion sets the stage
I’ve wasted half my life
When will I get to cruise?
I still feel so far behind
I feel left out of the loop
Out of the loop
Out of the loop
If you want it
You can have it
Come and get it
You already know
Cold War Kids don’t reserve their raw in-your-face attitude for any one song on New Age Norms 2; rather, the whole record is a lively, unabridged and untethered outpouring. Hot, heavy explosions like “Ceiling Fan” and softer, tender moments like “Somewhere” alike carry this ethos forward, up until the stirring finale “Catch Me Falling,” whose striking, experimental gospel infusion is unlike anything the band have ever done before.
“We all have this journey and a struggle to sort of realize ourselves and be the best version of ourselves,” Willett says of this album’s arc. “That’s what I wanted to write into it, is that like there are there’s a start and an ending in a great life – in a hero’s journey that we all can look at, and it’s something that we all have in common… The last song on the record is “Catch Me Falling”, and it’s a song that’s very much about wanting to look back at a legacy and pass the torch, and be a part of this larger story. It’s personal and universal.”
There’s a challenge inherent to writing songs that connect people during a time that feels more divided than ever in living memory. New Age Norms 2 is made of such connective tissue: Its music is soul and rock, pop and alternative, and its lyrics try to speak not to any one experience, but to a more global human experience. For these reasons and more, Nathan Willett glows with excitement and pride when discussing the band’s latest record.
New Age Norms is kind of like, have fun and do whatever with it, and that feels very exciting, very uncharted territory… it’s raw and live.
At just thirty-three minutes in length, New Age Norms 2 comes and goes rather fast – yet it will never pass you by. Whether Cold War Kids’ eighth studio album is their best effort yet is for listeners to decide on their own, but there’s no mistaking the pure passion and raw intensity that went into this work. Dive deep into the music in our length conversation with Nathan Willett below, and stream New Age Norms 2 out now!
A CONVERSATION WITH COLD WAR KIDS
Atwood Magazine: First of all, how are you, your family, and how has the band been faring this year?
Nathan Willett: Okay. We had, I guess in a way, the really good fortune of ending tour right before this all kicked in, and also going straight from the end of that tour to finishing this record, ‘New Age Norms 2’ with Shawn Everett and literally just the days leading up to the shutdown mid-March, finished this record. So it’s really… That part of it’s really nice because there’s aspects of music that, for us, the amount of stuff that… For this record, especially, because it was a very full band experience, there are certain things that I wouldn’t have wanted to try to do by myself as much. There’s a very live and vibe experience with the records. So I feel like right up to the shutdown I had still a lot of work to do to prep to get this record out and art and all of the logistics of it. So that side of it is great. There’s this side of it where it’s just every day has something devastating in the news and friends lives. And it’s crazy, but… Yeah.
Well, I'm glad to hear all of you are doing well. I had no idea that the record was literally in the recording process and production process, right up ‘til March.
Nathan Willett: We were in Shawn’s studio again… I’m gonna get this mosquito. We were in the studio up till March, I wanna say 14th or something, where it was… He has in his studio CNN on TV that was just on mute and we were watching every day going, “Okay, we can’t be coming in here anymore.” And it worked out great, ’cause we kinda knew, “Alright, we have the next three days to finish everything.” So it was a good kind of pressure cooker situation for us to be like, “This is… If we don’t finish this right now, we’re not gonna finish this for probably a long time.” So it kind of was definitely the way to light a fire under us to finish everything, but yeah.
It's interesting to me that you created this concept of a trilogy called New Age Norms before you'd actually recorded all the content. There are some bands who end up with just 30 songs and they say, “Alright, we’ll let it ride for three years and put out an album a year and go for it.” But what I'm starting to learn is that New Age Norms, the concept started before you had all the music. Is that correct?
Nathan Willett: Yeah. Maust had it on a T-shirt, and I just loved that phrase. I felt like it said everything in a way that was very succinct and kinda punky too. Yeah. And still, with everything that has happened in the last, whatever, six months, three months to six months… It definitely takes on new meanings all the time and… I just read this article that was online in Rolling Stone that was called, “The Unraveling of America.” It was this phenomenal article, but, once again, that just made me think the world that we live in is just… That idea of “New Age Norms” as… There’s just so much that’s unprecedented about what’s happening right now that it’s a lot.
Let's go back for a second: What was your vision going into the New Age Norms saga, and has that changed at all now that you're on to the second of the three records?
Nathan Willett: Yeah. I like the idea of setting a goal versus like you said, go in and just do a bunch of stuff and see what comes out, we haven’t really done this where we said we wanna do a trilogy… So, the vision going in I think was like, “Okay, we should work with different producers. The last few records, “Hold My Home” and… “Dear Miss Lonelyhearts”, “Hold My Home”… “Dear Miss Lonelyhearts” is the first one where we worked with Lars Stalfors and he and I… We had a good time working with him on that, but it wasn’t until I think “Hold My Home” and even after that we really connected on something more, and so working on “LA Divine” with him was so… Really, we got very deep together on that, and I wanted to do one of the “New Age Norms” with him, but also I felt like it was time to work with a different producer. Shawn Everett was definitely the person that was like number one on our list. The Alabama Shakes record that he did felt to me like just to be the best, the single… One of my favorite records of the last 10 years for sure…
Was that Sound and Color?
Nathan Willett: Yeah, yeah. Sound and Color. Just everything about that production and the sounds… I just knew that something special would happen and he is a totally different kind of producer than Lars. He’s an engineer, first and foremost, he gets great sounds, and I think for me and for the band as a whole, we hadn’t… Literally, the five of us… This lineup has only been this lineup for I guess the last four years or so, so we had never… The current lineup of the five of us have never gone in to make a record together, and that felt very scary and risky, but also I felt pretty good about it just because something… We very much have hit a groove and settled into knowing each other so well and being brothers, and knowing from musical tastes to personalities to everything.
I felt like it was the kind of thing where I’ve definitely done my bit of wanting control over a lot of Cold War Kids and how it all works. And I think with this, I needed to let go again and let the whole band go in and be a little more free-form about letting the whole thing take shape. And Shawn was the perfect person to do it with because he’s not as concerned with the things like song structure or lyrics or whatever, the micro-managing of things. He just is all about vibe and we needed that, and that’s what we did. So yeah, so I think working with Lars and the original thing was like, “I wanna explore all these different ways of working that I’ve learned over the years.” One of them is working with Lars is more control, so that New Age Norms 1 is much more like this sound that was kind of more ’70s and crispy and tight and something that we set out to do, and this was much more… Yeah, I don’t know. Raw and live and totally different. A totally different muscle than the first one.
I needed to let go again and let the whole band go in and be a little more free-form about letting the whole thing take shape.
It sounds like there have been moments where your band mates have let you guide Cold War Kids’ sound and vision, and you'll bring them in to feel out the room and the song. And then there are other moments like this record, where you didn't want to be the sole driver in the room, the lone songwriter driving everything, and you brought everybody in together and wrote the songs more so as a collaborative unit. Is that close to what you're getting at?
Nathan Willett: Yeah – I only hesitate because I’m like… I wanted to…
It's not that simple.
Nathan Willett: Yeah, it’s not that simple, I guess, in a way. But yes, there’s Cold War Kids from the beginning, I felt like our first record was very collaborative, but there’s always a tension, there’s always… And I love that tension, and I recognize how important it is. I think for me, when I don’t have enough control, I’m kind of fighting for more of it, but when I also recognize that if I have too much of it then I really love this… You’re always searching for that perfect balance of being in a room of people where there’s a flow, and there’s great things happening, and it feels… When great things happen, it’s not by talking about them, it’s not by strategizing, it’s just you have to create that atmosphere and… Yes, so it’s an ongoing journey, I guess.
So for sure, this “New Age Norms” was definitely the kind of goal and experiment was, I know the five of us as a band. Everybody, Matt Schwartz as a keyboard player, Joe as a drummer. Everybody, I know what they love, and years of being on tour in some ways it’s as simple as just like listening to music backstage together and talking about it. You know that there’s this osmosis of what we would do together if we were making a record. And so, yeah, we just kind of went in with a… In some ways like just a feeling, and that’s a totally different way of working. In some ways, very scary, especially when you’re working… Shawn Everett is one of the biggest producers in the world. He’s been super-sought after, difficult to get time with making a record with The Killers and The War On Drugs and us at the same time, and juggling all this craziness, so there was a flow that we had right away that we just knew it was the best match.
That's wonderful. I was recently describing Cold War Kids as being like a fine wine, in that I feel you really have gotten better with age – and I was an early fan, too. How do you and the band handle the process of making new music this far into your career? What drives you and where you pull inspiration from, and how do you continue to innovate this far down the line?
Nathan Willett: Yeah. Again, it’s hard to say because there’s a lot of moving by, I don’t know, feeling and I think something about with Lars and I and wanting to write the best song, you know we’re in a lot of worlds… We’re in a world… We’re definitely in like our songs are on the radio type of world in the game. And I love that, and there’s a part of me that’s very wants to see that grow and be competitive with that and be whatever the bands like from The Killers, Cage The Elephant to whatever type of band and that is very much in that world of the every record comes out it’s gonna have a song that goes to the radio, and I still feel very much in a weird way like an underdog in that we’re still waiting for our moment to be recognized which is totally silly in a way, but also not. There’s a lot of things that were not included in that I’m like… I kinda look at and go like, “Okay, what are we maybe missing?” And then so that’s like the mainstream over here, and then over here you have artists like say The War on Drugs that make records and there are artists they’re on tours, they almost…
There’s a sense that there’s a sound that you’re trying to go get and that’s the whole point beyond that whatever becomes of the record and people love it or don’t love it, or radio this or that, it doesn’t… That’s not really the point. I think we do have both of those sides. I think there’s a complexity into it so… And there’s also just… Yeah, there’s the weird complicated thing of living in a modern world where there’s… We listen to everything, listen to so much old music, so much new music, the hip hop, rock and roll, to whatever pop to everything and so the sense of I guess, being satisfied with setting out to make a record and show a lot of those influences, but also just do what is doing. Do what flows from you and the heart. Yeah, it’s funny because being like a rock band that does have… So much of alternatives, if you look at whatever, K-rock or what they’re playing or alternative charts, so much of that does sound like pop, it doesn’t sound very rocky or whatever, so writing this, I think we sort of walk this line, of wanting to… Like the song “Complainer” or something, that’s a song that in my mind is like, “Is it rock or pop or soul? Like ’70s kind of vibe,” it’s all these things… It’s just something… To me, to answer your question in a very long winded way.
I think if we can… If we can… Every time we put something out, if I wanna have the feeling of like… It’s almost like with this record right now, with “New Age Norms 2”, I always have this feeling of like, Oh my God, but I’m so happy that this is… This gets to come out and we get to add to the story of Cold War Kids, this thing that maybe people didn’t know about us… There’s a lot of layers of when a record like this gets released, obviously a lot of different feelings about it, but one of the biggest ones being like, “Oh my God, I can’t wait to play all these songs live because there’s such… They’re so alive.” And not being able to do that is really sad. But I just am excited for people to hear it and to feel it adds to the story of Cold War Kids, we’re not just doing… There’s not a thing that we do that people will hear and go, “Oh, this appears on ads, that’s cool, it’s another Cold War Kids records.” Now this is really… We’re playing with people’s expectations of us and we’re pursuing a whole different chapter, and it’s like… I don’t know. It’s all very exciting. I do very much think, I think we may have talked about this last time, but for me, through all the chapters of Cold War Kids and even band members and different times of highs and lows of success, whatever, putting out from… And then putting the record out of Capitol LA Divine and loving that record, and then we had a live record that I’m very, very proud of.
Then we have a contractually-obligated “best of” kind of thing. It felt like the greatest thing in the world to sort of… That was a booking for Cold War Kids… Now New Age Norms is kind of like, have fun and do whatever with it, and that feels very exciting, feels very uncharted territory.
Nathan Willett: So to be able to set out, to be able to decide, let’s make different records with different producers and not this records that are extremely labored over and come out every two years, but records that like, they’re gonna come out close to each other and we make them relatively quicker and we know what we’re doing, so we can work faster, all that stuff.
Well, in all fairness, you've never been a band to take a long time between records. And when you do, you put out an EP in-between intervals.
Nathan Willett: That’s true [laughter]
So, I would call you one of the most prolific bands in the past two decades, but I would also say that you're right, that the sound has definitely progressed a long way. I was in high school when your first records came out – Loyalty to Loyalty was my entry point, through songs like “Avalanche in B” and “Golden Gate Jumpers.” I think about how they compare to the music that you've made now, and the jump is so much more apparent, 15 years’ worth of performance, of songwriting, of honing your craft. The band is so much tighter today than it's ever been before, and it allows you to create these songs that kind of defy genre, and I can almost feel like as a listener, I’m in the studio with you, making them.
Nathan Willett: That’s the best, that’s the best thing we could hope for, yeah.
It's kind of cool as well to hear that the title New Age Norms has a lot of different meanings for you, that it was a good way to start a new era. I always heard it as a testament to the kind of topics that you're writing about, I feel like your songwriting has gotten a lot more socially aware... “New Age Norms” is a very fitting way to kind of talk about all these different issues from politics to equality, and I've liked that it kind of throws it out there and puts a big billboard on and says, “Hey. We're talking about things that are a little substantial.” That you think are substantial, at least...
Nathan Willett: Yeah. For sure. No. You said it wonderfully. Yeah. All that stuff, you wanna create an umbrella, that… “New Age Norms” is that umbrella that you can talk about a lot of different things… I don’t wanna like… More than anything, I wanna make something that feels great and it says something true and meaningful. So beyond that, to try to have an agenda to really go out of your way… To not be heavy-handed about it, but to like you said, say that too… Whatever social issues to… Equality in the world changing to just our band and where we’re at and all that, Yeah.
So the question that I'm just obligated to ask, can you describe this new album in just three words?
Nathan Willett: Three words [chuckle] New album in three words.
“New Age Norms”
Nathan Willett: “New Age Norms” … I wish I knew. I think it’s wild, and loose, and… But like deep, so I don’t know, wild, loose, deep?
You previously also described New Age Norms 2 as “spontaneous, raw, soulful and chaotic, true and urgent, modern and classic,” and you went so far as to say, “It's the best record Cold War Kids have ever made.” These are bold claims, how do you back them up?
Nathan Willett: Music is so tricky, because as we all know in time that there’s a hump that whether Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, whatever you… There’s something that you do great work and then you stop doing great work, you do something that feels like a replica of what you’ve always done. And then to me, what’s really interesting is when you go past that to doing great work again [chuckle] And to have that second life is really… Those artists that are able to do that, if… That’s so interesting to me ’cause I relate… I’m in a place now, where I relate to that. Because when music is your whole life you can only live for so long, and then… Now for me, especially now, being at home and having a family and living in sort of the real world, and then also making records and doing what we do, and making it true to a sound of Cold War Kids and all that stuff, it’s hard to do, but because… I don’t know, I guess it’s serious determination and also I do think some of it is that kind of underdog or whatever competitive quality that I… Man, I want… Our band and our crew and… We’re like a family, I want everybody to win. I want everybody to be super successful, to win some awards, to make some money, to keep doing what we’re doing, but on a bigger level.
I think that’s some of it, but also it helps to… For me, when I feel comfortable, when I feel comfortable with our band and the work that we’re doing, I know that it’s great, and I know that there are so many variables that can… That have to come together to make something great. And when it’s early on and you’re not even aware of all these variables that just happens and you’re happy, but later on, you’re more aware of like, “Man, all this stuff came together and it’s like it really is an enormous amount of work to make it come together and lightning has to strike.” So I think it’s… Yeah, I don’t know, I feel enormously proud of our band. The five of us. Because it’s a great life that we have, but the work that it takes to be away from all of our families and be on tour and doing what we do and grinding it out, and it’s just that thing where I know that we’re greater than what we’ve achieved. And that’s always a great driving force, I think, to make you want to… I don’t know.
To want to say that this is our greatest record, and to know that I’ve been timid about records that we’ve put out in the past, there have been records where I’ve been like, “Man, I don’t know what people are gonna think of this, I don’t even totally know exactly if I think it’s exactly right.” Or whatever. But this one is just right. It’s just so… what we set out to do, and some of that comes with just experience, years and years of… For me, hearing my own voice on a record and hearing what we’ve grown into and being comfortable with that – there’s a lot to be said about that.
Something I really admired in LA Divine was how I felt like you explored certain topics: Happiness, tragedy, divide, etc. Do you feel like you're tackling any specific topics this time around? Was there anything that you as a songwriter were really thinking about for this record?
Nathan Willett: Yeah. I mean, there’s always a lot going on, but I think as things often are, you make sense of it after the fact, but I love the idea of these songs for this record being like steps in a hero’s journey, there’s a lot of great literature, it’s probably the most classic example is like “The Odyssey” but this dude, Joseph Campbell, who writes a lot about mythology and literature and everything, but that there are these universal kind of steps that all people go through, and I think that for me, universal stuff like. It’s weird, I’m a White man and I just turned 40. I don’t necessarily want to have everything that I say reflect that. I’m more interested in universal stuff, and I think that’s in some ways harder to categorize that we all… To get to that common experience and stuff, so the hero’s journey seemed to me like a great entry point to a universal thing.
And yeah. Like the stages of it, the… It’s less about, I don’t know, in the ways that we’re divided, in race and class, and that’s a factor, but I think the universal stuff, the stuff that we all have this journey and a struggle to sort of realize ourselves and be the best version of ourselves, I wanted to… I felt like it kind of both worked out, and that’s what I wanted to write into it, is that like there are these… There’s a start and an ending in a great life, in a great… In a hero’s journey that we all can look at, and it’s something that we all have in common. So the first song being “Who’s Gonna Love Me Now” is that kind of like the start of the journey where you’re rejecting everything around you and you wanna burn it all down, and the second song is obsession and like want… There’s an arc to it that is very much, I feel like, in hindsight, like my life and the life of the band, and a universal thing. For me, it’s like I started playing… We started as a band, and it was the first real band that I was in, and the first job that I was ever dead serious about wanting to be great at.
And that, when I was 25, and so I didn’t grow up with any kind of sense of what being an artist was or how to be an artist, or even if I was an artist, any of that, so I think for realizing all that stuff kind of later in life, and to wanna pursue that artist life as a life that you give everything to, and then you go through the journey and the steps and the sort of trial by fire of it all, and then the last song on the record is “Catch Me Falling”, and it’s a song that’s very much about wanting to look back at a legacy and pass the torch and wanna be a part of this larger story. It’s personal and universal.
I like that your focus was on things that connect us, and things that bring us together and unite people no matter who they are or where they are. I think that's really hard to do; how often can you get a whole album to tell a story that we can all relate to?
Nathan Willett: Yeah. I hope so. That’s the goal.
You talked about “Who's Gonna Love Me Now” as having this purpose on the beginning of the record. I didn't really listen to New Age Norms 2 as a concept album, and it doesn't sound like it's a strict concept album in the traditional sense, but it more has this loose theme to it. But it sounds like you actually have a real purpose in putting that track first. Is that right?
Nathan Willett: Yeah, for sure.
I also love that it was the lead single though, so why introduce New Age Norms 2 with this song?
Nathan Willett: It felt very, I don’t know, just like punchy and aggressive, but also fun. And yeah. I don’t know, it just felt like it felt right.
I like that you use the word fun because I feel like that's the exact right word to talk about “Obsession.” It has this classic feel good quality to it, and I think that's something really special in the Cold War Kids catalog. You were starting to talk a little bit about what that song kind of meant with the hero's journey. What's this song's place on the record in your mind?
Nathan Willett: Like in that journey? In that…
Outside of it, even, as you just said, a piece of music.
Nathan Willett: Oh. Yeah. To me, it feels like a very… Probably the most kind of Motown-y type of vibe that Cold War Kids has ever done. And it’s again, Those are things where like, when you tap into that and you get to look at it, step back and go like “Wow, this is so rad. Something that we love so much, that we’ve never gone quite this far in that direction, and it totally makes sense for us.” It’s not a sore thumb thing. Those are like great victories in my mind because I wanna be a band forever, I want us to play live forever, and when you get a song that you’re like, “Oh my God. If I go on tour for 30 nights, we get to play this song every night.” And that’s so fun. That’s gonna lift me up every night. So yeah. There was this riff and then there’s this sort of breakdown thing that happened after the fact, when we were mixing and working and just being always open to everything changing and this kind of break down part that… There’s a lot of this idea of obsession and the idea of… I don’t know, I’m thinking lyrically, musically is different, but it’s, I think for me, with music, I think you have to be obsessive about it to… And there are just two kinds of people, There are people that are obsessive about music, and then there are people that like… They like it.
Almost no one really doesn’t like music, there are people that really like music and then they are people that are obsessed with it. And I think obsession as a universal thing is so fascinating, I think we live in a culture where people throw that word around like crazy, “I’m obsessed with this new nail polish. I’m obsessed with this new song. I’m obsessed with… ” But real obsession really does dominate your life. It’s really a scary thing in a way, and there’s something about the lyric is, “Obsession, don’t ever leave now.” And grabbing onto that and being comfortable with leading where it takes you is… It’s a certain kinda life that not everybody wants. I’ve noticed over the years, even talking about our band and other artists that we’ve been around and you get older, and wiser and you start to see, “Man, there are people that are way more talented than us. There are people that are… ” But what kind of person really makes you push through in this type of… Have sort of a pure sense of creativity and be able to do this for this many years, it is a kind of obsession.
Nathan Willett: Yeah.
I feel like when I think about your band in the abstract, I always feel like Cold War Kids are chasing something and you're never gonna quite find it.
Nathan Willett: That’s great. That’s great. I love that. Yeah.
So this brings us to “You Already Know.” And first time I heard this song was not from any press release, it was from an 18 or 19-year-old's radio, which was so cool hearing somebody 10 years apart from me listening to this song. The song has this electricity about it that I just can't shake. And listening to it, I have felt like the lyrics are vague but they're so emphatic in their self-empowerment and their go-getter attitude that I feel like I understand them without really understanding them at all, and I would like for you to explain to me how the heck that's possible.
Nathan Willett: I should be writing down what you’re saying, ’cause you’re describing things in the ways that I probably should be also, but I love that. I think there’s a lot of voices going on in your head when you’re working on songs, and one of them is the thing that you don’t necessarily say out loud, but is in there, so that it’s like, I want this to be nuanced and totally my own. But I also, I want it to be… I want somebody to be able to hear it the first time, and feel these words before they think about them. And that’s been a problem for me in the past. I’m very… Words on the paper. I was an English major, so I’m always gonna have some of that, but like…
I didn't know that.
Nathan Willett: Over the years, you realize, oh, the beat, how it hits you, in some ways is much more important than the way that I… Music is not words on a paper, it’s not the written word, it’s different. There’s… Emotion is much more powerful than the written word in some ways, and so… Yeah, so that’s a perfect compliment, and like you already know it is that, that self-empowerment and also in the story of this hero’s journey, it’s that moment where you’re like, you find your swagger and you find your flow, and it’s a bad… Wanna have that badass energy, that is very… This is the vibe of the song, too it’s very like Stones-y thing a little bit. We were listening to that band Happy Mondays a lot in the studio. Just that type of… Start to finish a song it just goes, and you’re just doing this the whole time and it’s a lot of like there’s something like filthy in that groove that again, I just can’t wait to play it live ’cause I feel like it’s just something that we haven’t done before.
Music is not words on a paper, it’s not the written word, it’s different.
Yeah, that to me is one of those songs that feels fresh, like I definitely think it's if there's a hit on this album it's that song.
Nathan Willett: Good. Cool.
We'll see what happens. 'cause I've been known to be wrong most of the time.
Nathan Willett: You know what? Nobody knows. That’s the biggest thing that I always… I love learning, or I love having been in music this long to be able to know that whatever the biggest industry person or label person or manager or producer, nobody really knows. That’s the beauty of music, there is no… There’s nothing… You can hear a song and there’s electricity in the room when you’re making it and it’s the greatest feeling ever. And everything could change a week later, where everybody’s like, “Yeah, I think that one’s okay.” You just don’t know. And there’s something, again, like that I’m just grateful to not… When you’re not chasing a hit song or whatever, trying to… That to me is a very scary place to be in music that I’ve seen other people have to try to find those hit songs. And it’s like it will ruin you because nobody knows.
I read this thing in some article that was this big grandiose statement about we’re living in this insane era, this Trump post-reason era. And I think it went so far as to say like we’re tearing down everything that was sort of gained in the enlightenment period, like hundreds of years, everything is coming down in this moment, this grandiose thing, and I just think there’s something weirdly… This is my way too much thinking that is not in the song or that nobody’s probably gonna take away, but what I like, what feeds me and to bring to it is that sense of… We may think logically, all this stuff is lined up and we can’t understand why this is happening, but we’ve probably missed a lot about intuition being stronger than reason and logic.
And that you already know that sense of answers, whether it’s like… Whether the voice in your head that speaks to you and tells you what you should be doing and whether you decide to listen to it, and whether that’s good or not, that’s where most of our lives are lived. I just love that the idea of “You Already Know” as your little guide inside of you, and you already know the answer and you’re questioning it because of outside reasons; I love that stuff.
That's really nice. That's really cool. And that takes the song to another level that I don't think I would have necessarily thought about...
Nathan Willett: Sure.
Without that. So I'm curious to hear from you. Outside of these singles, are there any songs that are your personal favorites or really special moments on this album that you just can't wait to share with the rest of the world?
Nathan Willett: Yeah, yeah, the song “Somewhere”, which just came out, it is probably my most… It definitely feels like for all of us, for the five of us, that it feels like the song that in some ways was easiest, that came out easiest and just feels like… There’s a lot of songs that… I was talking about the songs that are exciting because they’re something we’ve never done. “Somewhere” is a song that feels very much related to other Cold War Kids songs over the years, there’s different versions of the song first, and the song that has a very gospel-y and anthemic and sort of a tenderness to it that there’s… And “Can We Hang On” has that and “Calm Your Nerves” that song I think had that. “Somewhere” feels like an extension of that, like a song that is… It has those same qualities, and so when you get to do a song… When you see certain songs that are an evolution of previous songs and be like, “This is something we’ve done so many times, differently,” and in the way that I just adore. And it’s… Yeah, so that’s… I love that song.
That's awesome. I haven't had the chance to sit with it just yet, 'cause it's still so, so new. But that's amazing to hear. I'll give it another listen with that in mind. It's cool to hear you talking about how you don't mind creating something similar time and again. I guess after 15 years, you have to be okay with retreading or saying, “Oh, that sounds like something we did before. Let's go with it.”
Nathan Willett: Yeah.
Is there an acceptance part of you that has to just accept you're not always going to be creating something brand new when you get into the studio?
Nathan Willett: Absolutely. Yeah, I think there’s something so… Again, it’s like something that I probably only went through a few years ago, where I realized like “Oh, it’s okay to feel like you’re trying… ” When you’re writing songs and you’re trying to hold on to too tightly to them and make them something different than they naturally are, that’s actually not creating. It’s not artistic.
Nathan Willett: A lot of the time, the thing that comes out is the source, the purest thing, and when you let that be like, “Okay, this is obviously something that I like, that I love.” That when this type of song comes out, it’s not like there only has to be one of them. Why not? And I think that’s another thing in the studio when you start sweating over something and feeling like you’re trying to put all this into it. It’s like you have to let it be. And it’s like, “All right? Do you have more to say about this thing? Write another song about it, move on from this.”
And that’s one of the trickiest things about songwriting. That is, everybody has to learn themselves, I think, is that you… When to let go. You’ve said all you need to say with this, now move on with it if you want, if you wanna go back and recreate a similar thing, you can. You always can. So, yeah.
I always admired the little 30 seconds snippets. What was it called? Camera flash? Or something like that.
Nathan Willett: Yeah, “Camera’s Always On,” everything is on.
That's up there in my Top 10. I don't know if it should be, but it's such a sweet little song.
Nathan Willett: Yeah.
And it set the tone in so many ways, and that you are willing to just write something and not make it into a three-minute song and not make it into a full fledged thing, but just let it be what it is. And starting to as I expand musically over the years, I started to find more artists who are like that, who don't mind not making full-fledged entities as we've been trained to see them on the radio and stuff.
Nathan Willett: Totally. I think the mainstream is weirdly going that way too, or… The newest Halsey record has all these little short songs that has these really great moments that are these little snippets that are really powerful and they’re not trying to be these big songs. I love that, yeah.
It's interesting that you talked about how this is a... Every songwriter has to go through this journey. I even think about this. I do write songs, and I will go through months of just saying, “I can't write this.” I start with one line, it just gets lost in translation, or with writing for Atwood and running Atwood, I will write a couple articles a day and I will find I'm using the same words in the article. And I just have to accept that, you know what, there is a musical language that English is not big enough to say the same thing 10 different ways sometimes. You just got to accept that, well, these are two different songs and I'm just gonna use the same words to describe them.
Nathan Willett: Yeah, Totally. I mean, if you think about somebody like Neil Young, or something. If you think about him worrying about using the same rhyme for whatever, “Stars In The Car”. There’s something so pure about not worrying about repeating yourself. That is hard to do… If you are doing anything in 2020 when you’re hyper-aware of the world around you, and also why people are so romantic about a Neil Young record in the ’70s where you didn’t have to be aware of everything you just had to be yourself. And that’s what… I don’t know, I won’t say that’s not… That’s what everybody wants from you, because it’s not. Everybody wants you to be everything, but you can only be yourself.
But it feels organic, and I think that's important, and it feels like it's one of those times when you make a song that feels like it was writing you, you're not, you weren't writing it. And what I really actually enjoyed about this record is the last song, I think. “Catch Me Falling”?
Nathan Willett: Yeah, yeah.
I think that is one of the most striking standout Cold War Kids songs I've ever heard, and I wanted to ask you point-blank. How did this track come about?
Nathan Willett: Yeah, I mean also it’s so interesting, I mean, because this is first time outside of our little world that we’re talking to anybody about this record, so it’s great. I… That song… It started off… Keyboard player Matt Schwartz had… He was playing around on a Wurlitzer, and we had this thing that felt like… I think this was a moment where there was a Travis Scott song that I forget the name of it, but the guy who was the producer on it was talking about how he had been listening to some Bach composition and the way… There was a classical music aspect that they were digging into in this Travis Scott song that I think somebody had turned on at some point, and again it’s that flow of just always having… When you’re trying to find something in the studio and everybody’s walking around and trying to not be in each other’s space.
So have something playing that’s leading you towards something. That song, it felt like something really beautiful and something that shouldn’t be ballad-y or it shouldn’t necessarily lean into any genre or preconceived thing, so it just… It’s so funny, that song could’ve only happened, I think with Shawn being there because of him. Stuff that he’s done with like, Julian Casablancas and Voids records have this very weird things and it keeps flipping from hip-hop to Slayer to something like… There’s a super aggressive guitar heavy thing.
Nathan Willett: That song has a little remnant of… And then just like… Yeah, I mean I think for stuff that we’re listening to, whether Kanye’s like, Pusha T, Travis Scott, things to all the way to whatever, some of that Voids stuff to something that’s just totally Cold War Kids thing that we haven’t gone there yet. It’s just so cool because it’s not like anything else. It’s not like… It’s just not a song that a band would ever sit there and write. It didn’t just…
It happens ’cause you’re chasing something weird and letting it unfold and not whatever, judging it or forcing it. It just happens. And so, yeah, again, those are like… Those are great gifts that I’m so glad because when I’m sitting here in my studio working on song writing, I would have never in a million years come up with that. That’s a totally different exercise, and so that’s why we set out to make this record with Shawn, to do something that we had no idea what was gonna come out of it.
I think it's such a cool way to end the record. Do you feel like “Catch Me Falling” is the start of something new for Cold War Kids, or is it something that you are excited to maybe keep experimenting with, but not necessarily defining a new sound?
Nathan Willett: I don’t know, I mean I love the idea of that, like you just said, it being some starting point of a new way of work. But to me, the weird thing about Cold War Kids is that I don’t think there’s ever gonna be a point where we make a record that totally jumps the rails from where we started, because to me, like…
Nathan Willett: Our first record, the first song, “We Used to Vacation” that type of piano, stompy, bluesy, to me there’s like a Fiona Apple and then Alabama Shakes, and just like, there’s so many things that were there from the start that I’ll always wanna return to in a sort of, in the simplicity of that type of song writing. And then there’s a lot of room to grow in this like, “Catch Me Falling”, like ending the record. So I think it’s like… Cold War Kids is sort of like, everything always you know what I mean? I don’t know if we’ll ever narrow it down to that type of thing, but it’s definitely, I think created a new space for us to move towards, so that’s great.
You will forever my eyes be an “underdog indie rock band” – it's just how I feel when I think about Cold War Kids, but I think that's fun because it means you can go anywhere! You can be signed to one of the biggest labels in the world, you can have a number one single, you can put out a soul song that is just like so, Motown, you can put out a Gospel singles. But it's still in the guise of, “Here's a bunch of ragtag folks who played in their garage once upon a time.”
Nathan Willett: Yeah, yeah, yeah, for sure. No, I love that, I love that. I just wanna keep doing more of that. It’s great.
That's awesome. Last question about these songs, in particular, “Ceiling Fan.” I listen to this lyric and I, literally, imagine somebody staring up at their ceiling on some random Friday night. How did that song come about?
Nathan Willett: Man, that was the weirdest one where we were working on a bunch of different stuff. And I think we came into the studio the next day and listened back to that and we’re like… Everybody was kind of like, “Huh, where did this one start? How did we get here?” And everyone was like… Everyone… You rarely have that moment where nobody takes credit for it. Everyone’s like, “I don’t know.” [laughter] And we were like, “Okay, somebody had… ” There had to… It just was one of those things where it truly was everybody just doing, adding, and feeling their way through it. Yeah, I think it’s definitely reminiscent of a lot of stuff that we love. There’s U2, pop era elements of that, and there’s definitely Happy Mondays type of Manchester, ’80s, even a club vibe happening there. I love that song. It’s so weird and also feels familiar to me in this way that… Yeah, I don’t know. Yeah, I’m very excited for people to hear that new one.
Yeah, I like it a lot. So wrapping this thing up in whatever bow we can, it sounds kind of like this record, New Age Norms 2, was really a collaborative effort where it wasn't you taking lead, or in fact anybody taking to lead, but you worked as a real unit. Is this the thing where a band comes into the studio and just jams all day long and you figure out... Figure it out from there? Or is there structure, a loose structure, that you come into the studio with and you toy things... Toy with things from that point?
Nathan Willett: Yeah, we’ve always been… Jamming is the trickiest thing. We, I think, collectively hate jamming. A lot of this came out from just jamming, truly, which is so weird. But it’s that thing, it’s like inviting your friend over that you know is very unpredictable and can sometimes be real trouble. And I think when you invite that friend over and you know it’s gonna get crazy, you just have to be super aware of when to… [laughter] When to get them out. You know what I mean? I think when you have five people running with ideas, ultimately, for me as a singer and the writing lyrics and singing them, if somebody has a great musical idea but I can’t connect with it to write over and sing with, it’s not gonna become something. So for me, I think getting everybody to the point where they know, “Okay, let’s bring a lot of ideas out,” but Nate has to be able to turn it into a song that is whatever, that is Cold War Kids, that is…
Nathan Willett: That it feels right for him, that feels so… It’s definitely… It’s very collaborative, but ultimately for me, I am the sort of like buck-stops-here guy, where like… When we get to that point. Where, if we have a jam and we wanna listen back to it and sort of like put a deep one, open it up, and dig into it, and sing to it, and do all these things like… Yeah, it’s ultimately like… I like it to be as collaborative as possible, and I have to have that very, very intimate personal connection…
Nathan Willett: To it, that ultimately transcends anybody else’s feelings about how good or not good or whatever this piece of music is.
That makes sense.
Nathan Willett: That’s part of the formula.
No, well, that makes sense, because there's the fallacy of the band going into the studio and making the songs from scratch right there. But what they don't tell you is just how expensive studio time is.
Nathan Willett: Right. And there’s always… There’s so much tension when you’re sitting there trying to be open to whatever can come along, but also knowing, yeah, time is of the essence. It always is. So…
So you said it yourself. You felt like you were in competition with The Killers and who is it, The War on Drugs. Those are two big names.
Nathan Willett: Exactly.
And Cold War Kids is a very big name. But that's its own balance and that's its own mental shift that you need to be aware of that someone's taking their time out of their day to be with you.
Nathan Willett: Yeah, for sure.
I can't imagine the pressure that creates, but I think it's really exciting what came out of it. Because I would agree with you, I think, ultimately, this is one of the best cohesive records that Cold War Kids have ever made. So, that's exciting and congratulations.
Nathan Willett: Thank you. I appreciate it. Yeah, man. Thank you.
Yeah, so just closing out here. We talked about the inspirations behind New Age Norms and New Age Norms 2. We talked about how the band exists as an entity today. I wanna come back to the roots of the band and also recognize that a lot of the members are late 30s and 40s now. You're a 40-year-old in body, but do you feel like you're a 20-year-old in spirit, still making these punky, indie rock songs?
Nathan Willett: Totally, yeah. Maturing in music is a very dicey thing.
Nathan Willett: When you mature, it usually means you get worse. [laughter] I think, yeah, there’s something about… Let’s see… I definitely know that there are songs that I’ve tried to… Like, consciously have Cold War Kids evolve and be more mature, whatever that means. And then… In a lot of ways, this record especially, number two, does feel like… It does feel some of that full circle, like letting the environment and the people and everything going on, be that sort of chaotic amalgam that it was in the beginning, when nobody knew what anything was.
Everybody, when you’re making your first record, you truly don’t… Like, things are working and you don’t know why and you just sort of run with it and there are things that, in hindsight, you wish you could go back and change, but really that’s the point. It’s not about perfection. It’s about doing something that is very true, and I think that’s harder over the years. I think in a lot of ways, early on, the sense of how special it was to be able to make a record and to have an audience and all that – it’s interesting, because in a lot of ways, I think I was very stressed about that in the early days, because… Especially for me being a little older and having had a lot of other jobs and a lot of… And getting that taste of how like, “Oh my god, music is… This is… ” It was like a lightning bolt situation where I was like, “Oh my God, I get it. This is who I am. This is where I’m supposed to be. This isn’t wrong for me.”
And when you see that, it could be… You wanna hold on as tight as you can, and it’s your whole life. There’s nothing outside of it, so I think it is… It’s very… In some way, it’s very stressful to be in that environment where there’s nothing outside of it. So to now, yeah, be a 40-year-old dude that is… That feels like I have the security and that we get to keep doing this and in a way that isn’t dependent on anybody else’s… And that is part of the whole idea of the “New Age Norms” thing is that it’s like, we surpassed what we set out to do so far, so long ago, to now be in a place and go like, okay the hard questions being “What do we wanna achieve?” or “What are we doing this for?” these are all the kind of New Age Norms questions for me that are… It’s just like a whole new day. We’re not doing this for any reason other than that we love it and that we’re still very challenged by it and that it still gives… However you wanna describe it, there’s that feeling that when you have it in the studio or live or doing something, it really is that drug. There’s nothing like it… To answer your question in the longest way possible.
I appreciate your patience.
Nathan Willett: It’s better now than it ever was, and I think that’s part of the reason that I really have so much drive to keep doing that is that… It feels better now than it ever did.
That's awesome. That's incredible to hear. So, should I listen to this album on its own or should I start with start with New Age Norms 1, and go into New Age Norms 2?
Nathan Willett: I think on its own, until all three are done, and then we’ll see what sense it all makes. I always love the thing of… I remember watching this Bruce Springsteen songwriter thing where he was playing songs and talking about them years ago. And he basically would tell this incredible story about the song, and at one point he was like, “Listen, I got all these stories about all these songs, but none of that is in your mind while you’re actually creating. You don’t know what it is at all until way later.” And I appreciate that… That was such a relief to me, because sometimes you think if you hear a grandiose story about a song and its meaning and all that…
You're not thinking about that. You just found words that sounded good and felt right.
Nathan Willett: Right. You run with it, you run with it. And if you’re really lucky it has some deeper meaning later to it as well.
That's very reassuring. That's great. I know that you had done some collaboration over this time period with The Lumineers and that “1 x 1” track, which I loved. Was that a one-off? Do you see yourselves doing any more collaborations, especially right now, when we're all at home in our own little recording rooms?
Nathan Willett: For sure. I want to. It’s the time to do it. When we had Bishop Briggs sing on a song for LA Divine, “So Tied Up”, I… That was the thing where I was just like, “This is just… I really need that. I really need new people and voices and personalities.” That was a great thing to have her sing on the track. There’s a song that I just did in collaboration with this band, The Knock, and they’re sort of… I’m really excited about. This song came out great. Their record will come out in, not for a few months, I think, but… I for sure, I think that’s part of the great thing about Cold War Kids and where we’re at is it feels like we’ve solidified it so much that you can bring other people in and play with it.
I agree, I definitely agree. That's exciting to hear. While I know that the big tours are probably gonna be another six to 18 months off, I do hope to hear a live stream at some point in time. Have you guys been doing any of that to date?
Nathan Willett: We’re working on it. So, we’re actually literally next week rehearsing and then gonna film the whole… A lot of stuff. We’re gonna do a full Robbers and Cowards performance. We’re gonna do these four different shows. It’s gonna be crazy action. It’s gonna be very ambitious. All of “New Age Norms 1 and 2”. Four different shows that are all gonna be unique and… So, we’re working on that now.
That's great. When you do these songs, do you put the lyric sheets in front of you at this point in time?
Nathan Willett: You know what? This is probably the first time ever that I won’t need to do that. Which is weird. Of course, I’ve always looked at those types of artists as being, “Come on. You can’t…” But now I’m like I’m that guy.
I always think about Stevie Wonder in that context, and I think, “How the hell does he do it?” because he doesn't have that extra reference but, I get it. Once you've made eight studio albums it's just, why have to worry about memorizing all the lines?
Nathan Willett: You tour your early records and play the same songs so many times that there are… You couldn’t forget them if you tried, but it’s the later ones that you maybe haven’t played as many times or whatever that it’s possible to… In order to keep creating, you have to forget certain things. That’s what I’ve learned: You have to compartmentalize. You have to completely forget about whole records you’ve made, whole dynamics of other people you’ve worked with. The only people that are successful… I really think you have to totally let that stuff fall by the wayside. That in itself is a whole conversation.
In order to keep creating, you have to forget certain things… You have to completely forget about whole records you’ve made, whole dynamics of other people you’ve worked with.
I think that's actually a nice ribbon to everything we've talked about today. It's like, “Why not?”
Nathan Willett: You have to shed a lot of old skin.
Whatever song you're working on is the only song of importance.
Nathan Willett: That’s all there is.
Listen, Nathan, thank you so much for your time, congratulations to you and the band on this record. I do think it's really special, I'm excited to have it out there and I have to catch up with you again next year.
Nathan Willett: Cool, thank you so much for being interested and following us this long. I appreciate it man.
Of course, I appreciate your time today. Stay safe and all my best!
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