Nathan Willett of Cold War Kids

In the middle of their first headlining tour since COVID, Nathan Willett of Cold War Kids talked with QRO....
Nathan Willett of Cold War Kids : Q&A
Nathan Willett of Cold War Kids : Q&A

In the middle of their first headlining tour since COVID, Nathan Willett of Cold War Kids talked with QRO. In the conversation, the singer/songwriter discussed the big tour, their new self-titled album (QRO review), their previous triptych of New Age Norms 1 (QRO review), 2 (QRO review), and 3 (QRO review), the video for new song “Double Life” (QRO review), playing a lot of new songs live for the first time, varying up their set lists, touring with the likes of Tears For Fears & Kings of Leon, COVID era livestreams, and more…

QRO: How has this tour been going so far?

Nathan Willett: Really good. It has been really, really good.

It’s been kind of crazy, where we realized this was the first time in a long time that we’ve done headlining our own things. With so much of the music that we put out during the pandemic & recently, that we’ve never played before. It’s been really, really special.

QRO: Is this your first headlining tour since COVID?

NW: It is. Which is insane, yeah.

QRO: So, a lot of those new songs, you haven’t been able to play (as opening sets are shorter)? Not just the new record, but New Age Norms

NW: Exactly, yeah. New Age Norms 2 and 3 – we were finishing 2 right as the pandemic started. So yeah, those songs, we kind of had to decide what to do: either put the music out knowing that we might not do what we want to, or wait.

Our style is pretty much, ‘Let’s keep it coming, keep putting it out, even though it might be the kind of thing that people discover later…’

QRO: And how do you make up the set lists? I imagine that the new album is heavily featured on this tour, but how do you know what to play from the older records, with so many? It’s not like your set times are getting any longer at this point…

NW: We came originally, as some bands do, from playing for an hour, hour-fifteen, and we’re at that point now where we’re playing an hour & forty-five minutes.

It is really hard. We’re constantly talking about how much to lean into the new. I’ve always had that thing, since being a kid, those Pearl Jam bootleg CDs came out, and seeing how different those live set lists were, every night. I always was really fascinated by how different every show could be. Having a larger catalogue obviously allows you just more & more variables.

It’s so strange. Certain records, that you play one song from, or that you realize, ‘Oh, we didn’t play any songs from that last night!’ I don’t know; I love that, I love that part of this job. It’s cool – you have a lot of songs to play with.

I always was really fascinated by how different every show could be. Having a larger catalogue obviously allows you just more & more variables.

QRO: For this tour, have you been changing the set lists each night?

NW: We have been, it’s been a lot of changing it up. Which I love.

I feel like bands always kinda exist with the tension of wanting to settle in to something more predictable, but also knowing, ‘Hey, it’s still not – we rehearsed before we left, we had a working set list, but it’s still…’ There’s always that sort of intangible, almost getting it right where you want it, and you’ve got to keep trying.

QRO: It’s like Zeno’s set list – just keep getting closer, but never quite…

NW: [laughs] Yeah, that’s right…

QRO: That would require you to learn more, or relearn more, practice more of your songs?

NW: Definitely, yeah.

QRO: But I suppose you must get requests for old songs that you totally don’t remember?

NW: Totally, totally happens…

You have those moments where somebody’s yelling a song, and you have to be like, ‘Hey, listen, I’m so sorry, there’s no way – we don’t even know how to play that…’ Or it’s been so many years, or we just never learned it outside of the studio.

QRO: I think fans particularly want to call out the more obscure songs, not the singles…

NW: Right – which I love. Obviously, I love, you want to be able to honor that, ‘What if we could throw that out?’

But that’s the thing – that usually also means ditching one the majority of people want. It always comes with a degree of the old cost/benefit analysis.

QRO: You’ve been a band for twenty years now – how do you keep touring from being just a grind?

NW: I think, more than anything, it’s the people. For us, we’ve had line-up changes; we’ve had the five of us for almost ten years now, I think. It’s always a puzzle.

I think, just being comfortable, being able to laugh, and being vulnerable. You share so much of your life in such close quarters, but if you like each other, it’s fun. But if there’s a struggle – it could be anything, not necessarily good or bad people, it’s just life and all the factors. You have to have that special chemistry.

I feel like we have that right now, in this way that is really special. That we can kind of do anything. If someone said, ‘Hey, can you go to Australia tomorrow?’ Everyone would be like, ‘Yeah, let’s do it, that sounds fun.’ It is rare to be able to be in that position at this time.

QRO: Do you still ever get to visit cities you’ve never played before, or at least new venues?

NW: Yeah. We played in Bozeman, Montana for the first time, this brand new venue there [The ELM]. It was amazing, so cool, ‘Wow, we’ve never been here, and it’s so great!’ Still finding those things, still finding those new experiences.

QRO: I noticed a mini-break of six days before the show in Chicago – have you been home for this mini-break?

NW: I’m at home right now; I fly out day-of the Chicago show.

That’s a huge part of also what makes this all sustainable. For those of us who do have families, it’s not about being willing & able, it’s just the pace. If you can pace it in a way that is sustainable, then we could go forever. That balance, for me, I have three kids.

It’s also very much, especially for this record, a real factor in the songwriting. It becomes the life that we have.

“Double Life”, that’s very much the theme of this, constantly being pulled in drastically different directions, and trying to manage it. That theme that is the sort of the job & the music blends together.

“For Your Love”, “Double Life”, “Stray” and all these songs definitely have a dread of being pulled in two directions.

QRO: How was making Cold War Kids?

NW: Obviously, the pandemic had a huge part in it. Not being able to tour, putting out New Age Norms 2 & 3.

This one felt very much like combining kind of all the ways of working that I’ve learned over the years. Which is like finding collaborators, producers to work with, and just like allowing a song a lot of time to take shape. All that stuff – no reason to rush and finish something during that phase. It was a lot of letting like life happen, being calm, being home with the family, being very present with that while making the record.

We’ve done it every possible way – we’ve done it much more sort of ‘all in,’ full band, everybody ‘round the clock. We’ve done it more piecemeal. This was real stretched out, more emphasis on being a producer, being around and letting songs take shape, in that way. Which obviously is going to make it lean more towards the personal, it felt, for me.

QRO: Like I said, you’ve been in a band a while – how do you keep it fresh, making records, or not being a grind?

NW: A lot of it is finding out how to say something, whether it’s sonically or lyrically or whatever it is, musically. To do something that feels fresh, it is hard. There are so many ways to think about it.

Part of the exercise of the New Age Norms trilogy, for me, was just sort of about maximalism. These three, not really EPs, not really full-lengths, things that are stretching in different directions, and I really can’t define them exactly, but I understand it, not so much about restraint.

In a simpler way, it’s a pendulum. For me, I definitely feed on collaboration, and that has to change, that has to be different producers, different engineers, different rooms, different places, different personalities. At the same time, we are a band, and so I have the freedom to work with the guys or not work with the guys. This was one of those where it was more me and these different producers.

[Cold War Kids] felt very much like combining kind of all the ways of working that I’ve learned over the years.

And the next time around – and actually just very recently, plotting the next thing – it’s exciting, because it’s so long making a record, exercising that thing, that journey, and now that it’s done, and it’s out there, and we’re touring, I feel very excited, again, about the next one, which I think will be very much the opposite of the last one. Which I think would be much more how to write songs, have the guys together in a room, kind of play & perform, have it be a more raw, performed experience.

It’s just swinging back-and-forth, finding new space, new personalities.

This record, by far, I think has been the hardest to make, the hardest to let be true to that sense of it is work, and it’s also got to be inspired. And so, you can only force it so much. You have to let that inspiration be authentic. So yeah, it takes a while.

QRO: And why finally have an eponymous album?

NW: I think, in some ways, it was just this sort of sense that we had never done one, and always intended to. And I love the idea that this is the tenth one. It feels like a really round number. It feels like good kind of a benchmark, a thing that we just need to do. Sonically, thematically, it just sounds like a Cold War Kids record in a lot of styles & genres that we’ve touched on, and we’re now very familiar with, but all under one roof, one place.

Cold War Kids’ video for“Double Life”:

QRO: How was making the video for “Double Life”? How was it working with yourself?

NW: It was good. We had a concept, wrestling with yourself, which is a lot of this record. It’s always this kind of magic trick of doing something that is very personal & authentic, but is also dressed up, spoken in a language that’s more universal. That’s the sweet spot.

There’s a lot of very personal stuff on this record, for me. The great thing is when there’s a lot of personal stuff that is not necessarily so explicit, that you need to know the background to, that you hear it. The hard part can be sometimes that people not knowing some of the context, and maybe they’ll lose some of the potency. That’s what’s always kind of interesting about music.

I think Cold War Kids has had this great ability to have the hardcore fans that kind of do know more about where stuff comes from, but I think there’s a type of mystery in a lot of it. And I always kind of wrestle with how much to talk about where certain songs come from. But for this one, I do want to be more transparent about songs that – “Double Life” is very explicitly one of those, very much the touring musician and domestic life.

There’s a lot of very personal stuff on this record, for me.

The song “For Your Love”, for me is a big one, that is very much about – at the time of writing this record, there was so much that we didn’t know, but my four-year-old daughter, she was just struggling so much. That song came from a very much organic kind of place, watching a child struggle, and struggling. There are these lines that are like, “My morning was miserable, I was dragged out of bed / By these ungrateful animals I dressed and I fed / They claw me and they bite me, they growl and they spit / Why they wanna fight me when all I do is give?” It’s very much about my daughter struggling.

The sort of the interesting thing about the art and the real life meeting is that, it wasn’t until long after being done with this record was that our daughter was diagnosed as autistic. That was a huge moment, and a very sweet, tender way, I realized, ‘Wow, all these struggles in my life & family, that are very prescient, very upfront, but also being able to weave that into the music,’ that I hope can resonate in a way that is greater. It’s a love song, it’s called “For Your Love”, it can be interpreted in a lot of ways, but it’s also like extremely specific to this time in my life, and being a father, wrestling with being home and gone a lot, the connotations that I have.

When I talk about it, I realize that it’s important to also put that stuff up front, because I do think it’s a lot of what makes this record unique. Those are stories that you wouldn’t find in your average indie-rock album, doesn’t have those things going on.

QRO: And how was touring with Tears For Fears last year? Did you grow up on their songs back when, like me & many? And you got to tour with them…

NW: Totally. Crazy, amazing. It was so great, they were so great. We got to sit down at catering and eat with them. And they were so gracious – and they’re fans of us! That’s so amazing. They were comfortable to tell us that we were great. That’s an amazing feeling.

QRO: QRO caught you in 2021 on tour with Kings of Leon in West Palm Beach, where rain delayed everything and you had to shorten your set… (QRO live review)

And back during COVID, how were those four livestreams?

NW: Really cool. Again, just looking for ways to put the songs forward. A lot of them that didn’t get to be fleshed out in a venue. So, doing those livestreams – I think we did all of New Age Norms 2, we did all of Robbers & Cowards, a whole deep cuts one.

For us, it was just a good exercise in keeping the songs alive, and being musicians. In every way, it was the closest thing.

At the same time, of course it was like bittersweet. You don’t get to feel the applause, and the bodies in the room, go through something together. In the way, it was the worst of times…

QRO: At Robbers & Cowards one, did you say that you’d never done a ‘play an album in full’ before that? That’s a very common thing nowadays…

NW: It is, yeah.

We’re coming up on the twentieth anniversary of that album. Should we do something? I don’t know. Maybe we’ll do something…

Because I generally don’t like to. Obviously, there’s a nostalgic aspect of that. I’m kind of really proud of having not done that before, and being very leaning on our current music that we’re making. But maybe we’ll do something like that.