This is a story about a band that cannot be considered a mock-up or precursor, but the whole she-bang, a font of penetrating pathos suitable for framing. Cold War Kids is a collection of four men who write and play songs as if they're burning from the inside out, involving themselves so utterly and completely in the stories of their faux characters that to see them in-person, you find yourself checking your own clothes for holes caused by the descending embers of whatever powerful stuff is in the air. They can turn water into wine and battery acid, it seems, pumping the mixture through us and their songs and it is undoubtedly felt, as anyone who's been privileged enough to take in one of their performances knows. It's finding a religion in a secular way. It's feeling things again for the first time, with wonder and exhilaration, even if it's just with borrowed hands and hearts or for a limited time - the spell to be broken when the cigarette smoke clears out and the night gets let back into the room.
Lead singer Nathan Willett, who could be mistaken for a Wild West outlaw in the right garb and with a six-shooter holstered to his hip or a younger Miles Kurosky of Beulah semi-fame, creates sketches of wretched people, beleagured people and almost heroes trying their damnedest that are stocked with vagaries and participles, details and estranged particulars. They are all compassionate attempts at definition and embracing the common things that people encounter every day whether they want to or not. Willett sinks himself into the belly of these characters and is a thinking man - a caring man - when he paints them for all to see. A few weeks ago, he and the rest of his bandmates had Common walk by them as he was going to the stage to perform, giving them a chest thump in response to their wish of good luck. They said it was a highlight and when Willett was asked about that experience last week, he combined his answer with another answer to a question about the prevalence of religious connotations in his lyrics, staying somewhat ambiguous on the latter front.
"He was talking about love and loyalty and becoming a person who cares about himself and makes a difference in the lives of people around them," Willett said of Common. "And it's like, 'Wow!' There's no irony here. No degrading of women, yada yada.' Are you allowed to stand for that stuff these days and still be an artist? It's something to think about."
Willett's found a different way to tell stories about people bowing in the middle, teetering between choosing despair or the opposite and getting more from life - whether it's the man poaching bills from the collection plate during Sunday masses or the little prodigy who is miserable hearing his mother poking him to admire the Grand Canyon out the station wagon's window.
"I like how (Nathan) can deliver these stories and characters that are very vivid, yet vague, to the listener," bassist Matt Maust, who coined the name of the band when he started a website of the same name years ago that was used for posting his graphic design work and the writings and poetry of his friends. "There are so many people and characters in the songs, and they're really funny and serious at the same time. A lot of the characters in the songs remind me of the Peanuts characters. All those kids were so young and small, but they all acted like adults. His concepts really remind me of the way Charles Schulz is at times."
It's interesting that Maust brings up Peanuts as I'd just come upon a paperback copy of Robert L. Short's 1968 book "The Parables of Peanuts," which goes into great detail to explain how Schulz took great pain to infuse notions of the gospel and religion into his long-running comic strip. Many writers have a hard time not suggesting a degree of gospel living inside Willett's songs. They just can't do it, if only for the grand power that steams off the stage and out of headphones. These songs aren't religious. Not in the least. They aren't the works of a reformed John Davis or Half-Handed Cloud or anything remotely similar to that, but guitarist Jonnie Russell's father happens to be a preacher and as often as churchy and moralistic situations arise in the songs on the EPs "Up In Rags" and "With Our Wallets Full" - some of which are currently being re-recorded for a full-length release on Downtown Records, the home of Gnarls Barkley and Art Brut - the theological bent is too interesting and prominent to pretend doesn't exist. In "The Parables of Peanuts," Short spends nearly three chapters explaining and defining a method that Schulz used regularly to dispense his ideas. Termed "art-parable" -- or the strategy of "wounding from behind" -- as Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said, it's a method that Willett seems to use in reverse, touching on religion, but craftily using it to make greater gains in art. Short makes sure to differentiate art from entertainment and it seems appropriate here to quote him.
"All art involves entertainment of sorts, but not all entertainment is art," Short writes. "Mere entertainment leads us away from reality; indeed it can even be considered an escape from reality. Entertainment wants to live our lives for us. We are simply caught up in a dream and left there. Hence it is possible to have TV addicts as well as drug addicts and alcoholics. Art, on the other hand, can also entertain us, but it goes further. It leads us through its dream back to a reality that perhaps we had not seen before or to a reality that we now see in a new light. It helps us to see our lives as they really are and frequently provides suggestions as to how those lives can better be faced and accepted without the constant need for escape."
It's easy to see what the Cold War Kids are doing as art of the highest regard, a form that doesn't couch itself at all with biblical notions or piety, but it does make you believe. In what? It doesn't really matter.
*The Daytrotter interview*
*Sometimes you look mean and aggressive on stage. Is that a personal tactic? Has anyone ever been hurt by you while you're on stage?*
Matt Maust: I didn't know I had the mug of a meanie. I don't want anyone to think we're angry and cowardly. As far as injuries, I think I've hit Jonnie a few times in the head with my bass. Nathan told me once or twice that I hit him too hard, and manager Brett and tour manager Beeman are always afraid I'm gonna break the Pellegrino bottle with the stick. It's never happened yet, although I think Jonnie broke a wine bottle once at Silverlake Lounge. I think it cut his hand too. Now that's something to be angry about.
*Tell me a little about the Cold War Kids website before there was a band of that same name. You briefly told me about it, but I'd love to hear some more detail.*
MM: Cold War Kids "the website" was similar to what it is now at the beginning stages about seven years ago. I had artwork/design stuff that my (other) friend Nathan and I had done. There were also journal entries, and short stories written by my close friends. I've always tried to include others in the website. The name dawned on me while I was in Eastern Europe with my brother traveling and playing music. Well, he played, and I sang. That's really when the Cold War Kids idea started, as far as a name. That's when I started taking pictures of everywhere I went, and really noticing graphic design in other countries. Since I couldn't read anything I saw, I started noticing more of the typographical aesthetic side of words and designs, rather than the meaning and content. The website was just a vehicle to put my work up for others to view. It turned into a design firm, which then turned into a band, but it kept the design side of things after we became a band. Lately, I've been showing my work in galleries too. My next show is in Los Angeles in December where I'm displaying all the raw album artwork for our first record.
*What do you guys hope happens on stage every night? Has the live show always been an easy thing for you guys to do or has it taken some work?*
MM: New songs for the first time live are usually pretty clumsy. I hope that we play off of each other as good as we can. If all four of us are meeting each other where we're at, we're usually bound to have a great show. It doesn't mean that there are not any blemishes in the set and things might not even go smooth, but if we have a good time and let mistakes bounce off our backs, we usually walk away feeling accomplished. At first, playing live was really awkward, and it still is a lot of the time. Every room is different, and every crowd is different, we're starting to notice. It can be tricky if there are things in the room that are working against you, or for you. A lot of it depends on the weather.
*Most bands are fucking lucky to have one dude with charisma. How did you end up with four?*
MM: Thanks so much. We all had really happening moms. Moms are where it's at.Jonnie Russell: That's a nice thing to say. This question has a rhetorical ring to it, right?Matt Aveiro: I think the charisma of the live show comes from our writing process. Since the songs are written and structured together, everyone spends a lot of time developing their parts and finding how and where they fit. More often than not, that comes from playing those parts over and over and letting them find their place within the song. I think because everyone is involved in the creation of the song, everyone has to be involved live to make it translate. I usually find drummers detached from what's going on with the rest of a band live which really makes the show as a whole suffer. I try not to be trapped by my kit.
*There's a lot of reference to vacations. How were your vacations as a child?*
NW: I didn't do any driving around the states vacationing growing up so (the song "God Make Up Your Mind" is) not my story. I like the idea of a sophisticated kid whose parents don't get him, didn't foster or develop him, being in a crappy station wagon. The vacations that I did go on I always hated and I never really knew why at the time. I love traveling now more than anything, but I think I would get overwhelmed with newness and just wanted to be home.
*Does Nate know anything about hospital beds or Italian opera?*
MM: I don't think so. He hasn't been to Italy yet, or the opera. What do I know? Maybe he has. He stopped skating though because of the lack of hospital insurance. Maybe that has something to do with it.JR: Certainly. He spent years in Florence after he left grammar school...kind of a classical conservatory thing.
*What did you learn today that you didn't know yesterday?*
NW: Today, I learned that I can't sing our own songs the same way twice, even when I try hard.
*How do you find the time to do all the diary updating every day?*MM: There's a lot of dead time in the van. You gotta find something to do while you kill the time between El Paso and Houston. Remember, no gas till El Paso a wise Texan named Springle Pants told me.
MA: The live shows have progressed a lot over the past year and half since we began playing together. I'd love to see footage of our early shows. Some of them were pretty rough. There has been a constant growth in the way we play and react to each other live. I think we are all really sensitive to what each other is doing on stage and hopefully every night there is the energy coming from everyone else to feed off of.JR: Vibe and connection. The room has to like you. That makes it a lot easier.
*How are you able to play so well moving all over the place like that? Lots of practicing?*
JR: I think we've just tried to play a lot together and are learning how we move together.
*Can you tell me about how you grew up, what your childhood was like? How long have you known these guys?*
JR: I'm the son of a preacher man. Known the other boys for years. Boys and Girls Club or something.
*Have you all always lived in California?*
JR: California, Baltimore, and Malawi, for a stint.
*Have you guys been surprised by the praise thrown at your recently?*
MA: The response to the EPs has been pleasantly surprising. Especially because they haven't been that easy to get. We just finished our third tour in the last four months and it's been really amazing to see the growth in the amount of kids coming out to the shows.
*What was the Midlake/Sound Team tour like? Your favorite moment?*
MA: The tour went really well. Both Midlake and Sound Team are great bands and we got a lot time to hang with the Sound Team dudes, which was awesome. The Southpaw show in Brooklyn was the highlight for me.
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