Cold War Kids' Nathan Willett Calls New 'LA Divine' Album 'The Best Version of What We've Always Done'

Cold War Kids
Dan Monick

Cold War Kids

With 13 years and five albums under their belt, Cold War Kids have earned their title as veterans in the rock music world.

But even after all of their time in the business, the fivesome (lead singer Nathan Willett, bassist Matt Maust, keyboardist Matt Schwartz, guitarist David Quon and drummer Joe Plummer) still had a rather career-changing experience in the fall of 2016, when they moved to Capitol Records from their former label home of Downtown/V2. With that move, the guys also decided to do something they had never done before with their next album: pay tribute to where they came from.

Thus, the Long Beach, Calif., natives created LA Divine, their sixth LP featuring the previously released "Love Is Mystical," "Can We Hang On?," "So Tied Up" (which features Bishop Briggs) and "Restless." The album does focus on the "clichés of LA," as Willett puts it, but he also suggests that it's an album about relationships -- all while being an album they're incredibly proud of.

As the band celebrates the release of LA Divine on Friday (April 7), Willett talks to Billboard to discuss what felt different making this record (especially under a new label), why they wanted to honor their Southern California upbringing, and how LA Divine is "the best version of what we've always done."

LA Divine has been referred to as your most expansive and ambitious effort so far. Can you elaborate on that?

Since the first record, we were a band that was fortunate to have a sound and a feel -- we knew who we were really early. This record is unique because we got to take all those original elements and not necessarily experiment, but I think we got to write better songs with them. It’s sort of hard to describe -- it’s easy to get caught up in a bigger, better production and approach. But the songwriting side of it requires a lot more patience and making sure, lyrically and emotionally, things connect and feel good. We were fortunate to make it in a way that, we’re playing a lot of shows and a lot of touring, and we’re flying back home to be in the studio for a week over the course of eight, nine months. I think being able to live with something for a while and go back to make changes... it has all of those elements that we’ve always had but also kind of trim the fat and really drive home the kind of Cold War Kids sound that we’ve always had.

Would you say that the creation process felt different from your past albums?

Yeah, it wasn’t so much searching for a new thing or experimenting, but everything was much more immediate. We spent a lot of time before the record having conversations about “where are we, what are we doing and why.” We never really talked about writing before. It was always the kind of thing where you just go in and do it and whatever happens, that’s what it is.

One thing we ended up talking about a lot is, it seems like we’re heading into an age more and more where the best rock song and the best pop song are really not that different. The actual guitars and drums and tones that are being used in a rock song might be different, but the approach to the songwriting is very similar. It’s all about making everything really kind of dry and in your face, make it really pop. I think it’s an exciting time. It’s all about immediacy, and I think that was kind of a revelation for me -- to listen to a Selena Gomez song and an Arctic Monkeys song and go, “You know, these are both doing a similar thing.”

I think we came from a mentality that the bands that we loved and these myths, I guess in a way, kind of avant-pop kind of bands. This was the first time we were really looking at what’s modern and what’s happening, like, "How do we take everything that we’ve always done but really be sort of at the front lines?"

LA Divine has also been called a tribute to Los Angeles…you guys are from California, so why did you decide that now is the right time to use where you’re from as inspiration and pay tribute to it?

I think there was something kind of organic about that. There’s a lyric in a song that didn’t make it onto the record: “Los Angeles is divine and music is worship.” I think growing up in and around L.A. and then touring for so many years, you see how extremely different cultures in cities are in the country and around the world. L.A. really is its own thing -- it’s a totally unique, strange city that people have such extreme feelings of love or hate. There are people that think it’s like the promised land, and at the same time there’s a lot of people that just think it’s impossible to understand and weird, shallow and fake. LA Divine is an attempt to encapsulate some of those -- trying to take some of the old clichés about L.A. and unpack them a little bit, look at them differently.

Would you say paying tribute to L.A. is kind of the overall theme to this album?

For me, there’s very much songs that are relationship songs. There’s a lot of stuff that’s much closer to the surface for me, about the strains of relationships and distance, and the struggles of two people who are chasing different things but staying together and all those struggles are there. But I do think that the backdrop of L.A. is there in all of them.

How do you approach making new material and sort of mixing things up while still staying true to who you are as a band when you’ve already put together five albums worth of material?

My own role in the writing was much greater than it’s ever been. The way that the producer Lars [Stalfors] and I approach these ideas, it’s all about the writing. Again, the analogy for a pop writing approach -- you could be a band working in a room together for 12 hours on a song, and inevitably everyone gets very precious about their contribution. There’s so many opinions going around. I think this was about not being precious about anything. You might work on something for a long time, but if it’s not working, just throw it out and don’t look back. I think that it's an evolution where most bands don’t get to: the point where they can be so pragmatic about it. At the same time, I think that we’re in a place where records are being made so often by one artist who’s at the helm and doing their one vision. I guess, in a way, it was very instinctual, following your instincts and letting everything else just kind of follow what came really naturally.

Do you think you were able to do that because you’re most comfortable about who you are as a band now?

Yeah, definitely. That’s probably the best way to say it. I really do think the success at first had a big impact confidence wise, kind of knowing who I am and what I do, and knowing the sound of the band. In some ways, both what we do well and what people want from us -- how to just make that all better. The confidence that came with success and that song, it definitely gave a whole new life to the band. Cold War kids right now, it’s kind of just like a part two where we’ve kind of been given a new life and perspective, and I think this record is the first of that turning point. I think everyone I’ve talked to feels like there’s such an immediacy to it and a clear vision in a way that’s always been kind of lingering in previous records, but maybe not so focused.

What kind of impact did moving to Capitol (from Downtown/V2) have on the kind of music you made on this record?

I think it had a big impact on it. The Capitol move was very much in tandem with like “Yeah, if we’re gonna do this, let’s really do it.” There’s two sides to every kind of risk, and when you take a risk with a bunch of new people that are totally unfamiliar, there’s that leap of faith there. But we needed some new blood, new interests, new doors to open just to keep us all vibrant. We have a rad team and their interest in us -- it's amazing how much that side of it can just inform your confidence. Especially where we came from, we’re very insular and very sheltered. Your relationship to your label and really understanding and stepping it up for you, it's so important.

How did you get involved with Bishop Briggs for "So Tied Up," and what made you feel like she was the right fit for that particular song?

We’ve never done a feature or had somebody else sing on something -- I’ve always really wanted to do exactly what we ended up doing. Something that feels really organic, finding another artist who can merge those things so well. And the sound of her voice is so incredible in that song.

“Wilshire Protest” is almost like a spoken-word track, and “Camera’s Always On” sounds like a demo versus the other recordings. Can you tell me a little bit about how those came to be and why you decided to include them?

"Camera’s Always On" was just an iPhone recording. It’s weirdly one of my favorite things -- that in a way says everything about the record. That says everything about modern times and modern technology, the way that we’re constantly watching each other and how impossible it is to live up to our expectations, the relationship side of it. And then the title of LA Divine, there’s always a spiritual searching too -- looking for God, looking for meaning. In a way, that’s an analogy too. Like, "I want to be great, but you’re always watching, it’s so hard." It’s a universal thing.

If there was one takeaway you’d want Cold War Kids fans and new listeners to take away from LA Divine or Cold War Kids as a band, or both, what would it be?

One thing? That’s a hard one. If this was a big left-hand turn sonically, writing-wise or stylistically, then I would feel that this record is the best version of what we’ve always done. That’s why it feels so good to have all this stuff come out, and to know that people who hear it for the first time and get into it can potentially look backwards and look at the many, many songs and records before. I always say there’s always two directions you can go being a musician -- especially through phases of sales being obsolete, streaming and how to most effectively get your music heard. Going through all those phases in the last 10 years, and at certain points deciding we’re just going to put this stuff out and keep making music, whether it’s a record or singles or EPs... and always have the great, great intention and purpose behind it, but also knowing something seriously can fall through the cracks. You can watch something go out through your fans and be like, “Oh, not that many people even heard this.” That could either teach people a lesson of, "Don’t put stuff out unless the label is going to work it for months and really market it and put money into it." Or you can do what we did, like, “Yeah, let’s just get it out there.”

This is what keeps us alive as far as the energy of progress -- even if it’s not making this big ripple in the larger waters. I think that’s the reason why we have a lot of music out there, even though certain people haven’t dug as deep into what we’ve done. It’s fun to think about people going backwards and getting to experience stuff for the first time that are years old for us. It’s kind of bizarre, because I don’t feel like we have been doing it forever, but that's the good thing about just keep looking forward and always moving on to the next thing. I think we have very thick skin. We’re kind of at a point where, if people love or hate something, we’re so fortunate to do what we do and not have to worry too much about a make-or-break record or song. That’s a pretty rare situation in this time. I’m very aware of how lucky to be in that position.

Again, we have had years when we started a record, and the impact beyond it is not huge. So you learn to become your own internal compass to say, “It’s OK, because we feel great about this.” The great thing about having the thick-skin phases of your work, and then when people respond to something, it feels like, “Oh shit, this wave is kind of rising. This is happening and people are excited.” It feels really good -- in a way, it feels more earned than your first or second record, like, “Man, this is so cool. We’ve been at it for so long.”

Stream LA Divine below:


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