In many ways, Nathan Willett, front man for the electric-elastic rock ‘n’ roll group, Cold War Kids, is restarting everything. Willett, whose group grew from grassroots in its original Southern California home, has since achieved great successes. From backyard jam sessions to playing in front of tens of thousands regularly, Cold War Kids has, for all intents and purposes, achieved its central goals. But rather than give up playing music now, Willett is starting the journey over again. It excites him, energizes his ambitions. The process began with the group’s 2019 release, New Age Norms 1, and will continue with New Age Norms 2, which is set to hit the streets August 21st (with a special song debut today for “You Already Know”).
“We had accomplished so much,” Willett says. “In order to move forward in a way that wasn’t necessarily just putting out more music, we had to hit a reset button.”
Willett remembers the first three Cold War Kids records, how they were each EPs and self-released. Since, the band has written and recorded in just about every manner possible, from collectively on each effort to a more streamlined manner with Willett working closely with a producer and brining in band members individually. The band has explored the “gamut” of dynamics, the front man says. So, in an effort to reinvestigate and reinvigorate the buoyant creative space from those early days, Willett and crew, which includes new members since the band’s early days, got into the studio for New Age Norms 2 and played.
“We were so excited to play together,” Willett says. “In a way the five of us hadn’t really ever done that. It felt like a whole new world. We’re not trying to prove anything to anybody but ourselves. We’re very hungry and feel like we have a lot to say. But, really, we just need to impress ourselves. That’s what we did with this record.”
When considering New Age Norms 2, Willett says he thinks about literary epics. While the record is compact, its force – its musical punch – is not. From the first song to the last, Willett thinks of it almost as a hero’s expedition. The first track, “Who’s Gonna Love Me,” hits like a hammer on an anvil. It immediately energizes. “I’m going down, down, down. I wonder who’s gonna love me now?” sings Willett. The eight-track record concludes with the fiery, “Catch Me Falling,” continues the downward spiral. But going down, as Willett notes, isn’t always bad.
“I think there’s always been a sense of doubt in Cold War Kids songs,” Willett says. “That shows up in a lot of soul and gospel music, too, music we grew up with. To have that sense of doubt in the choices you make, your motives – I’ve lived so much of my life going after the things I’m going for but constantly questioning those motives.”
Willett doesn’t shy from self-investigation. One external tool he uses to look internally is religion. And while he knows it can be difficult to talk about religion or spirituality publically – it’s a reality he’s sensitive of – Willett is afraid to talk about what aspects of his faith inspire him. When his band was first coming up, religion was especially taboo. Now, Willett says, there is a bit more of a nuanced understanding of how individuals relate to ideas of god and a bit more openness from the public to receiving those expressions in a fresh, authentic way.
“We all want music and art that speaks to the deepest parts of us,” the vocalist says. “And spirituality does that like nothing else can, for me.”
Willett, who began taking guitar lessons in 7th grade, says he remembers zoning out in his room, strumming with a glazed look in his eye. He was rather enthusiastic about his lessons. But it wasn’t until later in life, around 24-years-old, he says, that Willett gained any confidence in his singing ability. Prior, he’d sung sparingly around friends and family, some of whom especially encouraged him. But it wasn’t until he had the right people by his side did he feel the strength and empowerment to let his voice burst into the world.
Cold War Kids toured the country at a time in the early 2000s when the internet wasn’t nearly as prevalent as it is today in the music business. As a result, the band had to win fans over in their live shows. Together, the members leaned into the dramatic side of performance as Willett filled the bar or small showroom with lyrics. Early hits included “Hospital Beds” and “Hang Me Up to Dry,” both off the 2006 debut record, Robbers & Cowards. Now, some 15 years since the band first gained recognition, Willett is ready to again take on the world yet again.
“I see how much courage it takes for anybody to do music on the front lines,” Willett says. “You have to wrestle with the absurdity of the music business and all the fringe stuff and still have an untarnished sense of urgency. That, to me, is a miracle.”