Ten years ago, Los Angeles band Cold War Kids were on the brink of releasing their debut album. Entitled Robbers & Cowards, the album was characterised by robust bass lines and the morose, off-kilter vocals of Nathan Willett, which have largely come to define the band’s identity. Late 2014 saw Cold War Kids release their fifth, and most successful, album Hold My Home, which featured the band’s highest-charting single to date. First, which rose to number one on the US Billboard Alternative Charts in 2015, epitomises what is an outstanding album.
The intervening years have been lean, at times, for Cold War Kids, with their music not always receiving the critical acclaim they may have hoped for, and fans left bemused by changes in style. Flashes of potential were scattered among uneven or overworked ideas, with Willett’s untethered vocals dividing opinions.
Hold My Home is, finally, a return to form. It’s the band’s most consistent offering since Robbers & Cowards, and I quizzed bassist Matt Maust on this when I spoke to him ahead of Cold War Kids’ upcoming appearance at Bluesfest.
Firstly, Matt, congratulations on Hold My Home.
Thank you so much! It’s been great.
I have to say it’s one of your more consistent albums. Was consistency something you were particularly aiming for with it?
We had the spirit of Robbers & Cowards that we really wanted to capture again – not so much the songs, but more in the process and the spontaneity of it. We made our first record very spontaneously and very quickly without thinking too hard about it, and we definitely had a very similar vibe on Hold My Home. I think the songs are much more ‘four on the floor’ rock songs, but the spirit is very similar to the first record.
Was that a natural occurrence or did the opinions of critics and fans influence your mindset?
A little bit of both. You don’t think too far ahead; you just go with your gut feeling, and I think you just start in the studio and one thing leads to another and before you know it you have a record. You can’t really plan these things out too much.
The song First wasn’t even going to be on the record. It was kind of an afterthought; it was a demo we had that we’d messed around with for very little time and when the whole record was done we hadn’t even recorded the song. We slipped it in last minute.
I love the album, but for me First isn’t the standout track. Did its popularity surprise you at all?
Yeah, it totally did! We knew it was a great song, but it’s just one of those things – you can’t really plan it.
As a band you’ve had a few changes in personnel over the years. What impact does that have, creatively?
It’s a great way to stay fresh. You’re painting with different colours, and you have different thicknesses for the tips of your brushes. The instruments are the same, but there are slightly different colours that people can bring to the band. I love it when new people come in.
You’ve got a big year of touring ahead, with a trip to Australia followed by an appearance at Coachella. Do you tailor your set lists to keep yourselves entertained, or do you simply focus on what you think fans want to hear?
It’s more or less the latter. You need to stay focused, [and] you want to try and be really tight. For the festivals obviously you play more of the hits.
Are you often surprised by fans’ reactions to certain songs on tour?
Yeah! Actually, for the fifth record, Hold My Home, there were more people singing Drive Desperate and Go Quietly. That was really special to see – people signing on that early to this new record.
Is there a particular song that Australian crowds seem to enjoy more than others?
I notice that Australian crowds always like Royal Blue (from 2010’s Mine Is Yours) a lot… I don’t know why. I think that song might’ve got more radio play down there in Australia than it did in America.
Does going on tour feel more like work or a very busy holiday?
A little bit of both. The shows don’t feel like work. I always have this theory that they pay you for the waiting around and the monotonous travel, but the playing is free; it’s like that’s the dessert, the ice cream on top. I rarely get tired of playing shows.
How do you spend your spare time on tour?
I like to just walk, for one, and I love finding the art museums in cities. I have a love for art, and going to art museums; it’s real sacred, it’s real quiet, [and] it’s cool that I can look at paintings and sculptures from all these different artists. That’s one of the perks of the job.
The last time I saw you guys was at Splendour in the Grass in 2013. What’s changed most for the band since then?
I don’t think we had Matt Schwartz (vocals/keys/percussion/guitar) playing with us back then. He’s probably our biggest change. Matt joined us late in 2013, and he’s added a lot; he’s got a great voice as a back-up vocalist, he’s a multi-instrumentalist and he’s really filled out the band in a great way we’ve never had before. He sounds like a young Phil Collins.
From your perspective as a bassist, when you’re trying to get back to basics – as you were with Hold My Home – how important is the rhythm section to achieving that?
Oh, it’s there, it’s important. I like to keep it simple, though; I don’t do a lot of ‘noodling’. I always think you should feel a bass than really hear it.
Do you still find it easy enough to be creative as a bassist, or do you feel boxed in working with the other instruments?
You know, I never feel boxed in at all, but that’s a good question. I never get asked bass questions! What’s really important is that the song is good and that a listener can connect with the song. It’s a dangerous road to go down if you start thinking that any part is more important than another.
Is there any new music in the works yet, or are you just focused on touring Hold My Home?
We’re knee-deep in recording our sixth record right now and we’re going in next Monday to do some more songs. We keep at it! [Laughs]
More than a year on from the release of Hold My Home, do you feel you achieved what you set out to with it?
Yeah, it nailed it. I don’t want to think too much about it, because I know there’s bigger and better to come, record-wise. Having a number one, that’s something you always hope for and want but you never expect it, and then when it actually happens, it’s great; it’s cause for celebrations.
You can catch Cold War Kids on the following dates:
Sun, Mar 20: Metropolis, Fremantle
Tue, Mar 22: HQ, Adelaide
Thu, Mar 24: Bluesfest, Byron Bay
Fri, Mar 25: 170 Russell, Melbourne
Sat, Mar 26: Metro Theatre, Sydney
Buy tickets here.