Vintage Q&A with Nathan Willett of Cold War Kids

The Cold War Kids take a seat.

The Cold War Kids stop by the Boulder Theater on Friday, October 3, in support of Loyalty to Loyalty, a new recording reviewed here. However, the band was first featured in Westword in a March 2007 profile built on an intriguing e-mail interview with frontman Nathan Willett. Look below to check out that exchange, which is appearing online for the first time.

Willett, then in the midst of a European tour, began by commenting on the hoopla the Kids had generated and the manner in which the group's music had divided the critical establishment -- a development epitomized by a nasty Pitchfork piece in which the writer compared Willett unfavorably to widely scoffed-at American Idol soul patroller Taylor Hicks. (This insult might have stung more if Willettt had heard Hicks' braying before...) He subsequently grapples with the fallout from being dubbed a Christian band -- a label seemingly enforced by Willett's occasional use of Biblical image in his lyrics -- and breaks down several songs on Robbers & Cowards, the album that first put the group on most reviewers' radar.

Here's how Willett traced the Kids' subsequent trajectory:

Westword (Michael Roberts): The term "buzz band" gets thrown around a lot. Does it mean anything to you? Could you notice a difference in how you were perceived before you were identified that way and afterward?

Nathan Willett: It's such an annoying but necessary word. It's the new kid in school syndrome. Everybody get's excited and they call it a buzz. To me, it says a lot about music as a machine, as an industry and the need to keep that industry moving. In music, as in all entertainment, you need a break, you need a foot in the door, and that was a start for us -- not any change in our day to day lives of recording and touring, but in the bigger world of audience. The difference in how it felt was that it became a reality that we could afford to make records for a good while.

WW: What are the pros and cons of getting so much attention? Is it harder to put all the silliness out of your mind and focus on the music? Or is the silliness part of the fun?

NW: I don't know, it's strange. I'm back and forth about it. I have fun with the silliness and I curse it as well. Pros are that we are getting to play our songs all over the world and I think we are getting pretty good at it. Cons are so many things... You realize that after you write an album and you are proud of it and you play those songs for about a year and they drive you mad, you think holy hell! How do all these musicians play these songs every night for twenty years? They must curse the day that they wrote them! My idea of what a musician was before all this, I had no idea the amount of non-music that goes into it. I think most people would be surprised. It's definitely not the most creative people whose records you end up hearing. It's the people who work their asses off touring and making good business choices and so much luck.

WW: You guys seem to prompt a wide range of reactions from people, from tremendous admiration to profound dislike. From your perspective, is that a good thing? Would you rather that people feel strongly about your work one way or the other than to be indifferent to it?

NW: I like strong opinions. With critics' extreme opinions come people's strong opinions. I can't say Joanna Newsome or Clap Your Hands around my friends cause there are gonna be some that would die for them and others that would kill them. That's how people are about their music. They feel like they own it and I like that.

WW: Some of the folks at Pitchfork definitely seem bothered by you guys. I found one reference to you coming off "like an embittered Taylor Hicks." Is that so ridiculous a description that it's more funny than insulting? Does it make you feel kind of proud, in a strange way? And are you pro-Taylor or anti-Taylor?

NW: On the heels of the last one, yes, I think it's basically more funny than insulting. Getting into the politics of the Pitchfork review that we got would be an interview in itself, but there is an article on that I think is on point. Any time a critic completely misinterprets what you do, it's going to be annoying, but with the nature of Pitchfork, I am kind of proud. Haven't heard Taylor.

WW: How about the constant references to your "yelp"? Does that seem like an accurate description of your singing style? How would you describe your singing?

NW: Right now, my voice is stripped, so tonight it will be a low growl. I really like soulful singers from Karen Dalton to Tom Waits to Sam Cooke, which all have soul in common.

WW: Much has been made of your background as a Christian and the years you spent at Loyola Marymount. Why do you think that's been such a topic of conversation, particularly given the fact that most Americans identify themselves as Christians? Do some of the comments you've heard hint at underlying prejudice?

NW: Ahhh, what a great question, I wish I had an essay written so I could just cut and paste it. First off, religion is something that we have never talked about in any personal way. Musicians from Dylan and Cash have always used religious imagery in their songs because so much of it is imbedded in the language of our country. On the new Neko Case record there is a song called "John Saw That Number" which is all this biblical language and it's so beautiful. I don't see anybody pointing the finger at her and accusing her of having a religious agenda. We got that tag from Pitchfork and it was a lazily written article. The article is interesting outside of how it relates to us in that it is a volatile time where people want to know more about other worldviews and religions and tolerance, but then people are more suspect of conservatism than ever.

WW: Speaking of Loyola, I lived in Los Angeles years ago, and I thought KXLU was the best radio station in the city. Is that still the case? Did you guys ever work at the station? Did the music that the station played have an influence on you? Or were your influences already in place by the time you started school?

NW: Yeah, great station. Had a lot of music before and learned a lot while there. Had some friends at the station, but never worked there.

WW: At this point, does the term "Christian" conjure up negative stereotypes in many rock music fans? Do you hope your band explodes some of those stereotypes? Or do you prefer to concentrate on music and let others decide for themselves how to interpret those kinds of things?

NW: Conjures up the worst stereotypes and they are well deserved. We have nothing to do with that world. We have been misinterpreted and hopefully people will figure that out.

WW: The language in many of your lyrics has a Biblical ring to it. Do you have a special fondness for the language of the Bible, aside from its meaning? Is there a passage or verse you could point to that exemplifies the Bible as literature -- vivid imagery, striking word choices, fascinating construction?

NW: I don't know much, but read the book of Ecclessiastes. Anybody, please, it's beautiful. "Vanity of Vanities."

WW: "Passing the Hat" is a song that touches upon Christian themes but actually has something of a critical edge, which Christian bands of the sort that are played on Christian radio almost never demonstrate. Do you feel comfortable taking that tone because you look upon your faith as more of a personal moral compass than something that you need to promote?

NW: Not a bad question, but not answering it. It's words like "faith" and "moral" that are so mishandled that people don't trust them, again for good reason.

WW: You write a great deal in character. Do you feel that approach frees up your writing more than if you stuck to autobiography? If you only wrote about things that have happened to you personally, how exciting would that be?

NW: Right. Writing about other people shows me much more about what I think than just looking inward.

WW: In "Robbers," you write, "My victim's in my shadow/Starin' back at me." Do you think that's the case with most criminals? Or, in many instances, do their shadows not stare back? If not, do you feel sorry for such people, because they don't have any sense of right or wrong?

NW: It's mostly supposed to be a metaphor for the ways that we steal love, really, and manipulate people and get away with it. But then it hits us at certain times of reflection.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts