EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Cold War Kids Rebound After Losing Their Guitarist With Dear Miss Lonelyhearts

Last week in Ohio, Cold War Kids’ tour bus driver was held at gunpoint. While the band was in a bar nearby, the driver escaped the robbery attempt of his phone and wallet, but not before the gunman fired multiple shots in his fleeing direction.

“A bullet hit our bus, which was actually right outside of my bunk,” explains Nathan Willett (above, right), the band’s lead vocalist in an exclusive interview with VH1 on Saturday. Arriving back to the vehicle to find a police tape-laden crime scene wasn’t what they expected after performing at Newport Music Hall last Tuesday (April 9). “And then he drove 14 hours right afterwards,” bass guitar player Matt Maust (above, left) chimes in of their driver, adding even bit more heroic color to the story.

With all parties now safe and far from danger, Cold War Kids’ literary-inspired songwriter and bassist join me in a VIP room on the upper level of New York City’s Webster Hall. The lighting is low and, despite the fact that the sun’s still shining outside on this late Saturday afternoon, there’s a late-night speakeasy feel to the surroundings. After being a fly on the wall during the band’s light-flickering soundcheck, we begin a 30-minute conversation on how changing lead guitar players while crafting their newest album, Dear Miss Lonelyhearts, has altered the band’s trajectory.

DMLH, the band’s fourth full-length record, gets its title from Nathanael West’s 1933 novel Miss Lonelyhearts, a black comedy book about a newspaper advice columnist that Willett feels “does so many things that I love for art to do.”

In its book review, The New York Times called the author’s wit both “hard” and “brilliant,” noting that the “tragic letters” sent to the columnist/main character were “human documents and well sustain the burden of the underlying meaning.” And heavy is the head that wears the counselor’s crown; relating to the protagonist’s spiritual crisis while reading the novel over a year ago, the rock lyricist felt the dark humor was a good thematic fit for the group that he’s both the face and voice of.

Around the same time Nathan was reading Nathanael, Cold War Kids’ long-time guitar player Jonnie Russell quit the group- a decision that the band explained on the News section of ColdWarKids.com in early February 2012.

Jonnie felt he needed to pursue school and stop touring. We mutually agreed that it was his time to leave and he passed the baton to our friend Dann Gallucci. Jonnie’s talents will be missed. Cold War Kids has always been about the communal feel of the members, the music, the art, and the experience, so we couldn’t just replace him with anyone.

Former guitarist for Modest Mouse and garage punk band Murder City Devils, Dann Galluci was already Cold War Kids’ sound engineer when the opportunity to become a band member alongside Willett, Maust and drummer Matt Aveiro came knocking.

“It didn’t seem like there was an actual time where it happened,” Maust explains of the transition in personnel. Already working with the band to assemble their own private 3-room studio in San Pedro, California, Galluci was organically helping cultivate the sound for Dear Miss Lonelyhearts before he formally participated in a 3-city, 9-show, intimate venue tour that added “guitar player” to his already-robust title of producer, mixer and engineer.

Steering clear of more electronic, Pink Floyd-feeling cuts on the album, lead single “Miracle Mile” (watch the video above) delivers the soulful rock sound Cold War Kids are historically known for. Shot in their new, all-digital studio, the video for the piano-heavy single was born after the band invited 30-40 friends over to feast on tacos and booze while they played two short sets.

“We’re walking a thin line here,” Willett told me of going a less travelled path than bluesy, chord-changing contemporaries like The White Stripes and Black Keys. “People want certain things from us and we want certain things with evolving, and [’Miracle Mile’] felt like a really happy place for everybody.” In terms of that growth, Willett feels Dear Miss Lonelyhearts “accomplished a lot of things that I think we kind of wanted to work towards with the last record as far as exploration.”

And explore they do. Known for frequenting art galleries and museums in each city they travel to (they’re freshly back from visiting a Dieter Roth exhibit in Chelsea before our chat and were amazed by the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Outsider Art show), Nathan and Matt have strong artistic visions on the boil. While the Cold War Kids vocalist reconciles penning and singing songs for a rock band with his English major tendency to over-analyze the written word, Maust —whose imagination is behind all of the band’s album art and merch— too seeks an interwoven balance between the group and his mixed media photocopy prints and film side projects.

Constantly injecting his personal life into his songwriting, Nathan is relieved to confirm that his wife of almost five years has never once had a conversation with him about what any lyrics are about—not ever. “That, in a weird way, is so essential,” he shares with gratitude. “[Her asking] that question spoils something, and there has to be that line for me.”

Allowing their peers, aesthetic inklings, and personal lives to keep them inspired, Willett and Maust don’t envision the evolution of Cold War Kids slowing anytime soon: “We want to get busy right away,” Willett urges after I ask if new music outside of DMLH is on the horizon. Having their own studio certainly helps, and after a year of rebuilding and re-inventing themselves after fracture, their focus is inward and optimistic.

Notorious for not finishing projects of old, both band members seemed pleased to describe how they’ve become more organized creatively in recent months. The kind of group that’s less interested in songs being perfect and more interested in finding innovative ways to release a high influx of material, the California quartet can look forward to upcoming dates on their domestic and European tours, opening a handful of shows for The Lumineers, and then headlining a bigger show schedule in the fall without worrying about ideas getting lost during grueling hours spent on the road.

“I feel crazy right now, sleep wise,” the quirky bassist confesses after including Nick Cave and Yeah Yeah Yeahs on his list of tour music he’s been into lately. Promoting the final album from their Downtown Records contract —a label that also houses artists like Santigold, The Drums, Gnarls Barkley, Penguin Prison, Major Lazer and Mos DefCold War Kids are accustomed to being surrounded by music industry innovators and up-and-comers alike. In their most vulnerable moments, however, they’re slowly learning how to be the new band that they now are, and coming to trust each other and do things that didn’t seem natural at first has all been part of the process.

“We needed to go through [this] experience with the four of us… not be in somebody else’s studio with somebody who we didn’t know,” the piano and guitar-playing lead singer explains of the group’s active rebirth and album-release culmination. Taking a bit of the upbeat Mine Is Yours sensibilities and mixing it with some darker lyrical themes and sonic experimentation, the band may have found middle-ground in its second life.

Willett’s powerful falsetto stabs Dear Miss Lonelyhearts’ anthemic, rock-leaning tracks and caresses more electro-soul-infused songs on the record, again nodding at the line between where Cold War Kids started, and where they intend to go.

Emerging as a unit Saturday night at their Webster Hall show, the band took the stage (with touring keyboardist addition Matthew Schwartz) and gave their fans a roaring glimpse of that very spectrum; Robbers & Cowards singles had the loyal crowd singing along as they intermingled with second and third album fan-favorites, EP cuts, and the newer songs. Still needing some time to marinate, “Jailbirds,” “Fear & Trembling,” and the single, of course, were received well enough to assume that fans won’t be shedding their band allegiances any time soon.

COLD WAR KIDS: WEBSTER HALL SETLIST (4/13/13)
“Saint John” / “Loner Phase” / “Mexican Dogs” / “Miracle Mile” / “I’ve Seen Enough” / “Royal Blue” / “Jailbirds” / “Audience” / “Every Man I Fall For” / “Rubidoux” / “Hang Me Up to Dry” / “Relief” / “Cold Toes On The Cold Floor” / “Louder Than Ever” / “Fear and Trembling” / “Hospital Beds”
Encore: “We Used to Vacation” / “Minimum Day” / “Something Is Not Right With Me”