Cold War Kids: Rolling with Royce

Stream Cold War Kids' new album Loyalty to Loyalty at now.

By: Jim Welte

Cold War Kids
Four years ago, the members of the bluesy rock quartet Cold War Kids lived together in a ramshackle house in Whittier, California, worked at the same Los Angeles clothing store and filled every possible moment with jam sessions. They split the rent, watched each other's backs and eventually made a couple EPs that had the blogosphere salivating in 2005 over their brand of raw, gospel-baked, soulful rock that seemed ready to combust in a live setting. A wolf pack of labels swarmed in, and the band meticulously sized up each offer, filtering the real from the faux. They decided to go with indie hotspot Downtown Records, home to Gnarls Barkley, and released the widely praised Robbers & Cowards in 2006.

They hit the road hard, touring relentlessly and making themselves a fixture on the festival circuit in the U.S. and Europe. When you'd see them offstage at these festivals, the four members - singer Nathan Willett, bassist Matt Maust, guitarist Jonnie Russell and drummer Matt Aveiro - would always be together, catching other bands, tossing back a cold one, soaking it all in. Seemingly inseparable. Loyal to the core.

But this tale has been told countless times before: friends form a band, the band blows up, fissures develop over time and the band either breaks up or friendships morph into business partnerships. Willett says that's not going to happen to his band.

Cold War Kids from
"It almost becomes a truth that the longer you go, the further apart you're going to be," he says, "but I don't ever see that happening to us. Even when we are at home for a week, we inevitably start calling each other to hang out, even though we've just been together on the road for months and months."

That strong bond isn't Willett's only reassurance. His confidence also lies in the words of American philosopher Josiah Royce. At the onset of the 20th century, Royce, who taught at Harvard and Berkeley, was one of the few voices interested in challenging the view of rugged, heroic individualism touted by the likes of Nietzsche, Walt Whitman and William James. Royce was an unapologetic idealist, arguing that true heroism was to work for the betterment of the community.

"A cause is good, not only for me, but for mankind, in so far as it is essentially a loyalty to loyalty, that is, an aid and a furtherance of loyalty in my fellows," Royce wrote in the 1908 tome, The Philosophy of Loyalty.

Willett's discovery of Royce provided both the defining M.O. of his band and an overarching theme of much of the music on its superb new album, aptly titled Loyalty to Loyalty, in stores September 23.

Cold War Kids
Like another of Willett's favorites, Kurt Vonnegut, Royce gave paramount importance to looking out for one another and striving for strong tribes and communities. The inspired visions of the likes of Whitman and James were doomed to ineffectiveness, Royce proffered, precisely because of their extreme individualism.

"It has a lot of meanings," Willett says of the album's title. "It has a meaning about interpersonal dynamics with us. It has a meaning about relationships. A lot of the songs themselves are about the desire to be a strong individual and the need to serve the group and the struggles that come with that."

Cold War Kids have balanced that need in one of the places where pride can poison loyalty: the recording studio. Willett writes all the lyrics, but the band approached each piece of music with the same philosophy.

"If you are really feeling something, keep playing and move forward with it and work with it, and if you're really not feeling it but you know the other person is, allow them to carry it out," Willett says. "Try to read each other. If there's nothing going on, don't fake it, but if someone is really into what they are working on, let them lead and go with it."

Democracy rules, but so does the desire for as live a sound as possible. The band strives for one-take recordings, and each member pushes his parts as far as they can. As a result, the songs seem custom-built for live incineration, and the Cold War Kids rarely play a song the same way twice. Each member seems in full flight throughout their concerts, punishing his instrument but sticking like glue to his mates.

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