Cold War Kids to headline Aspen Mountain and Belly Up
IF YOU GO …
Who: Cold War Kids
Where: Gondola Plaza, Aspen Mountain
When: Saturday, Feb. 17, 6 p.m.
How much: Free
More info: www.aspensnowmass.com
Who: Cold War Kids
Where: Belly Up Aspen
When: Sunday, Feb. 18, 9:30 p.m.
How much: $60/general admission; $90/reserved seating
Tickets: Belly Up box office; www.bellyupaspen.com
The new album “L.A. Divine” completes what has been a gradual evolution for Cold War Kids, from gritty post-punk indie heroes to masters of all-out anthem rock.
“I feel like (on) this record I had a clearer idea of what I was setting out to do than on any other,” lead singer Nathan Willett said in a recent phone interview from home in Los Angeles.
The band will play two hotly anticipated shows in Aspen this weekend — Saturday at Aspen Mountain’s gondola plaza as part of the Hi-Fi Concert Series and Sunday night at Belly Up.
For the new record, Willett said, he and his bandmates brought together everything they learned on their previous five.
“Looking back as far as the first record for the vibe of things, which I think is still the thing that keeps us who we are — a certain looseness, guitar sound, bass sound and piano sound with a certain spontaneity and rawness married with something modern,” Willett said. “It’s just about harnessing all that stuff and trying to write the best songs with it.”
The band’s subtle movement to a more pop-friendly sound may be considered heresy by some of its too-cool early fans. But for Willett, it’s a natural progression. Having a runway hit in the gold-certified “First” — the catchy, cool and inescapable 2015 single that sat at No. 1 on the alternative chart — changed his creative outlook, Willett said.
“It was totally a second wind for the band, in such a way that I didn’t even know that was something to hope for,” he explained.
He recalled that as the song was blowing up, he and the band were touring and also deep into the writing process for “L.A. Divine.” They’d never paid attention to the charts or to mainstream radio play, he said, and were bemused when it hit No. 1 but then surprised themselves with how proud they were when it stayed there.
“It did give us this new life in a weird way,” he said. “I hate to put too much emphasis on it, because it is just another song. But, yeah, it’s something that totally renewed my focus and made me think differently. It made me want to write better songs with purpose.”
The band’s sets on the current tour have leaned heavily on the new “L.A. Divine” material, playing a half-dozen of the new songs — tracks like the bluesy boot-stomper “Love is Mystical,” the heartbreak anthem “Can We Hang On?” and the gospel-powered “So Tied Up” along with “Restless,” which Willett says is his favorite of the new songs to perform live — alongside older material and hits like their 2006 breakthrough, “Hang Me Up to Dry,” “Miracle Mile” and, of course, “First.”
Willett’s songwriting has always had a literary bent. The band is named “Dear Miss Loneyhearts” after a Nathanael West novel, after all. For “L.A. Divine,” as Willett was looking to capture a distinct Los Angeles vibe, he looked to the gritty Depression-era books of California icon (and Denver native) John Fante like “The Road to Los Angeles” and “Ask the Dust.”
“I heard this thing — this Dostoevsky and Bukowski kind of thing,” he said of Fante’s influence. “How there’s this seriously existential soul-searching spiritual stuff next to modern stuff and the highs and lows of wanting it all in life and then feeling totally worthless.”
But as much as Los Angeles and Fante’s books about it were inspirations for the songs on “L.A. Divine,” Willett doesn’t think of it as a concept album. There are touchstones of Los Angeles in the songs — its sprawl and its anxieties — and some bittersweet hometown pride in there, but Willett wanted to keep the theme loose.
“I feel like in the past I’ve been overly concerned with conceptual stuff that probably made no sense to anyone but me,” he said with a laugh. “So I’ve realized the importance of having a concept as your guiding light but at the same time letting the songs be songs and not restricting it.”
In the days before the 2016 presidential election, while the band was working on “L.A. Divine,” Cold War Kids released the anti-Trump song “Locker Room Talk” as part of Dave Eggers’ “30 Days, 30 Songs” campaign. The band had rarely been so overtly political. It proved to be a learning experience, Willett said, for how to use their public platform to affect change.
He recalled running into Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard in a Seattle coffee shop a few days before the election, and joking about the prospect of a Trump presidency and the protest songs they’d written about him.
“I’ll always remember how cocky we were, because of how wrong we were,” he recalled. “I really like that song. But at the same time, there’s a part of me that looks at that and goes, ‘Man, it just sounds like someone who totally underestimated what was really going on.’”
Willett hopes to keep the band’s progressive values upfront, but he’s found new ways to get their messages across.
“I want our opinions to be known, but in the more specific sense I’m realizing how important it is to put your politics into poetry a little more and maybe not be so explicit,” he said.
The new song “Free to Breathe,” for example, is a sweet-sounding falsetto ballad about our dark moment. It closes with the cutting line, “If you’re not angry, you must not be listening.” The song is complemented by a music video — released two weeks ago — portraying a single mother and the struggles of making ends meet in our era of economic stratification and disintegrating social safety nets.
“That song I think is the best example of something that could be very political, but is also very personal and totally appropriate for this time,” Willett said.
As the band prepared for its pair of Aspen shows, Willett and his mates were mixing a new live album, which they expect to announce soon and release this year. Willett said they recorded it in a single night on the current tour.
“You spend 80 percent of your life focusing on the traveling and touring and performing, and this is the document of that,” he said. “I’ve always wanted that. I’m really excited about that.”
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