A lot can happen in a decade. Ten years ago, the music industry was still a semi-profitable machine. Record stores peppered streets throughout the country, and iPods and MP3s, if they were considered at all, were still considered “newfangled technology.” It was around that time that Cold War Kids appeared on the scene. In their formative years, the piano-bound and soul-inspired young rock act from Long Beach cut a few EPs, played some shows, and eventually scored a deal with up-and-coming imprint Downtown Records. But as the band came up, things started to shift. By the time 2006’s Robbers & Cowards hit shelves, music blogs had made their presence known, and Cold War Kids were poised to become one of the new indie rock’s first big success stories.
Propelled by the infectious first single “Hang Me Out to Dry,” Cold War Kids quickly generated a regional and then a national buzz. Tours, radio spots, and licensing deals quickly followed. And before long, the little band from Long Beach was headlining festivals around the world. In the years since, CWK have given us two solid new albums — 2008’s Loyalty to Loyalty and 2011’s Mine Is Yours — though neither has generated the critical fervor of Cowards.
This April, the band unveils Dear Miss Lonelyhearts, its fourth and possibly most fully realized effort yet. Named for and inspired by Nathanael West’s 1933 novel Miss Lonelyhearts, which is about a burdened advice columnist, the album deals in part with frontman Nathan Willett’s desire and struggle to connect with his audience. “The book’s main character struggles with giving people advice because he knows that their problems are so big that he can never really solve them,” he explained last week from his home in Los Angeles. “In making a fourth record, there was this aspect of the songwriting that wasn’t just for me. I think on this record I was more aware of wanting to show some wisdom. It’s not strictly advice, but in a way it sort of is. In a way, every songwriter is trying to give advice, either to themselves or someone else.”
While 2011’s Mine Is Yours found Cold War Kids traveling to Nashville, Tennessee, for a monthlong recording session, the making of Dear Miss Lonelyhearts proved to be a much more homespun affair. Rather than renting a studio, the band retreated to its longtime rehearsal space in San Pedro to write and record all of the songs on the record. “That was a big first for us,” said Willett of the experience.
With time — and money — on their side, they were able to explore different techniques, arrangements, and sounds throughout the recording process. “We just put the songs out there and let them go where it felt like they should go,” Willet recalled. “There were some songs that were really live and simple and didn’t change at all from just the four of us just playing them in a room, and then there’s the other half of the record that was much more of us playing certain parts and then replacing those parts with a synth line. We had a lot of freedom to just try things and make ourselves feel a little uncomfortable about where things were going.”
Our first taste of the results comes by way of “Miracle Mile,” the album’s piano-powered lead single. Like many of the most potent tracks from Robbers & Cowards, “Miracle Mile” builds until it feels like it might topple, propelled along by a forceful mix of blues guitar and parlor keys. As Willett recalls, it’s the perfect intro to Cold War Kids’ next chapter, even though it almost came too late. “That was the very last song that we did when we kind of thought we were done with the record. We had worked really hard and were trying to finish stuff. And then this song came up and was being kicked around, and we knew right away that we had to do it. I think one of the reasons it makes a lot of sense is because of the piano line. The structure of it is very old us and new us.”
While Miss Lonelyhearts finds them returning to their roots and their hometown digs, it also marks the first Cold War Kids album written and recorded without founding guitarist Jonnie Russell, who left the band in 2011 to pursue school full-time. In his place, the band recruited longtime friend and sound engineer Dann Gallucci, who also took on a coproducing role for Miss Lonelyhearts alongside producer Lars Stalfors.
“Dann’s position was interesting because he was playing and producing, and that’s just a crazy role,” said Willett. “I think this was definitely the most challenging relationship with producers that we’ve ever had. It’s easy to feel burned if you don’t have the trust with your producer, and we had a lot of trust with them. In some ways it was kind of the first time we had that relationship with guys who are our peers.”
As for the band’s staying power, Willett agrees that rolling with the punches is just one of the many keys to surviving. “It’s about not being afraid to evolve and makes changes really out of necessity. For us it’s kind of a combination of just being good to each other and figuring out how to grow as a person outside of it. Over 10 years, things change, and a lot of it is just patience.”
Cold War Kids play SOhO Restaurant & Music Club (1221 State St.) on Saturday, February 23, at 8 p.m. Call (805) 962-7776 or visit clubmercy.com for info.