For Cold War Kids, Staying 'Scrappy' Has Been the Key to Success

Concert Preview

A year after forming, Cold War Kids, a terrific indie rock act out of Los Angeles, purchased a piano. From that point forward, the band added a soulful sort of edge to its sound, something that distinguishes its new album, Hold My Home.

“It sounds so audacious but I just wanted to get one and then figure out how to play it,” says singer/multi-instrumentalist Nathan Willett when asked about what inspired the band to add keyboards to the mix. “Our friend Richard Swift had a portable grand piano. We thought it looked great and sounded great. It was a real piano. We’re into real stuff. Our bass player’s mom lent me the money and I found a guy on Craig’s List who ended up being the keyboard player for Green Day. His name is Jason Freese. I had known of [his older brother] Josh Freese, who is a famous drummer. I went there and bought it and his dad was a musical director at Disneyland and they had a room full of these Yamahas. That’s where he learned to play piano. That was an interesting bonus. There’s an element of class that came with the piano.”

Released last year, Hold My Home is a collection of jittery tunes driven by Willett, whose very distinctive, high-pitched voice alternates between enthusiastic yelps and soulful croons. It’s almost the opposite of what you’d expect from a band that formed in the shadow of Sublime- and No Doubt-types of bands that ruled the SoCal airwaves.

“We were looking at gloomy New York, London, Velvet Underground-type bands,” says Willett. “They were the ones really turning us on. I think without being worldly wise and living other places, there’s an internal sense that we know that’s where we’re from but we don’t want that to represent who we are. It was never explicit. We never had a conversation about it. For whatever reason, we had a tight group of friends. I want to say it was a bit of a tipping point time that had to do with the internet and accessibility to stuff. Everyone dressed a little British. We were talking about Captain Beefheart records.”

When the band first started putting out albums, at least one reviewer said the vocals were ostentatious. So did Willett ever think about dialing things back?

“I don’t think it ever crossed my mind,” he says. “Even in making the first album, we didn’t think that many people would hear it and have any opinion. Everything was so fast. We did everything ourselves. We were so busy. There were questions we never asked ourselves. We just wanted to do it. I barely remember recording the vocals. It was more like, ‘What does it sound like when we do it live?’”

The band has recorded and toured at a steady clip since forming ten years ago. According to Willett, that’s just part of being a working band and not a sign that band is “trying to make it.”

“We’re just doing what we do," he says. "You get older and wonder where you fit. [With the new album], we felt like we were tapping into something new. We wanted to get busy right away. We wanted to stay creative and keep busy with life. Hold My Home captures [the fact that] we’ve lived this life for a long time. That’s a theme of the songs. What we do has become more defined. A Cold War Kids song is going to be a Cold War Kids song. We’re still playing with that and with our identity and who we are. We’re not making masterpieces. If someone is making their OK Computer, then they should wait and make sure it comes out in a way that gets all the attention it deserves. For what we’re doing, we have to stay scrappy.”

Cold War Kids, Elliot Moss, 8 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 28, House of Blues, 308 Euclid Ave., 216-523-2583. Tickets: $22 ADV, $24 DOS,