Combining rock with the blues is a dangerous business. In the wrong hands it can sound hackneyed and lazy, conveniently tapping into harmonic structures while offering little else. In the right hands the two can unite and offer emotive insights.
The White Stripes are an obvious example, but the Cold War Kids go further in the blues direction, led by a vocalist of extraordinary power in Nathan Willet. You’ll love it or hate it, that’s for sure – but there’ll be no sitting on the fence while LA’s kids are in town. And would you Adam and Eve it, they’re supporting Jack and Meg on their forthcoming tour.
Being on tour is a full time occupation for them these days, and that’s the position we found them in when bassist Matt Maust took some time out from sound checking to offer some insights. In the course of the interview he proves to be an affable, extremely likeable chap. But where does he stand on the blues? Does his band fall under its influence?
“I’d say heavily. The blues is kind of a dirty word in 2007, but we have listened to a lot of stuff from the 1920s to the 1940s, dropping off in the 1950s with the Womax field recordings. Charlie Patton and Blind Willie Nelson have especially been favourites, but we’re not trying to mimic it – though it does come through in the music.
Presumably this is a prominent reason behind the bands directness of communication.
“I’d say so. We are direct, but it kind of falls into place – more of a feeling than something you can put your finger on exactly.”
And does the band take a few extra musical liberties in the blues manner?
“Here and there we improvise. On Quiet, Please and St John (two of the live B sides offered on the Hospital Beds EP) and lately on some of our live dates, we’ve had people join us on stage. We’ve gotten used to playing St. John with horns, then Hang Out To Dry pretty stripped down. There’s a couple of different ways to play St. John really, we tend to go with how we’re feeling in that particular gig.”
And are the quintet playing new material to complement their Robbers And Cowards debut?”We are playing a couple of new songs, yeah, alongside most of the record, the EPs and a few covers. On the last tour of America we did some Nick Cave, Tom Waits and on the EP we do a Sam Cooke song as a B side (A Change Is Gonna Come).”
With the band’s first tour of America complete, Maust admits that, like any job, touring has its good days and bad days: “We love to travel and seeing the world is always a plus to playing. Sometimes you feel like a bit of a jukebox but it’s a challenge to rise above that. It really helps to play different venues as well; you learn dynamic traits by performing.”
Attention then switches to the creative process within the band, which is very much a communal activity: “We write the music together, we let the music come to us. A lot of it’s unspoken when we’re not working together. I hate to use the word ‘jam,’ but we kind of do that, and Nathan writes the words. That’s how most of our songs get written.”
But Maust has an important additional role – that of sleeve artist. “I’ll often take Nathan’s lyrics and expand upon them when I’m thinking of themes for the artwork,” he explains. “Although sometimes it works the other way round and he gets inspired by pieces I do.”
With the ever-increasing role of coverless downloads in music, however, does he think this is a task that might become more obsolete?
“Well it’s kind of like you have the paperback/hardback crowd in books, and it’s similar to that. You could look at iTunes as the kind of paperback, and hardback is vinyl. It’s good though because I think it actually forces bands to come up with better ways of presenting their artwork.”
The rise of the Cold War Kids has been a relatively rapid one, from their signing to V2 to the touring circuit. So how does Matt think they’re adapting to their new status as an established, bookable name?
“I don’t think we are at all yet! We’re so overwhelmed by what’s happened. We just wanted to play some parties at home and before you know it you have to put a cap on your gigs! It’s kind of like our songs, it’s gone the same way.”
The band are spending increasingly long periods away from home, a situation set to continue with the White Stripes tour and various festivals, including trips to Japan and Australia. A chink of light in the calendar came recently when the band had time at home between the UK and US tours.
“It’s funny,” says Maust, “because I grew up just a couple of blocks down the road from where Tom Waits was born, and the other guys lived more on the beach. We all then moved to Long Beach and got stuff together from there. We have a huge community of friends in that area, and it was really good to go back and go out together on bike rides, stuff like that.”
Their manager also hails from Long Beach, and he rooms with Maust, who credits him with the band’s international exposure. Under his guidance they joined Myspace in November 2004, well before the information sharing site became such a worldwide pastime.
“He went and created that for us, and realised the potential it could have. I fully embrace it; it’s one of the best ways for bands to be heard internationally. I couldn’t believe that people knew about us in the UK – I still can’t!”
He’s going to have to believe it – and fast. For Cold War Kids are quickly shaping into one of this year’s must hear bands, and the blues is back on the burgeoning rock scene once again.