Six songs will tell you everything you really need to know about Cold War Kids. And they can all be found on a live recording from 2007 that the Fullerton, Calif., band released to benefit a breast cancer walk in their home state.
Cold War Kids were still celebrating the success of their 2006 release Robbers & Cowards and its moody cut "Hang Me Up to Dry" when they played a set that included Tom Waits' "I Don't Wanna Grow Up," Elvis Costello's "Indoor Fireworks," the Be Good Tanyas' "The Littlest Birds," Lawrence Welk's "Tonight, You Belong to Me," Dr. Dog's "Die Die Die" and Fiona Apple's "Fast As You Can."
Those influences may be absent from the band's latest single, staccato shouter "Something is Not Right With Me," but they are still part of the bedrock that lies beneath the band's last release Loyalty to Loyalty.
"There's a Tom Waits quote where he says that every artist just learns to embrace whatever it is that is kind of freakish about them, expose it and make a living off of it," singer Nathan Willett says. "At a certain point, I coined the phrase 'we're a soul punk band' because we're in the same world as rock bands, but so unlike them in many ways."
Cold War Kids albums sound like an archivist's iPod, with Delta blues, R&B (as in a cover of Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come") and country twang updated into Apple commercial contenders. Willett credits much of his early inspiration to his brother's beer, boxed sets and bullshit sessions.
"He had Bob Dylan's big Biograph set, and back then I remember thinking, 'Bob Dylan has endless amounts of records; why do you need to buy these obscure, B-side collections?'" Willett said. "He would just get so deep into stuff, but he made me care about artists in a way that was deeper than their [best-known] work."
Like their idols Radiohead and Fiona Apple, Cold War Kids produce singles that don't necessarily convey the depth of their creative output or artistic integrity. The commonality in Radiohead's "Creep," Apple's "Criminal" and Cold War Kids' more popular fare is that they're not particularly great, but they've provided a bridge to the denser material beneath.
"Hemingway used to say that, as a writer, he would try to sell his stories where just the tip of the iceberg was peeking out and the rest of the story was underwater," he says. "To try to have a band like that, where most people are unfamiliar with what's under the water, is difficult, but so satisfying when people finally dig in and get into it."
Meanwhile, the band continues to personally weigh every offer and tour date while remaining committed to philanthropic pursuits. While on tour with Death Cab for Cutie, Willett says he was just as concerned about getting Death Cab singer Ben Gibbard on board for a charity run.
"I get nervous talking about what we aspire to," Willett says. "I wonder if, instead of hoping to write a song with Fiona Apple or play with Elvis Costello, we should aspire to keep writing good songs and do what our band does, and then get to places where it makes sense."