The Faith Story Behind Cold War Kids
By Kevin Selders
February 21, 2011
There’s a long pause as Nathan Willett considers a question and how he wants to answer. It’s a pattern throughout the interview: question, long pause, question, long pause.
The hesitation is a remnant of a different, more furtive time—a time when he wasn’t sure what he could say and to whom. It’s a tough habit to shake, admits the Cold War Kids frontman, who apologizes from time to time for being vague with some of his answers. He knows he wants to say more than ever before—but he’s still not sure how much more.
The singer knows it could be a dangerous move—that putting himself out there and making it personal will open him up to criticism and leave him vulnerable. But, this time, he says, he’s ready. He’s ready to be honest about where he comes from, the challenges he’s faced along the way and the faith behind it all ... because everything seems to matter more these days. It’s time to open up.
“That’s where I fell short on the second record,” he says of 2008’s Loyalty to Loyalty. “I didn’t really feel comfortable enough to be vulnerable with my bandmates even, and after we finished it I thought I sold us all short by not stepping out and saying something.”
What Willett is saying on the band’s third full-length album, Mine Is Yours, out Jan. 25 on Downtown/Mercury, comes from the pages of his own life. His new lyrics cover topics familiar to a counselor’s couch: Fractured relationships. Self-doubt. Broken homes.
Make no mistake, though—this album isn’t a downer. It’s about personal breakthroughs.
he band’s two previous albums, their acclaimed 2006 debut Robbers and Cowards and then Loyalty to Loyalty, used characters to tell stories of people in need of such a breakthrough. There’s the thief who steals from the church offering (“Passing the Hat”), the drunk who continuously disappoints his family (“We Used to Vacation”) and a woman looking for love in the wrong places (“Every Man I Fall For”).
Willett’s previously admitted some of the characters were loosely based on people in his life, but that’s as personal as it got.
This time, though, Willett himself is the character whose story is in the songs.
A Rebellious Faith
Willett’s story, like so many good ones, hinges on a moment—a clarifying event before which everything was one way, and after which nothing was ever the same again. For Willett, it was his parents’ divorce and the subsequent end of his faith.
“It was almost like I had something written in pencil all around me and it was erased at that time,” he says. “It was a very poignant time in my life, and in [some] ways it shaped me more than anything.”
Aside from the new track “Sensitive Kid” on Mine Is Yours, the best summary Willett can give of his childhood is found in an Arcade Fire song. Every time he hears the line, “Working for the Church while my family dies,” from Neon Bible’s “Intervention,” it hits a nerve.
“I had seen the difference between what people say they are and what they really are,” he says.
Willett grew up in a conservative family in Southern California. His father was deeply involved in the church, leading everything from Bible studies to church plants. His mother was a Christian marriage and family counselor. In his family, there was no line separating church and estate. Which is, of course, what made the divorce all the more devastating.
He questioned all he was taught. He doubted the Church. He found himself searching for the answers on his own, away from his family.
“I was really volatile toward church and faith for a long time, but way more so toward church than faith,” Willett says. “The church to me wasn’t real at all. It was about doing the right things and keeping up appearances. From the time my parents split up, everything tied to church just vanished.”
Gone were the days of youth group and small group. Willett entered his high school years searching for meaning and refining his own beliefs among friends who grew up without a spiritual background.
Then, after two years of junior college, he ended up at Biola University—a private Christian liberal arts university in Southern California. His father’s connections helped him get a good deal on tuition, and Willett was attracted to the small university’s strong literature program.
While he disagreed (and still disagrees) with many aspects of his university experience, Willett’s overall time at Biola cleared up some confusion caused by his parents’ divorce. His cynicism and bitterness began to fade as he was surrounded by and challenged by a new community of friends.
“At that time [I felt] enormous cynicism toward all things institutional Christianity,” Willett says. “I was really amazed by how artistic and creative these people were, and that changed a lot of how I thought about stuff at the time.”
It was finding this kinship with other young, incredulous Christians that Willett says truly helped him heal. He describes a group of creative people with backgrounds similar to his, who were asking questions and resisting some aspects of their own conservative upbringings—yet still searching for something more from their faith.
“It is a conservative school, and there’s a lot of things I really don’t and didn’t like about it,” Willett says. “But I met so many creative people who had a similar experience to me in that they had a major kind of agenda to really push back against the evangelical, conservative upbringing they had and to believe in something that was a lot bigger than that. I think that is what attracted me to a lot of people I met there, including these guys.”
“These guys” includes half of Cold War Kids: Jonnie Russell (guitar, vocals, percussion) and Matt Maust (bass), who both attended Biola and who Willett met while there. (Drummer Matt Aveiro, who didn’t attend Biola, is more personal with his spirituality, Willett says.)
Willett explains that Russell, the son of a preacher man, grew up with parents who were both highly educated in theology and philosophy. Maust grew up in a Mennonite community in Kansas.
“They’re a really interesting branch,” Willett says of Maust’s background. “They’re more of a removed culture ... very anti-materialism, so he has a lot of that. I love that about him, and I think that is a big part of what our band is.”
Despite their different backgrounds, the Biola graduates—like so many of their peers who grew up in the Church—share a frustration for much of the Christian subculture.
Willett laughs, remembering how his circle of friends used to use the word “Christian” as an adjective to describe a general state of atrociousness—a view that came from their collective embarrassment over Christianized versions of music, film and books.
“If you had dinner and your meal was terrible, or you went to a movie and it was bad,” Willett recalls, “you’d call it ‘Christian.’
“We were all really embarrassed by and ashamed of a lot of the culture we came from,” Willett continues. “But not necessarily ashamed or embarrassed by the beliefs we had.”
Fighting the Stereotypes
Even a casual fan of Cold War Kids knows strong opinions of the band exist—both positive and negative. It’s these wildly varied judgments and how very personal they get that’s led Willett to remain private in the past.
Some perspectives, Willett believes, were originally formed by reviews. A few of these critiques, such as Pitchfork’s review of Robbers and Cowards, tried to call the band out on its faith.
Willett can take the criticism of the music. What irked him and others in the band was what he saw as “wild interpretations” of the album’s lyrics that pointed to a supposed underlying religious right agenda.
The spiritual accents in the album—a mention of baptisms, a few hallelujahs and some “Lord, have mercy on me’s”—led the reviewer to quote former President George W. Bush in the album’s critique.
Willett says any attempt at a connection between the themes and conservative politics is laughable.
“You’d think, ‘Wow, how crazy is it that people would read that into this?’—especially from a popular website that generally has pretty good writing,” he says. “In some ways that was the beginning of people not being totally sure what to do with us.
“Nothing could be worse than that because that is what we’re pushing against,” Willett continues. “It will just take some time for that story to come out.”
While Pitchfork has positively reviewed Christian artists such as Sufjan Stevens and Neutral Milk Hotel, Willett says he believes the spiritual lyrics still put up a red flag.
“I think it had a lot more to do [with] the idea [that] an artist having some kind of religious background would derail any potency in the art itself,” he says. “I think that’s a fascinating idea, but we didn’t get to be a part of that conversation before it really blew up.”
It’s a simplistic connection that frustrates Willett—Christian themes don’t have to mean right wing influences. Being from a Christian background doesn’t have to result in the stereotype of Christianity and faith that so many people automatically assume.
“Our background and our influences all come from that, but it’s far more nuanced and interesting than we’ve really had a platform to express,” he says. “That’s something I think as we continue we’ll get to really unpack more and do so with a little more eloquence.”
In This World, Not of It
Today, Willett reports the band’s faith is still intact—even after seven years in the world of touring, fans, record labels and merchandise.
“We always know it’s not really our world,” he says. “We don’t ever want the commerce of our band to really be something that’s a major part of our lives.”
Even so, Willett admits to struggling with his own faith from time to time. He’s comfortable with the struggle, though. That is, he says, how it’s supposed to be. “Faith is a struggle,” he muses. “That’s another part of the background we came from that we had a problem with. People thought of faith as arriving, instead of a journey. The idea that faith puts you in heaven and that life on earth just needs to be lived as best as you can is, again, really what we’re against.”
Despite their beliefs, the singer wants to make it clear there’s still no hidden agenda in the band’s music. He wants people who come from all different faiths and backgrounds to fall in love with his band for the same reason they follow R.E.M. and Radiohead. Not because of a message, but because of the music.
“Thom Yorke can write a song that has multiple meanings and it’s more true to an expression of emotion because, as a listener, there’s no thought that there would ever be an underlying agenda,” he says. “I’d always want to fall on that side of things. You don’t get into a band because all of their ideas line up with your ideas; you get into a band because you love the songs.”
Just under the surface, you can still hear those frustrations with the old reviews. For Willett, those associated stereotypes and the assumptions made because of them terrify him. He wants a clean slate—for his band and his listeners. He wants people to approach his music without baggage, with only a desire to hear honest lyrics and good music.
“I’d never want anybody’s interpretations of what we’re about to get in the way of our expression,” he says. “The expression itself doesn’t come with any kind of loaded gun.”