Cold War Kids: Identity Amidst Idols

They’re like a paradox. Though they are undoubtedly indie artists, they are connected to a label familiar to us all. But the record company they identify with most isn’t Universal, Sony or Warner. It’s larger, broader and reaches further than any of these other companies ever could. The label holding this band together is life itself and the major record keeping the band’s fans entertained are stories of individuals searching for an identity. Whether up or down, sad or joyful, charming or doubting, Cold War Kids are writing, singing and searching for identity right alongside the rest of us. “There is a very stereotypical type of band that comes from Southern California,” lead singer Nathan Willet tells Interview Magazine. “…Most of us,” he says referencing the other band members, “grew up not wanting to sound like that stereotype.” From their first album, Robbers and Cowards to their most recent release, Hold My Home, this American indie rock band from Long Beach, California has maintained its unique identity despite being in the midst of a world hunting and searching for idols.

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Though Cold War Kids rarely fits into any kind of specific mold, the story of how the band originated is quite familiar. After meeting at Biola University, a small evangelical liberal arts school in LA Mirada, California, the guys formed a friendship. From there, they started writing and singing songs together. But even in its early stages, the band refused to let the idols and institutions stand in their way, admitting that they never call or label themselves as a Christian band. “It is a conservative school,” Willet tells Relevant Magazine, a popular Christian publication. “…And there’s a lot of things I really don’t and didn’t like about it. 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 [the] guys.” The something bigger Willet references is woven all throughout the band’s lyrics.

Dann Gallucci, Joe Plummer, Nathan Willett , Matt Maust and Matthew Schwartz of Cold War Kids perform onstage at the Red Bull Sound Space at 106.7 KROQ
Dann Gallucci, Joe Plummer, Nathan Willett , Matt Maust and Matthew Schwartz of Cold War Kids perform onstage at the Red Bull Sound Space at 106.7 KROQ

Writing songs that feel like mini narratives of individual characters, Cold War Kids’ lyricism usually point to the subtle wars individuals end up fighting in order to declare and reclaim their identities. “Used to Vacation,” for example, talks about a young man’s struggles against alcoholism as he works to rebuild his reputation with his disappointed family. But all the songs aren’t as dramatic and hard hitting. “Harold Bloom,” on the other hand, deals with criticism. The ballad simply asks, “can you be wise if you never leave the room,” reminding listeners that “there will always be another Harold Bloom/to criticize your every move.” “First,” one of the latest album’s most popular tracks, describes the ups and downs of identity. Upbeat with rhythmic clapping in the background, Willet sings the chorus, “flying like a cannonball, falling to the earth, heavy as a feather when you hit the dirt…first you get hurt, then you get sorry.” The song describes the all too often burn out that happens. But like most Cold War Kids songs there’s a kind of breakthrough toward the end. The idols in our minds, in our jobs, at our schools and even in the temples hold no power over us unless we allow them to and that’s the kind of knowledge that needs to be first and foremost in our minds.

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Despite being criticized for their beliefs and their anti-California style, Cold War Kids’ fans are more loyal than ever. Their music is a testament to the power of identity. Intentional black sheeps, it is hard to define them. They are free spirits with strong beliefs. They are artists inspired by Nina Simone, U2, Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. But most of all, they are travelers, informed, rooted and holding onto home, the identity embedded within them, the identity they carry into their two car garage studio which is the same one that goes on stage with them as they perform live shows all across America. As another popular song on Hold My Home goes, “I’ve been waiting for you to find that all of this could be yours.” Though wistful and dreamy, the statement is certainly true for anyone daring, bold and courageous enough to prioritize identity over idols.

-Sharita Gilmore