Cold War Kids Video Premiere: Learning to Take It 'One Song at a Time'

Possessing all the tools, he's just like every football coach's wet dream.

Always giving it his 110 percent, this inspirational leader is in total control, whether it involves making the most of home-field advantage or stepping up during crunch time on the road.

Only you won't find Nathan Willett's name on any football roster, even if he knows the lingo. With the determination of a quarterback driving his team down the field in the final two minutes, the charming and versatile front man of Cold War Kids plays to win, either through his voice or various instruments (piano, guitar, keyboards, percussion).

Willett's commitment is clearly evident as he takes it "One Song at a Time," starting with the premiere of the indie rock group's latest video today at The Huffington Post.

Asked over the phone this week about his twist on any itching jock's go-to cliche during a challenging season, the Cold War Kids' lead singer with the swoon-worthy falsetto took the ball and ran with it, like any MVP would.

"Being a musician is strange and when you try to make analogies for other jobs, it often falls short," he said. "But, yeah, anytime you talk about an athlete, yeah, it's really kind of a similar life. You want to have this ideal and this perfect kind of way you want to portray yourself. But really, you have to be in the moment."

Since the October 2014 release of Hold My Home, their fifth full-length album in 10-plus years as a band, Cold War Kids -- also including original member Matt Maust (bass) and more recent additions Dann Gallucci (guitar), Joe Plummer (drums) and multi-instrumentalist Matthew Schwartz -- just might be having their best year ever.


Cold War Kids (from left): Matt Maust, Joe Plummer, Nathan Willett, Dann Gallucci, Matthew Schwartz. (Photo by Michelle Mosqueda)

Bolstered by "First," currently No. 10 on Billboard's alternative song chart and the highest-ranked single of the group's career, Hold My Home has ensured that Cold War Kids remain a hot commodity on the festival circuit, which will include another stop at Lollapalooza in Chicago on July 30 (Park West) and July 31 (Samsung Galaxy main stage on the first official day of that weekend).

The album was so good that five tunes which didn't make the cut (including "One Song at a Time") landed on a special vinyl EP -- Five Quick Cuts -- first released for Record Store Day in April and now available digitally on iTunes.

"It was actually the first song that we started working on" for the album, said Willett, calling the lyrics for "One Song at a Time" the most "self-explanatory" he's written, with a bridge that's "very literal for me."

Oh, when I began / What a dream to entertain / How do I sustain / While my heart is on display

While the energetic pace led to some second guessing -- "We started playing it live and we're like, 'Ah, man, should we put this on the record?' It's just fun to play," Willett said -- the title became a redirected mission statement of sorts in his approach to songwriting.

Steadfast since the early days of the band that he co-founded in Southern California in 2004, Willett changed his tune.

He decided to quit overanalyzing lyrics or get overwhelmed "at what kind of statement this record's gonna make or what's it about or where we are as a band and what's the big message."

Still, he continued to play mind games with his virtual opponent -- himself.

Since "One Song at a Time" was one of the earliest he wrote for Hold My Home, Willett said, "I started to think like, 'Oh, it's too direct and too happy or maybe not as profound or interesting as some of the other ones.' In hindsight, it could have definitely gone another way." (laughs)

Like the song, the video that was directed by Sean Flynn is also a departure for the band, a manic one-man show that places Willett in some familiar locations from Los Angeles to Santa Monica, all shot in rat-a-tat-tat fashion.

"I think in the end it was something like 25,000 individual pictures but it's all just rapid-fire photographs that were taken in a motion style," said Willett, whose visage is multiplied eight times kaleidoscope-like throughout the video.

"It's cool. It's a little weird," he said, laughing about seeing those duplicated images of himself. "We definitely haven't done anything where it's such a lead singer-centric kind of thing."

For a group that has made stark black-and-white videos like Tim Cahill's for "Tuxedos" and "Minimum Day," both of which Willett loves, switching gears for the exuberant "One Song at a Time" was a delight, even for someone who admits the video-making process can sometimes be a "terrible" experience.

"We'll always be skeptical about being too playful or fun but I think this video really does that," Willett said gleefully.

That seems like the perfect segue into pausing for the video premiere of "One Song at a Time." Then come back afterward and hear Willett's thoughts in a wide-ranging interview in which he discusses hero worship, "meeting" Paul McCartney, watching Cold War Kids evolve from cult figures to dream team players and returning to his side project, French Style Furs.

Lollapalooza
The Chicago event is a fixture for Cold War Kids, who, Willett guesstimates, have played there four or five times, including their festival debut as a band in 2005 when "most of us had never even been to a festival. We didn't know what to expect at all."

Going back as a success this time (with a violinist, cellist and a couple of background singers joining their set) "will be really special," Willett said, adding, "it's almost like a drug where you realize like, 'OK, I just want this, I want to live in this space of having amazing, enormous ... experiences of huge amounts of people loving this performance.' But of course it's never gonna stay that way. You can't just go back and do that every time. It's almost kind of going back to the 'One Song at a Time' thing. You have to live with what you got. ...

"But yeah, we've had experiences on records that have not been as popular. Then you start to go like, 'OK ... we're doing this for our fans and we're doing it for ourselves and we just kind of have to do what's in front of you and not go like, 'How do we just keep building this empire?' "

"Meeting" McCartney
Cold War Kids will be on the same stage before Sir Paul (and Alabama Shakes, as Willett excitedly pointed out) on July 31 at Lollapalooza. If a formal introduction to Macca isn't in the cards, Willett won't be disappointed. He already had his brush with Beatles fame, and that would be hard to top.

"I had a funny story where I was a few years ago walking with a friend in New York in Central Park in this area where nobody was around for like a mile in every direction," recalled Willett, his Beatles connection reinforced last September, when Cold War Kids were among a long list of artists who performed George Harrison songs during a Best Fest benefit at the Fonda Theatre in L.A. (They played "Taxman," but "Long, Long, Long" from The White Album would have been Willett's first choice.)

"And this friend and I were walking very early in the morning. And we walked by Paul McCartney and his girlfriend or wife, I'm not sure. And we just kind of happened to walk right by him. We said just a really quick, nice 'Hi, how are you?' And that was it. And then we got further away and we looked back and saw him kind of get suddenly mobbed by a little group of people at the park. And I thought, 'That (quick hello) was kind of the perfect meeting. I'm also a little ... keep the expectations low. If I could do a little wink, that would be it for me."


Cold War Kids have been a hit on the festival circuit the past few months, including this stop in May at the Hangout in Gulf Shores, Alabama.
(Photo by Michael Bialas)

Hero worship
Willett has been on both sides of the rock idolatry experience and finds the topic "really fascinating," even addressing it on the torch song "Harold Bloom" that references a legendary critic's association with John Lennon. He recites the key lyrics -- "Don't lift your heroes up so high / That you can't touch" -- in the swelling chorus.

"I think part of what keeps your reverence for that person's music is that you don't idolize them," Willett said as a general guideline worth following. "Any artist or anybody in entertainment in any way works with a certain amount of really revering or idolizing or looking up to people who do what they do well. And I think there's this place where you can go ... whether it's fans or people who just idolize someone so much, that you go, 'Oh, it's really gross.' ... You should love the person for the work that they do. Not because they're inherently some kind of god or something."

That doesn't mean he never geeks out about meeting someone who impresses him.

"I was at Coachella years ago and I saw Damon Albarn, I think it was when Gorillaz was headlining," Willett said. "And I saw him backstage and I just wanted to say what a big fan I was and all that and he was just kind of like, I could just tell he was utterly overwhelmed and, of course, I wanted to be like, 'I'm from Cold War Kids,' and form some kind of connection for a who-knows-when collaboration. But you can only hope for so much. Just a handshake is a really nice thing."

Then there was a more recent close encounter backstage at The Best Fest Presents George Fest last year, when Cold War Kids were among an eclectic group of musicians (including Norah Jones, the Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne, Heart's Ann Wilson and "Weird Al" Yankovic) who sang George Harrison songs.

Among the impressive people there, Willett said, "Norah Jones is somebody to me that I'm always like, 'Whoa, that's it. She does it right.'

"She's just extremely talented and even just kind of as a person backstage who's definitely hanging out and having a few drinks, I think there's a certain kind of wryness about her where you want to approach her. ... I think I was really drunk and said something like, 'I'm a huge fan.' And she was just kind of funny. I think probably very used to being, like, adored and because of it, she's not gonna get caught up in her own praise, I guess. It made me love her more."

Tasting success
With Hold My Home continuing to make an impact, other challenges await Willett and Cold War Kids as indie darlings.

"I guess it's being aware of this certain, like walking this line of, to a certain extent, knowing how to adapt and be contemporary," Willett said. "I guess to want to actually be contemporary. ...

"We've written 100 songs in the way that we would just instinctively do it. What if we wrote them in a way that was more challenging to our instinct and also ... yeah, just adapting to what is around us at the time and not just kind of listening to our Velvet Underground, saying this is cool and everything we do is cool."

Told there's nothing wrong with a dose of popularity added to your cult status diet, Willett said, "That's right. I'm sure Lou Reed would say the same thing. He did exactly what he wanted to but he was always mad that he didn't get enough credit for it."

What's next?
While continuing to thrive with Cold War Kids, Willett also is excited about the prospect of working again with French Style Furs, the side project he and bandmate Maust put together with Nathan Warkentin (We Barbarians) for a record that involved guest players such as veteran percussionist Steve Hodges, the Dirty Projectors' Haley Dekle and Elvis Perkins in Dearland.

Turning Thomas Merton's poetry into songs "was such a fun process," Willett said, mentioning live performances that included Local Natives guitarist Ryan Hahn. "I think were gonna try to do something with that early next year. ...

"It becomes this thing where meeting people, other musicians at festivals or whatever, it becomes like, 'Hey, would you ever want to play some percussion on a French Style Furs record?' And people are like, 'Yeah, I'm down.' It's just fun, not with all the burden of 'What's it gonna look like? What does it mean?' "

Maybe Willett can even recruit that certain chanteuse he met backstage last year to do a duet of a 1972 No. 1 R&B single that would have to be retitled "Me and Missus Jones."

With two players at the top of their game, how could you lose?