One night at The Casbah last April, Cold War Kids were blowing away the band they were billed as supporting. It was the first time I had seen them, and I spent most of the night with my mouth agape: It was the band's energy, and how much of it these four 20-something guys could muster playing some kind of dirt-pan, white-boy blues. Frontman Nathan Willett channeled Nick Cave, John Fogerty and Jeff Buckley all at once, banging away on whatever he could find for percussive effect, while the rest of the band flailed around the stage. It looked synchronized, but it was just too raw to be planned.
I left the show with that endorphin high that drives underground music fans to attend a thousand shows by nameless bands at nameless venues.
It's religious, almost, discovering new music that blows you away. We accept our new favorite bands into our lives with open ears and hearts. Yet, also like religion, we soon begin to dissect what it is that we believe in so strongly. It's a good process, analyzing things. But sometimes we can think about it too much, losing what made it special in the first place.
"I think that's just the way our brains work," explains Willett on a rare day off from touring. "To some degree, that's the only way it can be effective."
Willett and the rest of Cold War Kids--bassist Matt Maust, guitarist Jonnie Russell and drummer Matt Aveiro--have seen their stars align since first getting together in the suburbs of Los Angeles in the fall of 2004. Through relentless touring, thrilling live shows and heavy word-of-mouth, they've quickly become one of the most buzzed-about new rock bands in the world.
Their debut release, Robbers & Cowards --mostly a collection of rerecorded songs previously available on EPs--made several "Best of 2006" lists. Their single, "Hang Me Up to Dry," is one of the greatest chorus-less songs ever to hit alternative radio, with Russell's almost surf-rock guitar riff and a bass line that rivals Chic's "Good Times." It's easy to see why Rolling Stone called it "indie rock with a little sex" and of Robbers itself, "the most original" indie album of the year.
"I hate using this word, but the praise is surreal," reflects Willett. "But I think the better things are going for you, the harder you work."
Everything about the band seems to have happened rather fast--including the backlash. When the band first casually acknowledged that three members attended Biola University, it seemed harmless enough. But we're talking about "Bible Institute of Los Angeles," a private Christian university whose website features a hand holding a Bible with the caption: "Make this a meaningful part of your college experience."
After revealing their time at Biola, it seemed recognizing Cold War Kids' talent was secondary to having a loud opinion about them. Worse, they were pigeonholed as a "Christian band."
It started with the influential, naysaying indie-rock website, Pitchforkmedia.com. The site's initial blurbs about the Kids were mostly either cheeky or just downright negative. A review of their song "Hospital Beds" proclaimed that Willett's "pompous delivery makes every song sound like a Jeff Buckley cover band playing a wedding drunk."
Of their South-by-Southwest performance, Pitchfork reported that "the skinny-jeaned Christians of Cold War Kids staggered around a bit, their singer coming off like an embittered Taylor Hicks."
Things didnï¿½t change with the review of Robbers & Cowards . Writer Marc Hogan, as if hit by a lightning bolt from the bitter gods of music journalism, interpreted Willett's lyrics as reverent proclamations. At one point, he even compared them to George W. Bush's genuflecting speeches.
Although Robbers & Cowards is filled with religious imagery--often sung from the perspective of a fictional character--Willett says context has been completely ignored in such reviews.
"It's just lazy journalism, where if you don't like a band, you pick up one thing about them and say, 'I'm gonna write about this.'"
Guitarist Russell, whose father is in fact an Evangelical preacher, agrees: "That seems to be the agenda; not to have a thoughtful reflection on music but to have a sharp angle and a funny way of saying it."
Of course, other publications jumped on the Jesus bandwagon, too. Rolling Stone , which initially reported that the boys met at a "small California liberal-arts university," began singing a more gospel-flavored tune. Subsequent reports on the band identified their album as having "a deeply Christian take on its titular anti-heroes."
"That's totally besides the point of the song," Willett says. "It takes the art out of it. It's tabloid, to think of someone's song as though it's his explicit belief in something."
And while Pitchfork has a reputation for slagging any band with ties to religion (see Brian Howe's review of Page France's Hello, Dear Wind ), being isolated as a "Christian band" is one of the most damning stigmas in rock 'n' roll.
Rock fans seem to view religion as a hindrance to deep, creative thought, as if some a Christian musician sits in a studio and thinks, Gosh, would Jesus approve of this lyric? I'd better lose it. Moreover, religion goes against the rebellious, hedonistic and godless spirit that makes rock 'n' roll so appealing. The fact that the genre was birthed out of gospel, negro spirituals and the blues doesn't seem to matter. We want the power of the chord, not the Lord.
There's also the poor track record of musicians who find religion. No matter your generation, you've probably witnessed at least one amazing artist fall off the map in search of some god. Whether it was Cat Stevens finding Allah, Prince discovering Jehovah or Lauryn Hill worshipping some jackass who claims to be the Messiah--the one thing they have in common is that while they may have saved their souls, they damned their music. Lucky for Bob Dylan, he found God, then lost him again two albums later.
But why is it that Cold War Kids are criticized when other artists--most notably Sufjan Stevens, Kanye West and the Danielson Famile--are critically adored despite their flagrant imbibing of Jesus Juice? It's simple, really: Those artists wear their spirituality like a fish sticker on the bumper of a mini-van. U2's religion didn't block their path to superstardom, but they were extremely open about their Catholic faith. After a while, people got over it and just focused on the music.
But Cold War Kids are more ambivalent about their ties to the world's most famous carpenter. While Willett does sing that he's " begging Jesus to cleanse my mind " in "Don't Let Your Love Grow Away from Me," he also says " my demons took up the whole church pew " and asserts that " all my words wonï¿½t save me this time ." In "Sermons vs. The Gospel," he asks for mercy before suggesting that he and God may not be on the same page. The effect is that Cold War Kids sound less like devout followers and more like tainted characters grappling with their place in the cosmos.
This makes the rock press uneasy. The rock press doesn't like to imagine that a middle ground exists when it comes to religion. Having failed to clearly report their religious "baggage" to the customs officers of popular culture, Cold War Kids are almost viewed as missionary spies who've infiltrated the largely agnostic world of rock 'n' roll. Rock writers view them as fakes--hiding their religion in order to "make it" in a secular scene--and think it's their duty to "out" the band. And, dubious or not, outlets like Pitchfork, which has a reputation of approaching topics such as religion from an us-versus-them standpoint, will go out of their way to brand the Kids as Jesus freaks.
Call it a witch-hunt in reverse.
"You want people to get what you're doing," Willett says. "But in a weird way, the negative attention is attention, and hopefully people will dig a little deeper and realize that article or review is way off."
But how far off?
"If you want to talk about a person's explicit beliefs outside of their art, then you should ask them about it. If they want to talk about it, [they will]."
In the end, Cold War Kids just don't think their religion is an important topic, and their popularity hasn't really been slowed. They recently found themselves appearing on Late Show with David Letterman and scored an opening slot on Clap Your Hands Say Yeah's European tour. They plan to tour the States again with San Diego's Delta Spirit--members of which also have religious backgrounds--before heading back into the studio. As for their first year as "the hot band," they look back on it humbly, graciously and even--dare I say it--reverently.
"We've learned so much in such a small span of time," Willett says. "Little things, big things and totally unheard of things. We certainly didnï¿½t set out to make that happen, and it did happen."
"Yeah," Russell adds somewhat mischievously, "it's a blessing."
Cold War Kids play with Piers Faccini at the Belly Up Tavern on Monday, Jan. 22. The show is sold-out. They'll return to play at The Casbah with Delta Spirit on Feb. 20. $12. 619-232-HELL.