Cold War Kids Frontman Nathan Willett Explains the Music and Meaning of ‘New Age Norms 2’
There are certain bands that manage to capture generations of musical history, while still keeping their fingers very much on the pulse of the zeitgeist, and striking a chord with the public that speaks to these encyclopedic instincts. Cold War Kids have done just this, earning such superlative accolades as the most spins on alternative radio nationwide over the last decade for their 2015 single “First.” For their latest project, they have taken on new ambitions, embarking on a trilogy titled “New Age Norms.”
The first installment of the series, produced by Lars Stalfors, contributed songs like “Beyond the Pale,” “4th of July” and “Complainer,” and represented a new invigoration of spirit, with the band’s current lineup playing at once for the first time. The title of the trilogy speaks to the peculiar condition of the present times, with the series of paradigm shifts of recent years recalibrating social norms. The group has just released the second part of the series, “New World Norms 2,” this time teaming up with producer Shawn Everett, of Alabama Shakes and the War on Drugs. All eight tracks of the latest record come with exclusive visuals, courtesy of Ramez “Mezzy” Silyan, known for his work with such artists as Lil Peep and Lil Uzi Vert. Frontman Nathan Willett spoke with Entertainment Voice to explain the concept of the trilogy, delve into the specifics of particular new songs, and provide valuable insights into life, along the way.
Your new EP “New Age Norms 2” is the second installment of a trilogy. Elaborate on the concept of the whole series, and how the second part, in particular, fits into the greater picture.
Yeah, so there’s a lot of reasons leading up to it that we wanted to do a trilogy-type of shorter record with several volumes. We kind of had ended a certain chapter of the band. We had put a live record out, we had put a kind of contractually obligated “best of” collection out, and just a lot of living on tour and playing old songs. We really needed to put out a lot of new music, and just be all about the new music, and just hit the reset button on the whole thing, because it’s very easy to kind of rely on the old stuff. So this became a way to make it all about getting creative and releasing the new stuff, and also working with different producers. So this second record we made with Sean Everett. It was our first time working with him, and first time really working with a different producer on any kind. We’ve done so much of our last four records with Lars Stalfors, whom we love, but Sean Everett was just a totally different experience. It was the first time, as we had some bad members change, that the five current band members have made together, and that was another aspect of the whole “New Age Norms” thing. It just kind of felt like a new vibe. There’s a new energy, and it’s very renewed. We’ve been a big fan of Sean Everett’s work, especially his Alabama Shakes record that he made, and the War on Drugs. He’s done so much great stuff, so we knew it would be a great collaboration to work with him, and it just turned out wonderful, and we are really, really proud of it — the emergency of it, the spontaneity of it. We wanted to capture this kind of really raw thing, and something that he does, that we love about Alabama Shakes, the record he made — kind of almost like the Beatles’ “White Album” meets this very modern, soulful thing that is really only his kind of sound.
The first installment was released in November 2019, before the plague swept the globe. Coincidentally, the term “New Age Norms” seems especially relevant now, as everyone speculates about “the new norm.” What did you originally intend for the title to mean, and how do you see it in light of recent events
Yeah, so our bass player Matt Maust is always designing these punky shirts, where he’ll write things on them, and he had that phrase, “New Age Norms,” written on a t-shirt, and I just loved it right away, and I was like, “Man, that’s such a great title.” Obviously, this was so long ago when that originally was floating around for what would become these three volumes. I think then it meant — the last couple years has just been a constant flow of enormous change, from world leaders to movements from Me Too, women
s movements to Black Lives Matter movements. It kind of became this phrase that, for me, definitely encapsulated all that, a world that’s always changing. And yes, obviously pandemic is a complete furthering of that, so it’s this nice phrase that, without being overtly political, is just recognizing this enormous wave of change, and that every day there is kind of a “New Age Norm,” a way of speaking and thinking about our relationships to each other that have evolved, and that we’re all adapting to.
You were reportedly inspired to release a trilogy by Kanye West’s “Wyoming” series. Of course, West is an endlessly fascinating character, but what exactly was it about his multi-part work that struck a chord with you?
Yeah, that was a big part. I think especially the rate at which those were released, and how spontaneous they felt coming out, and also that they were all eight songs. We all really loved that.
On the opening track, “Who’s Gonna Love Me Now,” you sing, “All those times when I imagined / What it’d be like to have my freedom… Oh what a fool I was only dreamin’.” Is this a protest of excessive liberty, a relinquishing of hope, or what?
You know, there’s lot of layers to that one. I think of it personally, for myself, like I’m married, I have a family, I have kids, I’m in a band. I have these deep commitments that I’ve given my life to for many, many years, and I feel like there’s always a part of us that wants to wreck every good thing around us, and I think something about that just felt — I don’t know — it felt relatable, the idea of the grass is always greener. If you’re in a wonderful relationship, you’re always going to kind of look out and be like, “Man, look at my single friends, just doing whatever they want. That’s so fun. That’s so great.” And also, for the record too, and these things often come after the fact, but what I started to see taking shape is that I love the idea that all these eight songs on volume two are a part of what is called the “hero’s journey,” and I was reading a lot of stuff and literature, and Joseph Campbell talks a lot about the “hero’s journey.” Each one of these songs felt, like me, like a different chapter in the “hero’s journey,” and that’s that first chapter that starts off a young person looking around them and going like, “Damn, I’m not happy, and I want to break out of this thing that I’m in. I have an adventure to go on, and I’ve gotta burn some bridges before I start that journey.” That to me is also what’s happening there.
“Obsession” is an especially hard-hitting banger, with you screaming the titular word with a passion that could hardly better convey the sentiment at the core. Tell us about what inspired such intensity.
That song is definitely a special one to me. I think there’s a lot of layers to it. Again, there’s this “hero’s journey” thing, and that song has a line that’s like, “You’re family will never understand,” and you want to live that artist’s life. For me, becoming a musician, and kind of living this life, starting a little bit later, there is an obsession that has to come with being an artist, being a musician. There are extremely talented people that don’t have the obsession that it takes to just keep doing it, like you got to a museum and see like a Picasso retrospect or something, and you’re like, “Man, this has nothing to do with work ethic. This is an obsession. This is something that is dominating to your life, to make great art like this.” I think that’s always been fascinating to me, and I also think, for myself, learning later in my life, I definitely have very OCD tendencies and very tunnel vision when it comes to doing what I love, which is music, and it really is a sort of obsessive nature. When everything in music — touring, recording, writing, performing — it really is like a drug, and it’s something that any musician that’s had it is always trying to get back to it, and if you’re in it, it’s the best, so all of those things are reminding me of that song, just the sheer sacrifice that it takes to be an artist.
In relation to OCD, are you familiar with the concept of “Perfectionism OCD?” It’s a strain of OCD in which, for example, you’ll be so obsessed with making a track perfect that you’ll just procrastinate on it because you don’t want it to not be good enough.
(Laughs) Definitely, yeah, I’m glad you said that. Perfectionism is a really interesting other aspect of obsession, I think something that you don’t really learn except through experience. Learning that every song, everything you do, you’re trying to get it as close to perfect as you can, but you also have to let go of it. I feel that all the time, every song that we release, there’s a constant anxiety that I feel about knowing that things could be a little better, or changes that you wish you made. That’s an always ongoing thing. I definitely experienced that, and it’s a total aspect of what I wanted to say in that song.
You can hear decades of musical history in your sound, with the spectre of classic rock lingering beneath layers of contemporary polish. This is particularly noticeable on the new release. Expand on your particular blend of styles and some of the particular inspirations that you can hear in your music, especially on your latest album.
For me, there are certain artists that deliberately emulate certain records, and for me, I think what feels really authentic is to just write and do what comes naturally, and know that some of those things will come out, but there’s always more influences of music that I could even really deliberately set out to reflect on the band, so I’m always happy when something does come out. The song “Obsession” feels kind of like a Motown, ‘60s, R&B, soul type of song, ranging all the way from the last song “Catch Me Falling,” goes extremely modern, and it feels very much like a Void meets like a Travis Scott, or something that is extremely modern, and very of the moment in some ways.
“Classic rock” is such a funny term. It’s sort of, to me, a fact that a lot of the greatest sounding records that were ever made were made in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and I think people of all ages are still discovering that, in a way that these recordings were more rich and more sophisticated than a lot of what’s coming out right now.
Are you really sure about that? Because especially with more electronic music, not really pop music but more underground music, a lot of what is coming out recently is so intensely layered. There’s a theory that it’s because of Adderall, that people have attained a new level of focus, and in some ways, some modern music seems like the most detailed ever.
You know, yeah, it’s hard to talk about. “Layered” is one thing to me, like when I think about, for example, Phil Spector-types of recordings, which I think the song “Obsession” has a little bit of that, that type of big room sound. Part of Cold War Kids, our ongoing conversation, is we have always straddled both sides. We have recorded in a very live way, really using the sound of a room, having that type of more classic sound — that older type of recording that has the vibe and feel of what’s happening in a room, as opposed to how most records get made now. And we do both. We always kind of do both, and I think the best producers are really good at knowing both sides of that, knowing the limitations of just staring at your Pro Tools session, and not having a lot of the feel of something that’s more dynamic than just the sound right in front of you. Having access to the amount of plugins and the amount of digital effects that are meant to emulate analog devices — the last digital effects that were really just not great-sounding, and are now getting so good, and it’s all about what you do with them, and you can be very creative with modern sounds, and get so much out of them. It’s kind of like that thing where everything is available now in this way that even when we started, in 2004, you needed to get physical analog certain pieces of gear to get certain sounds, and now, it’s very inexpensive to get a lot of those sounds digitally. As we learned how to embrace both sides of that, there’s a lot of analog-only, sort of crusty, grumpy people that we worked with in the past (laughs), and working with Sean Everett was such an eye-opener for us, because he very much embraces everything new and modern, but also gets sounds that are extremely classic, so that’s kind of everything we wanted.
Lead single “You Already Know” stands out because of how funky it is, with its wah wah guitars, heavy bass, and soulful vocals. Where did these sounds come from, and does the musical style have any relation to the lyrical focus about being “Out of the Loop”
Hmmm, yeah, we were listening to different things, and there’s this band called Happy Mondays. We love that scene, that Madchester scene — punk and dance and all that. We’ve always really loved a lot of stuff that’s come out of there, especially our bass player Matt, the way that he plays, and also his design, his visual aesthetic, is very much inspired by that. I think that type of repetitive, dancey, but also kind of live and rock band-ey, that blend, and a lot of percussion and loops and things, but also having that live feel, that was very much in our minds during that. And I just think it’s another kind of this idea that “You Already Know,” and you’re feeling left out of the loop, and it’s just funny. We’re on an edge where everybody’s left out. There’s too much for everyone to know, and the idea of like, “Oh my god, I’m so sorry I didn’t know that yet,” it’s like it’s okay, you can’t know everything. You can’t have heard every record. You can’t have heard the news that came out two minutes ago. And then there’s an aspect of this where I like this idea of “You Already Know,” you’re not a fool for not hearing the latest, of-the-moment thing. There’s a lot that you already know. I think that trusting your inner voice is really important.
The video for “You Already Know” is essentially a car ride, replicating the experience of listening to music while driving, but there’s the mysterious element of a dancer figurine and a fake rat in front of you. Share whatever you would like about this enigmatic video.
Ramez “Mezzy” Silyan did all these visuals for the video, and we love his style, and that idea of the “hero’s journey,” and the moment that he grabbed to symbolize a lot of things on the record. It’s so nice when something visually captures something that you set out to do — it’s easy to talk about all these abstract things and stuff, but to set out and try to capture visuals for them without being too heavy handed, he always leans on the edgier, weirder side of things, and I love that.
“Regret Regret” is an especially dynamic track, with thrillingly angular vocal harmonies, and plenty more of the aforementioned funk. Expand on the sonics of this song, and on why you chose such relatively celebratory sounds for a song called “Regret Regret.”
Yeah, I think the idea of celebrating happy and epic pronouncements of “I was wrong” is surprising.” And it’s something that we don’t see enough, and I think of “New Age Norms,” I think of everything happening in the world, and in culture, and in politics. The idea of basically saying that you were wrong, and announcing it in this big, epic way, people strangely haven’t figured out how to do that. When people really, really mess up, we can’t figure out how to apologize, and when people apologize, it feels guarded and safe and calculated, and very rarely people apologize for things, and the public actually forgives them and feels like it’s genuine, and I feel like that’s a much larger problem than celebrities or whatever, and now, “New Age Norms” almost does even touch on cancel culture in a way — this idea that we have got to accept that we can apologize for things and forgive people, and forgive ourselves. It also touches on a thing that you were talking about before, which is the sort of the perfectionist OCD thing. Whether it’s a relationship or a friendship or a conversation or a song, you can get in your head about reliving every second of how you wish you would have done something differently, and regret, regret. I was wrong. I think that’s what makes us human. That’s what sets us free. We’re going to mess up. We’re going to disappoint each other. We’re not going to live up to our own standards. I think that’s something that I feel great singing, and something that I feel everyone else should feel great singing, because we have so much music that’s about bravado, and not giving a shit about anything. We need more music that’s not just humble, but truly the opposite of whatever it means to be saying you’re the best, but not sad, just humble.
“Somewhere” has the striking line “I knew you were crazy the night you shaved your head,” based on a night when your wife shaved off all her long hair. Such a drastic measure calls for an explanation. Why did she do it, and how does the incident make its way into the broader meaning of the song? There is plenty in this track to talk about, so feel free to use the opportunity to discuss it.
It’s funny. It’s one of those real things, and also, to me, having personal stuff in lyrics is only good if it feels good without knowing the personal thing. When I think of it, it makes me think now of Britney Spears shaving her head. That was like such a crazy cultural moment, (laughs) that represented a meltdown, but there’s so much projection happening in a woman shaving her head that is definitely something that is just an attractive image. For the case of this song, I just like it because to me, it was more empowering. To me, that’s an attractive thing, a girl that shaves her long hair. Like this is a bold move, I love this. Yeah, it’s a relationship song, and it’s just another real flicker of a moment, when you look at a relationship, where you’re like, “Man!” It’s also that thing where, for me, for songwriting and in writing lyrics, I want there to be little moments that are real life moments for me, but also just feel like they’re the right thing for the music, and the way this song feels is triumphant, but there’s a sweetness. You’re thinking back on all the things in your relationship, like why the two of you can make it through anything, and that’s just a little flicker of another moment, just like, “Woah, this told me who you wore,” so I love that “Shave your head” line. It does say a lot.
I think stripping away femininity, all the sort of male female stereotypes that come into play that a woman shaving her head can really flip on its head. A woman stripping away the sort of prettiness, and not being afraid of that is very attractive to me. I love that. And that’s definitely what the song wants to say.
What is in store for the Cold War Kids in these most peculiar of times, and what should fans expect from the third installment of the series?
Man, well, we have a bunch of songs for volume three that we’re trying to slowly but surely wrangle, and we have a song that comes out on the “Bill and Ted’s” soundtrack, just an original song that wasn’t on volume two, so that’s rad. I’m really excited about that. It’s a really unexpected, cool thing. And then, you know, just trying to keep busy, doing life. I was just on YouTube, looking up a Boogie Woogie piano tutorial, so just trying to learn some new stuff here.
“New World Norms 2” releases Aug. 21 on Apple Music.