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How the Cold War Kids became unlikely alt-rock radio stars

Indie Rock Adults

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In more ways than one, the Cold War Kids' debut LP, 2006's Robbers and Cowards, arrived at a perilous time for a rock band in it for the long haul.

The group, who released their sixth studio album last year and is more popular than ever, is a long way from those heady days in the mid-2000s when Pitchfork and a briefly ascendant blogosphere turned indie bands into overnight stars. But frontman Nathan Willett still recalls that era quite clearly.

"I do think about what a bubble that was and what an education that was," he says. "I remember going on a tour with Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Tapes & Tapes and all the frenzy around these bands that were in that bubble of 'internet buzz band.' And also that the really dominant story was ... these bands like Grizzly Bear and Dirty Projectors as these bands that could do no wrong, that, you know, really existed in a bubble that was not going to translate at radio. I think the mentality at the time was like, who needs it? Radio is dead. And, you know, the culture of these bands is bigger."

The Cold War Kids were one of those bands — Robbers and Cowards sold north of 200,000 copies amid the sales wilderness caused by the widespread practice of illegal downloading, long before the rise of streaming services. It was an unlikely success for a group who wrote blues and '60s-rock-influenced songs filtered through a post-punk template.

Yet, there they were. The band's 2008 follow-up Loyalty to Loyalty was a looser, more experimental record that reveled in the band's joyful instrumental chemistry but was poorly received by critics, who took Willett to task for his literary aspirations and the relative aimlessness of the arrangements. The band would continue to forge ahead, though, cementing its reputation as a dynamic live band and continuing to hold some audience attention as the larger public interest seemingly moved on.

"There's a lot of education that happened, kind of seeing that bubble burst and seeing a lot of those bands now looking around going like, where is this?" Willett recalls. "You know, I could be on this high-brow cover and New York Times article profile, whatever, but it's like, does that actually translate to fans of music? There was just so much emphasis on having your big, artistic, ambitious story be understood and not much emphasis on just getting your music out there."

Regardless of the hype, the band seemed content to continue on, releasing a steady stream of albums and EPs since 2006. The natural evolution of their music was not toward more experimentation and obfuscation as Loyalty suggested, but was rather about a blend of soul-tinged directness and tightly layered pop songcraft that seems as inspired by Spoon as it is by Velvet Underground or Wire. That growth occurred over a number of albums until 2015's Hold My Home actually produced a veritable hit with "First," a song that put the band on playlists next to Imagine Dragons and Portugal the Man nearly a decade after their debut. It's among their most romantic-sounding songs, with a chiming guitar line that could be mistaken for something on a Coldplay or Band of Horses record, something highly unlikely in the group's early years.

While some critics have read the band's recent approach as calculated and striving for radio simplicity, Willett seems genuinely surprised by the newfound level of success.

"I don't understand it at all," he confesses. "I think that's part of the kind of great mystery of existing this long and having people jump in at different points. There are people that definitely know us from the song "First" doing so well, and I do think that it did inject this totally new chapter into the Cold War Kids story. On the other hand, it wasn't like suddenly there was a bunch of newcomers around the shows that only knew that one song."

Willett says he feels lucky to follow his own muse (along with his band), and to have ended up in this position where alt-rock radio and indie-rock radio, particularly on satellite radio, has given the band a second life.

"We are weirdly lucky to have a lot of songs that have gotten out there you know?" he offers. "When you have six records of material and you have, you know, a single or two from each one, it's very easy to put all the emphasis on those songs doing something rather than the experience of the whole record and everything when you're in that radio game. But that's not our reason for existing; it's not our impetus. We just have definitely benefited from radio in this enormous way."

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