Two years ago, on a boiling hot day in Manchester, Tenn., four ragtag guys in their mid-20s stepped out in front of the lights under one of the handful of tents at the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival. Already dripping with sweat by the time they hit the stage, any signs of exhaustion were quickly evaporated as each band member immediately found his groove.
It's difficult to believe that it was the day after those guys, known collectively as the band Cold War Kids, had played a mid-day set for thousands in "That Tent." What set the second performance apart was that it was done for only about 100 people ... in the press tent. Needless to say, the guys could have mailed it in and gone through the motions. Instead, the brief set said, "If you missed us yesterday, you missed out."
I caught the earlier show, but it was the second one that really drew me in. Tired, sweat-soaked, probably hungover, they had as much energy for the press as they did for their fans. In the stripped-down setting, you had a chance to see even more how the band's music is orchestrally put together. Taken piece by piece, the music may not make much sense at all. When it's put together, the band's music creates the whole picture as the vocals direct the majority of the rhythm of each song.
"I think that's just the way we've always written," singer Nathan Willett says from his home shortly before leaving for SXSW last month. "I don't even think we're totally aware of it all the time. It's kind of a natural thing. In many ways, that is our style. The rhythm of the vocal leads in a lot of ways. Usually I just create that in my head."
While the band's indie rock quickly created as much of a buzz as it did haters -- "They are ripping off The Walkmen" is often at the top of the list -- the Fullerton, Calif., quartet has stayed the course and remained true to its sound with its sophomore album, Loyalty to Loyalty.
"We were really content to make the album that we wanted to make and not really have other hands in it," Willett says. "I think the second album is really true to who we are. We could have tidied up things more or structured things in a way if we wanted to take them to a higher level, but I think we're happy with where it's at."
Loyalty may not have turned out that way if the band had paid any attention to its detractors. At the top of the list was Pitchfork, a music criticism Web site that ended up trashing the band in its first review after first leading the way in praise. Most of the criticism was directed at the band's religious imagery in the lyrics, something that was tied to the band members' Catholic school educations and incorrectly labeled them as a Christian rock band.
"I guess the easiest thing I could say is all things that come into the attention of the public eye have kind of a backlash and it doesn't necessarily need to be a just or fair one," Willett says. "It's like there's a new kid at school that gets popular really fast and people will find reasons to not like him even if they're not reasons at all. Pitchfork is all about discovery and claiming they found something or made something and being the first on board. They weren't. They didn't have any part of us -- we were touring and had a lot going and happening where they didn't recognize it. By the time we came out, they wanted to slam us because they had nothing to do with us."
With most of the controversy put behind them after the release of the second album, they've been focused on touring. The band has also been enjoying some recent time off to work on a new video concept that will offer up four versions of "I've Seen Enough" with exchangable rhythms, instruments and arrangements to allow for more than 200 possible combinations, allowing the listener to create his or her own versions of the song.
It's an interesting task for a band that combines so many elements into the creation of a song. There are odd cymbal crashes and the use of a wine bottle on "Saint John," from their debut album Robbers & Cowards. Meanwhile, lyrically, Willett uses more of a literary style to create imagery and form characters that are almost telling a story in the songs.
"We have a lot of fans that really get what we do -- not just like us, but really understand what we do," Willett says. "I want songs to have a theatrical element to them. I'm aware that in this day and age, a lot of people don't listen to words and care about them the way they used to. I still try to put an emphasis and importance on that in the way the band is viewed."
Another element that sets the band apart is its desire to record songs shortly after they've been written to try and capture that moment in time and document where the song is before it has time to change.
Willett says if he had to do over, the band would record "Saint John" in a warehouse to give the song a bigger, more roomy sound.
"On a tour, a song will totally take on a different personality and we won't play it the way it was recorded anymore," he says. "We think of it as being documented and not returning to it. In a way, that will always be a problem that we will have to deal with."
Cold War Kids are opening for Death Cab for Cutie, along with Ra Ra Riot, at Belk Arena on the Davidson College campus on April 9. Tickets are $20 for students and $30 for the public.