Interview with Nathan Willett of Cold War Kids

Cold War Kids first hit the indie music scene in 2005, and with the release of their fourth studio album, 2013’s Dear Miss Lonleyhearts, lead singer Nathan Willett says the band has the clearest vision of where they’re headed. With a new band member on keys and a return to classic sounds, Cold War Kids are clearly on the precipice of a rebirth.

As the band looks ahead to that future and to their fall tour, which swings by The Wiltern on September 19th, Willett took a moment to reflect on the significance of “Miracle Mile,” his affinity for Miss Lonleyhearts, and the cover songs you can find on the band’s forthcoming Tuxedos EP, out this Tuesday, September 17th.

You’ve been touring a lot this summer, so let me officially welcome you back home to SoCal.

Thank you.

Are you guys a rowdy bunch on tour? Any anecdotes you can share from the road?

We have Matt Schwartz, who started playing keyboards with us starting with this record. He’s like 23, 24, and he’s causing a bit of trouble in a way that I think is making everyone smile.

You’re kicking the fall tour off with a “hometown” show here at The Wiltern on the 19th. The last time you played LA was a very intimate gig at The Bootleg in February. What was that like?

It’s funny. Those shows are often times the hardest, I think. You get in full tour mode, you perform a show, and it’s very natural and easy. You get in your routine, but those moments with smaller groups of people where you’re looking them square in the eye… Yeah, this one [at The Wiltern] will be easier.

The lead single off the album was “Miracle Mile.” Can you talk about the genesis of the track?

It was actually the very last song that we finished on the record. We did a couple songs for an EP with a bunch of covers, and our friend Richard Swift came down to play piano and do some background vocals. “Miracle Mile” came from that. It came together really quickly and was a really fun, easy one.

Can you share what those covers were?

There was an Antony and the Johnsons song, “Aeon,” a Depeche Mode song called “Condemnation,” one from The Band called “You Don’t Come Through,” and a Nick Cave song called “Opium Tea.”

Do you guys play any of those live?

Of those I think the only one we’ve done is “Aeon,” which has been really fun.

Speaking of covers, Florence + The Machine has famously covered “Hospital Beds.” What was your reaction when you first heard it?

I like it a lot. I dig her, and I love what she does with that song. When she was playing Coachella a few years ago, I actually went there and sang it with her, which was fun. She has an incredible, powerful voice. It’s funny because from the first record, I think Kate Nash was covering “Hang Me Up To Dry” for a long time, and then Florence started covering “Hospital Beds” — a lot of these British female singers covering our songs. It was this cool, bizarre thing.

Dear Miss Lonelyhearts nods to the fictional Miss Lonelyhearts of Nathanael West’s Depression-era novel about an advice columnist demonized by the troubles of his readers. What drew you to the character?

I think the idea of a main character who is an advice columnist and is answering these letters from really desperate people who want some kind of help, and the idea of the songs being little letters or attempts to ask for help — something really resonated there. Something about the advice columnist having this kind of spiritual crisis about how to answer these peoples’ really sad letters struck me as being very timeless and inspiring.

Loyalty to Loyalty was also very academic. Are you a voracious reader?

“Voracious” may be too extreme. I like literature, but I don’t consider myself too academic about it. I majored in Literature in school and I loved Dostoyevsky or, you know, there are little references to Kierkegaard — one of the songs on the new record is called “Fear and Trembling,” which is actually a famous philosophical Kierkegaard book — but I think that the great thing about songs is that you get to make deep things a little more shallow. You get to water them down a bit and do a little simpler poetic twist on them.

Are Kierkegaard and Dostoyevsky the authors you generally find yourself drawn to most?

I’m really all over the place. I really love the writer David Foster Wallace. Let’s see, who have I been reading… I love J.D. Salinger. I love Jonathan Safran Foer a lot. I like Jonathan Franzen, things like David Sedaris — lots of stuff.

I always find myself drawn to your music because I love the devastating poetic beauty of your lyrics. Though Dear Miss Lonleyhearts is more lyrically abstract, does living in those darker spaces while writing ever get to you?

You know, that’s interesting. I guess I didn’t really think about it so much earlier on, and I think it was our bass player, Maust, who was saying he was at a family reunion and his cousin asked him, “Man, does it ever get to you guys playing darker music?” I remember him saying that a few years ago and thinking that it probably does, but I guess to a certain degree you’re just inside of it. I don’t know if I’m aware of it, but I also think it’s a reflection of where I am, to a certain extent, so I just kind of go with it.

What was the feeling going into the studio for Dear Miss Lonelyhearts coming off ofMine is Yours?

Good question. It’s kind of a hard one. I think there’s this thinking that Mine Is Yours was pretty misunderstood and that what we needed was to continue the journey that we were on with the last record but also embrace some of the qualities from the very beginning of the band. I think that’s why “Miracle Mile” was really healthy for us; it had the energy of the first record and even early EPs but also was new and taking things further than where we’d gone before.

I know a lot of artists write their new material while touring for their latest record. Have you been fiddling with new material this summer?

Yeah, definitely. Going into this record we had a new guitar player with Dan [Gallucci], who was also producing the record, and we were also doing it in our home studio in San Pedro, so there were a lot of new factors. It was really transitional for us, and because we worked through so much with the last record, I think we were excited to get into the next one and have our most clear vision of where we’re at and what we’re doing. We want to get started really quickly and be able to put out another full-length album next year.

You came up in the Long Beach area but were a bit of a departure from the typical sound down there. Have you seen that area’s sound change at all over the years since your emergence in 2005?

We have been living in the Silverlake/Echo Park area for the last few years and still have our studio in the San Pedro area, but in that time we have met so many bands that I think we’ve crossed that Long Beach divide out here. In Long Beach, Delta Spirit was living there, We Barbarians were living there, Tijuana Panthers…so many bands, and now a lot of them have come out this way. It’s nice just how many bands live around here where, you know, you go out to get a drink while you’re home, and you run into people that you’ve toured with. It’s really nice.

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Interview with Johnathan Rice

Singer-songwriter Jonhathan Rice has broken through the proverbial wall when it comes to his songwriting. His latest effort, Good Graces (out 9/17), shows a levity and honesty unmatched in his prior material, and yet he never loses any of the emotional depth from which he’s known to mine. However, in the first video released from the new album, “My Heart Belongs to You,” Rice isn’t afraid to poke fun at his newfound softer side.

As he prepares to embark on a tour in support of Good Graces, Rice was kind enough to chat with us about his writing process, his many other projects, and where you can get a gin and tonic in his honor.

Congrats on the new album out next week. How long were you working on Good Graces?

It was pretty quick. There was an initial session that lasted about 5 or 6 days at Pierre de Reeder’s studio in North Hollywood. I was out at Farmer Dave Sher’s studio in Venice and then 5 days in New York. It wasn’t a long, arduous process.

And what was the writing process like?

It was in my friend’s apartment in New York. I stayed at his place for a month and wrote a record. I didn’t know that I was going to. To me, it was my most positive record. I think that was a conscious thing because sometimes when I’m making a set list for my concerts I’m like, “There’s a sad one, that’s a sad one, and another sad one, and another sad one…”

Especially when compared to Further North.

Yeah. And a great comedian told me once that it’s harder to make someone laugh than it is to make someone cry. And just trying to sit down and write a simple, honest love song has been the challenge for me over the years.

You’ve also been working on another project, scoring and writing songs for Anne Hathaway’s Song One.

That’s true!

What in particular drew you to this project?

Jenny [Lewis] has been friends with Annie and her husband, Adam, for some years now. They’ve always known a lot about music, and we’ve connected through music and talked about records a lot. They had been given Kate Barker-Froyland’s script — she’s the writer and director — and I don’t want to give too much of the plot away, but it’s heavily centered around music and music means a lot to the characters in the film. We’ve written almost an album’s worth of material.

Because what you’re writing about isn’t necessarily from your personal experiences, do you find yourself writing from a different place?

Absolutely. There was a lot of discussion about who these characters are. It was really fun for us as writers to write not just exclusively from our own perspectives.

Jenny Lewis does guest vocals on Good Graces. You two have collaborated so much from individual albums to Jenny and Johnny — I tend to think of you guys as the James Taylor and Carole King of this generation. There’s a rich tradition in that Laurel Canyon sound. What do you think it is that makes for these great male-female partnerships?

I don’t know if that is what makes for it. Our collaborations over the years have always happened very naturally. I don’t think either one of us has tried to recreate any sort of nostalgic style of writing. We are somewhat like-minded when it comes to the songs and the records that we love.

But it’s also equally important to us that we not write together as well. On my new record I think there’s only one song I wrote with Jenny. Knowing when to take a break from each other, creatively, is also very important.

The video for “My Heart Belongs to You” is pretty brutal yet hilarious. Where did the concept come from?

That concept came entirely from the director, Alan Tanner. I really liked his videos over the years — he’s done videos for Wavves and Jenny Lewis. I think because the song is so, excuse the pun, heart on its sleeve, when he heard it he immediately went to, “What’s the opposite?” I think the video was inspired partially by The Monkees movie Head, which [Tanner] and I have definitely talked about before. But I can’t take any credit for the video; that’s all his vision.

What track stands out for you most on the new album?

“My Heart Belongs to You,” for me, is a milestone in my songwriting because of the honesty in it. There are no barbs in it or trap doors you can fall down into. It’s a very honest love song, which didn’t come naturally to me.

I have to ask, do you still have the station wagon?

We both still own station wagons, but we gave the Jenny and Johnny wagon (pictured in the album art) to Morgan Nagler of Whispertown.

Is there another Jenny and Johnny offering in our future?

Maybe there is. We did all those Song One songs, and maybe those would have been on a Jenny and Johnny release. Both of us have kind of a solo vibe at the moment. Never say never. Justin Bieber said that…

What are you most looking forward to on this upcoming tour, which kicks off September 11th here at the Largo?

The Largo show is going to be really stripped-down and acoustic! I’m looking forward to playing a show at Pageturners Lounge in Omaha, Nebraska because I get to see friends when I’m in town and also there’s a drink named after me there. Kind of a classy version of the gin and tonic called The Rico. Conor Oberst got a bar, and he started naming the drinks after dear friends of his. I was lucky enough to be one of them.

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Johnathan Rice


Interview with Rolling Stones Historians Peter T. Fornatale & Bernie Corbett

Many stories and figures have emerged from the hazy shroud of the genre-defining, five-decades-long sex-, drugs-, and rock n’ roll-fueled bender of The Rolling Stones. God knows some of the stories are exaggerated, while others are even more outrageous than we know.

In celebration of The Stones’ 50th anniversary, broadcaster and music historian Pete Fornatale endeavored to get to the bottom of many of the stories surrounding The Rolling Stones’ members and catalog. He passed away in 2012 shortly before the release of his book, 50 Licks: Myths and Stories from Half a Century of the Rolling Stones, earlier this year, but I recently spoke with his two co-authors: son Peter Thomas Fornatale and broadcaster Bernie Corbett.

With LA preparing to welcome The Stones back to The Staples Canter this evening, the guys dished on the band’s longevity, surprising media savvy, and much more.

Pete [Fornatale] was obviously a longtime Stones lover. How and when did the book process begin and how did you become a part of it?

Peter Thomas Fornatale (PTF): The book was something Bernie was super passionate about from the beginning, and he really drove the train on in a lot of ways. My dad and I had worked together on this book about Woodstock [Back to the Garden] that was tied into the 40th anniversary of Woodstock, and we did have in mind that it would be great to capitalize on another rock n’ roll anniversary for the follow-up.

Bernie Corbett (BC): And I think after seeing my interview skills on Back to the Garden, Pete became more and more convinced of my music credibility. I started to talk to young Pete, and I said, “I gotta do a book with your dad.”

Are all the interviews in the book firsthand from Pete’s experience as a broadcaster and interviewer as well as done specifically for the book?

BC: Exactly. We were also able to get access to Dave Herman’s interviews [one of Pete’s colleagues at WNEW], which included a fabulous interview with Keith Richards. Then I did somewhere between 30-40 interviews for the book.

You had some fresh interviews from Keith — that’s a little bit of a coup. I think Keith often took a backseat in terms of speaking to the public and giving interviews.

BC: Absolutely. The interview was from the Dave Herman archive. I think the conversation was such that young Pete’s dad called Dave Herman and asked if he could use them, and Dave Herman says, “Yeah, you can have them on one condition. Can you take these off of cassette and put them onto disc for me?” [Laughs]

Given all the myths about the band, what were some of the biggest misconceptions you had going into the book?

PTF: There are so many little stories. It was really nice getting to the bottom of things like did Keith Richards really have a complete blood transfusion as a way of attempting to beat his addictions?

BC: One of the things we’ve kind of gone to bat with right up front was the historical reporting of who the drummer was when The Stones played their first gig on July 12, 1962. Keith’s contention was that Mick Avery was the drummer. Well, not to disparage Keith, but I think we have proven conclusively that Mick Avery was not the guy. We’re 90% sure that it was Tony Chapman.

Were the guys putting some of the myths that were propagated out there to have a laugh? Or do you find that among the multitude of stories and all the drugs that peoples’ memories naturally became a little muddled?

PTF: It’s a mix, I think. The blood transfusion was definitely a case of Keith having a laugh with a reporter.

Did The Stones deem any subject as off limits for you for the book?

BC: No, they really didn’t. If anything, some of them were way more expansive than we thought. God rest his soul, Andy Johns, a young engineer working on Exile on Main St., was talking about the first time he shot heroin with Keith in the basement at Nellcote. My jaw was dropping while I was doing that interview, let me tell you.

PTF: Some people were logistically tricky to get, but I was very pleased at the level of access we were able to get.

Given all the myths you debunk in the book, which do you believe is The Rolling Stones’ most often misunderstood song?

PTF: Oh that’s a great question! The song “Some Girls,” which, of course, has a lot of controversial lyrics in it. I think part of the issue is that a lot of Americans were super offended by it, but you know these are English guys and they have a very ironic sense of humor. To them, it was kind of all a big joke, and they didn’t really understand or care if people were offended.

You guys also mention that “Satisfaction” was equated to the counter-culture revolution, and really, it’s just simply about sex.

PTF: [Laughs] Yeah, I think sometimes a cigar really is just a cigar, but so much of this stuff is just about timing and the zeitgeist.

In the book you talk about this building emotion in America in the early 1960s, this imminent and innate hysteria that had the American youth just ready to explode. Would you say it was just a case of the right place at the right time for The Rolling Stones?

BC: I think absolutely. I firmly believe in fate and destiny and planets aligning… You look at the way the post-war time really shaped The Stones, and the way the post-Kennedy era really shaped their audience in America at that time, and I think that’s a pretty volatile combination.

PTF: I think generally you got it. However, I don’t mean to diminish how special they were. It’s not like just anything would have set off that powder keg. Here you were dealing with this uniquely talented, styled, and marketed group of guys that helped lead to that explosion.

Do you think that The Rolling Stones were more than happy to pick up this anti-Beatles mantle that manager Andrew Loog Oldham carefully ascribed to them?

BC: Yeah, they embraced it.

PTF: I think it came very naturally. The Rolling Stones were a blues band. They always had that distinction, and they always felt more akin to the old African American bluesmen in Chicago. I don’t think they felt a lot of kinship with the groups they perceived as pop acts.

The Stones were once Brian Jones’ band, but his downfall was this vicious cycle of crushed ego, drinking & drugs, mishap, crushed ego…wash, rinse, repeat. Did any of the guys ever express any feelings of responsibility for Brian’s spiral and ultimate death?

BC: Brian truly was a tragic figure, and I think if anything, there’s probably some regret — mostly from Charlie. You can see from anything he writes, he was probably the most remorseful.

PTF: Charlie says almost hauntingly, “Well, you know, in a way maybe we did it to him.” Meaning maybe that getting him out the band was the thing that finally led to his demise.

What is your personal take on the suspicious circumstances of Brian’s death?

BC: I think there really is something more than meets the eye there. Sam Cutler has been the most outspoken on it. We’ve got him quoted in the book, and he just doesn’t buy it. He thought there was something underhanded going on behind the scenes with the people that were doing work at Brian’s house at the time.

PTF: I don’t want to be libelous or anything here, but I think it makes a lot of sense that that builder was probably involved.

Do you get the sense that besides the enjoyment of playing music, maintaining the band and touring for 50 years is really a matter ego as well? We outlasted the Beatles, we outlasted, well, pretty much everyone at this point…?

BC: Your timing is impeccable because I was just reading The Stones’ interview in Rolling Stonelast night, and Mikal Gilmore was talking about longevity, and they had some interesting, very frank answers. You can’t escape it, but you can’t hang your hat on it if you’re still a functioning musical entity aspiring to be the best that you can be. And you know, if you’re Keith, this is what you do. It’s a little late for him to go take a couple of accounting classes and become a CPA at this point.

PTF: I get the impression that these guys are more internally motivated than they are externally motivated. I think if they didn’t really enjoy doing it, they wouldn’t be doing it.

The elder Pete/your dad predicted that The Rolling Stones would tour their last time in 2013 (i.e., this tour) and that Mick Taylor would return for that tour, which he has. Do you think this is, in fact, the last tour?

BC: To say this is the last tour, you’ve got to figure actuarial tables at this point. These guys, the fact that they’re still upright, they’re mobile, and they’re functional…can they do it again? I would think this is probably the last time in arenas, you know? I can see Keith sittin’ on a stool in a small club like Muddy Waters at the end.

PTF: There’s a famous quote of Keith Richards talking to Bill Wyman when Wyman left the band the last time. Keith’s quote was something to the effect of, “The only way you leave this band is in a box.” I have a feeling that there will be more Rolling Stones tours. From what my gut tells me from how they’re doing on this tour, it doesn’t seem like the last time.

It’s funny you mention shows in a small club. The Stones recently…

BC: They were right in your neighborhood!

They were. They played a secret show here at The Echoplex before kicking off their tour. They had a whole week before the tour kicked off. What are your feelings on why they chose LA and why this little club show?

BC: They’ve had a pattern of doing these sneak club shows in the areas where they’re rehearsing. In 1981 they were close to my neighborhood here in Longview Farms out in Brookfield, Mass, and I can remember we took a ride out there with some of my friends to try to see how close we could get to Longview. They did this club show at this place, Sir Morgan’s Cove, out in Wooster, and the hysteria that accompanied that was just an unbelievable story.

Were you some of the thousands that you talk about in the book that went out there but didn’t get in?

BC: Yeah! You know they’ve been kind of legendary for doing these sneak club shows.

PTF: Brilliant marketing.

In the book you discuss the importance of MTV and the role it played in bringing The Stones to a new generation. Do you see similar themes for today’s youth given the way Twitter and Facebook have revolutionized communication and PR?

PTF: I think it’s an excellent theory to posit. We’re sort of getting out of my wheelhouse of expertise here, but I think there certainly are artists who have or are going to use these new media the same way bands like The Stones and The Beatles did old media. I think every medium creates its own stars.

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Interview with Zak Waters

Los Angeles native Zak Waters has always straddled musical stylings. In high school, it was a struggle to balance his funk leanings and his hardcore rock band, and now as a solo artist, he continues to straddle two worlds (given his exceedingly tight skinny jeans, that fact that he’s able to straddle anything is a sheer wonder in and of itself). This time, however, it’s between his soulful influences and the expansive EDM world.

If you’ve hit the LA club scene in the last year, you’ve likely caught a glimpse of Water’s brand of infectious neo-funk, or if you’ve been wolfpacking it in Vegas of late, you may have caught one of his residencies at the Cosmopolitan (this weekend being the latest installment). Now with another SXSW under his belt, a forthcoming album release in September, and a tour in the works, Waters took time out to chat with me over a cup of coffee about the LA music scene and his upcoming plans.

What was your childhood like growing up in LA? Did you set your sights on a music career early on?

I’ve been doing this seriously for about eight years or so. I’ve always sung since I was really little, and it was always something that was a passion of mine. In high school, I was really into sports, and no one knew I sang because I was kind of embarrassed about it. I started messing around with making tracks when I was about 16, then senior year I got hurt and couldn’t play sports, so I joined this hardcore band. I wanted to do something a lot more soulful — that’s more true to me — so I was always trying to incorporate that into the band stuff, but there was way too big of a gap.

Having grown up in the LA music scene, do you think the flood of musicians to the city is more clutter to break through or is it a bevy of resources to collaborate with?

I feel like it’s actually tough. There are a lot of bands that break out of smaller markets. Like Denver has a really big folk scene — The Fray broke out of there, The Lumineers broke out of there. I feel like it is a little bit harder to break out in LA, but at the same time, there is a greater chance that you’re going to get a lucky sort of break.

You’ve announced a full-length debut album. What details can you share?

It’s done! We’ll be trickling it out.

Do you think there’s been a tipping point for you?

I get little doses of that, and then it goes back to normal. The residency at Central SAPC back in December that was a great experience — it grew every night — and on things like Twitter, when somebody in South America says, “I love Zak Waters,” that’s hard for me to wrap my head around. It’s a steady climb.

This March was your second time at SXSW. How did that differ from the first time around?

This year’s was definitely better. We played the Doritos Bold stage, which had a lot of really big bands. We definitely played more recognized showcases. It’s always amazing, though. It’s crazy. You play like eight shows in three days.

Did you meet any bands at SXSW that you were a big fan of?

A band called Cayucas. They’re awesome. And Pageants!

You’ve been playing Las Vegas a lot lately, doing residencies at The Cosmopolitan. What has that been like?

It’s been awesome. You can play every night and have a different crowd because of all the tourists. They really are trying to curate a great lineup of music. It’s a good steady flow of music for people who are visiting.

Having done both DJ residencies and full band residencies there, which do you prefer?

I’d say I love doing full band a little bit more. I love playing live. DJ-ing is a whole, cool other thing. The guys in my band, though, are all my best friends. I love hanging with them.

And you also have a show coming up at The Viper Room, right?

I do. With my friends X Ambassadors.

The Viper Room comes with a whole lot of LA history…

Totally.

Is that intimidating?

The Viper Room is an incredible venue. It’s totally awesome, and the sound there is pretty incredible. I’m stoked about it. And X Ambassadors are really good.

What are you listening to right now?

The new Kisses record! I really like them. I’ve been listening to a lot of deep house for my DJ sets.Moon Boots — he’s done some really cool remixes. And the new JT record, obviously.

Speaking of house, you’ve been working with Benny Benassi recently, correct?

Yeah, I just did a song with him for his record. I’m really excited about that song.

What’s your songwriting process like? Being a DJ, do you find a beat first and then everything else comes together?

No, usually not. It’s usually like a lyric-melody thing. Then we’ll start building a track around that melody idea.

You do a lot of covers. Your last was Brenton Wood’s 1967 “Gimme Little Sign”. What makes an excellent candidate for a cover song?

I like to do covers that people know deep in their brains, but that make them go, “Oh my god, I forgot about this song!” “Gimme Little Sign” is a song that everybody knows subconsciously, and I think it’s a timeless hit.

Is there a particular cover or remix you haven’t done yet but would want to?

Oh man. I would love to do a lot of Michael Jackson, but I can’t touch that.

Your style is a mix of neo-funk and crooner. What do you personally identify as?

I get the crooner thing a lot. Is it the hair? People say, “Oh, he’s an electro-Jamiroquai” or “He’s an electro-Earth Wind and Fire.” Yeah! When I sit down to write or produce a song, I’ll pull up Michael Jackson, Tower of Power — these great funky soul bands — and then right after that, I’ll pull up Justice or Daft Punk. At the end of the day, the whole goal of all of the music I do is to make people feel really, really good. I want people to dance and have fun.