Maddy Costa interviews Cold War Kids

Cold War Kids seem like nice, God-fearing chaps who would rather save their money than go out boozing. But when it comes to their songs, all hell breaks loose. By Maddy Costa

In a recess of Borders bookshop in central London, Cold War Kids have set up temporary home. Guitarist Jonnie Russell and drummer Matt Aveiro are slouched in armchairs reading graphic novels. Between them and singer Nathan Willett is a coffee table covered in packets of dry muesli, through which Willett methodically chomps. Opposite him sits bassist Matt Maust, considering a book of interviews with Tom Waits. He's not supposed to be buying it - it's cheaper back home in California - but when "the cover is so much better over here", he can't resist.

Maust is sensitive to these things, because when he's not being a Cold War Kid, he works as a graphic designer (he's responsible for the band's record sleeves, T-shirt designs and website). Indeed, the 27-year-old believed "playing music was a thing of my high-school days", until university friends Willett, 27, and Russell, 23, convinced him otherwise. The trio "started meeting very casually" in summer 2004, but three months later 20-year-old Aveiro joined and the band became a serious prospect. Not that Maust doesn't still have his qualms. "I feel too old to be doing this," he says. "My father thinks so too sometimes." Willett's dry chuckle suggests he's probably kidding.

For the past year, the band have made temporary homes in just about every major city in Europe and the US, such is the buzz that has built up around their thrilling live shows. And their album Robbers & Cowards, which is released on Monday, proves the hype isn't misguided. The band confess a love of Tom Waits, the Velvet Underground and Billie Holiday, but they've managed to forge these influences into something idiosyncratic: a clattering, propulsive blues-rock as unnerving as it is seductive.

Over the next couple of months they will be criss-crossing the Atlantic for a tour that barely allows them a day off. No wonder Willett says touring is "like being in prison on one hand, and maybe a monastery on the other". Their website is crammed with Maust's characterful photos of each stop and whirlwind diary entries from Willett. One of the most intriguing, from November 2006, argues that travel isn't what it's cracked up to be. "Do you need to physically go all over the place to gain exposure to a culture?" he ponders. "Generally speaking, great thinkers over history didn't travel the world, they stayed home and read."

For something written off-the-cuff, Willett says, it caused quite a stir. "People take it as arrogant, they say: 'What's the deal? You guys don't believe it's important to see a culture in its natural state?' It's the greatest thing that we get to travel, but you should never sensationalise it. People from southern California don't get to travel that much, so if someone has been to Sweden, you think, 'Damn, you know something I don't' - I've felt that a thousand times. But you can understand things about other cultures just by thinking about them, you don't have to see them. It's about where your mind is at."

Willett is a self-effacing chap: float anything resembling a compliment in his direction and he'll squirm. But he enjoys provoking people. It's evident in his song lyrics, glimpses of unravelling lives in which he distils everything he learned about short-story writing at evening classes. We Used to Vacation, the opening track from Robbers & Cowards, introduces an alcoholic who is ruining his family's life, but believes that "things could be much worse, we've still got our health, my paycheck in the mail". The professional thief in the mesmerising Robbers would have us know that "robbing from the blind is not easy", while the Death Row inmate in Saint John remains convinced that murder was the only way.

These are people who would have America's moral majority shaking with indignation: sinners who seek no redemption and receive no censure. Willett had read interviews with Bob Dylan and Tom Waits in which they had dismissed their early songs as "too sentimental", and he fights to avoid making the same mistake. But a bigger influence, he says, is the novelist and essayist David Foster Wallace. "I learned a lot from him about objectivity, and writing like a journalist: having the integrity to peek into someone's life but not talk about them emotionally, so you're not told how to feel about them."

Reviewers in the US are suspicious, however. They point out that Willett, Maust and Russell all attended a Catholic university (Loyola Marymount in LA) and argue that Cold War Kids' sensibilities are deeply Christian - rarely a turn-on in alternative rock. Willett plays this down, emphasising that Loyola is a liberal arts institution, that religion is "just something people have tried to tag on to us". Then you spot the tattoo peeking from the top of his shirt: a sacred heart, surrounded by angels. Either he's into Jesus, or there's something subversive going on here.

The truth steers towards the latter. Willett says he employs religion the way his musical heroes, people such as Dylan, Waits and Johnny Cash, have done: to "reflect what's going on in America". "Something like 85% of the country claims to be Christian," he says, "so to use that language is very powerful. You're not using it to proselytise, but because the country is just soaked in it. Take a song like Bob Dylan's Gates of Eden; it uses images of the Garden of Eden, then tries to flip your perception. Using religious language in that way really resonates with people. It really resonates with me."

Cold War Kids are more comfortable talking about the US culturally and socially than politically. Raise the spectre of US foreign policy and Maust says: "We're just kids, I don't know if we can address that yet." Willett's view is: "We're no Rage Against the Machine. Our politics are more individual than corporate." Get them on the subject of how most people choose to conduct their lives, and they practically shiver. For them, "working a job that has security then hanging out with your friends drinking beer" is anathema: it lacks imagination.

"If you can work hard without knowing if it's going to lead to something financial, it's the best thing in the world," argues Willett. It's a philosophy honed, Maust says, through reading Ayn Rand's 1943 novel The Fountainhead, in which an architect puts creative principles before fame and monetary gain. But surely principles are hard to live off? "You've got to be resourceful, that's for sure," says Willett. "We've done a lot of learning about sacrificing things, but the more you do, the more you realise how rewarding it is not to spend your money on beer and eating out."

It's paid off: what with the record deal, the touring and T-shirt sales, Willett and Russell have been able to give up their jobs as substitute teachers, and it's some time since Aveiro has flipped a pizza. They've all played in bands before, but the experiences, says Willett, "always felt very limiting" - they wouldn't get to explore their myriad musical tastes. Now they can, though escaping their influences is hard work. "Once in a while," says Willett, "we'll be writing something and someone will say, 'that sounds like this', and it can have the weirdest effect on you." That someone, it seems, is usually Maust: "I always feel like everyone's mad at me," he confesses, though Willett protests this isn't the case. The aim, says Maust, is music that "you think you've heard a million times, or in a dream, but when you really sit down you think I've never heard this before".

They're so absorbed in the task that, even when tours finish and they get some time at home, they gravitate towards each other. "It's kind of sick," says Willett. "You think you want to get away from each other, but we have all the same friends so we end up hanging out together all the time. We can't really get away from each other for more than a day any more." He says it as though it's the best fate in the world.

· Robbers & Cowards is out on Monday. Cold War Kids play Manchester Academy February 2, then tour


Maddy Costa

The GuardianTramp

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