It’s the first week of February, and the Cold War Kids are spending their last free weekend in summery Anchorage, Alaska, dog sledding and touring, before they head south to House of David studios in Nashville, where they’ve booked six weeks of studio time for their third record.
Cold War Kids (left to right)—Matt Aveiro, Jonnie Russell, Matt Maust, and Nathan Willett.
Just that quantity of booked time signals a departure from their first two albums: a pair of cacophonous, Gospel-infused, southern rock-reminiscent albums tracked to two-inch tape in the span of hours, not weeks. Starting with their 2006 debut, Robbers and Cowards, the band has won blogger plaudits for a messy analog sound that’s at once vintage and vivacious, carrying hints of Creedence Clearwater Revival howling down a Pentecostal revival stomp.
“The art of our recording has always had so much to do with spontaneity,” frontman and keyboardist Nathan Willett says. “The experience coming up will be a more meticulous one.”
For that upcoming experience, the band hired producer-engineer Jacquire King — a tape-reel enthusiast who coaxed the crucial crossover “Good News for People who Love Bad News,” out of Modest Mouse, the arena-rock Grammy-taker “Only by the Night” out of Kings of Leon, and The Fall (reviewed Feb. ’10) out of Norah Jones. In Cold War Kids, the producer says he’s out to broaden their sound, which he admires as “identifiable immediately,” mostly for its moody minimalism.
“It’s a four-piece rock band essentially, with pretty standard instrumentation, but they really have a stylized sound,” King says. “It has a very dramatic thing to it, because there’s space to feel it and hear it.”
Accordingly, King builds a mic setup so unobtrusive it might require a wiretapping warrant: “It’s sort of a more minimal miking versus a lot of isolation,” he says. “We also want to juxtapose it with some unusual sounds and unusual methods of production.”
Unusual sound number one is probably the warbling-but-curt piano at the center of the band’s sepia-toned honky-tonk airs. To replicate their frontier-era saloon piano sound, King refurbished a three-quarters upright, quirky in character and heavy on attack. “It’s not like a fine Steinway upright, and certainly not like a grand,” he says. “Something that’s just a little off-kilter, that has a bit of intensity, and a slant to its personality.”
Onstage, Willett pounds his two heavy hands on a Yamaha CP70, a classic electric grand piano that King thinks he’ll drag into the live room to add a spooky second layer of highly-processed keys: “We’ll go back and accentuate or add some parts on the CP70, and put it through, like, a [Maestro] Echoplex [tape delay],” he says.
For King, the six-week session affords a chance “to expand the horizons of the band production-wise,” but for Willett and crew, it’s also a time to wrestle the irregular arrangements and offbeat songwriting into a more conventional mode. “We’ve never had any voice outside of the four of us help shape the songs,” says Willett.
Refining the group’s sound and songwriting while retaining their spontaneity and spunk is King’s balancing act, he says. Tracking to analog tape will help. For King, the comforting whirl of spooling tape cultivates an in-studio romance that adds as much to the final product as tape’s gentle curve of compression and sparkling sibilance.
“Analog has its inconsistencies and expenses, and it’s a little bit slower, but ultimately, I think it gives you an advantage sonically and psychologically,” King explains. “You have to give more attention to what you’re hearing and doing. It’s not just, ‘Let’s throw down a bunch of tracks on the computer and sort it out.’”