Reagan Babies Play the 21st Century Blues

The Cold War may have ended in the early 1990s, but things are just heating up for the Cold War Kids, a band for their time.

The debut album from four California kids with confused passions and a taste for tectonic bass lines, "Robbers and Cowards," offers a mess of strong songs that are, at last, weighted down by an overbearing ethos.

The name, an ambitious title indeed, provides "a really good background to write as many characters and stories as we could," bassist and founder Matt Maust told ABC News' The Mix.

The Cold War, he reminds us, was "50 years of chaos" -- chaos from which, we are meant to understand, the band drew a bold set of influences: Tom Waits, Charles Schulz and Ronald Reagan to name a few. It's a boastful weave, but the fact is their tunes owe more to Flea than Perestroika.

  • Thanks to spirited live performances, California band The Cold War Kids have played to sell-out audiences at the Bowery Ballroom in New York. By the end of May, they will have completed a world tour to Europe and Japan.

They are schizophrenic kids too, for as their Downtown Records press release states, "They listen to their tiny inner voice to manipulate and structure their style with honesty."

Injections of honesty? Sounds kind of L.A.

"Our thing is, people are always saying we don't sound like a California band," said singer Nathan Willett. "We live in Long Beach, which is like three miles south of L.A. It's just that L.A. has a lot of bad images -- like Glam Rock and the Sunset Strip."

"It's not bad," guitarist Jonnie Russell said, "but when we think of what inspired us, it comes from more landlocked places maybe -- or other coasts."

The Cold War Kids, both individually and as a group, are well traveled, if not distinctly Californian. Maust dreamed up the group's name, which doubles as the title of his graphic design Web site, while "two-footing" around Eastern Europe.

More two-footing, four-wheeling and probably some jet-setting await the group this month. They're scheduled to play a May Day show in London, followed by stops in Paris, Oslo, Munich and Zurich. Add in a quick romp through Japan during the last weekend of the month and you have a proper world tour.

But for today, the band, which also include young drummer Matt Aveiro, are on the subway in New York City and being interviewed by ABC News. Underground and speeding along, they seem comfortable here. In New York they can be ignored -- despite selling out the Bowery Ballroom -- free to play some hipster soul music and go to church without raising any Botox eyebrows.

"People have always asked us, 'What's the deal with that?'" Willett said in reference to the group's hasty Sunday pilgrimage to the St. John the Divine Church in Brooklyn.

The soul in their sound, along with their affinity for God's house, is a point of confusion Willett is keen to straighten out.

"It's a funny thing that it's been talked about a lot," he said. "Our thing has always been that we listen to people like Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Nina Simone -- so many people who use so much of that religious Catholic or Christian imagery that I think resonates so much in America. The way you use those images I think is very important."

What none of those historic acts can boast of is a live performance that matches the spirit and pace of a Cold War Kids show. For a band that compare the lyrical tone of their songs to J.D. Salinger, they play live with a gut-busting spirit

"There's a degree of musicianship in every band," Willett said, "and there's a degree of what you give to the audience. And that's something we do naturally -- there's a sense that this is our heart."

If live performance is the band's beating heart, then their backbone is drummer Matt Aveiro. Aveiro is the group's newest and youngest member and his introduction to the Cold War Kids is a testament to the band's well-honed poetic memory.

"I think the moment I sat on that porch [on the day he first met the group] and listened to the first couple of different songs they played at Jonnie's house I think there, at that instant, something special pops up," Aveiro said.

His talent on the kit gave the group direction -- a linear framework for the vocal and acoustic ditties they had recorded into home-style tape recorders.

The final piece of the four-man band firmly in place, the boys were ready to face the nation. A debut album with songs about death row prisoners, alcoholic dads and hospital roommates followed soon thereafter -- the fanfare and critical acclaim coming up slowly from behind in the months to come.

"We've been friends for so long when we've just been playing music and living our lives and doing different things," Willett said. "It's not like this just happened to us."

And he's right, of course.

The Cold War Kids' success is their own. They are a good band with a well-earned reputation for putting on a great live show. They owe nothing to "the machinery" of a music industry that they are, at once, ashamed of and smitten by.

They are an "L.A. band" because they are from Los Angeles, not because a couple rock magazines say it.