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Cold War Kids, now 13 years strong, is ready to hit mainstream

Cold War Kids is, from left, David Quon (guitar), Joe Plummer (drums), Matt Maust (bassist), Matthew Schwartz (keyboards/guitar), and Nathan Willett (singer/guitarist).
Cold War Kids is, from left, David Quon (guitar), Joe Plummer (drums), Matt Maust (bassist), Matthew Schwartz (keyboards/guitar), and Nathan Willett (singer/guitarist).

Cold War Kids singer/guitarist Nathan Willett feels his group has occupied a rather rare and enviable niche in the music world so far during its career.

The group is widely considered an indie band, yet it has also been able to get a few tastes of mainstream pop success without losing the indie credibility it established early on. The band stops by Starlight Theatre on Saturday to open for Young The Giant.

“We’ve had that kind of unique and great problem that while we have never had an enormous breakout, we have also … had an amazing ability to just maintain a certain level of popularity and sticking around,” Willett said in a recent phone interview.

“Of course, the stories of a young band that does have big, big success early and not knowing how, not being prepared for that” are all too common, he added. “So we were very fortunate to grow on our own time. … That’s kind of the dream. That’s the best thing you can have, really.”

But as Cold War Kids begin touring behind a new studio album, “LA Divine,” Willett sounds ready to see the scales of success tip more toward the mainstream pop world. And there are reasons to believe a breakthrough might be more within reach now than ever for Cold War Kids, which formed in 2004 in Fullerton, Calif. With “LA Divine,” the band will have six full-length studio albums to go with 10 EPs in their catalog.

For one thing, as Willett notes, a number of indie acts have scored mainstream breakthroughs in recent years without losing the qualities that made them unique in the first place.

“There are so many artists, like, I think of Alabama Shakes or Arctic Monkeys, Black Keys, there are so many great bands that are contemporary that are really big,” he said. “I think a lot of it just comes with kind of being comfortable in your own skin and realizing, oh, we love what we do, and we think that it can translate well to a bigger stage.”

The group’s previous album, “Hold My Home,” also gave Cold War Kids their first No. 1 hit when the gold-certified single “First” topped “Billboard” magazine’s Alternative Rock singles chart.

And with “LA Divine,” Willett feels the group has found ways to modernize its sound to fit pop radio without forsaking the vintage elements that have long been a part of the band’s musical identity. That meant incorporating modern technology.

“It’s a fascinating time with just the technology of how good digital instruments (can sound), even pianos, drums, keyboards,” he said. “We used to really kind of chase those unique vintage sounds. Now, being able to have an amazing digital re-creation of it, I think it is a metaphor for a lot of how the band has evolved.

“If you kind of submit to that principle of, like, however we get the best sounds, that’s what we use, and not just being faithful to a certain kind of more vintage or old-school way of doing it, that’s definitely where we are,” Willett said.

In making “LA Divine,” original band members Willett and bassist Matt Maust and more recent recruits Joe Plummer (drums), Matthew Schwartz (keyboards/guitar) and David Quon (guitar), have put a more modern pop sheen on this collection of 14 songs, while still weaving some piano, guitar and drums into the sound.

Uptempo tunes like “So Tied Up,” “Open Up to the Heavens” and “Invincible” have the kind of sing-along vocal hooks and danceable beats that fit current top 40 trends, but also retain the nervy edginess that has often characterized Cold War Kids music.

There are also a few ballads that could cross into mainstream pop, such as the piano-laden “Restless” (with more of an R&B accent, it could draw comparisons to a John Legend tune), and “Can We Hang On,” which boasts a soaring chorus and plenty of pop appeal.

But there’s still an indie feel and attitude to several songs. “No Reason To Run” mixes a bit of gospel into its piano pop sound. “Love Is Mystical” (which reached No. 2 on Billboard’s Alternative Rock singles chart, with a video that has nearly 2 million views on YouTube) and “Wilshire Protest,” with their pounding piano, jagged melodies and Willett’s caffeinated vocals, echo signatures that first surfaced on the group’s 2006 debut album, “Robbers & Cowards” and the 2008 follow-up, “Loyalty to Loyalty.”

“I think this record was just kind of in many ways building upon all that we’ve learned over the course of all these years,” Willett said. “I feel like it is totally the best Cold War Kids record. It is the embodiment of all the stuff we’ve learned over all these years and the stuff we love, and I’m really proud of it.”

This summer, the group has a run of shows scheduled opening for Young The Giant. It’s the kind of tour that will give Cold War Kids a chance to perform in front of many fans who might not be familiar with the group.

Young The Giant is giving Cold War Kids enough time on stage to represent the band’s deep catalog of songs.

“It’s a great that we get an hour to open for them,” Willett said. “Sometimes those opening slots can be 30 minutes or something like that to where you’re kind of on and off (the stage). That was part of the deal going into it was it felt really substantial. I know they (Young The Giant) are fans of us, and we got to meet them years ago and they’re really good guys.”


Young The Giant, with openers Cold War Kids and Joywave. $29.50, $39.50. 7 p.m., Aug. 5. Starlight Theatre.