Ten years ago, while backpacking with his brother across Eastern Europe, Matt Maust, the bassist for the bluesy indie-rock group Cold War Kids, visited Budapest's Memento Park, an outdoor graveyard of stone statues left over from the Soviet era. "We got wine and cheese, and had a picnic on Stalin's foot," Maust recalls. "I remember thinking, 'We're Cold War kids.' Anyone over the age of 20 lived through the Cold War. And I think that name explains what this band is about. We create backdrops where you can insert any kind of motif."
When Cold War Kids formed in 2004, their lifestyle certainly mimicked the squalor of life behind the Iron Curtain. The foursome – Maust, singer Nathan Willett, guitarist Jonnie Russell and drummer Matt Aveiro – lived together in a dilapidated house in the Los Angeles suburb of Whittier. They worked for an L.A. clothing store, Ever, which didn't make them rich but supplied them with free clothes. "Our band has always operated with a communal mentality," says Willett. "We always had to look out for each other. We split the rent. And then we all went from being absolutely nothing to becoming a very successful band."
Success did hit the Kids quickly. When they released a few EPs in 2005, the blogosphere went nuts. A parade of labels called, but Cold War Kids opted to sign with the indie Downtown Records (home to Gnarls Barkley and Art Brut), which released their excellent debut, Robbers & Cowards, in 2006. Over Stones-style riffs and coarse garage-rock beats, Willett told riveting stories about rapists, drunks, men who stole money from church collection plates, criminals on the lain and fogies waiting to meet their maker. "People always told us, 'You guys are so dark,'" says Willett. "But I don't think we ever really thought that. Dark means a million things."
On their new record, Loyalty to Loyalty (out in September), the Kids get even darker. The album is full of bluesy dirges, and its rough-hewn guitar play and skeletal simplicity recall Tom Waits' Swordfishtrombones. Says Maust, "These songs breathe a lot more." Meanwhile, Willett's tales have grown even more sorrowful. There's a woman who contemplates suicide by throwing herself off a bridge ("Golden Gate Jumpers"), a girl obsessed with her violent, tattooed boyfriend ("Every Man I Fall For") and cutthroat underlings who are conflicted about the desire to move up the corporate ladder ("Welcome to the Occupation"). Willett says his biggest inspirations came from the philosophies of two radically different thinkers: The Fountainhead author Ayn Rand and her theories of individualism, and California-born idealist Josiah Royce, who taught at Harvard and Berkeley in the late 19th century. The latter expounded on the necessity for humans to remain loyal to one another.
"Royce had this idea that the most beneficial thing you can do when you're living in a tribe or a city or a civilization is to stay loyal to the people around you," says Willett. "In a way, he had a socialist perspective. And it's a very interesting time to think about how our country has fought against socialist things like universal health care for so long. The group needs to pay attention to itself."
As they prepare for a four-month headlining tour, Cold War Kids have been taking it easy. They've spent their last few days off lounging at Willett's mother's pool in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, Willett went on eBay and scored a real find: a vintage Fender Star-caster guitar, the same model played by Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood. "I'm a pretty frugal person," says Willett. "But I decided to spring for it. I'm totally thrilled about it. I love vintage gear. It was really expensive, but nowadays we're fortunate to have a little income going."
This story is from the April 21st, 2008 issue of Rolling Stone.