When Cold War Kids hits the road, so does Nathan Willett's tennis racket

CHICAGO (AP) — Like so many tennis fans around the world, Nathan Willett was captivated by Carlos Alcaraz's five-set victory over Novak Djokovic in the Wimbledon final this summer. All the twists and turns, spectacular shots and impressive rallies.

Only Willett was on the road with the Cold War Kids, opening for Tears for Fears on a North America tour.

“It was just phenomenal,” Willett said. “And we were screaming in catering at breakfast, just like hanging out for three hours, and it's the best.”

Tennis has become a regular pastime for Willett, especially when he goes on the road with his California band. There are 30 more dates on his schedule after Cold War Kids announced a tour on Tuesday in support of its self-titled 10th album — 12 songs that touch on everything from breaking up with a therapist to gender norms to confronting a toxic past.

After releasing a trilogy of albums over three straight years and mulling over a more dramatic departure from the band's indie rock sound, Willett said Cold War Kids' new music is more about what it does best — leading to the eponymous title.

“I feel like what I really came full circle on was just like, I just want to make the best Cold War Kids album I can make, which is going in many ways to resemble something of the sound that we’ve always made,” he said. “And yeah, something about sort of wanting to just sonically, lyrically, musically, in every way the performances be really like the strongest material that we can make.”

These days, almost 20 years after the band's inception, the best version of Willett includes his love for tennis, to go along with a deeper appreciation of his own connection to sports. He played soccer all the way through Esperanza High School in Anaheim, California, and he returned to his alma mater for a reunion game a couple of years ago.

“I feel like the one that kind of barely snuck on the team and senior year snuck on varsity,” he said. “I think I probably learned how much attitude and morale, you know, plays such a big role. But yeah, I mean, I loved it. I still love it.”

Willett, 43, picked up tennis amid the COVID-19 pandemic. It was a suggestion by his wife, Kristina Dahlin, who thought he needed a new hobby while Cold War Kids was off the road for a while. During that same period, a few more people with the band and its crew started playing.

It quickly turned into regular doubles matches in Southern California. And they just kept playing, including almost every day while they were on tour with Tears for Fears this summer.

“It really felt almost like the feeling of starting a band, where it was like we don’t really know why we love this thing so much or what it’s coming to and we know we suck and we’re just starting out,” Willett said. “But we just love it.”

The regular tennis games are a marked contrast to the lifestyle the band observed when it first went on the road, and perhaps a necessary one in order for it to keep going. Over the years, Willett said, all the time between shows — spent in a variety of ways like reading, watching movies and yes, a few early drinks — had taken a toll.

“I would know that I was thrilled to be there and that this is everything we want,” he said. “But at the same time just a sort of a misery about your day and a kind of a sense of dread about the daytime part, you know, until the show. But yeah, so what you need is this like 100% consuming distraction, and that is what tennis I think really provided for us.”

Willett also feels a kinship with professional tennis players, who, like musicians, have a demanding travel schedule and an audience that expects a high level of performance. The connection stretches all the way to the stage.

“There’s always the very unsexy side of music and sports. ... You’re out there," he said. “You know, you better make the most of it. And I feel that parallel very much.”