SPM Acoustics: The Cold Desert

Matt Klassen, the driving force behind local band The Cold Desert, has achieved his childhood goal. As he sips iced coffee at Tempe’s hipster Cartel Coffee Lab, he oozes laidback cool. His thick-frame glasses, blue and yellow plaid shirt and sandy, floppy hair scream “indie frontman.” That’s exactly what he is.

“Every time I get involved with music again it seems to be in an effort to make myself cooler,” Klassen says. “I took piano lessons from my mom, but that wasn’t cool enough – not as cool as guitar anyway.”

Klassen, 25, is the singer, songwriter and guitarist for the band that evolved from his high school and early college days of playing in church bands and gigging around the Valley at open-mike nights. He also played shows at Arizona State University’s Tempe campus, where he earned a Bachelor’s degree in film studies.

“I cut my teeth playing in church worship bands,” Klassen says. “It escalated into singing a few songs every now and then and I went forward with that and jumped up to ASU.”

After playing with ASU’s Campus Crusade for Christ (now called simply CRU), Klassen had a falling-out with organizers over issues of dogma and interpretation. He left the organization and the religion, which he had always grappled with as the son of a Mennonite Brethren pastor.

“I got out of doing church music and now I’m doing different music,” Klassen says, although The Cold Desert is undoubtedly influenced by the music he grew up with. Threads of gospel and old-time spirituals are woven into the band’s melodic, bluesy folk-rock.

“It’s a different kind of ‘church music,’ maybe a more realistic kind of church music,” Klassen says.

The Cold Desert began as a solo project in 2008, with Klassen attempting to play five instruments himself as a gimmick (he can play “six or seven with some level of ability”). After playing with a “revolving door of whoever wanted to play with me,” Klassen finalized the lineup this year, with Jason Stromberg on bass, Jared Kaiser on drums and Cody Nelson as the band’s multi-instrumentalist. They have performed alongside Future of Forestry, Eastern Conference Champions and Johnny Flynn & The Sussex Wit.

Their crowning achievement, Klassen says, is their debut EP, “Four Doors.” They recorded it this spring in Hollywood with producer Chris Franz.

“We needed someone outside of us to listen to our music critically,” Klassen says. “Being able to focus purely on music was a great experience. ‘Four Doors’ is what we have to show for it, and I think that’s a hell of a lot.”

The EP’s title reflects the diversity of its four tracks.

“It’s like four different doorways into who The Cold Desert is,” Klassen says. “This has four individual songs that show different parts of our identity and our versatility. Each song has its own message, its own identity. It’s like, you pick a door and go through it.”

The Cold Desert is celebrating the release of “Four Doors” with a show at the Hard Rock Café in Phoenix on Friday, Sept. 30, at 8 p.m.

“We’re stoked for it,” band manager Lance Linderman says. “Online sales have been great so far, hard ticket sales have been great. We weren’t worried as much about the numbers as we were about the bands we’re playing with. We wanted every band to be quality. It’s going to be great music and a great turnout Downtown.”

The band will be joined by Micah & His Friend, Saddles and Annette Janelle.

Anjanette Reed, a longtime friend of Klassen’s, is looking forward to the release party.

“I’m really excited for him, he’s worked hard for this,” Reed says. “I like watching him up there. I remember being in youth group with him at church and him practicing that Jimi Hendrix thing, where he’d play the electric guitar behind his back, and now he’s perfected it and I see him do it at Cold Desert shows. He’s used all of these performances at church and college to polish what he is now.”

Andrea Simmons, an interdisciplinary arts and performance senior at ASU, started as a fan of the band but quickly befriended Klassen and company after going to a few shows.

“They’re real people,” Simmons says in an email. “They go out of their way to meet and greet their fans, and take the time to get to know them. I don’t think you see that a lot anymore. Many bands find this sort of arrogance in the obsession of ‘making it’ and lose sight of the music itself.”

Simmons says fans are drawn to the band’s authenticity and raw talent.

“They’ve got a very real sound, which I don’t think you hear a lot anymore with all this technological, computer-processed bullshit,” Simmons says. “The Cold Desert’s sound is very much produced by the talent of these four boys, not to mention, Matt has an absolutely fantastic, beautiful voice – angelic, even.”

The Cold Desert is deep in preparation for the release party and Klassen thinks they’ll only continue moving forward.

“We want to be a little better than the next band at everything we do,” Klassen says.

Spoken like a cool kid.

EP release party details:
Hard Rock Café
3 S. 2nd St., Phoenix
8 p.m.
Tickets are $10.

Contact the reporter at llemoine@asu.edu

Video by Andrew Toth and Lauren Stasko.