Your interpretation of Nada Surf’s career probably depends on your genre specifics. If you were a slacker rock fanatic, then they were the one hit wonder kiss-off to the mid-90s movement — their epic single “Popular” a moment of focussed truth-telling before the band disappeared into indie obscurity.
But if your tastes run a bit softer, a bit deeper, or indeed if you’re a bit younger, you’ll know Nada Surf for a different reason. Since 2002, the Brooklyn-based three-piece have been on one of the mightiest runs you’re likely to see from a modern rock band. “Let Go, The Weight is a Gift (2005),” “Lucky (2008),” cover album “If I Had a Hi-Fi (2010),” and new record “The Stars Are Indifferent” to Astronomy make for a remarkable discography, particularly when you consider that a number of causal listeners think the trio no longer exist.
But what do Nada Surf think of “Popular”? After the song’s success, Elektra demanded more, and the eventual fallout cost the band two years of their career. So was the dance with the zeitgeist a blessing or a curse? Before a recent tour of Australia, I got on the horn to front man and songwriter Matthew Caws to find out, as well as discuss life 16 years on from the single and ten years on from the monumental Let Go. — Matt Shea
Am I right in thinking you’ve moved to England?
That’s right. I moved here last year.
What made you move away from New York?
I have a little boy who lives here and I wanted to be closer to him.
As I understand it, you’ve been based in Brooklyn for most of the past couple of decades, right? You’d be one of the very few Brooklynites who I’ve spoken to for whom that would be the case: how much has it changed over the last ten or fifteen years?
A lot, and really over the last 20 years. I grew up in Manhattan but moved to Brooklyn in maybe ’95. Daniel [Lorca, bassist] moved there in 1990. And the reason I actually moved there was because we’d been practicing out there, and the subway home at night was really sketchy. I moved there so I wouldn’t have to go home at night, I’d already be home. And now that same train is the most crowded and safest in New York.
But Brooklyn was pretty deserted at the time that we moved. Then over the years, every time we’d go on tour we’d be coming back from the airport in a taxi going, “What? What is that place? What is that?! What?!” (laughs) It’s been fun to see it. Even though in a lot of ways it feels pretty overrun and the main corner there, which is Bedford Avenue and North Seventh Street, feels a little Haight-Ashbury, it’s still incredible – it’s still really great. There aren’t really any chains, there are no KFCs or whatever. It’s great, and it’s been for years the case that there are a lot more places to see live music than there are in Manhattan. Yeah, it’s really good; I miss it.
When I told people I was interviewing you, Matthew, I was a little surprised because the biggest reaction I got was excitement that you’d gotten back together –
Caws’ laughter floods the phone line.
You get that a lot?
Every once in a while (laughs). I don’t get it in person; it’s more on Twitter or something: “I can’t believe they’re back!” It’s pretty funny.
It’s just something that makes you laugh.
Oh yeah, I don’t have any other reaction. How do I put it? I guess I’m not tied up with our success, or lack thereof, depending on what unit of value you’re using.
I guess a lot of that goes back to “Popular”. The story surrounding “Popular” is really interesting: it broke you guys, but then it set up that whole arm-wrestle with Elektra to claim back the rights to Proximity Effect. What is that song to you, Matthew? Do you look back on it as a blessing? Or a curse?
I guess it’s probably both. But more of a blessing. Although at the time it was a relatively rocky ride, looking back it’s been really perfect, because to get your name around, see a bit of the world, and then disappear is a great place to be to keep going. Because then you can write in obscurity, which is what we did to make our third record, Let Go – we wrote it in a vacuum, really, and recorded it in a vacuum. But then when it came out it had a leg up because people had heard of us already. So we really got to start over and be on the label we always wanted to be on.
We didn’t go out looking for a major label at all: we sent tapes to Matador, Touch and Go, Merge, labels like that, and never heard back. And then we just got scooped up, and said “no” at first, until we found that there really was no one else. “No one else is knocking at the door so we’ll say yes,” (laughs) even though we knew at the time that it wasn’t going to go well. But we thought, “Let’s take that rollercoaster ride anyway. It’s the only ride on offer. Let’s see how it goes.”
But we don’t play it every night. Much like most of our songs, we don’t play them every night. It’s a funny song, so it’s more fun at a festival gig or something like that. And the really funny thing is, though, that we can’t win anyway: if we don’t play it, somebody in the crowd will be a little disappointed; but then, you’d be surprised when we do play it because there’ll be some indier-than-thou kid down the front saying, “Oh. My. God. How could you do this?!” (laughs)
I’m not sure I’ve ever heard of that happening before.
I think to be fair to you, though – it struck a nerve – that song still carries a lot of truth to it. Do you feel that way about it? I mean you weren’t teenagers when you released that song. Does it still feel like you were dropping knowledge, or does it feel a little callow?
No, not at all. I still think it’s kind of true. Well, at the time we got a lot of letters where it would be some sort of misfit, sweet, wrongly outcasted kid who’d write to us and say, “The footballers and the cheerleaders at my school really love that song but I think it’s kind of making fun of them. Is that maybe true?” (laughs) It’s more fun now. At the time of our first tour when that song was on the radio, the shows were fun, but weird. There’d be a lot of football players down front. It was pretty fratty, I guess was the thing.
But I mean, it’s completely silly and etiquette books aren’t as prevalent as they used to be, but it was really true. That’s all true. So it was in an etiquette book. It did actually say, “These are the three important rules for breaking up.” That was in print.
You didn’t actually have to write those lyrics? It was just there all ready to go?
Yeah, yeah. It was all there. No, I didn’t really write them. In fact, I was reading from the book and it just wasn’t flowing right and I shut it and just made it up, but I made it up from things that are actually there. When we put that record out, I photocopied and highlighted all the pages of stuff that I’d lifted and sent it to our lawyer and she said it was satire and that it was fine. But, yeah, I didn’t write all that.
Going back to the Elektra thing: you talked about then operating in a vacuum for a while. But did that really galvanize you as a band, that whole arm wrestle with Elektra?
Well, you know when you form a band – there’s a bit of a gang feeling – and we had that already. But it was just a nice period, because it bought us some time. When we put that third record out, nobody was waiting for it, so it didn’t really matter. So we took a year and a half or two years to write it, and recorded it slowly and got to make a first album all over again, that’s what it was. And it was a nice period for me, because I was just working in a record store and I was already 30 or 31 by that point. And if we hadn’t had the band, I wouldn’t have been able to have that period, which – sorry for the cheesy term – was really a slacker life. I wouldn’t have been able to justify it if we didn’t have the band.
At that stage, it really would have been trying to go to grad school – or something. You’d have to choose a career. I’d already written at a rock magazine; I wasn’t particularly good at it, but I liked that kind of thing; I could have been an editor, maybe, and English teacher, or something – but because the band was still going and there was that glimmer where we thought, “Well, something might happen again,” it bought me those couple of years of just hanging out and just listening to records and just writing songs when I felt like it.
Your passport to being a slacker.
Exactly. That was a golden period. It was really, really great. So I’m actually really grateful for it.
Turning to things more modern: The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy – it’s got six months on the clock now: are you happy with it, looking back? Does it seem like a worthy way to celebrate 20 years together?
Yeah, sure, absolutely. That was a more enjoyable record than any of those we made before, and that’s saying a lot because I really love recording. But this time we intentionally didn’t want to write in the studio, which is something we’d fallen into a little bit; entirely my fault, just because I would start too many songs, not finish enough of them, and then try to figure out how many choruses there should be et cetera while the clock was ticking on the studio. So this time, we just kept on writing and practicing and rehearsing until we were totally done. We then tracked the basic tracks in five days.
And you know, it reminds me a little bit of our first record, and then a little bit of our most recent one. So it does feel a little bit full circle, and why not: it’s a good way to celebrate. And we’re really only 18 or 19 years old right now, but in the German press especially, everyone was jumping on it for being 20 years and that’s become a thing. But it’s not really true; our first single came out in ’94. But yeah, whatever you want to call it, and the three of us probably have been together for 19 years. Next year is the ten year anniversary of Let Go, and we were maybe going to celebrate it. But then maybe not. Why not wait until 15?
Touching back on the Elektra thing. The music industry’s changed so much over the last ten years. You were unceremoniously dropped by a major. What’s your take on the way things have gone over the last decade. Do you guys prefer operating in the modern environment?
Um, yeah. Yeah, I do. I think it’s a lot easier to build an audience. I think that if we were a brand new band it would seem both easier and then more daunting. More daunting because there are so many more bands out there, but easier because you can just build a little audience and be in touch with them. I don’t really take too much advantage from that, but the fact that you can talk to your audience at any time in the middle of the night, really, is great.
But it’s also great for people in other disciplines. Because before, if you were a writer or you were a film director, it’s only at the film opening or the book tour that you’ll get all that feedback. Whereas in a band, every single night you’re getting confirmation, which is really gilding the lily – you don’t need that much confirmation (laughs), but you get it. Now, though, everybody can find their audience and nurture their audience, and that’s really good.
But in terms of the music business, I don’t know. I think it’s more to do with music consumption rather than the music business, but having the entire world and having all of recorded culture and all of recorded music at your fingertips for free at all times is weird. It’s weird. What is it doing? I mean, are we becoming more immune a little bit? If you have chocolate all day, is it still a thrill to eat it? And if you can find your favourite songs at any time and more of them – I think it’s mostly good, but it can’t be all good. There is something that I miss about the way music was consumed before. When I was growing up, my allowance was just enough to buy one 45” a week. And even if I didn’t like it, I’d still listen to it many times and get deeply into it. And you don’t need to get deeply into things anymore. But then everyone can also take a direct route to what they really love.
Maybe it’s good in art and bad in the news, or something. Because I do feel like in terms of cable news or political blogs, it’s so easy for people to find that mirror that reflects exactly what they’re thinking right back at them. And then you’re in this symbiotic feedback loop and you’re stuck. So I don’t know. I don’t know what sociologists will say when they look back at this decade and say, “Remember when all we did was read ephemera?! That’s all we did. That’s all we did!”
“That’s why that major conflict eventually kicked off.”
Yeah, right, exactly!
Returning to Australia after so long: I wonder if there’s an element of trepidation there, of it being a little like going to visit and old friend who you’ve kept putting off.
No, there isn’t. I mean I guess I said something like this earlier in the interview, but I’m really immune to anything going wrong – I just don’t have any trepidation. I really, really love what we do, and if the room’s packed or a third full, I don’t have that embarrassment. I’ve read that about some bands: “The room was so empty, I couldn’t look up.” I’m pretty sure if it’s just five people, those five people are going to be really psyched. I’m there for them. But I think it’ll go better than that.
I remember reading Ira talking about you being keen on acoustic shows a few years ago, Matthew. What’s the approach at the moment?
They’ll totally be electric. I really do enjoy acoustic shows and tours, maybe because most of the songs were written that way to begin with and it’s really easy to hear yourself sing and the harmonies tend to be a little bit more polished in that kind of environment. Sometimes if we don’t get to all the songs people wanted to hear, I’ll grab a guitar and sing a few at the bar, or something. I’ve done that kind of a thing. But no, this will very much be a plugged in show.
What are the plans beyond this year?
Well another record, but I’m not sure when. We’ll probably take a break. I think it’s good to go away for a little bit every once in a while. Also for us too. So yeah, there’s definitely another record in the works, but we’re going to take our time.
This interview was originally conducted for Scene Magazine.