Beyond “Popular”: An Interview with Nada Surf’s Ira Elliot

Nada Surf
The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy

Nada Surf was thrust into the spotlight of a booming alternative music scene back in 1996, when the band’s quirky debut single, “Popular”, became, well, popular. Two years later, when the Brooklyn-based trio turned in its sophomore album, The Proximity Effect to record label executives at Elektra, the executives were none too pleased. The album lacked a “Popular”, they said; it had no catchy single that would spur interest in the record and generate sales. When the band rejected the label’s request to alter the album, Elektra refused to release it in the United States, and Nada Surf and the label decided to part ways.

Although they had long been dismissed as a novelty one-hit wonder, Nada Surf soldiered on. They acquired the rights to The Proximity Effect from Elektra and released the record on their own label, MarDev, in the United States in 2000, touring extensively throughout the country to support its release. Without the backing of a major label behind them, however, both record sales and show attendance were generally disappointing.

Let Go, Nada Surf’s follow-up to The Proximity Effect, was released in Europe in September 2002. Barsuk, the well-regarded Seattle-based independent record label — whose roster at the time included bands like Death Cab for Cutie and the Long Winters — released the album a year later in the States. Listeners on both sides of the Atlantic went gaga. Music critics and fans alike were effusive in their praise. Entertainment Weekly’s Brian M. Raftery referred to it as a collection of “near-perfect pop songs”, while Rolling Stone’s Rob Sheffield deemed the album “excellent”.

Since then, Nada Surf hasn’t looked back. And while the band has yet to achieve the mainstream success it garnered in the nineties, the indie rockers — with six full-length albums and a covers record to their name, a large, dedicated fan base and the respect of their peers — currently have the type of career that every young, aspiring band would kill for.

Nada Surf drummer Ira Elliot spoke to PopMatters prior to the band’s upcoming tour about the group’s resiliency, the record that changed their career and their new album, The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy.

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When Nada Surf was dropped from Elektra, did you ever think your musical career was over?

I can’t say that we ever really thought that we would break up. It was just kind of a quiet moment. I don’t remember mulling over the idea that it was over at that point. I think we were kind of in the middle of soldiering on. I think a lot of people look at it as if we were dropped by Elektra. We actually left Elektra. It was a mutual decision. It wasn’t like, “Oh, we’re letting you go.” It was like we wanted to get out because we wanted to continue on in a better way. We knew that relationship was not gonna go anywhere. It was just the wrong kind of thing for us. There was never any serious thought about breaking up. We just thought that we would have to try a little harder to get to where we needed to be.

What were you up to at this time? Did you stay busy? Were you depressed at all?

Maybe. But I don’t remember us sitting around and crying about it. We just kind of moved on. We were happy to leave Elektra. We didn’t want to be on Elektra at that point. We were kind of excited to get out because we were basically unhappy.

We struck out on our own. We played out. We toured [The Proximity Effect] and sold a lot of t-shirts and used that money to pay for Let Go.

How else, aside from financially, did making that record without label backing change your approach to recording?

There were a lot of things going on then. We had made two records. We were more comfortable in the studio than we’d ever been. Maybe it was just that batch of songs. We hadn’t done a lot of prep for it. Everything was kind of new. We had to make up a lot of stuff as we went. We were on the West Coast. It was LA. It was kind of chill and warm. I think we were very laid-back. It all contributed to the beautiful atmosphere of the record. It has a beautiful, easy quality about it.

A lot of it had to do with what we were listening to. I remember listening to a lot of Strokes. It doesn’t sound like a Strokes record, but that was a very inspiring thing. We were listening to the initial Strokes EP [The Modern Age], the one that came out before their first album.

Let Go definitely seems like the turning point in Nada Surf’s career. You seemed to hit your stride both musically and lyrically on that album. Did you feel that Let Go was any better or different than the records you had previously made while you were working on it?

I don’t know. We’re kind of heads-down. It’s hard to really tell. When you’re making a record, it’s so hard to tell what’s really going on. The things you do early on that seem strange — once you layer them with things and put a little magic and fairy dust on top, put a keyboard here and whatever, a glockenspiel there — it certainly adds another magical quality you can’t really see when you’re actually doing it.

The response to Let Go was overwhelmingly positive. Did you as a band feel vindicated?

Well, you can’t help but be. Our present manager, Ben Weber, had been a friend of ours for many years. We met him at Elektra. We had quietly been trying to get him to manage us for some time, and he was reluctant. And he took an early copy of Let Go to England and played it for the people at Heavenly Records, like Jeff Barrett, who’s one of those guys who just has a great ear and knows a great band when he hears it. Well, Ben played him this record and he reported back, “I played him the record, and he just lost his mind.” It was at that point that Ben decided that he was gonna be our manager. So we knew that we had done something right if this was gonna be the response.

Once we listened to the record, we all felt really very, very proud. I remember at the time having this fantasy, where [Radiohead’s] Thom Yorke is in his mansion, surrounded by models, snorting cocaine and listening to Let Go, and he’s like, “Why can’t I make a record like this?!”

You followed up Let Go with The Weight Is a Gift and Lucky, two records equally as brilliant as Let Go, but not very different sonically or thematically. Was the decision to record a covers album [If I Had a Hi-Fi] an attempt to get out of your comfort zone?

Yeah. A little bit. We just wanted to do something that was not one of our records. The way [lead singer] Matthew [Caws] writes is a very soul-searching process. Generally speaking, he writes about his own situation. He can’t write songs about nothing. I think he’s trying to do that more now — write songs that are not specifically about his personal life. This was an attempt to not have to go through this emotional process because the songs were already written. We just had to pick them and rehearse them.

How did If I Had a Hi-Fi impact your approach to working on new material going forward? Did you notice a difference when you started recording The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy?

I don’t really know. At this point, each [record] becomes its own process. I think the fact that we spent a long time doing a covers record, which we thought we were just gonna knock out and it sort of went on forever, sort of informed this record. We knocked it out. We were like, “Let’s just do this one fast. We’ll rehearse more, we’ll go in the studio quickly and we’ll just punch it out.” So there was a whole different M.O. for this record, very similar, actually, to our first record in ‘96.

It’s probably your most aggressive and intense album. Bands generally tend to tame with age. It’s pretty crazy that you were able to achieve that.

Yeah. It’s crazy. I’m looking down the barrel at 50 now. I’m 49. I’ll be 50 any minute. It’s ridiculous. I can’t believe I’m a drummer in a rock band. I’m too old for this shit.