Finally Professional: A Conversation with Nada Surf at Ten Years Old

On the other end of the phone, there is a child and a rock musician. One of them is missing a shoe and this is the reason our interview is ending. “I’m going to have to cut this short; I’ve got to get this kiddo ready and I’m having trouble finding footwear. It was great talking to you though.”

He’s apologetic, this rock musician, especially considering our 30 minutes of allotted interview time — marred by a phone number that didn’t connect, faulty cell service, and the aforementioned shoe shortage — has actually only lasted 15 minutes. And understandably so; this rock musician, Matthew Caws of the band Nada Surf, knows what it is to be cut short.

Nada Surf, made up of Caws, his childhood schoolmate Daniel Lorca, and their NYC rock scene pal Ira Elliot, began their career as most bands only dream. After releasing the Karma EP in 1995, impressing Ric Ocasek (of Cars fame) and Elektra Records, Nada Surf hit the charts with a solid debut album, High/Low and a big-as-hell hit, “Popular”. The song, a monologue-driven novelty with a solid, contagious hook, vaulted the band into the spotlight and then, like so often happens, left the band behind. By the time they recorded their follow-up, Elektra had given up on their brand of pop tune and — to add insult to injury — refused to hand over the rights to the new songs. By the time the band had wrestled them back and released the work, the MTV-inspired groundswell had deflated.

Since that time, however, Nada Surf has been diligently rebuilding the fan base that left them as quickly as if following the dating rules of their long-ago hit, dumping them after the “one month limit”. Thanks to a surprisingly supportive European fan base (it helps that band members are fluent in Spanish and French), constant national and international touring, and, mostly, serious dedication to writing and recording powerful pop tunes (i.e. not only quirky novelties), Caws, Lorca, and Elliot have swum gallantly against the tides of one-hit-wonderdom. With the critically applauded release of their third album, Let Go, in 2003, it seemed they had finally reached the shore. Now, with their fourth full-lengthThe Weight Is a Gift released this month, they’re back with a solid effort to cement their hard-won status as a career-track rock band.

When I ask Caws about the difference between the most recent effort and the past three — the surprisingly successful debut, the long-delayed follow-up, and the cathartic third release — he is proud to call the newest a “professional” effort. “You know that feeling you have when you’re in your early 20s,” Caws explains, “where everything you do, you’re just practicing, you’re not actually doing anything yet? Well, now, the fact that we’re still doing this; it’s the good side of the word pro. It’s ‘this is what we’re doing: let’s do it.’ This album is the product of a month of full-time digging into it, of just thinking about and producing music.”

That month, spent at John Vanderslice’s Tiny Telephone studio in San Francisco with labelmate and producer Chris Walla (of Death Cab for Cutie), was a month during which Caws, Lorca, and Elliot were able to step outside their “normal lives”, to get away from their domestic routines and to be full-time musicians — “professional” like. But if you’re worried that this new professionalism will dilute the bittersweet ingredient that infused Nada Surf’s earlier songs — the tug that pulled them away from the bland power-pop brethren to which they’re often compared — Caws insists fans shouldn’t worry. “I think the pro part is only about the process and not about the content. If the pro part is more taken care of, then the record will be less rushed and we’ll be able to make the most excruciatingly romantic and naïïve record. The most ridiculous and free.”

And is The Weight Is a Gift any of these things? “To me,” Caws insists. “It feels pretty urgent, which is good. I think we all had a lot going on in our personal lives and really needed that kind of escape, that kind of sanctuary.”

For drummer Ira Elliot, it’s the influence of that sanctuary that makes The Weight Is a Gift Nada Surf’s most musically pure, and sonically impressive, album to date. I caught Elliot on the phone after Caws excused himself to go shoe searching. He explained that a close friend of the band “has this beautiful townhouse near Haight Ashbury, about a ten minute drive across town to the studio, and we were able to stay there for the entire month and just be really creative 24/7. We were ensconced in this really beautiful house and each day, after working hard at the studio, Daniel — who’s a very fine cook — would get to work in the kitchen and Matthew would pick up his guitar and we would just be wandering around, half-baked, and we would just play. It was a really simple musical atmosphere. And it bred a really simple, beautiful album.”

In this way, it makes sense that the album, defined by the very fact that they were able to fully indulge in its creation — the first such effort in the band’s 10-year tenure — would be one about appreciation. “The title of the record,” according to Caws, “comes from the lyrics of “Do It Again” [the album’s second track], a song about appreciating everything in your life, even life’s struggles. It’s our more positive and less dramatic version of ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’ Because the way I see it, you’re going to have to pull off a lot of Band Aids in your life.”

Band Aids like recovering from major label setbacks and orchestrating decade-long comebacks. And also, it seems, like finding missing shoes.