Music

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

Joey Rubin

Matthew Caws and Ira Elliot have waited until they could take their time.

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.

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image