With time, effort and some cathartic pop songs, Nada Surf demonstrates how to recover from emotional distress and brief stardom. By Andrew Parks
Life hasn’t always been awful for Nada Surf singer/guitarist Matthew Caws. There was the summer of ’96, when the band performed at the MTV Beach House in Malibu and a cameraman asked tanned, female onlookers to remove their bikini tops. Backing Joey Ramone at an Iggy Pop tribute in 1997 wasn’t so bad, either, especially when Joey returned the favor at a Nada Surf show in Coney Island a couple weeks later by leading the band through eight Ramones songs. Then there was the time an amateur football team in Las Vegas asked Nada Surf to perform its ’90s time-capsule single “Popular” with the modified bridge, “You’ll be sorry when we crush your bones.”
“They presented it to us like, ‘How exciting! How cool that the football team wants you to sing that! Wow!’” says Caws. “In a way, that was a high point. Just perfect.”
Nada Surf’s plunge from happenstance pop stardom has been well-documented after “Popular,” a Weezer-like song featuring 1950s-style teenage-advice lyrics (“You have to be attractive as possible/Make sure to keep your hair spotless and clean”), achieved novelty-hit status. But Nada Surf’s label, Elektra, couldn’t squeeze another single from the band’s debut album, 1996’s Ric Ocasek-produced High/Low. Fan favorite “Sleep” was pressed and ready for servicing when Elektra’s radio department decided the song was “too weird” and instead released the less impressive “Treehouse.”
“They thought it had a good guitar hook,” says Caws, “which is a stupid reason to put out a single.”
The executive decision was met with muted response at radio and MTV, and album sales skidded to a halt at just more than 200,000. According to Caws, Elektra abruptly stopped promoting High/Low and began pushing for the next record to feature a set of songs similar to “Popular.” Caws remembers a conversation with his Brooklyn neighbor and Elektra labelmate, John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants, around this time.
“Do you have a hit?” asked Flansburgh.
Caws stared back at him blankly.
“I’d be drinking a lot of coffee right now if I were you,” Flansburgh responded.
Nada Surf didn’t stay up all night cranking out another radio hit; 1998 follow-up The Proximity Effect was met with a chilly reception at the label. After a few months of encouraging-yet-unspectacular sales in Europe, Elektra pulled it off the shelves and put the domestic release on indefinite hiatus. In a purging of its alternative-rock roster, Elektra dropped Nada Surf, along with Spoon, Ween and a host of other outfits. Lacking the necessary funds to buy its record back from the label, Nada Surf was left no choice but to wait nearly two years for Elektra to relinquish the rights to the band’s music. 2000’s self-released The Proximity Effect sold around 6,000 copies, and several years of touring—financed by band members’ credit cards and T-shirt sales—followed. In between touring, Caws, drummer Ira Elliot and bassist Daniel Lorca wrote and recorded 2002’s Let Go, which was initially met with similar indifference in the music industry.
Says Caws, “I asked our manager, ‘Can you think of anybody who might want to hear it? How should we put it out?’ And he said, ‘Do you want to go under the same name?’”
In a moment of poetic justice, the manager himself was let go. And, of course, Nada Surf remained Nada Surf. As for Let Go, it received a proper release on Seattle indie Barsuk in 2003, earning the group comeback-kid features and its best reviews yet. So that brings us up to speed on Nada Surf—up until a year ago, when things turned grim once again.
“I had a difficult last year,” says Caws. He pauses, clearly mulling something over, before continuing. “I’ve thought about this. It may be hard for you to beat around the bush if you don’t know what bush you’re beating around.”
Caws spends the next 15 minutes discussing just what went wrong in his personal life. Everything he reveals is off the record, but this much should be made clear: Caws didn’t simply break up with a longtime girlfriend or endure anything of the typical tortured singer/songwriter variety. He was deceived, hurt and subsequently scarred by someone close to him. You can look to the lyrics of the new The Weight Is A Gift (Barsuk) if you want answers; the only trouble is they’re coded in triple-tiered metaphors.
“The bad elements in life have gone up because I’ve never known bad people or deception before,” says Caws. “I’m fine, but everything has been a struggle because the situation is so depressing, to the point where it wasn’t fun to work on anything.”
Step One: Seek out a support system at school or the office. If you fall down, someone will always be there to pick you up.
After a long night of drinking Stella Artois pints at Zabloski’s, Nada Surf’s favorite bar, we retire to the spacious Williamsburg loft shared by Lorca and Elliot. It’s 3 a.m., and the topic being passed around is the genuine pain that was poured into The Weight Is A Gift.
“I remember being on a plane and hearing ‘Blankest Year,’ banging my head and crying like a fucking idiot,” says Lorca. “The stewardess even came over and asked if I was fine. And I was thinking, ‘You’re nice and hot and all, but I need to put this song back on.’ It just killed me. I put it on repeat and just kept crying.”
Initially, “Blankest Year” sounds more like a head-banger than a weeper: The guitars jangle and wail, the drums kick up dirt, and the bass line fills in the gaps with a bouncy undercurrent before Caws enters with the opening line, “Ah, fuck it!/I’m gonna have a party!” It isn’t hard to imagine the song sneaking onto modern-rock radio or providing the soundtrack to teenage keg stands.
“It’s a very heavy song,” contends Elliot, after the numskull hit potential of a two-minute song with a party-throwing theme is pointed out. “But it’s also a classic pop single: two or three minutes and bang! You’re in, you’re out.”
An astute pupil of pop culture, Elliot—former drummer for New York City underground garage vets the Fuzztones—suggests that “Blankest Year” is in the fine tradition of misunderstood pop songs. While the Buzzcocks’ “Ever Fallen In Love?” can be a vehicle for shimmying in front of a mirror like Thora Birch in Ghost World, Pete Shelley wrote it to vent his frustration over having to hide his homosexuality.
“In a classic sense, ‘Blankest Year’ is telling someone you aren’t going to let them get you down,” says Caws. “I’m not worried, because it feels real to me. If nothing else, the rock is real. Everyone’s like, ‘Oh, this is your happiest record. It’s so up, up, up … blah, blah, blah.’ I had this tag that felt weird, like in this Time Out review from London a few years ago for Let Go that said, ‘This is the harrowing sound of depression.’ Jesus. I’m up and down, but I’m not that. I don’t want to be a martyr or a showy drama queen, so I’m glad the new album comes off as being up.”
Step Two: A table is more likely to fall if it only has three legs. Bring in a fourth party to close your square of friends.
Caws was fasting—attempting to cleanse his system by subsisting on a restricted diet of water, honey, red pepper, lemon and ginger—when Chris Walla met him during the mixing stages of Let Go in 2002.
“It was really cute,” says Walla, guitarist for Death Cab For Cutie and producer (Decemberists, Long Winters). “He was a little more nervous than he usually is because his blood sugar was kind of crazy. He was totally sweet and smart. All of those guys are like that, like brothers who help each other out to the ends of the earth. One head with one heart.”
Walla vowed to work with the trio down the road, despite the fact he hadn’t heard Nada Surf before Let Go, aside from “Popular,” of course.
“I wasn’t a fan in the first place, but I wasn’t a hater, either,” says Walla. “I guess I was surprised at how well the Let Go songs felt. That’s my thing: I care about how the songs sound, not lo-fi for the sake of being lo-fi or hi-fi for the sake of being hi-fi. The more important thing is how they make you feel.”
Walla would become an integral part of shaping The Weight Is A Gift, the bulk of which was recorded at his Hall Of Justice studio in Seattle and at John Vanderslice’s Tiny Telephone studio in San Francisco. (Nada Surf also worked on the album at various studios in Brooklyn.)
Elliot recalls Walla’s response to one particularly rough evening of writer’s block for the band: “By the time we arrived the next morning, Chris had written an entire song about Nada Surf. It was like ‘Immigrant Song’ meets Meat Loaf. He fucking just banged it out, embarrassingly better than we had cut in the days previously. It was like, ‘Come on, boys. Get it together! See what I did in 10 minutes by myself?’ And we’re like, ‘Fuck you.’ This kid is so good and inspiring. Someday he’ll be like Phil Spector without the hair.”
With his circle of support around him, Caws turned the recording session into a form of therapy and tried to articulate and purge his problems in the best manner possible.
“I really dug in when I felt like writing,” says Caws. “I’d go to bed and write for hours in my room, getting deeper into stuff. Not just for answers, but because it was the only thing that felt good.”
Step Three: Don’t let words sting you, even when those words are, “You aren’t good enough and you never will be.”
Caws has one of the most angelic voices in rock. It’s not naive like that of Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, nor is it endearing and quirky like that of the Shins’ James Mercer. Fortunately, he survived many quit-music-now moments while growing up in France and New York. Caws, whose parents are college professors, attended elementary school at the Lycée Francais de New York; the Spanish-born Lorca also lived in France and Belgium before moving to the U.S. and becoming a classmate of Caws’ in the first grade.
“There was this instigator at our school, this kid who just moved here from Paris, played guitar and had a lot of good records,” says Caws, who auditioned for the Parisian guitarist’s band, the Subrelease. “He sat me down, put on the Clash’s ‘Brand New Cadillac’ and said, ‘Play that.’ I couldn’t pick it up by ear at all.”
Lorca, who didn’t befriend Caws until their freshman year of high school, made the cut for the Subrelease. Caws did not.
“Because of the instigator, I learned how to tune my bass properly,” explains Lorca. “I’d play London Calling until I got it right. Sometimes, my mom would walk into my room at 7 a.m., and I’d be like, ‘Oh, I couldn’t sleep, so I got up really early.’”
The Subrelease asked Caws to join a few months later and changed its moniker to the Cost Of Living, named after a 1979 Clash EP. The group would meet once a week and play the same three Clash songs: “Clampdown,” “Brand New Cadillac” and “The Guns Of Brixton.” An argument between Caws and Lorca—neither can really remember what it was about—led to the pair not speaking for a year and a half.
“Our playground skills weren’t fully developed,” says Lorca. “We ended up in each other’s arms later crying, though.”
In 1988, Caws and Lorca began Because Because Because, a band that played original material. The new group featured another singer, however, partly because Caws had lost confidence in his vocals. “A friend said, ‘You really need voice lessons. You aren’t good enough,’” remembers Caws. “So I took it personally.” After recording two BBB full-lengths (“Don’t bother looking for them,” says Lorca), it became apparent that the frontman wasn’t a good fit.
“He wanted to be on the radio, have a manager and all that,” adds Caws. “In reaction to that band, we tried to be overtly un-ambitious with Nada Surf. And as soon as we weren’t looking to do well, it was liberating.”
Elliot, a friend of Caws and Lorca, also felt liberated when he was asked to join Nada Surf following a decade of creative drought with the Fuzztones.
“I was with a bunch of 20-year-olds who wanted to be rock stars in the late ’80s—a hair-metal band in effect,” says Elliot. “They were extremely ambitious and musically bereft.” Nada Surf, on the other hand, was “all engaging and odd,” says Elliot. “I still remember those first shows and this feeling of taking off and flying away. It didn’t matter that we were just playing for the bartender at (East Village bar) Brownie’s.”
Elektra discovered Nada Surf through Ben Weber (an assistant in the label’s marketing department and now the group’s manager), who brought in a rough, band-produced mix of High/Low. At the time of Nada Surf’s signing to Elektra, Caws was an assistant editor at Guitar World and Lorca was designing computer programs. Both actually enjoyed their jobs, so much so that they didn’t feel like shopping High/Low around, or maybe more accurately, they didn’t know how. “We balked for a while,” says Caws. “It’s hard to justify starting from scratch when no one knows you.”
Step Four: Don’t worry about what other people are doing. Be yourself.
Via television shows such as The O.C., newly tagged “indie” radio stations and abundant music-placement opportunities in commercials, bands like Nada Surf—and, to a larger extent, former Barsuk labelmates Death Cab For Cutie—have been able to dip their toes into the mainstream.
“There’s so much demand and need for content from the marketing side, between television channels and commercials,” says Walla. “Major labels just don’t make enough music to fill those spaces. And all these ad execs I’ve met are around 30, grew up with Superchunk and always thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if my mix tape was playing in a coffee shop?’ Nada Surf will be fine because there’s a lot behind those little pop songs.”
“I have this nagging anxiety things are going to go so well that I don’t understand just how well,” says Elliot. “It’s a great feeling—and scary, too. I think a lot of people thought Let Go was as good as we were going to get.”
With a higher profile—a Nada Surf cover of Orchestral Manœuvres In The Dark’s “If You Leave” aired on The O.C. and appears on one of the show’s soundtracks—the group could be poised for another run at the spotlight. Not that the band planned it this way.
“We’re so far away from having a goal,” says Lorca. “Success is a strange thing. You’ll hear 10 seconds of a song and know it’s a certain band. In a way, that’s really cool. In another way, it’s limiting and un-cool.”
“We’re not innovative by nature, trying to reinvent the wheel,” says Elliot. “Complicated or not, we’re trying to bring something new to the table.”
The Weight Is A Gift isn’t complicated. Were it not for the torment hidden behind the hooks, this would be Nada Surf’s unashamedly pop opus. The trio is prepared for accusations of sounding too commercial.
“We’ve been having that discussion, the idea of a backlash,” says Elliot. “A band takes whatever opportunities it gets. Some of them are clear, some of them are not so clear. Some friends of ours, who will remain unnamed, were offered a Hummer commercial and were conflicted because a lot of money could have been made. It’s one thing using your music for a TV show or a product you might use, but another to use it for something you openly dislike.”
“Then you say no,” adds Lorca, whom Caws refers to as the “ethics guy” of the group.
For Nada Surf—composed of a 42-year-old drummer, 37-year-old singer/guitarist and 38-year-old bassist—worrying over the details isn’t as important as the big picture.
“If we aren’t kinda already there, it feels like we’re on our way to a sturdy career,” says Caws. “I want tenure, like my parents. It’s funny that the ‘Popular’ deal was so defining, because it’s just this speed bump if you look at the long term.”
Step Five: Treat life like an arcade game, where you’re almost out of quarters, low on health points and have to decide between giving up and beating the machine.
He doesn’t have an Atari 2600 in his apartment or anything, but Caws used to love playing the classic arcade game Defender. He loved it so much, in fact, that he mines it for symbolism on The Weight Is A Gift’s “Do It Again.” (“When I accelerate, I remember why it’s good to be alive, like in a 25-cent game,” he sings.)
“You act so deliberately in a game,” explains Caws. “If your health count is low and you’re flying by a health pill, you take it. If you thought that way in real life, you might think, ‘That quadrant’s dangerous, so I don’t know.’”
Maybe that’s why Caws fantasizes so much about states of inertia in song: of floating and flying, of letting go when the plane starts to shake and you can’t help but watch as it goes down in flames.
“The goal is managing the process of everyday life,” says Caws as he begins to give himself some suggestions for better living. “What if I woke up every morning at 6:30, exercised for an hour, read a couple of good papers, read my correspondence, answered my family first, and then friends, looked up silly things, considered my finances, spent five hours on art, had a dinner party to keep up with friends and then a responsible, not too damaging night with one or two drinks during the week, three on the weekend? It would all fall into place so easily. If you spent one hour every day doing one thing, what couldn’t you do? You could build anything.”