The band's frontman on new beginnings, comfort food music and bouncing back from major-label heartbreak
Photo by Jess Lomas
There are no second chances in life, right? Well, Nada Surf might have a thing or two to say about that. Not only did the New York trio tear holes in that philosophy, but when their second chance came around, it presented itself to a band that had learned a thing or two about themselves.
It goes against everything you’re told about building a career. You sign to an indie label, build up a following, move to a major label, score a few hits and keep playing them until the people stop turning up or you all stop talking to each other. Nada Surf did it backwards, landing almost instantly on a major label with a made-for-MTV buzz-worthy hit: the none-more-90s alt-rock gem ‘Popular’.
But instead of opening more doors, that initial success quickly turned sour. Their second album saw them dropped by their label, surely a disastrous turn of events for any young band. Not so, says Matthew Caws, the band’s charismatic frontman. Speaking to us from his home in Cambridgeshire, Caws reveals much about the relief that he, bassist Daniel Lorca and drummer Ira Elliot felt at being offered a chance to start again and do things their way.
“Their way” turned out to be Let Go, their seminal, critically acclaimed third album which turns 20 next month and is this week receiving its first vinyl release courtesy of Heavenly Recordings. The album turned the band from a potential alt-rock footnote to a respected indie pop band with a phenomenally bright future. Caws took time to talk us through its creation and legacy, and his love of “comfort food” music.
Where was Nada Surf at as a band when you came to start work on Let Go?
We were really in a simultaneously terrible place and wonderful place. We put out a first album [1996’s High/Low] on Elektra and then they were really looking over our shoulders while we were making the second record [1998’s The Proximity Effect]. That was the tail end of this sort of commercial alternative period, where a lot of money could be made off a band that would have a left field hit or something. I was on the phone with our A&R guy often and that’s not a lot of fun.
The Proximity Effect came out in Europe, but in the States they were hesitating. And finally, they decided not to put it out at all, and to pull it off the shelves in Europe, where it had been doing really well and getting great press. It came to this grinding halt. We were dropped, but then weren’t allowed to have that record back.
But here’s where it starts getting good. After waiting quite a while, we put out The Proximity Effect ourselves and started touring in the States. We hadn’t done much touring on High/Low in the States and when we did, it was when ‘Popular’ was really popping. A lot of people were there just because of the video. But once that was over, and we were touring for The Proximity Effect, there was this small group of really awesome fans, and the shows started being so much fun. So, we knew there was something there.
Meanwhile, I was working in a record store with lots of time. I was just hanging out and having this kind of post-collegiate low-pressure life that I’d never had. The band was still enough of an ongoing, possibly future concern that I didn’t feel like I had time to try and get the best job I could or figure out a career or be a teacher or go to grad school or, you know, whatever kinds of pressures you have when you have parents who are a little bit ambitious for you. My parents are both college professors and had invested in my education, so there’s a certain pressure to launch.
But I just like felt like I didn’t need to do anything other than go to this record store job and play around at home with four tracks and eight tracks. I lived in a totally awesome disastrous apartment that cost nothing. It was great. I also got to dig back into music and kind of forget about careers, which was amazing, you know? I had a cassette with Hank Williams on one side and Village Green Preservation Society on the other. I just kept flipping that for months. It was a happy period of exploring. We found a cheap practice space and would meet up all the time. Once in a while, we would bemoan our current state, but most of the time, we were just hanging out and making up songs. We were happy.
That sounds pretty blissful, especially after the pressure you experienced of making that second record. To have another shot at it, is like getting to be a new band again.
Oh, absolutely. That’s exactly right. I’ve said that many times. We got to be a new band again and start over.
Was there ever a moment where you worried this might be the end of the band or did you always have faith that it would come back?
I think we always had faith, because it was fun. We definitely lowered our expectations, which had been very unrealistically raised. When we signed with Elektra, that’s not where we wanted to be. You know, my dream was to be on Matador, but it was totally out of reach. I love Merge, Drag City, Touch And Go, so many records on all those labels. But we didn’t have a lot going on and maybe hadn’t made the magic tape yet, you know, the one that makes meritocracy happen. When we did end up signing to Elektra, we all knew in the back or the side of our minds that it probably would end in tears.
There seem to be quite a few bands from that era, maybe a little earlier, who had their hit or one big record and then ended up on the nostalgia circuit. You’ve kept going without leaning on ‘Popular’ but I don’t get the sense that you’re ashamed of it either.
Yeah, I love it. And I’m happy to play it every night. There was a short period around the making of Let Go where it was a little bit of a bummer because if anybody ever mentioned us or wanted to do something with us, it was really all about that song. And that was kind of depressing, but it didn’t last that long. When Let Go came out, it really helped reduce ‘Popular’ to just being our first single and you know, notable, but it faded into the correct proportion.
It’s nice that that can happen. We spoke to Robin from Gin Blossoms recently and there’s a sense that to a lot of people they’ve never moved past that first big album. To have a big buzzworthy breakthrough in that era and then find a route into longevity seems rare.
Yeah, but to be fair, I do want to raise a point that I think of sometimes, but always forget to say: it really wasn’t as big as people thought. Yeah, the video was really big. That’s true. But this thing never went Top 40 or anything. And I think the fact that we kind of never went away, made that song maybe seem bigger. If we had gone away, I don’t think anybody would remember ‘Popular’. It was nowhere near as big as ‘Hey Jealousy’ or the Fastball song or anything like that. Those were serious.
That’s funny, maybe it was timing? I remember getting MTV2 and ‘Popular’ being on all the time.
Yeah, it was. It was on MTV a lot. But what’s hilarious is that it was No.1 on MTV for two months, and our record hadn’t come out yet. And then the record came out and it was already over. Nobody bought a house. The timing was terrible.
You would expect to at least get a house out of it. That’s not fair. So, when you came to start recording Let Go, I read somewhere that you guys were paying the producer in dollar bills from the merch stand the night before? Is that really how it was?
Oh, totally. We had very, very little to record with. We toured out to LA to make the record at the same studio where we’d made The Proximity Effect and we would say every night that if you buy a t-shirt, it will help us make another record. So, we took all that merch money, which was a big stack of not very much – it was just a big stack because it was all ones – and I gave it to Chris Fudurich who engineered and co-produced the record. It was made very much on the cheap and then we went back to New York to sort of finish it up. We were asking friends for favours and there’s a studio called The Magic Shop where I interned in 91 and 92 and they gave us a little free time.
It doesn’t sound like a record that’s done on the cheap. It’s so beautifully put together and polished in the right ways, especially a song like ‘Blizzard Of 77’, which is positively lush.
Chris Walla from Death Cab For Cutie mixed that. He did three songs for $100: ‘Happy Kid’, ‘Blizzard Of 77’ and ‘Killian’s Red’. It was unbelievable. He was getting over the flu and was home for just a couple of days between tours and had a new girlfriend, so he decided to spend that time with us. I’m forever grateful to him. It was just part of the Barsuk family vibe. Every band is super nice to each other.
You mentioned the family vibe on Barsuk. How was that for you coming from such a negative experience on a major label?
Yeah, just great. I mean, I feel like our life has been charmed since that year. Since then, we’ve only worked with people that we thought were great. And that’s mostly by choice. It’s enough to make you cry happy tears. The years before that were a bummer. The thing that I love to do more than anything else was mixed up with a lot of bad feeling, pressure and bad vibes. But Josh at Barsuk is just the loveliest guy on Earth. And then there’s Jeff and Martin at Heavenly too. Just awesome people. It’s been amazing.
Was there a conscious decision with Let Go to do something different or change the sound to something more befitting an indie label?
No, there was no conscious decision at all. And there was very little conscious decision about how the previous records sounded. I’m super interested in recording, and I’m a little bit of a gear nerd and kind of guitar tone obsessed. Aside from how interested I am in those various elements, there was never a holistic choice or vibe we were going for. I think I have a tendency, a little bit, towards a slight comfort food feeling from records and I think that probably translates into little choices.
Most of my favourite albums have a kind of lushness to them. Records and songs are very often just a long series of gut decisions. You know, it’s like when you sit at the optometrist, and they do that thing like, “This? Or this?” You make a choice and they give you two more. I feel like records are like that. You plug in your guitar and you go, “Okay, well, I want to do this” and then later you double it, which makes it a little lush, and then you double your vocal, and you just keep adding to it until it feels still immediate, but starting to be just slightly creamy.
On the subject of doubling guitars and vocals, ‘Blizzard Of ‘77’ does exactly that. It feels like such a statement song to open the record. Was that in your mind at all?
Yeah, I mean, maybe it was. It is nice to feel a little bit of surprise. That was a song we really liked. I totally admit that there’s an Elliott Smith vibe on that. I was – like a zillion other people at the time – totally obsessed with him and had been from the very beginning.
I was sharing a hotel room with Daniel, our bass player on tour and I had this idea for a song and I didn’t want to wake him up. So, I went in the bathroom and recorded it very quietly on a four track and something about that kind of intentionally hushed vibe struck a chord with me. [Elliot Smith’s] first few records, there’s a lot of straight stereo double tracking, where he would take a four track and put down two vocals and two guitars. And that’s how I approach a lot of things. There’s something about double tracking that is fictional in a way. Because if it’s two of you, it’s impossible. You’ve already gone into a space that doesn’t exist.
Do you have any particularly fond memories of that time that stand out?
I remember having most of ‘Inside Of Love’ written, but couldn’t quite crack the chorus. I was in the park near my apartment in Brooklyn on a really hot and crowded day, walking around thinking about the song and suddenly figured out the words and melody to the chorus. I remember sprinting home, dodging people like I was in a video game, wanting to get to a guitar and a tape recorder before I forgot the part.
You’re touring this November. Will the shows lean heavily on Let Go, seeing as it’s the 20th anniversary.
To be honest, standard Nada Surf leans on Let Go anyway. I think we play more songs from that record than any other. But with Heavenly putting out the reissue, we’ll probably throw in a few more than we usually would. That’s a good idea. I’m glad you mentioned it.