Published Jan 30, 2012Nada Surf are celebrating their 20th anniversary this year. Not many bands reach that milestone, especially after getting dropped from a major label following the release of their debut album, 1996's High/Low. But Nada Surf are an anomaly in an industry that one minute praises an artist and then the next chews up and spits 'em out. For the last ten years, the trio have maintained a steady routine of releasing solid albums every few years, most notably 2002's watershed Let Go, and touring with a road warrior mentality. Their newest and seventh album, The Stars Are Indifferent To Astronomy, is a shining rock record full of deep, lyrical nostalgia and irrepressible hooks, placing more of a focus on putting their live energy to tape. Once again, the great Nada Surf have proven that sometimes sticking to a tried and true formula is the best way to survive in the business. Exclaim! caught up with singer/songwriter Matthew Caws over in Cambridge, England, where he now lives with his young son, to discuss the unexpected environmental theme of the new album, why every band should sell baby merch and what he really thinks of the teen drama that just won't die, One Tree Hill.
You're living in Cambridge, England now. How does that affect your relationship with Daniel and Ira?
It's fine! Daniel actually lives in Spain now, Ibiza. He's Spanish and is from Madrid. And Ira's still in the States. I still have a tiny, tiny apartment in Williamsburg so I get back there as often as I can. It's totally fine for the band because we're still all committed to getting together to make a record. So last year there was six or seven months before recording, and Daniel and I were over there working on it. But when there's down time it's better for me to be here.
It's been four years since you released Lucky. What made you take your time with this album?
The covers album [2010's If I Had A Hi-Fi] worked as a stopgap. It was a way for us to stay busy while we were at home without having to wait for me to cook up some songs, because that's normally what happens. So, If I Had A Hi-Fi was a way to keep us busy, but I also thought it would be fun to do. I had thought about it before. Because we had done five albums it didn't feel so much like a cop out. It could have been worse if we'd done only two or three and then done it. I think we earned a little diversion. The big effect that it had on the new record is so basic that it's embarrassing: it's good to have the songs finished before you go into the studio. "The words are written, that's a great idea! I'm actually having fun. I'm not super-stressed!"
Is that how the previous records were made?
The last three records we've gone in relatively unprepared. Some more gregariously than others. The Weight Is A Gift, for example, we did with Chris Walla. We really wished he was a smoker so he would take a break once in a while. We set up the gear, and he got great sounds within an hour and said, "All right, I'm ready!" And the secret truth was that there were only two real songs we had finished, and the others we'd figure out on the fly. It's stressful for me because we'd have a recording session, and then I'd go back to my room where I was staying and have a four-track and giant art-sized notebooks and try to get a big picture idea of what I was trying to do. I was tired of that kind of stress, and it was kind of expensive in a dumb way. So, from the preparedness point of view, this was kind of our growing up record.
Another thing that I'd really felt over the last few years is that we had become two groups. We were a live band that although we'd evolved into a kind of loud, kind of fast rock band. But in the studio, I think there was this thing where we were like, "Okay, we're serious now. We're in a studio. How fast were we playing that song?" This was like a thing between all of us. This was an attempt to get back to what we really play like.
Has your approach to writing lyrics changed much in the last four years?
Yeah. When we put out If I Had a Hi-Fi we put on three shows in consecutive nights, playing all of Let Go one night, all of The Weight Is A Gift the next night and all of Lucky the third night. And that kind of forced me to look at that stack of songs. I had them all in my head, and I had a feeling that there is this self-analytical, inward looking thing that had gone on for so long. Even though this album has a few of them, I think it has fewer. The image I can think is having a camera pointed at myself, but then I'm wrestling with it trying to point it at other stuff. I will probably be compulsively making music as long as I can, and I'd hate to look back when I'm 70 and see that I was always just staring at my navel. So, that's why I think there are more references to nature and societal things.
The one thing that the record sort of touches on a lot, and maybe not in obvious ways, is the environment. I didn't really discuss that with our friend who wrote the bio, because I didn't really want anyone who hadn't heard the record to read that the album is about the environment because it comes across as too definitive and you'd hear it in a different way. But in fact, the title, which is a saying of my father's, really resonated with me because it made me think about climate change. It's a planet-sized thought, and on this planet it seems like global warming is the big ghost that is hanging over everything. What the title made me think in relation to that is that people who deny that it is happening aren't going to be saved by their denial. It's so presumptuous of us to say, "Well, I don't believe it" or that it isn't happening. Stuff is going to happen anyway whether climate change is part of your belief or disbelief. And then there are other social concerns, like in "The Future." The world that we're headed to of self-checkout online is a bummer, but I don't think that's going to make life worse for my child necessarily.
Have you become an environmentalist?
No, I've nothing smart to say about it. I'm just scared. I'm just a victim to be. If I was an environmentalist I don't think I could be in a rock group. My carbon footprint is insane. I live in two countries now, I fly all the time. Obviously the individual's behaviour collectively could change everything.
How do you find touring at this point?
You know, we've been pretty lucky because the audiences have been amazing. That has helped us feel like we've had a steady journey. I still really enjoy it but I wouldn't want to go out as long as we used to. Unfortunately, you can't opt out now. You just sell far too few records. The gig is really something you have to do. If I'm reading a good book, it's a much better tour. If I'm reading something I'm not absorbed in, there can be a negative Groundhog Day effect. I love the movie, but that kind of experience on tour is not so hot. So if you're doing something that carries over to the next day, like different chapters, well, maybe you're not having the same experience all over again. I feel like I'm always looking for a laundromat. In Europe, when we take a bus I try to take a folding bicycle, so that when we pull into the next town, I can find something to do. That puts a dose of sanity into the picture.
Do you still sell Nada Surf onesies? As a father I really appreciate baby merch.
We did, yeah! I think we might still have some in our lock-up.
I think that could be a very lucrative market for bands.
I agree with you, yeah. Y'know, oh, I see what you mean, like a line or section. We've also had some child-sized shirts over time.
Finally tell me about Nada Surf's ties to One Tree Hill. You made a guest appearance on the show and was even guest composer for an episode, not to mention having your songs featured about eight or nine times. How did that relationship form?
Well, I know who the music supervisor is, but there's no part of the relationship on our side, which is very lucky. But, on the other hand, there are some connections, like the show is filmed in Wilmington, North Carolina, where my mother was born and where I've gone to every Christmas, Easter and summer, etc., since I was a kid. My aunt, who is now the family matriarch, is still there. I was in Wilmington just a week ago. And so actually filming there was such a thrill. My aunt, who was 80 at the time, got to come, and they put a special seat there for her to see, and it was shot two blocks away from where I was baptized. It was really great! I got into the show too, and would like to catch up on the episodes when I get some time. Actually, when I was guest composer, that was a real thrill because I'd never done anything like that before.