Nada Surf
How Soon Is Now?
by Stephen Slaybaugh

The ups and downs of Nada Surf have been told countless times, but just in case, here’s a quick recap. Band forms, signs to Elektra, records with Ric Ocasek (of The Cars), and scores megahit in 1996 with “Popular.” Band records follow-up album, the suits at Elektra don’t like it and drop band. Band soldiers on and finds smaller scale success with indie label Barsuk. Sure, it’s a feel-good tale of good over evil, but what is more compelling is the music Nada Surf has made in the process. Albums like Let Go (2002) and The Weight Is a Gift (2005) featured a gripping juxtaposition of buoyant pop with emotionally wrought lyrics culled from a relationship gone awry, with songs like “Inside of Love” and “Concrete Bed” proving the band’s music to possess a depth that surpassed that of the pool of alterna peers with which they had once been associated. Appropriately, the albums garnered Nada Surf an audience of serious and devoted listeners.

Following 2008’s Lucky and an album of covers, If I Had a Hi-Fi, Nada Surf’s new record, The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy, is by comparison the trio’s most visceral. With singer and guitarist Matthew Caws, bassist Daniel Lorca and drummer Ira Elliot assisted by guitarist extraordinaire Doug Gillard (Death of Samantha, Cobra Verde, Guided By Voices), some of the nuances of the band’s past work has been eschewed for a “live” sound. Lyrically, Caws has attempted to focus outside himself, with environmental dilemmas being of particular concern. But even so, he still makes such matters sound personal. I recently caught up with Caws on the phone from his new home in Cambridge, England, where he moved last year from Brooklyn to be closer to his seven-year-old son.

I’m acquainted with your manager and he lives near me now so I run into him frequently. It seems like he’s been talking about this record for awhile. Did you work on it for a long time?

Matthew Caws: I worked on writing it for a long time, yeah.

You recorded the album in Daniel’s loft rather than in a studio, so did you take a more relaxed approach not being on the clock somewhere?

MC: Yeah, that’s pretty much what it was. I wanted to do the basic tracks fast. The last couple records we’ve done some writing in the studio, and that’s a really luxurious and exciting thing to do, but it’s also expensive and stressful. I found that it was more fun playing live and that we had a better time when we weren’t thinking about arrangements. I don’t mind thinking about arrangements as we play, but it’s easier for Ira to know where we’re going so he knows how to map it out. I realized that I wasn’t doing my homework and that it would be better for us if the songs were finished. It’s sort of pathetic to have to do such a big project to learn something, but when we were doing the covers record, I found it was great having the songs already written.

So I spent a lot of time writing, and we played a lot. We did the basic tracks in five days at a studio just a few blocks away from Daniel’s. The day before the first day of tracking, we just rolled the equipment three blocks. We’d been making records out of town for years just to get away from things, but I found that once you stop rehearsing, if you can be recording the next day, it’s better. We were always starting a week or two later after flying gear to the other side of the country. Once you get there, you can’t really remember the songs and you start worrying about tempo or something and not just playing them the way you would at a show. So I feel like this worked out well, because when I hear the album, it sounds like how I imagine us sounding.

You mentioned writing in the studio. Was that the norm for past records, going in without everything spelled out?

MC: Not totally, but we’d certainly go in with a lot of holes in what we were doing. As I said, that’s an exciting way to work if you can relax. It’s great going so fast from an idea to an actual song, rather than over a couple of weeks. But it’s not always that easy to relax because you’re on the clock.

You did a pretty obscure Bill Fox song for the covers record. How did you happen upon that song?

MC: Both Ira and I had started to listen to him after reading a Believer article, and Ira played me that one. Part of the thing about that covers record was that I didn’t want to make an album of our 10 favorite songs or our 10 favorite bands. If it was anything like that, it would have felt like homework. Arthur Russell was a new thing for me as well. It was kind of random in that it was stuff that we happened to be into at the moment, and it was fun to do a covers record from that point of view.

Only having a record out every few years, does it feel like a monumental event each time?

MC: Yeah, definitely. For me, it’s like having a term paper to write, but it’s much more fun than that.

I would hope so. You were talking about getting the live feel on this new record and I think there definitely is more bombast. I’m sure Gillard had to something to do with that too. Was it a reaction to the last one? Lucky seemed to have more acoustic guitars...

MC: Yeah, that was the thing that would happen: we’d start to slow songs down without really meaning to once we got to the studio. Ira plays a bit slower, and I like to keep the tempos up, so I was missing that. But having Doug and knowing it was going to be even more musical was liberating and made it easier to write. I’d relax because I knew Doug was going to add some melody.

Did having that knowledge affect how you wrote lyrically?

MC: No, that’s really more in the finishing stage.

Do you do music and lyrics independently of each other?

MC: No, I write music and lyrics at the same, but I’m more likely to be satisfied and quit tweaking it if I know that it’s going to get catchier because Doug will be playing on it. But I just sit around singing and playing a lot, mostly at the same time. I write down things in a bazillion notebooks, but I don’t tend to use that stuff. I do some random noodling on guitar without singing on cassettes, but it’s the moments when I am singing that tend to become songs.

Is it usually a concerted effort then?

MC: No, at the beginning I’m just messing around. I make a concerted effort to make the time to be writing a song, but there’s never a moment when I’m like, “I’m going to write a song now.” I wouldn’t put that kind of pressure on myself because it wouldn’t work. I just sing things I’m thinking or someone else might be thinking and mess around until there’s something I like. Then I make a concerted effort to expand on it.

I do some writing for The Big Takeover and you told Jack Rabid in an interview with him that you had been going through old cassettes when you were doing Lucky. Did that practice continue for this album?

MC: Luckily, I had gone through most of them, so this time I was making new cassettes and then going through them. It actually felt the same. It’s kind of hard to do because you really have to give everything a chance, but in the end, only 1% or 2% of what I hear coming back turns into a song. Since there are so many tapes, it does end up being a significant amount of material, but listening to it all is tough because when you keep your standards up, you hear yourself being pretty mediocre a lot of the time.

Is there anything that ended up on this record that was an old idea?

MC: Sure, the chorus of “When I Was Young” is seven years old. I was listening to a lot of early folk and Bert Jansch last year. I always wish that I finger-picked better. I was playing this little four-chord pattern, which is the top of my ability, and I was having similar thoughts to when I wrote “when I was young” and I put the two together. It was like participating with your past self.

You said in a press release that you “wanted to get past writing about just (yourself).” Do you feel like you accomplished that?

MC: There are some songs on this record (“Clear Eye Clouded Mind,” “The Moon Is Calling” and “No Snow on the Mountain”) that are essentially about the outside world. This feels like a change from past albums. I haven’t completely gotten past writing about myself, but I do feel like a new approach has opened up.

In that same press release, it mentions Jennifer Egan listening to the band while writing her book. I know you were an English major and assume you probably read a good deal. Has the opposite happened to you, where a piece of literature has inspired a song?

MC: I read her book before hearing that she listened to us, so I was very pleased to hear that. I don’t read as much or as seriously as I should, but I certainly read a lot. Though it wasn’t a piece of literature, some of the references to nature on this album were inspired by a book by Mark Lynas, Six Degrees, which is about how the world will change as the median temperature rises. I’ve also been very inspired over the last few years by Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, but that inspiration has been general—I couldn’t point to a particular lyric.

Seems like songs on the album like “The Future” and “Teenage Dreams” are dealing with getting older. Was that on your mind while writing the songs?

MC: Weirdly, it wasn’t. The album is largely about the past, though. I’m not sure I have anything to say about getting older. Aside from the prospect of there not being as much life left, I really like it. I’ve recently turned the corner into really going grey, and I get better service in stores. I read a review yesterday that said that the last line of “The Future”—“I cannot believe the future’s happening to me”—was about getting older. In fact, it’s not. It’s about this particular future happening to me, one that seems ever more out of control, with a greater and greater divide between rich and poor, social alienation, a migration into cyberspace, and the growing specter of climate change.

Do you find that playing in a band has kept you in a suspended state of adolescence or do you feel like a grown-up?

MC: I think it has kept me in an adolescent state. Part of my job as a songwriter is to daydream, and part of my job as a musician is to rock out on the guitar. On the other hand, putting an album together—especially when some other people depend on its success for their livelihood—comes with adult-world pressure. To be honest, maybe I’d be in a state of suspended adolescence even if I had a different career. Then again, no one can escape adulthood. Life, with all its attendant complications, makes sure of that. But I’m of the opinion that we operate on many levels concurrently in our lives. We are a combination of all the ages that we’ve been. I hope to always feel both silly and serious.