Interview: Nada Surf

On the eve of the release of their seventh album, When The Gramophone Rings sits down with indie veterans Nada Surf to discuss their new ambition, why recording a covers album freed them up and why it’s never good to be hot.

“Oh I could so some of that…”

It’s a sunny but freezing cold morning in central London and Nada Surf frontman Matthew Caws is in cheerful discussion with WTGR about the merits of vintage shopping in Essex’s ‘tranquil haven’ Saffron Walden. As bizarre as it sounds, it’s not entirely without reason. Having moved to the UK with his family 9 months ago he now resides in the nearby Cambridge.

Caws has reason to be jolly. Exactly a week before his band’s 7th album is released, The Stars Are Indifferent To Astronomy has, this very day, started streaming on NPR and feedback is positive. Drummer Ira Elliott hasn’t read it, having just arrived from the airport after a flight in from New York.  When bassist Daniel Lorca joins us – all matted dreadlocks and to-the-floor trenchcoat – we settle down outside a fancy cafe. As the band order some breakfast and pull on bobble hats WTGR finds a group in good mood, armed with their first album of original material in four years and one  that has, in the main, been well-received.

“There’s a time to restart the engine and get something that’s short and fast…”

In the build up to the release of Stars… you’ve talked a lot about wanting to record something that captures your live show. How much was that mission statement defined by the fun you had making (2010 covers albums) if i had a hi fi?

MC: Pretty directly actually. The thing with that record was that the songs were already written and it was, you know, it was striking how that was such a different experience. I was like, ‘this is really fun’.  The thing was from the moment we were working on the covers record in practice, since the songs were already written we’d just be playing all the time. So the whole time we were practicing we were playing the songs top to bottom and that helped us play them more like a gig. The way we’ve been working that last few years before that, that wouldn’t have necessarily been possible cos we didn’t really know what we were doing!

DL: Normally what happens after a tour cycle is that we take a relatively long break and then we get back together and start working on new stuff and we didn’t wanna take a long break and you know, so we were like ‘lets do this fun covers record thing’. So we sorta did that right away. Then as soon as we were done with the touring we really felt like getting to work on one of our own records, so we never really did one of that long break before this one.

It was on that tour cycle you did the album shows, playing your records in their entirety. Was looking back a key part of moving forward?

MC: Well we had to really sit there and really listen to those records which, you know, underlined this feeling that maybe live we play a little differently to how we do in the studio and also, in another sense, just for me personally there was a lot of…having to listen to all these songs and sort of seeing that there are some types of things that I keep on revisiting again and again and again. A lot of it was really self-regarding and even though there’s still a bunch of stuff like that on this record I don’t think there’s as much of it because I was consciously trying to avoid that kind of self-analysis.

And is the deliberate attempt to capture your live sound and this new-song energy a reaction to anything about Lucky?

DL: I remember us saying once that we thought we had quite well covered the base of the sort of….well done…

IE: …mid tempo…

MC: …trying to be a bit elegant. We always would sort of hold back a little bit. We’d often do things in the studio then be like ‘lets slow this down a little bit and see if it still works’ and that’s probably a really good and healthy thing to do but if anyone wants to hear us try and be a really careful and elegant band then they can go listen to those records.

They’re a bit of trilogy aren’t they?

IE: Yeh I think without even saying so much there’s a time to restart the engine and get something that’s short and fast. It’s like ‘ok, let’s get back into gear’. It seemed like the right thing to do.

“We’re the Rob Brydon of rock. We do a very fine Michael Caine as well…”

You are trying to capture a new-song energy yet haven’t released new material in four years. How easy is that when you potentially have songs that are at least four years old (since the release of Lucky).

IE: One or two were lying around…

MC: …but a lot of them are new.

IE: The When I Was Young thing was floating around for a year or two…

MC: ..but they are the exceptions. The chorus of When I Was Young is seven years old I believe and just… I happened to be working on something else that felt right and it became what it is now. But a bunch of them were written in the few months before, which I think helps. We didn’t have time to get bored of them.

You can hear that some of them seem like they’re being written as you’re recording them.

MC: Yeh definitely! For sure! What a great thing. The song Looking Through, we wrote the bass part the night before and didn’t really play it all the way through in the studio until the take that’s on the record. It’s nice to have a bit of that.

DL: We had a bunch of other songs from other albums, and sometimes we either recycle or revisit them but generally its never on the next record. We tend to skip a record so that’s why When I Was Young is like, seven or eight years old yet on this album.

Was that your decision to make When I Was Young the first thing people heard from the album?

MC: No that was actually our manager, who’s not usually involved on a musical level at all. From the moment he heard that chorus however many years ago was on some evangelical mission to make it happen, so that was really kind of his baby. Not in the writing of it, but in the…. I think I did put a little more effort into it as he’s a really good friend.

It struck me as interesting choice for people to hear first…

IE: It does leave an impression that’s for sure…

MC: It’s an interesting move and kind of fun when you put out something non-representative first and so to do that you have to believe that it’s really worth hearing and that the surprise of hearing the rest of the record and it being nothing like that won’t be disappointment. It’s a slightly confident move. I’m really glad we did it.

Practically, how did you go about recording an album that you wanted to capture quite an intangible element – the energy of a gig?

MC: It was super-quick. Two things: One… For a long time we’d been making our records out of town (New York City) cos we wanted to get away from distractions but that wouldn’t really work any more cos we’d end up with friends there so we didn’t get away from the temptation of like, you know, having a dinner party or going out a lot. We also find out that when travelling you’d finish the last day of rehearsal and even if you were ready to start right away you’d go home, pack up the apartment and the flights two days later…

DL: All the gears gotta be put in flight cases and moved across the country…

MC: Then jetlag happens and you maybe play to the excuse cos you want a bit more time to finish writing and then being in a strange environment means you have to reacquaint yourselves with the songs. Any kind of muscle memory is gonna be gone. But in this case… I don’t know what day it was. Lets say it was a Sunday was our last day of practice. Then on the Monday we rolled the gear three blocks down the street to the nearest good studio. That’s literally where we recorded. It’s exactly between Daniel’s house and my house. And we did it in five days.

The whole thing?

MC: All the basic tracks. And then we mucked around with guitar tones a bit more back at The Loft. What’s great about that is that you can’t revisit anything and when you do a take it can’t be like ‘yeeeeh that could be the one’ its like ‘no, its got to be the one!’.

And Chris Shaw’s appointment as producer, was that born out of wanting to get a live feel or was he on board before that?

DL: He wasn’t really gonna be the producer at all.

MC: Yeh. He was actually only hired as an engineer but… he doesn’t really advertise himself as a producer, he’s a little soft-spoken about it but in fact he is incredibly capable. But you know for a while partially because of moving here (England) we were sort of maybe thinking about making a record in England, which would have been really tempting and possibly getting John Leckie or Gil Norton in to produce it. But then we had the idea of recording in New York and all of a sudden it’s like wait ‘wait, that guy’s local’ and he’d mixed Always Love and done such an incredible, phenomenal, fast job that once his name popped into the air there was no hesitating.

If the record was recorded so quickly I’m assuming most of the songs must have been pretty nailed before you entered the studio?

MC: There were two missing. The song at the end of the record called The Future had no arrangement we just had Ira play some beats and I just sort of had a three-chord thing in mind and sort of kind of the words of maybe a chorus. So that one was left up to chance. Then Looking Through didn’t exist. And writing right up until the last moment, I don’t think that could have happened with our other records cos we didn’t have the luxury of… if I was going to do some “work” there was a lot of other stuff that needed finishing and if I would have just started on a new song that would have been reckless. So we went in with 8 and that felt like enough.

IE: I loved when it clocked in at 38 minutes and 38 seconds. That’s a proper length for a record. A lot of bands really wear out their welcome.

“We’re completely powerless. Global warming is indifferent to our belief or disbelief that it exists. And just because you’re a doubter isn’t going to save you one bit when you’re frying…”

The UK press is currently obsessed with the current so-called death of guitar music. Do you get that at all out in the States?

IE: There was a huge article I think in the Times about how last year was supposedly the worst year for rock music. We still have the, sort of, stalwart Foo Fighters and stuff but, the American major league guitar rock is pretty thin on the ground at the moment. It’s pretty much rehash after rehash. We need a blast of guitars. It’s a bad time for guitars.

MC: Dave Grohl was in Rolling Stone or something recently and he was like “guitar music is alive and well thank you very much, it doesn’t need your help”. Because in a way…. it’s thin on the ground in a Top 10 sort of way, it’s all hip-hop but there are loads of good records around and that’s never going to go away. I didn’t even know that’s where we were at. So that’s even better that this is the time we put out our real guitar record.

One word that pops up time and time again on your write ups is veteran. Do you take that as a compliment in an age where a lot of bands get dropped after 1 or 2 records?

MC: I mean… we didn’t do anything to earn than just stay but it’s nice to get a little props for it.

IE: I think it’s especially true of English bands that sell millions of albums first time out and second time out they sell a quarter of that then pretty soon you can’t even remember their names. The thing is – never be hot. I was watching Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan in The Trip and Rob Brydon’s like, “never be hot, always be warm”. If you’re hot then people have these impossible expectations that you have to live up to. We’re the Rob Brydon of rock. We do a very fine Michael Caine as well.

Your now 7 albums in. Is the feeling of excitement before your releasing your 7th album as strong as before releasing your debut?

MC: I’m actually more excited about this period of touring than I have been for a really long time for the simple reason that we made a record that to me sounds like we want to sound onstage. The goal is clear and it wasn’t always before. It’s a tiny thing but we would play faster than our albums live and the end result was good but there were a lot of moments where we were doing it but you almost feel like you’re doing something wrong cos you’re playing so much faster so we’d push and pull and be in this confused place. On this one we’d practice for the tour and it was a breeze, just so much fun.

IE: We’re actually going to play this record reeeeeeeeeaaaaaally slooooooooowly liiiiiiiiiiiiive.

Lyrically, are Nada Surf a band that release albums that have messages? Is there a message throughout Stars…?

MC: I would say two answers. One is no, nothing in particular but there are some things that come back a few times. If I had to say something…this record is more about the outside world and I think having a child changes things and changes how much I pay attention to nature and where we’re going there. If the world were to get really hairy or end in ten years or something I’d be 54. I wouldn’t really care. I’ve had a good run, a full life. But having a son is like, well he’s gonna live through whatever it is. In fact, it’s kind of in the title. That’s why it resonated with me so much cos it’s an expression my father wrote which basically says that a dog doesn’t know it’s called a dog and a cat doesn’t know it’s called a cat and the stars and planets don’t know we gave them names, and they don’t care. And it doesn’t mean that we don’t interact with nature and enjoy nature but it’s a one way relationship.

What it made me think of is how we’re pretty presumptuous in thinking that our opinions about the physical and natural world…that they’re accurate. We’re completely powerless. Global warming is indifferent to our belief or disbelief that it exists. And just because you’re a doubter isn’t going to save you one bit when you’re frying or whatever. So there’s that.  I guess there’s also a little bit on there about the frittering away of our minds and just how people look at a screen and self-checkouts and gadgets.

Do you think those things are negative things?

MC: ……yeh. I mean, you know, I don’t think people know how to sit still as much so maybe you’re out of touch with your actual thoughts. And it’s too entertaining at this point, we might choke on it. I’m the same way, you can be endlessly entertained so the niche aspect of everything means that you can find the cable news show that reflects to you exactly what you think already and you’ll never learn anything and you’ll be in the symbiotic death dance.

So you won’t be buying your kid an iPad any time soon?

MC: I actually just got him a Wii yesterday. The world is the world. You can only try and steer better.

The Stars Are Indifferent To Astronomy is out now.

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