At their recent tour stop in Cincinnati, Ohio, I got to interview Nada Surf frontman Matthew Caws. I showed up to the venue, and he wanted to take a walk. So we strolled the streets outside the 20th Century Theater for a good while, and talked about the band’s and music industry's past, present, and future. I was told initially I had 15 minutes, so of course I took almost 40. Hopefully everyone enjoys reading this as much as I enjoyed conducting it.
For the record, can you please state your name and what you do in the band?
Matthew: My name is Matthew Rorison Caws and I play guitar and sing and write a bunch of tunes.
In general, how does it feel to be out touring? Are you guys airing out any new material on this run?
Matthew: Yeah, we’re playing three new songs, and it feels great to be out on tour. We haven’t been out in quite a while. We’ve done a bunch of one-offs, festival shows, and benefit shows and stripped down kind of things – really nothing since last fall. But yeah, it feels really good. What’s funny is that the tour really started three nights ago with the warm-up show in Brooklyn, and then we played in Philadelphia and then we had a day off. So I went home – I got on the $12 bus and splurged on a day at home.
So you guys are at a point now where you are starting to play bigger shows and stuff – are you to the point where you are comfortable yet in being a “career band” versus a flash in the pan? I bet everyone asks this question, but do you feel like you can say, “Ah, we have made it.”?
Matthew: Actually, no one has really asked us that question, and I can’t explain why. People always ask how did it feel back then, but to your question, it feels really solid now. In a lot of ways, we are in a better place now than we were even when we were having our flash. The shows do better now, and we actually have a bigger audience. The ones that we did right then with Superdrag were at the time we both had hits and there were some shows that were really packed, but otherwise we play shows now in New York that are more packed than they ever were at that time. Much bigger too in LA, Chicago, and Seattle, too. We will see how it does tonight, but we played in Columbus last night, and we have never drawn as much as we did.
Was it at The Basement? That’s a cool venue there.
Matthew: Yeah, and it sold out. That’s something we weren’t able to do ten years ago. It feels really, really stable and we are with a record company we love, and a booking agent we love, so it is a healthier situation.
So when you signed with Barsuk, how important was it for you to sign with a label that had such a deep history and rich credibility? Was it important to you as you sort of re-established yourselves with people?
Matthew: Yeah, it was super important. As we were making Let Go, there was some interest from some labels, but their thinking was “Let’s see – you sold this many with the record that had ‘Popular’ on it, so now we figure you can probably sell a tenth of that, which is pretty solid.” It would have been hard for us to sign with someone that was looking backwards. With Barsuk, it was kind of funny, because even two years after Let Go came out, Josh, the president of the label, hadn’t even heard our first record. He hadn’t even heard that song, so that helped us to be treated as this totally different thing. So it was really important, and we entered this family-feeling business. We are in a great place, and I really don’t have a complaint in the world. Everything is pretty much perfect right now.
Everyone wants to know about “Popular” of course. What I want to know is what was more annoying – the initial fuss over the song, or all of the questions about its repercussions? You have to be a little tired of it, at least.
Matthew: No, not really actually! Sorry to disappoint you. (laughs) We still play it sometimes, and it is really goofy – it still makes me laugh. There is no pain associated with it anymore. The pain that it brought was when we put so much work into the second album, and then getting dropped. It was realizing that a New York company, Elektra – they had a pretty good history, they had really convinced us that they were signing us because they were into the band. Only later, to realize they were only into us for a song, it is like finding out someone is dating you for money. So that was a disappointment. I don’t mean to get too emotional about it, but it felt like betrayal, so at that point living with the fallout of that was tougher. So there were a couple years then that we wouldn’t play it after The Proximity Effect came out. We got a little house proud then, and wouldn’t play it but now it is awesome and funny.
I guess a follow-on to that is I know people still request the song at shows, but has “The Blankest Year” overtaken it is a fan favorite?
Matthew: Oh, for sure. In the last three shows we have done, no one has even mentioned “Popular.” In fact, the truth is that sometimes we will play it for fun, and you can see that people are kind of disappointed because they are hoping that we won’t since we are a “different” band now. “Blonde on Blonde” people ask for, “Paper Boats”, “Blankest Year.” It is really nice because having stayed together for so long, we have so many records to choose songs from.
My personal favorite song of yours is “Your Legs Grow.” I just love everything about it – the lyrics, the sound, everything. Can you talk about what inspired that song?
Matthew: Yeah, sure. I was thinking about my best friend and the kind of fears you have with your parents getting older – you know, there are certain people in your life that you can’t imagine losing. I am just so attached to her, that the idea of losing her was so scary. I don’t know why I was even thinking about it because we’re so tight, and that’s not going to happen. The principle is, and it is certainly true for a relationship, that if you think about it ending, that horrifies you. When a challenge presents itself to you, it is so easy to have a kind of panicky feeling where you think, “Oh my god – if that happened to me, I would die. If I have to stay in this job I’ll die, or if I lose that person, I’ll die.” And once in a while, those things you think will kill you happen. You know, someone breaks up with you, or one of your parents gets really sick or something. But you make it through anything, really. And the image that was in my mind was that if you were out at sea, and you were freezing and thought you were going to drown – somehow we have the capacity to get over anything and the image that I had in mind was that your legs would just grow down to the bottom and you’d walk out. We are capable of rescuing ourselves. I was holding onto that thought or being hopeful about it, since I was going through a hard time in a relationship. The fact that I am thinking about my best friend/ex-girlfriend – it’s sort of like a lot of times in songs and this may not be true for some people, but a lot of it gets mixed up. The plot comes from various places – its not always from one situation that exists, but it’s sort of a composite of reality, daydreams, nightmares, and other dreams. The reason I was picturing myself out at sea was I went swimming in a lake some years ago in upstate New York, and it was at night. And I hadn’t been swimming at night since I saw Jaws. (laughs) That movie gave me the fear of sharks whereas when I was 10 years old, I would just run into the ocean in North Carolina in the middle of the night to play around, not being able to see the waves except when the horizon would become black and they would hit me. But I was near a lake, and I got so excited. Like, “Oh my god – I can go swimming at night, and there is nothing bigger than me in this lake.” So, I was really enjoying myself – then, someone had parked their truck next to the lake, and they got into it and turned it on, so the headlights were pointed right across the lake. And then they backed up, and they back up right along the bank so the headlights tilted down into the water. So as he slowly backed up, the headlights appeared in the algae and silt. This light came towards me and scared the F out of me. It was like an alien spaceship or a lit up giant fish or something.
There were no substances at work here, were there?
Matthew: (Laughs) No, no, no. No substances – purely fear. So, even though the light and the lake isn’t described that way I the song, it is a composite where the images appear out of elements in your life.
I always listen to the song for hours on end sometimes, and I have always seen the imagery so vividly, but I never really grasped what was behind the song. It is really cool to hear that explanation – I must say, that is pretty heavy. Do you guys ever play that one live?
Matthew: We do play that one live, and I feel guilty right now because we aren’t planning on doing it tonight. (laughs) I do it by myself when we play it, and I just don’t know it right now. I have this sort of volleyball thing going on in my head. I learn a new song, and it is like sideout – another song falls out of my head. So that song is laying on the ground somewhere.
Obviously, you guys have the new album coming out in February – is it totally done?
Matthew: Yeah, completely. We are actually having some sequencing discussions, but it is done, and I am so relieved.
How do you think it compares to the rest of your catalog?
Matthew: It is definitely solid. I think it’s in there.
The new song sounds really great.
Matthew: Thank you so much. I feel really solid about it, and it is such a relief because every time we create a record, I flippin’ lose my mind and feel the pressure really deeply.
You would think it would get easier as you get older. Are you saying that it gets harder?
Matthew: On a certain level it does, but at the same time, a lot of expectations say you’re supposed to get better too. Also, a lot of it is unconscious. I can’t make up a melody on purpose. I can only tool around and daydream with a guitar in my hand and see what happens. I don’t know if that ability is going to get any better – it might get worse. But the standards go up, you know?
Of course – you always have to top the last record, right?
Matthew: Exactly. And I’ll certainly become more critical as I get older, while my ability to come up with something unique might not necessarily change. It is what it is. It does get hard to top the last ones.
So does it take you any longer to write then?
Matthew: No, it is the same. Some songs just get written so quick, and sometimes those are my favorites. For “Fruit Fly” I was literally sitting at the table, and what it says in the song is exactly what happens. So after it happened I got up and went right over to a tape recorder and then went back to the kitchen and finished my dinner. Other songs though – “See These Bones” for example, the new one – I only had one verse, and we tried to write that for the last record. So that song is like five years old. It took me that long.
So you were just holding onto one verse for all these years?
Matthew: Yeah, and the whole time I am feeling bad about not being able to finish it, and knowing that I should. Sometimes I would sit down and try to, but never could. The only thing that got me to finish that song, actually was the deadline. Daniel really likes it, and would have been really let down if I hadn’t finished it, so I just had to make myself. In college, I couldn’t write a paper until the night before.
I am sure you have a bunch of songs bouncing around like that which are kind of half-finished. How do you decide which ones are worth following through on versus those that you just shelf or give up on? I am amazed by the type of persistence that would drive you to hang onto one verse for years on end and still finish it up.
Matthew: The difference is that a lot of the stuff I shelf is before anyone else gets a chance to hear it. Once I bring the songs to the band, and we agree it is something we should do, then there are three people to be disappointed instead of just one, so that is harder.
You sound pretty tough on yourself.
Matthew: (Pauses) Well, yeah. I think it’s the easiest and best job in the world in some ways because you get to get in front of a bunch of people who appreciate what you do, and show you their appreciation – so that is a dream, it’s incredible. On the other hand, articulating your personal troubles in melody and rhyme and putting it under the critical eye is another thing entirely. And I’m really not an extrovert, so I don’t know what I am doing.
Well, you seem pretty extroverted to me.
Matthew: I have trained myself to be. But still I am a shy kid who after 10 years of shows has figured out how to do it.
You talk about the critical eye – do you pay any attention to what critics say?
Matthew: I do read them, even though I shouldn’t.
Of course, because even though you guys are pretty well adored by critics, the one negative review stands out 100 times more than the positives.
Matthew: True, true. It doesn’t really bother me though. I think the actual truth is that it is my own critical eye that is the scary part. If I am just fucking around, then whatever. But if it is something where I say, “I am cool with this song so much that I want to put it on a record and I want to play it for five years” – that is when you really have that mental moment of looking in the mirror wondering if it is really good or if you are high on your own fumes. So yeah, I guess…I don’t know. I don’t want to be bad. (laughs)
Let’s talk about the sound to the new record. How would you compare it to Let Go, The Proximity Effect, and The Weight Is a Gift?
Matthew: I feel like it is a pretty heavy record, and that is a product of John Goodmanson, the guy who made it because even the songs that were even moderately rocking – now that they are mixed and mastered, they feel like they are really kickin’ even when they are relatively quiet, so that’s thanks to him. I think it is a little heavier than Let Go, but it’s not as heavy as The Proximity Effect. I don’t think we’ll ever make another record that has that much “ka-blam” – that was a really super-expensive record. Back then, even a song like “80 Windows” we were like, “It’s so wussy and slow!” And looking back, it’s not. Then on the next record we had “Blonde on Blonde” which seemed so insanely quiet, and now we are just getting over that. We are maturing slowly into not really giving a shit what it seems like, you know? Because at home, it’s not like I only listen to hard rock. I love it – stuff like Mastodon, and even the Ramones were one of my first favorite bands. But at the same time, I still really like Leonard Cohen, and Nick Drake stuff. It is easier to fall prey to that type of consciousness when you are doing your own thing. If you’re dumb like us. (laughs)
There seems to be a pretty impressive list of guests featured on the new album. Did you guys seek out specific ones who would complement a song, or was it less strategic than that?
Matthew: It was not strategic at all. Those are mostly Seattle people, and that is where we were, and they were mostly Barsuk people, and that’s the label we are on, and everything.
So, you weren’t sitting around penning songs thinking, “Oh, Ben Gibbard would sound great on this!”
Matthew: No, not really. It is just feeling inclusive, and lucky that we know some people with really great voices.
How was working with John compared to working with Chris Walla?
Matthew: I think they are both kind of mad scientists or wizards in their own ways. I think Chris wears it on his sleeve a little more, and John is more about letting you do your thing and waiting for the right moment – waiting for when you need his particular brand of magic, whereas Chris would just offer up his brand of magic. And those are both amazing scenarios.
Chris is more hands-on then, would you say?
Matthew: Well, Chris did a lot of things while we were laying down the songs. We work really slow and Chris is always well-prepared. Like for Death Cab, they go in with their songs all figured out and they know what they’re doing. We come in and we wish he smoked or something so he would take a five minute break or something. (laughs) We would say things to him like, “We just need to work out the ending – we should be ready in 10 minutes.” Meanwhile, in the other room we are sitting there talking, “Does this ending work? Does this chorus work? What about the beginning? What do you think? I don’t know!” Totally, totally last minute slapdash. To kill time, John would just sit there and offer suggestions. Chris would learn the song on guitar and basically become another band member. They’re both totally great guys. I mean, talk about getting to work with great people.
I am surprised that Chris is just starting to get more visibility. I think there is so much talent and potential there. I cannot wait to hear his solo work.
Matthew: Yeah, totally. You know what he did one night? It was at the beginning of the project, and he was having a moment of frustration because we weren’t finishing songs. I had brought my four track to the hotel and I was holing up in the evening and in the morning trying to finish stuff. One night, we kind of knocked off early because we had run out of ideas, and we came in the next morning and there was a CD on my chair in the live room and it said “I’ll be in a little late today. I stayed up for a couple hours.” So we popped in the CD and he had written a song about us called “The Rhone Occupation.” It was a play on the Rhine Occupation, and Sylvia Rhone was the head of Elektra. He played all the instruments, and made everything up, and it was a fully realized three-minute fucking crazy prog-pop song. And that was his way of being like, “Dudes, fucking step up – because look what I can do without even trying.” (laughs)
That’s insane. It is really interesting too, because a lot of people look at Death Cab, and they see Ben as the face of the band. But meanwhile, Chris is so talented but stays more in the shadows.
Matthew: Oh, yeah. They’re all so insanely talented especially Chris. You know that song “Title and Registration” – the glove compartment one?
Matthew: Well apparently that had totally different music, and Chris wasn’t feeling it or something, so he turned everything off except the vocal, and replaced everything and just reinvented the song. This was like two days before mastering, too. He is pretty talented.
I have seen some stuff where you get some ill-placed comparisons to Weezer.
Matthew: Oh, sure.
So since you have moved on to Barsuk, have those morphed into Death Cab comparisons?
Matthew: Yeah, we get a bit of that. I have to say when you were asking before about “Popular” and the flash in the pan angle, it was still not nearly as annoying as the Weezer comparisons. I love them, and I think they’re great but I knew we were getting compared to them for really superficial kind of reasons. Ric Ocasek, funny kind of high school song, dorky glasses that I used to wear a lot because I was reading the “Popular” lyrics and probably because I felt like I was hiding behind something – they were more of an affectation. But that dogged us for years…years! Even when Let Go came out, some people were talking about us as this Weezer Lite combo, yadda yadda.
Wait, people called you “Weezer Lite”? Ouch!
Matthew: Ouch, right? (laughs) That hurts! Right in the feeling. But that stuff has finally gone away, and that is the source of great pleasure for me personally.
So do you still stay in touch with Ric Ocasek?
Matthew: Yeah. I haven’t so much in the last few years, but for a while I did. The last time I knocked on his door was probably about a year ago, but he had to leave soon. Couple times a year there I would drop by his house and say hey. He keeps up with us, and listens to the records. He’s a good, good guy who is very sort of paternal – a father figure with all the bands he works with. Just lovely – it is always nice to meet someone who is just insanely successful, who is totally down to earth, and he always was. He made that record for almost nothing, really. He didn’t care. It wasn’t about him getting paid as a producer. He just really loves music.
Okay, so let’s close with what is sure to be a popular question this fall. I apologize if everyone has been asking this as of late, but here goes. What do you think of the Radiohead decision to do the digital download they way they did, and could you ever see your band doing something like that?
Matthew: It is kind of a double thing here. I mean, they could have just cut out the record label and still charged a straight $10 for the record and just leveled the playing field. So the fact that they skipped the record company and skipped the idea of pricing is pretty intense. Obviously, they can afford to do that because they are so set. But I am not set by any means - my retirement is not assured at all. It’s mostly awesome, though, just to see what happens, to see those dice being rolled. To see what goes on. I mean, what did you think about it?
Well, when I first heard about it, I couldn’t believe it. My jaw hit the floor and I thought it was a big hoax at first and that everyone was going to download it and it was going to be sixty minutes of silence. That wouldn’t have surprised me at all. I just thought it was totally crazy how it was such a big middle finger to record labels, and at the same time, they were rendering record leaks totally irrelevant. I mean, on our site in particular, everyone is a whiz kid on the computer, everyone has high-speed internet, and they all have these great computers. Everyone has this sense of entitlement towards music and downloading. So a record leaks, it hits the internet, and everyone downloads it and starts talking about it. For that to be totally obsolete, where everyone gets the record at the same time – including press – that was really cool. But at the same time, there is still always something anticlimactic about downloading an album and having to burn it yourself without liner notes, lyrics, and stuff like that.
Matthew: Yeah, definitely. Lately, I have been spending a lot of time with vinyl and getting into it in a big way. You know, I hadn’t has a record player for a while, and I had moved a couple times and then I got one again and put on some of my old records. You really feel for these people that just hear mp3s. It’s just good for you to hear the real thing – it just affects you more. And you forget how it used to be flippin’ exciting to drop the needle and get lost in this whole other world. Now, with your little iPod headphones, it is just kind of crappy.
Well, I think eventually it is going to split. The mainstream will be all digital, and then there is going to be the faction that gets the physical copy. I just love going out on release date and listening to an album while you go through the booklet.
Matthew: Yeah, even the paper smells a certain way – there’s a character to it.
Exactly. And putting it on during the drive home, or taking an extra trip around the block or something to hear some more songs.
Matthew: Totally! I used to love going into a record store, and with a Discman, shoving it in right there and walking around the city or reading the lyrics on the subway. I agree with you completely that there is a different level of satisfaction. Maybe iPods and mp3s are like the AM of the future, and then the people who really like nerding out, and really love it and eat it up are going back to vinyl.
I have always liked the idea of going into a music store where you can wirelessly buy the songs, but they would also give you a physical booklet or something to go along with it.
Matthew: Right, you should be able to print out something with lines to cut across and things that say staple here. Make it as wide as a standard stapler so it would be like a smaller, iPod sized booklet. (laughs)
Some artists have been doing really cool things where you can order the album and you get the mp3s instantly, and then they send the physical copy later.
Matthew: I like it on Merge releases where if you buy the vinyl, it gives you a little card that lets you download the mp3s, which is totally cool.
So you guys aren’t going to be jumping ship anytime soon, then? I guess it is different for you now since you are not absolutely hating your label situation. Maybe if it was after the High/Low phase, you might have said fuck the record labels.
Matthew: I really like being on one, personally. I just don’t have time. When we put out The Proximity Effect by ourselves, it sucked. Being your own hornblower – that’s horrible. Then you have to do your own accounting and stuff. Some people are born for that, but I am too much of a scattered mess to do that kind of thing. So if you are lucky enough to be with a good label, then it’s really great. But would we ever want to be with a major again? Absolutely not. That’s the worst thing that can happen to you in a situation like that where you do not sell a bazillion records and then all of a sudden you’re not a priority and then all of a sudden, you’re nowhere. And you’re just shackled when you should be free.
So I guess you’re kind of at the point now that some other indies have been at. Where you have this loyal following, but at the same time, it would not be at all surprising to have the masses latch onto your music again.
Matthew: Yeah, it’s possible. Especially now that things like myspace are as big as they are. I mean, we just posted that new song, and it feels like releasing a single.
Well, I know I took more time than I was supposed to, but thank you so much for talking with me. I really appreciate it.
great interview, great band. I've still never heard "popular" that i'm aware of at least, but i couldn't be happier to have come across this band and have had the opportunity to see them. i'm really excited for this record to come out.
This shows that if you make good music, you're going to be around for awhile even without a major label pushing you. "Popular" was a great song haha. The Proximity Effect is one of my favorites though. Everyone should check out the song "80 Windows".
That was a really good interview. I found the talk about physical versus digital musical formats really interesting. The artists I really like are the ones who give a fuck about what not only about their music but also about what goes into the booklet and case.
I really enjoy both "Popular" (and to a lesser extent, some other tracks on High/Low) and later Nada Surf material. I kind of wish I would have ended up seeing them at The Basement, but figured since I didn't know that much material the last (meaningless) co-rec softball game of the year would take precedent...haha.